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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

The One that Fits

If we assume that the inescapable goal of the farmer, especially in the present economy, must be to reduce costs, and, further, that costs are reduced by local adaptation, then we can begin to think about the problems of livestock breeding by noting that corn, whatever its market price, is not cheap. What is cheap is grass -- grazed grass -- and where the grass grows determines the kind of animal needed to graze it.

p. 59 "Let the Farm Judge" (1997) from Citizenship Papers

I am terribly worried about the speed and mercilessness with which we're destroying life on the planet, and the systems that support life on the planet. I marched in the Climate Strike a couple weeks ago. I'm pretty sure it was my first political march. I'm conscientious now about ordering meat, turning over the ignition in my car, flying. I still do these things, but I do them less, on purpose. It's kind of symbolic for me. I don't think that I, nor any one of us, can do much to stanch the bleeding. But I still strive for honesty in my life, even amid this daily devestation. I still care a great deal about integrity. That's all I'm going for right now - to have enough integrity and honesty to say "I can't solve it, I can't even dent it, but neither can I refuse to make even the slightest sacrifice. Neither can I refuse to be awake to cause and effect."

Because I think we're inevitably going to be poorer in the future, I consistenly look for, and usually find, a comforting solace in Wendell's work. I don't know if our stepped-down future is going to look anything like our agrarian past, but my imagination is pretty weak, so I accept that all that pre-twentieth century stuff may be exactly what awaits us. It might be we need actual instruction from Wendell, like in this essay, where he explains how the best breed of sheep for a farm like his, which is hilly and hard to graze, is one whose energy (and knees) will hold up. Prairie sheep don't need to work so hard to eat. They can be bigger and fatter and still produce larger breeds. There's more margin for error on the prairie -- a margin made larger by allegedly cheap fuel, corn and pharmeceuticals.

This is what Berry means when he talks about local adaptation. It's understanding that what works in one place won't work in another, because places are different. The sheep that fits the farm probably isn't the one selected by the show ring judge or even the "market." The one that fits is the one that fits. That's it.

And for us, as we begin to divest from all the fossil-fuel enabled, monolithic, standardized, homogenized and advertised stuff that we've been growing, eating, consuming and disposing, we should remember this. The food, or culture, or custom that we need, will have to arise from each individual place.

Farmers on the island of Britain -- not much bigger than Kansas -- have developed, through the centuries, more than 60 breeds of sheep. Wendell marvels at this fact. It is a mark of distinction, literally, that such a small place could cultivate so much regional variety. It might be that after Brexit, Englanders will be better off for the discriminating intelligence of their agricultural forebears. But even if not, it's a beautiful accomplishment -- a thing to be admired. And in the lean times ahead, more so even than today, we're going to need to understand what's beautiful and what should be imitated, and why.


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