On Domination and Obligation

The dominant food system dominates! It dominates the landscape with machines and chemicals and monocrops. It dominates our choices with patented seeds, hiding its Genetically Modified crops, and putting antibiotics and growth hormones in our meat and milk. Its methods are extractive, polluting and exploitative. It owes nothing to anyone or anywhere but money debt; it seeks to own everything in its reach. Its only obligation is corporate profit.

By contrast, farms like Back to the Garden are rife with obligations:

  • We are under obligation to the land. Wendell Berry tells us, Before you can ask a piece of land, “What can you produce for me?” you must ask the land, “What do you need from us?” We owe the land to keep it covered, to take no more than we put back, to honor its seasons. And in the end, we owe it our bodies. Sir Albert Howard, the grandfather of the organic movement reminds us that we are obligated to return to the earth “her manurial rights.” And so we all shall: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

  • We are under obligation to those who work with us on the land. The Hebrew Bible prescribes our obligation even to the animals who work the land: “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn.” (Deuteronomy 25.4) If you work, you should be able to eat, even if you’re a beast of burden. The New Testament quotes the old saying and explicitly applies it to the worth of human labor, adding “And the laborer is worthy of his reward.” (1 Timothy 5:18) There is worth to a person who works. You don’t pay people what you can get by with, you pay them because they are worth it! And they are worthy of our respect and admiration.

  • Finally, we are under obligation to our customers. When you pony up the cash for local, organically-grown, produce we owe you the highest quality, safest, most nutrient-dense and tasty food we can produce. Local means you have first dibs on what comes out of the field. Organically-grown means that we farm without chemical fertilizers, chemical pesticides and herbicides. We are under obligation NOT to poison you (sadly, an obligation the dominant food system does not recognize). Nutrient-dense and tasty means we are committed to growing in soil that is healthy and full of biological life, contributing to the health of those who eat our food. We don’t grow empty calories! We grow any number of heirloom varieties of vegetables because they taste good. We love that our food is a delight to the eyes, the olfactory, and the taste buds.

Dominators seek to control. Farms focused on their obligations are obliged to woo.