At the beginning of Tracy Kidder's biography of Paul Farmer, the author includes an epigram taken from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets:
...And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying...
These verses have haunted me since I read them. They are, I think, an expression of what everyone who works for good will one day realize—that the success of our efforts is not guaranteed, that the world of Monsanto and Tyson and the sprawling suburbs with big box retailers might not look any better after we leave it, that what small improvements we make will not last here. How fundamentally did the world change with Gandhi? Did the world improve because of Mother Teresa?
However, these are the wrong questions to ask. What is important is not success, but goodness—or "right action" as the poem says.
When I talked with Wendell Berry about farming once, he said that he kept farming because he believes in it. He knows all too well that profit and the standards of success that say bigger is better and profits must grow year after year are no reasons to continue. But because it is something that he does out of belief, the questions of profitability and feasibility are really moot. If a small farm that is tended well can't return a profit, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the economy, not with the farm.
Sustainable farms provide the fundamental human need of food, and they provide for it in a way that is healthy for the land and people—it’s free of harmful chemicals, builds up the soil where it is eroding, and provides habitat and beauty on the landscape. If the dominant economy does not reward farmers who work in these ways, then the economy is not aligned with right action.
But even if the economy is not as it should be now, it is with hope that I farm--hope that the economy and my farm will meet in some harmony and that I will be able to make a profit. But if I am not able to make a profit farming, I am still willing to just do it and break even because farming is something I believe is right and good. I will go on trying, working other jobs to support my farming.
This may seem absurd, but what is the alternative? The only food available is what comes via ConAgra and Tyson, shipped 3,000 miles across the country and increasingly across the world? Locally produced food is good and it is right for the land, for people, and for the economy. For us, right action is our guide and we small farmers will continue until the world of illusory value catches up with the economy of dirt, chemical-free produce, healthy animals, and healthy people. It is not a question of winning. It is a question of doing what is right.
Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in "A Farmer's Notebook" in "Plenty" in January 2009.