The Agrarian Male: Economic and Ecological Challenges in the New Century

By Clark, J. Michael | The Journal of Men's Studies, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Agrarian Male: Economic and Ecological Challenges in the New Century


Clark, J. Michael, The Journal of Men's Studies


An equally appropriate subtitle for this work might be "a view from western North Carolina," because both my personal meditations and my more scholarly explorations here are rooted in this place--grounded in its soils, its streams, its mountains, and in sync with its seasons. I say "a" view, because it is only one perspective and it is certainly not the only one from this region. It is also an admittedly progressive, at times perhaps even somewhat radical, view, couched in a region of usually conservative values and politics, but one nevertheless open to politically and ecologically progressive thinkers. Among these multiple voices, I am again finding my own voice, nurtured by the very land itself and strengthened by our particular agrarian community of friendships--of intentional and constructed family.

Within this context I want again to explore the possibilities of developing a spiritually informed eco-logos: talk, theory, even wisdom about our earthly home, thus "ecology." But, I am also increasingly aware that earth-home wisdom, or ecology, is also inexorably tied to eco-nomos: naming, ordering, and managing our earthly household, thus "economics." This essay is about the interconnectedness of ecology and economics as it affects agrarian families and their most often male heads-of-household. I am particularly engaged in a conversation with our near neighbor-with the collected agrarian essays of eastern Kentucky's elder "gentleman farmer," Wendell Berry (2002). My intention is to draw Berry into a conversation with my agrarian neighbors and with journalists and other observers of agrarian America and the rural South, as well as with other academic voices, especially in ecology and religion (ecotheology). I am thus concerned to contextualize Berry's ideas within a multivocal, beginning agrarian theology that interweaves ecological and economic justice issues for men and their families.

WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA AS CASE STUDY

Over the course of the past five years, my partner, Bob McNeir, and I have found that our own economic situation as a now rural couple--as a small agrarian household--is very much bound in solidarity with other rural families and the small-scale organic (and nonorganic) farmers here in western North Carolina. As recently as November 2003, our local newspaper reported that, "generally speaking, the big farms grow while the small farms shrink.... In western North Carolina ... agriculture in many ways resembles that of the small-farm third world more than the agribusiness [of the] great plains"; importantly, the reporter continued, "small farms generally are healthier for the environment than large farms [but] their future is in high-end niche crops and organic crops" and other organic farm products that the rural poor, or the agrarian underclass, and even the small-scale farmers themselves cannot afford to purchase (McGoun, 2003, p. A9).

As but one example of the extent to which small-scale farmers cannot afford their own farm products, our friends Walter and Wendy Harrill of Imladris Farm (whose young son, Andy, is seventh-generation on the same family land) run a small hilly farm of assorted raspberries, bee hives, shitake mushrooms, goats, and rabbits (on land passed through Waiter's mother's family) and also manage a much larger, mountaintop blueberry orchard (from his father's family). Because fruit produce especially is so seasonal and low in profitability, they turned to producing jams, jellies, and homemade bread for year-long marketability. However, as Walter and Wendy have both pointed out, given their commitments to organic farming methods, the cost of their final products, and their resultant, barely break-even annual income or bottom line, they themselves can never afford to purchase or even to consume their own jam, honey, bread, mushrooms, or rabbit meat at the going area market prices (personal communication). As if actually commenting on the Harrill family's situation, the local news article editorialized that governmental and political decisionmakers are oblivious to these lived realities of small-scale farming, instead overemphasizing the success of NAFTA and other trade agreements for those who already benefit the most from consumer-driven capitalism. …

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