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Darryl Birkenfeld

INTERVIEWEE: Darryl Birkenfeld (DB)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 14, 2002
LOCATION: Nazareth, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REEL: 2243 and 2244

Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s October 14, 2002, and we’re in Nazareth, Texas, northwest of Lubbock and we have the good fortune to be visiting with Darryl Birkenfeld who’s a—a former priest and now a part time farmer, educator, and writer, promoting sustainable agriculture and trying to promote a better understanding of the ethics that drive that. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
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DB: Oh, my pleasure.
DT: I thought we might start by discussing some of your early days and your roots in Nazareth and in the farming community and business here.
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DB: Yeah, okay. I was born on—into a family that—of a—a diversified farming family which, there were a whole lot of them around here. This—this particular community was started by a German priest and he brought settlers here by advertising in the German language newspapers in the Midwest. So people came here from Iowa, Indiana, Mich—Michigan, Minnesota and they—the families arrived here in about the first twenty years of the colony and my great grandfather sent—had purchased some land
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here and sent his sons up to make sure the neighbors weren’t grazing their cattle on it. So then they all moved up in about 1913. My father became a farmer and when he came back from the war, World War II, and we grew up on a section of land, 640 acres, we had a eighty to one hundred cow dairy, which was common here for large families to have a dairy. This particular community used to have seventeen or eighteen functioning, grade A dairies in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. There’s three left. So, that’s—was our background. We
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grew up working all the time. When we got to be about second grade you’d have to take on some chores and then they just got bigger until you wanted to leave. We had the cows, we had the farming, my father also had like a cattle trucking business and it was just a lot of work around all that and mostly again for me, around animals. So I liked it and loathed it at the same time and we all grew up working together. There were twelve of us in my family, so you can imagine twenty years from the oldest to the youngest. So
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we knew how to work together, we knew the unwritten rules, and we stacked hay, we did all that kind of stuff. But I think early on I showed the least promise mechanically for this kind of work—I had the misfortune of wrecking some equipment or this or that, you know—tearing things up, as we called it. So they realized I was much better at livestock, which was fine with me, but I also was interested in school. My other brothers and sisters were also smart, but no one went to college of the first half of our family. I’m six
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of the twelve and I was the first one to go to college. So they knew I was headed that direction from what I was doing in school and my interests. So when I graduated in ’79 I went to un—the university full time and I was interested in serving, you know, making a difference. And there was a priest here all during those years who was kind of my model and I didn’t realize it until later. He was a little Italian man from the east. He came out here because of bad health. Well, he was a priest yes, but he wrote books, he started an
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art club, he was a civic leader. He found time to do all these things that influenced the community and really built up the culture and I was impressed by that. I thought I want to be like that. So I kind of headed down that road, but in the meantime I did like the land. I did like being out on the land, but I knew I wanted to do something else. So I thought that was it for me in farming. I was headed away.
DT: When you went away, I understand you went to college and then to seminary? Can you talk about your education and your introduction into the priesthood?
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DB: Yes, okay. Well, going to seminary was a great thing because it took me to New Mexico and when I got out there I was nineteen and I said, wow, I have always wanted to be in a place like this, with the mountains, there was rivers, all the things we didn’t have here—so I finally felt like, wow, I had some purpose in my life. And it was really a diverse community, mostly Spanish speaking, so I learned to speak Spanish fairly quickly. The Native American influence in New Mexico and Santa Fe—I loved all that.
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And it was just great formation. It was a liberal arts college so I could do all those things that you couldn’t do in some other degree programs and got me a degree in humanities, which allowed me to study philosophy and religious studies, psychology, literature, all those things that wouldn’t get you a job, but were great for rounding out a person. So I did that and the next step for people in priesthood formation is a master’s degree. So there was some discussion about where I would go—I thought about Indiana, but I heard
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this recruiter talk about Belgium. So I decided to go there and it was really a radical move because I was very close to my family still and couldn’t imagine being away. So I took off in an airplane in 1983 to go over there and didn’t come back for fifteen months. And it was great, the whole European influence and how European society lives—we got a lot of that. Luckily, could go to classes in English, but I got to know my German roots. I went to the town where my great-grandfather had come from and really dug into that,
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as well as traveled a lot, but low and behold in the third year over there, I took a course in social morality from a Jesuit who had just come back from studies in California. And oddly enough, I started to think about the models he was talking about as applicable to agriculture. He had this book he talked about called—by Gibson Winter, called Liberating Creation, and he talked about three root metaphors that have influenced western society—an organic root metaphor, a mechanistic and an emerging one he called the artistic metaphor and it just dawned on me that, wow, that really applies to life in Nazareth in this century. So I wrote my master’s thesis on the possibilities for a response to the U.S. farm crisis. And I used those three root metaphors so in—in an odd way, going far away led me back.
DT: Can you describe what the farm crisis was and what you felt these responses could be to it?
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DB: Sure. Yes, the 1980’s farm crisis really started before then—prices were becoming depressed in the late ‘70’s. I remember talking to a man here about—I was out doing some chores one day and I ran into him on the—one of the back roads here—and I said, well, so what do you think about—should anyone get into farming? He said, oh yeah, I think there’s still, you know, some—a bright future to it. So it was already heavily on people’s minds already in the late ‘70’s, but the crisis itself was when the
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credit crunch hit—really bad prices, people had over bought—mostly in the Midwest, not so much here, but it did affect here. And people couldn’t get loans, or they—they defaulted on their loans and that was really—the crisis was much more financial. What’s continued since the ‘80’s is what you might call a rural crisis and that is the lack of vision or lack of possibilities to grow economically and culturally in a lot of the small towns—they’re dying. And—so that has continued on, but that’s what I was referring to. And what I saw of it was that a lot of it had to do with our attitudes, you know, being a philosopher or somebody who looks underneath all the time and wonders—wonders
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how—wondering how did we get to where we are today. The root metaphor explained to me or exposed me to an unconscious set of values that we have, that we bring to. And—and to me, we were in the grip of a mechanistic metaphor with production, domination of the land, individualis—individualism and those kind of things. And what we were needing was a whole new set of values, which I found in Gibson Winters’ work. So it became easier to say, yes. And the organic root metaphor, I could see my grandfather
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and his father and those families and how they lived until the 1930’s, but then with my father and his entrance into farming, it was the dawn of the mechanistic age, you know, no more horses or plows or any of that kind of stuff. It was all mechanized: tractors, and trucks and that whole thing. And then to see it crash, I had seen that in my life and it’s—I could see what it was doing to—to the communities and to the place where I came from. So, to me, it’s like okay, well, now we have something, you know, we have something
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else we’re—we’re moving towards and this kind of articulates it. So it really grabbed me, and—but I think in that too, I was realizing that no, I wasn’t just going to drift away, I was in a strange way heading back. The part of my vocation in life was to work with people on the land and to be tied to the land.
DT: Can you give us a little bit more detail about how you’re father practiced agriculture different from his father and maybe explain what you mean by the crash that you witnessed?
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DB: Okay. Well, my grandfather, he was an Agrarian, you know, what I call those German people who came here and people in the early 1900’s were Agrarian—it’s then that the—for the first time in—in U.S. history there were more urban people than rural people—1920 I think. And in that sense it was the change. So as David Dannenbaum says in his book, ‘we’re a nation born in the country,’ and—so they were like that. But they also had the tools of technology—they needed them, you know, to turn this prairie into farmland. He was a sodbuster, he had a steam powered sod-busting tractor, he was
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also a harvester—he had a threshing crew. But still at night, they sat on the porch like rural people did. They weren’t working all the time and they still had the horses. Okay, my father he said—he told me a story about he told his father when he was fourteen, ‘I’ll do anything, but don’t ever make me run—use horses again.’ So I think they were really imbued with this progressive attitude—the attitude that the old people and the old ways were old and that what was needed was something new and that technology and—and
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using these new things was—was the way to go and understandably so. I mean any of us who had lived then, we would’ve suffered too under some of those conditions they had to live under and it must have really been thrilling to have irrigation, instead of, you know, suffering through countless droughts like they did in the ‘30’s and ‘50’s; to have irrigation to—to mitigate that way of life, to have mechanization. My mother and my father milked cows by hand and then to finally have milking machines must have been a great liberation. Plus they saw it as the only way they could afford to feed a family. They—they still had very large families and so this is what was required, and it was a way to better yourself. So I understand where those values came from, but all I know is
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that for our generation they didn’t work or they weren’t working like they had for my father. Now my brothers have been somewhat successful, but in a very different way than my father. They—the irrigation is gone. A lot of the things that he took for granted are gone. In the ‘60’s and the ‘50’s you could make mistakes in farming. You could be sort of a regular kind of person and make mistakes and not go broke. Today you make a few and you’re out. They had loans, but not like the size of the loans that people have to
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operate with today. So those are some of the changes and the crash occurred when, you know, people under the get bigger or get out philosophy and under the progress philosophy got really big and the prices didn’t support it anymore. I mean after the Russian wheat embargo in the ‘70’s and the price shot up, well then everything went flat. Everything went flat in the ‘80’s. I mean, the commodity prices—we’re getting less for all these commodities than my father’s generation got, you know, wheat and corn were
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worth more twenty-five years ago, you know, generally speaking, than they are today. And yet, the cost has skyrocketed. So how did everybody do it? By borrowing more money, you know, and then well, we’ll get ahead. That’s always the farmers credo. Next year will be better, but it hasn’t worked.
DT: And why do the prices remain steady or maybe fallen?
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DB: They’re stagnant because I think it’s a different world—India and places we used to sell a lot of grain—China—they don’t need it. The—there’s a—there’s a—those countries now are—are exporters in some ways and not importers. So this whole thing that I think very much influenced my father’s generation and some people in my generation about feeding the world—it doesn’t apply. We’re not. We’re feeding a stockpile and when you asked me earlier how do—how is it for Europeans, they have the
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same problem in some ways. I mean, in—in industrialized countries we’re keeping agriculture going, but we’re not really sure why or it’s kind of a paradox because we’ve also opened up this global economy, you know, where we’re—we’re—there’s trade and the ideal now is if you are corporation, source it at the cheapest point. So why grow the grains here when you can import them from Mexico, or Latin America, or Africa—you know, the sources for your—your commodities. So that’s just something I don’t think
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my father’s generation understands. I mean, he’s seventy-eight now and they grew up at a time when there was always a basically good price, the markets worked. Now we have the struggle with, do we even have a market anymore for cattle, you know? It’s so much captive supply, so many, you know, big—big entities control the markets, so it’s not as open and transparent as it once was. So it’s a—it’s—that’s some of—some of the changes.
DT: Darryl, we’ve been talking some about the farm crisis and you’ve mentioned some of the difficulties due to—to what I understand is—is commodity prices being flat due to international trade conditions—free trade I suppose. I was wondering if you could discuss maybe that as being a factor in the farm crisis and also I understand that there’s a lot of concentration. You talked about how there’s very little competition on prices, more like farmers have become price takers. And maybe you could talk about these economic and policy roots of the farm crisis.
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DB: And that’s an old cycle, the problem of over—over production and the way it was handled since the—since the ‘30’s really when the—the farm programs began as a response to the Depression. But I think in kind of a big pack—picture summation of what happened, all these towns out here appeared because the land was productive and we basically used that productivity. We—we put it to use, the soil and even when it
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failed in the droughts and the dust bowl, you know, people still—those who could stayed on and you’re—you’re taking what nature gives and turning it into a commodity that you could sell. It worked—it worked well except that you tend to deplete what—what nature has and I think people were willing to do that because they saw it as their right, you know, to use—to use the gifts and to—and to produce a living. The problem is that the living hasn’t been all that great because two things happened, you know, the depression
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of the prices, but also the rise in costs—all this technology is cost—costs has a lot of costs in it and then when you get on that treadmill of using the technology, you can’t see yourself not using it anymore, so it just grows and grows. So, when a loan of, I don’t know, $50,000 would have been enough for a year, now you have to have $300,000 to operate a basic medium-sized farming operation. So that’s the kind of the crunches, the
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economic roots that were talking a lot more then what we can—that what we can—can make. Our—our levels—our costs of production have risen right up to our—our—our profit levels, which are pretty thin. So what you have, and I think this has really depressed the rural economy in the last fifteen to twenty years is people operating, working very hard, a lot of hours to produce very small margins on high volumes, be it a lot of acres, I mean, the production of corn on irrigated land is incredible, you know, two
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hundred bushels—sometimes—sometimes you get that. So you produce a whole lot, but for a very marginal profit. So and I think all that is contributed to the—to over—to the over production, you know, even in all the talk about a global economy and we’re going to have these overseas markets—they haven’t materialized. Trade barriers—well, now they’re supposed to be disappearing, but there’s always something and I think part of it is that we’re—we’re very idealistic about our position in—in the global economy and what—what our agriculture does. I mean, these are proud people here and even in this
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country we say well, agriculture is a leading industry, provides however many billion or trillion a year—and one of the things I heard when I was growing up was, ‘one farmer used to feed fifty people, today he feeds two hundred.’ But, in the meantime, what has—what—the side that you don’t hear in that equation is how many had to disappear and that’s why it takes one to feed and clothe two hundred people. So there’s a side of that that sounds very progressive and yet, it doesn’t tell the story of what’s happening on the land, nor does it tell the story of what’s happening to the people.
DT: Darryl, we talked a little bit about the—the financial straights that a lot of farmers have found themselves in, in the last generation and I was wondering if you might be able to talk about your role as a—as a former priest in trying to help some of the people struggle with the emotional and community out fall from some of the economic problems that they were seeing in agriculture industry?
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DB: Okay. Oh, I think that what I was experiencing and others in my generation was that we couldn’t do what people before us had done. You know, the message was, you know, go to college, it especially is now—to young people because you can’t afford to—to—to farm or to raise animals—to do that kind of livelihood. It costs too much, the equipment costs too much; the returns are too minimal. So that has led to long ago, say thirty or forty years ago when half the people in your graduating class would somehow
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find a way to stay around and farm or be involved in agriculture, now there’s one or two. Especially in the ‘80’s it was that way. So what I saw in all that—again, and me being far away in my—my—my root that took me away was that a lot of that again was based on our attitudes—I mean our values—what we were emphasizing and they were a set of values that instead of leading us to some—some kind of a good living, productive living and kind of a health with the land, was leading us the opposite direction. We were depleting the land, depleting the aquifer, and we were going broke. And our—our communities were being—were being dismantled, losing population. So I saw a lot of
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things in the artistic root metaphor in the sense of creativity, community, a different way—a kind of a—a more harmonious living with the earth or with the landscape, which we didn’t have. Now, because we were irrigating, we were doing all the things that in a way pulled down the land—we were using chemical fertilizers, pesticides. One of the results of this kind of farming here was a lot of the wildlife disappeared. Growing up we didn’t see a lot of hawks, a lot of songbirds, a lot of the fields because of chemical and
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intensive agriculture methods are very sterile. The soil is like a Petri dish and you put all the inputs in. Now there was a time when nature did more of that, or natural cycles did that and now those are purchased inputs—you have to pay money for them. So it becomes part of the reason why this is so financially unrewarding. So seeing things like that, I said, okay, I’m going this route of—of a pastoral ministry, but I see it as tied to the land and that our—our—our faith communities aren’t going to survive if our agriculture
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is headed the wrong direction. So I was—I was interested along that—that route. And my bishop knew that about me, so he asked me to be on a little commission that he—he had founded, a little committee to respond to the farm crisis. So we got to like the second meeting and I said, you know, it would be great if we had an educational conference. That’s when Jim Hightower was the—was the Commissioner of Agriculture for the state, and so, and the bishop said, well, yeah, we should try to get Jim Hightower and I said, yeah, that would be really amazing. But anyway we put together a conference on the ethics of the food system and had about seventy-five people come to it and we’ve been
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doing that every year and I’ve been guiding that. So that’s how it started out. Another thing that happened was directly with my family. I started talking to my brother—one of my brothers, Bob—I said, Bob look what’s happening to the soil. You guys aren’t making any money. This thing is just something you have to keep pouring inputs into and the whole health of the land is declining. And he listened and he thought about it for about a year and he said, well, what could you do differently? I said well, I know these
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guys who make compost, in large quantities, from feedlot manure, and if they—it’s the only thing they put on their land. So it was October of 1990, he went with me to look at compost farming—a farmer who was a composter – to see his operation. Well, he was convinced. A week later they got an old combine and piled up some manure and started to make compost and realized after about a week that this wasn’t going to work, so they bought a Fletcher mach—Fletcher Sims, who’s the godfather of composting feed lot
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manure in this area. He had a machine called the s—the scavenger and it would convert I think—I think it could process maybe a hundred tons an hour. So they bought one of those machines. That’s back when they had the Eco Fair in—in Austin. Jim Hightower and associates had this Eco Fair. So they went down and bought the machine that was on the Fair that year. So they began composting as a business, but what it did was allow them to get totally off chemical fertilizers and anhydrous ammonia, no more pesticides, and their only fertilizer was composted manure, which people knew little about, but some
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people saw it as—as a really good option. There was plenty of it. It’s piled up at these feed yards, a wasted product basically, putting it out raw you’ve got the weed seeds, and you’ve got that pathogens, but if you composted it, the heating killed it and turned the aerobic bacteria into anaerobic—I mean I’m sorry, the other way around, anaerobic, nasty smelling bacteria were overtaken by the aerobic bacteria and you’ve got all kinds of good nitrogen and trace elements—trace minerals in your compost. So they went into it really heavily and what they decided was they needed to become an organic farmer
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so they applied to Texas Department of Agriculture and got all their land certified organic. It had to be one of the largest certified organic farms in Texas in the early ‘90’s. The main thing they started to grow was organic cotton. One year they had six hundred bales of production—of upland, short staple cotton. So they were the major producer. And we had—so we said, okay, this is pretty neat. We need to have a field day about this. So in the early ‘90’s as kind of a—a compliment to the winter conference, six
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months later in the summer, we started having a field day out here. For the first year it was at my brothers farms to look at organic cotton and how you would do all this sort of stuff, and you know, the—the practicalities of it. So, there was two big educational events a year, which in addition to my pastoral ministries in a—in a large one thousand family perish, I had this sideline of kind of directing this other movement and it wasn’t a job that paid a salary, but it was really fulfilling for me. It was fulfilling for me to come back and be able to contribute to the life of—of my family—my brothers who had stayed in farming, to help them find an alternative. And luckily they were open enough to go for
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it because I can’t imagine too many other people doing it. Along the way some other people started to compost. So myself and another priest friend of mine, Jerry Stein, we started a Great Plains Composters Association and so for two years we had meetings and supported them. And I think at the time we were probably some of the only people who could have done that—they trusted us, why? Because we were priests, because we knew how to do these sort of things I guess, I don’t know, but it worked! And the group talked about standards because one of the problems at the time, people said compost is
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inferior. There was a lot of lack of information about it and bad information on it. And at the time Texas A & M Extension, those kind of research components weren’t interested in it. So we were kind of on our own. But that was something that came out of some of my early work where, again, I was a priest and I enjoyed parish ministry, but I enjoyed it because I had the chance to pursue these other interests as well, which I thought were vital. Because based on—on those kind of activities with people working on the land, I
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started to get into the Mexican-American side of it too, which was my parish. I—I was in a parish of former farm workers and present day farm workers and they had all immigrated up from the valley in the ‘60’s—‘50’s and ‘60’s and found themselves in Hereford. They had these ties to the land and yet a lot of them no longer had land or had options, but there were a number of them who lived out on five acres plots that they bought outside of town and so I started to investigate these, and in 1994 I worked with
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another parishioner friend of mine, Lydia Villanueva and we started an outreach, a program called El Hormiguero Project, to target the small, Hispanic landholders who had five acres and to introduce them to some sustainable methods for like producing goats and pasture poultry. To let their land be something that would create wealth—ecological wealth and economic wealth. Something other than a place to gather weeds and to put an old, kind of, you know, a shanty house or something. So that’s pr—that project’s still
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going on. Lydia’s taken that and made a really strong kind of community organization that targets the Hispanic youth and still works with the land—the small landholders. So that’s kind of some of the things that grew into and because we were headed that way, I wanted to form an organization that was bigger then just the church and that took in other activists in the region. So I was always intrigued by this vision in—in the Hebrew scriptures in the bible of the Promised Land because to me it seemed like a place that we were not. And—and the way that I understand is that it was a journey from Egypt where
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the Hebrew people were enslaved and didn’t own land and didn’t have those kind of responsibilities, to go to a new place where they would have land, but the land wouldn’t be their own, it would be God’s land and they would be tenants. And as long as they kept that covenant, they would do well and the land would do well. So, that was really intriguing to me and I wanted to form an organization that had that kind of guiding metaphor. To me, the Promised Land in that way that it was lived and the way that
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people like Walter Brueggemann, write about it in his very famous book called The Land. Land was central to the covenant between God and—and the people. And we seemed to have lost all that. You know, land wasn’t the—no one really thought—I think around here people don’t think of the land’s as God’s, they think of it as private property. So we’d lost that land ethic that had biblical roots. I mean, it wasn’t just windle—I mean Aldo Leopold, his approach to land ethic, which everybody knows, but also there’s a—
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there’s a biblical concept. Now I realize people say, hey wait now, look, Genesis chapter one, verse twenty six, you know, about dominating the land—subduing and dominating, but I think that’s a—that’s an incorrect reading or interpretation when you look at the whole of how the land and all the Deuteronomic laws and the laws in Exodus about how to treat the land. I mean it was clear from those codes, those law codes that the land wasn’t just for exploitation. It was God’s land and the community had to preserve it. And they also had a responsibility to the trees and the animals, if you read those codes
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closely in the book of Exodus and Deuteronomy. So that—that fascinated me and when I read Brueggeman, I said, yeah, that’s right, we lost this concept of the land so I wanted to re—recoup it. So we called this organization when we met in September of ’93. I had about fifteen people gathered together, mostly activists who’d worked against dumping
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nuclear waste in the panhandle and all kinds of other causes—to come together around this metaphor of the Promised Land. And we didn’t want to have a center. We wanted to have a network of people who were connected and doing a lot of different things. So we called it the Promised Land Network and I was to direct it. And the main form it took in the early years was education. It took over the—this organization took over sponsoring the annual conferences.
DT: (inaudible)
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DB: Yes, yes, it had a different name in the beginning, I think the Conference for Rural Urban Partnership, some really, esoteric name like that, but actually, the Southern Planes was easier because along with all this was coming a sense of place. I mean, by this time, Dan Flores had published his famous book, Caprock Canyonlands, in 1990, which for people who’d grown up here it was like a whole new world. We didn’t know about our wild areas, we didn’t know about the canyons. When I was five we went to the—we went to a big ranch on the in the Tule canyon, and I still remember it. I remember the big cliffs and how high they were and I saw people climbing up them and
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it scared me. But we went down and a stream flowed then, and it was just an incredible memory that stayed with me since I was five. But we never went back so all the people lived up here on the—on the plains, but we didn’t know about this—these areas that Dan Flores talked about. But I think his book, Caprock Canyonlands, really helped us understand our bioregion. That we weren’t just the ubiquitous Great Plains, we were the southern planes, we were the Llano Estacado and that—that helped us a lot I think. It
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helped me and has given us an appreciation for where—where we—our sense of place. So that played into it as well. We changed the name of the conference and another thing that was important is, we started to write articles and put out a journal, a quarterly journal. It started in ’93 and we were able to get a pretty big subscription because of the diocesan paper. Ten thousand people get that paper. So every quarter we put our four-page newsprint in there and I think a lot of people read it and were influenced by it. Just
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when I had really been getting sick of it—because it was a lot of trouble to do, to pull this together four times a year and meet the deadlines and do all my other work—but just as I would get discouraged, someone would say, ‘oh I read that, I read that Promised Land Quarterly, I love those articles.’ You know, because we tried to write about the soul of sustainability. That’s what we called it. We called it a journal on the soul of sustainability. We tried to—to write about these issues and themes, and whatever the theme for the conference in the winter was going to be, we tried to lead up to it by covering topics in the journal, in the quarterly, four times before it came up.
DT: Can you give me some examples of some of the articles and themes and…
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DB: Yes, okay, we did a conference on the—on the—on soil in 1994 or ’93, I can’t remember. So that year preceding, we did articles where we had soil scientists write, we had people who had settled here long ago, kind of do a memoir piece, we did some pieces about well, what makes good soil fertility, and I had an article about what—what happens in the soil that we don’t even see—that whole web of life in the soil. So things like that,
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that people wouldn’t have read in a scientific journal, but yet we could get it into short essays of six hundred words that people would read, and we kind of, we sculpted I think, a different vision, an alternative vision. Not totally outside—we tried to build bridges with—with mainstream, or conventional ag, but it was this journey to the Promised Land and we were in the desert somewhere.
DT: Well, I was wondering if you could talk about just, where you were at that point—it seems like you were trying to promote sustainable agriculture, which wasn’t necessarily entirely within the house of God, or at least within the—the traditional formal view of what would have been preached from a pulpit and you also weren’t entirely within the sort of conventional agriculture, chemical, industrial agriculture realm either. How did you bridge those two and what sort of a reception did you get?
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DB: Wow, well that really is the heart of the matter, isn’t it? I was always kind of odd that way that I couldn’t do—I couldn’t be in one or the other. That’s been my blessing and my curse, is that I saw people saying, okay, in agriculture there’s a place for the farmer, there’s a place for the scientist or the extensionist and there’s a place for the government. And I said okay, those three circles that overlap—they’re pretty good, but there’s one more, there’s a place for the church. And what—why—what was that
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place? There’s a spiritual or moral, ethical aspect to sustainability, not just ecological, economic and social sustainability, but I think some kind of spiritual or ethical sustainability. And that I saw as the church being able to bring—why’d I say that—I just talked about the biblical roots in the—in the Old Testament or the Hebrew scriptures: the land was central to the covenant. I mean this was—these were scriptures that came from a land of people who had been given this land that they could never owe—own—but they
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were to steward for the good of all and for the following generations. So that’s where we came from, and the Amish, and Mennonites, they still have that. What did I get from the Catholic Church—what—as a Catholic, what do I bring from that? Well, we have a lot of, good writing, the theol—theologians talking about this—just about the time I was going to school, I mean, the passionate priest who wrote The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry, people like that. So it just so happened that as I was interested in this, there was a whole lot of literature coming out about it too. And—and there weren’t
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people in the church—in the Catholic church—per say who were setting up centers like I was doing, but there were people in so—in society, like the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, the Cur Center in Oklahoma—I saw these as lights for me and kind of as models for what we wanted to do with the Promised Land Network. We were going to be that center for spirituality, and for sustainability, for sustainable agriculture in the southern Great Plains. I mean there was a sustainable food center in Austin, but outside
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of that there wasn’t much in Texas. So we were going to be one of those resources. And there was a—a whole body of teaching about a hundred years old in the Catholic Church called Catholic social teaching, and it’s based on some principles. Some people say about seven or eight principles and I saw them as really applying to agriculture and a sustainable approach to agriculture, things like the dignity of the human being, universal ownership of goods, subsidiarity, the privileged option for the poor and care of creation.
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Now this care of creation part was less brought out. When—when this Catholic social teaching was first raised up it was for worker rights. Leo the XIII in 1890, he brought it up as a right to form unions. But as we really looked at it and developed it in the twentieth century I think people started to see the ecological ramifications that you couldn’t have social justice without environmental justice and vice versa.
DT: Can you explain that?
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DB: Well, how did it come about? Again, I just have to say in the beginning, the—the popes who promulgated and promoted Catholic social teaching and wrote these encyclicals that added to the body of the teaching, they were more moved by what was going on in Europe after the two World Wars and the social question as they called it. But interestingly, after World War II, the social question became more of a rural question too, like with John XXIII when he wrote his encyclical, Mater et Magistra, he has a big
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section on agriculture. He was really concerned about what was happening to peasant people or agrarian peoples in Europe and that the church and society had a responsibility to take care of farming peoples and agriculture. So it’s not really well developed, but I’ve done some research and some papers on this. So then, it—it goes along. It doesn’t grow so much with the Pope’s after that, but national conferences like the U.S. Catholic
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Bishops start taking it up. In 1979, they issued a pastoral letter—or one of their commodities—committees did called, The Family Farm. And it’s a wonderful social analysis of what’s going on. They call it the pyramid effect, how rural communities are declining and yet who gets the money is a very narrow group of people so they—they talk about this in ’79. They do what I call a social analysis, which was so important for people to see what is happening—what’s going on out there in the land, what’s—what’s happening to our agriculture. So this didn’t come from the USDA, this came from the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Well, they followed it up a year later with an extraordinary
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document that I think sixty bishops participated in called, Strangers and Guests. It was in 1980. Its been over twenty years now. That was very influential because that letter deals with ten biblical principles that they felt applied to how we take care of the land and they were sort of writing at the start of the farm crisis. And it’s a—it’s a really wonderful document, it influenced me a lot—Strangers and Guests. So later on there was some other documents, This Land is Home to Me, by the Appalachian bishops in 1970—19,
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oh, ’76, that’s right—anyway, for twenty years, a lot of good stuff. When the bishops wrote their economic pastoral in ’86 there’s a section on agriculture. So in this country in the Catholic Church there has been a lot of emphasis by the teaching authority on, we have some ethical responsibilities that come to us as—as Christian people, as Judeo Christian people for the care of the land and the people who live on the land. So that has come out of this broad screen that I call Catholic social teaching.
DT: Can you give us an example, one connection that comes to mind of how these principles might apply, you said that one principle related to—to dignity, and another through a common ownership of—of agricultural resources, and I know this is more recent them some of these papers, but there’s been a lot of advance in biotechnology where some of the typical lines between individuals are being bridged and between species are being bridged, and the dignity and the individuality of—of life alone isn’t as clear as it once was. And then also there’s the patentee of life forms, which seems to challenge some of the principles of common joint ownership. Is that fair to say, is that a connection there?
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DB: Sure, and that—that—I would love to emphasize that because I think that’s where Catholic social teaching has been growing, or the use of it and the application of it, because, you know, people would say one of the most common critiques of Christianity is it’s anthropocentric, you know, it’s all about taking care of the human beings and to hell with everyone else, you know. And—but one of those main principles of Catholic social teaching—and it’s really been lifted up in the past ten years—is the integrity of creation.
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In the new catechism, you know the big catechism in the Catholic church that came out in, I don’t know, ’98 or so—and this was the first catechism since Trent, since—in hundreds of years, there is a—is a paragraph on the integrity of creation, and that while we have use—we have the right to use creation, we do not have the right to—to change it into something that it’s not. In other words, there is an integrity of creation that must be honored, that human—that plants and animals, although they are for our use, they are not
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for our absolute domination. The paragraph escapes me now, the exact number, I have quoted it many times, but now in the age of biotechnology and especially of concentrated animal production—confined animal production—this has been used a lot, been raised up a lot, that even though we can build chicken houses that hold ten thousand birds or raised hogs in confined operations, that there’s an affront to the integrity of creation. There’s a moral problem. And I don’t see that coming so much from other main line Christian denominations, but I do see it coming from Catholic circles, and it—it comes by virtue of
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this Catholic social teaching and people beginning to make the link between, you cannot have dignity of human being without the dignity of creation too, or an integrity, as it’s being called—an integrity of creation. And that becomes a big issue. People have pushed the Vatican to make a statement on biotechnology, are you totally against it or are you for it? And of course they, as—as characteristic of Vatican sort of documents, they
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come down in the middle. They say, well, if it’s going to help feed a starving world it can’t be bad—but yet, they do say creation is not ours to do with just as we please. There’s an integrity to the order of creation, which is a lot to squeeze out of Saint Thomas when you’re still trying to hold onto him, you know, his philosophy eight hundred years later, but that’s what I can say about that.
DT: Darryl, you’ve been talking about some of the explorations you’ve made and the church has made into the principles that might support a sustainable agriculture. I was wondering if you could talk about the next phase in your life where you seem to have taken a more secular lay approach to these principles by your tenure at UC [University of California] Berkeley and also through some of your writings for—for the public press as well?
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DB: What got that started, again, was I found myself in that in between role. While there were people who saw ecological or environmental movement sources in—in—in Catholic social teaching an—an—and Christianity or in the Scriptures, there weren’t a lot of people applying it to agriculture, there were a few. So I found myself organizing conferences trying to reach mainstream agriculture and, you know, the kind of response is well, where do you get off saying this, I mean what kind of a background—you’re a priest, stay with that, leave this business to us. And then in my own Catholic
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Church circles I was kind of an odd duck too, because it’s like, well, why are you worried about this—you’re a priest after all, I mean, let—let—let the farmers take care of that. So a lot of this seemed very, not fully developed. I saw the pastoral letters on the farm crisis as helpful, but not really getting a full analysis that would help lead to change. So I saw more and more that I needed to go do some more studies. I’d become acquainted with holistic resource management by that time in the early ‘90’s, and I saw that as very
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good too, good, practical insights on how to manage land and people and assets as if they’re one whole. But still I was seeing that that needed to be put together with some other things. So I talked to Leroy Matthiessen about going to do doctoral studies and he was a great fan of mine, so he—he agreed to it. It took me awhile to find the right place. I wanted to go to Berkeley because this Jesuit who had influenced me over in Levant
00:49:53 – 2243
and taught that course on social morality. He had gone to Berkeley. He had gone to the Graduate Theological Union, which was the school that I went to. I went there too because you could do a degree in something called Social Ethics and that would be—there was nothing in agricultural ethics per say, and I still think that would be pretty hard to find in—in theology schools or regular land grant universities. You can take courses,
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but it’s hard to get a degree in that. So, Social Ethics was a good place to go because it allowed me to read some of the sources of western ethical thought, like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, all those dead white people. I mean, people, you know, who have influenced us a lot and our ways of thinking about what is right, what is the good. So I did that and also was exposed to Environmental History. This was a great thing. To go to—we could cross register at UC-B, at University of California – Berkeley and take courses in whatever
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would help us develop our field of study. So I took Caroline Merchant, who’s a big environmental historian, I took her course in Environmental History, Philosophy and Ethics and it was great. We read sixteen books, one book a week, and just exposed me to all kinds of thought that I had not encountered and that was very helpful. I took courses in geography, social geography at UCB also. So it began to help me see that really what I had been looking at in this whole thing about metaphors and how we got to where we
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were today, was a kind of a colonization that we have this attitude and this archaeology of colonization that people who came to the plains we were here to extract basically, and we were part of—we were part of the—we were extractors, but we were also part of a big policy and social institutions—political and social institutions to, you know, take, to use up. And the more I studied history, the more I saw it, so it got me to thinking that we were in a whole mentality of colonization and we had in fact become a colony in a way. As soon as we had started to use up things so much that then we used up our own
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communities in a way too. So that’s where I wanted to explore a holism and how would you come up with a holistic agricultural ethic that would be workable. So I took some courses in agriculture and also I studied with Miguel Altieri and his approach to agro-ecology. And all those influences went into me writing a dissertation about a different ethic. First of all, surveying the world of ethics and U.S. agriculture, which was pretty uli—utilitarian, you know, cost benefit analysis and very much based on not asking
00:53:04 – 2243
questions about technology, but assuming that technology was good because of the mythology that we had like feeding the world, and—and you know, science, rationalistic kind of approach. So I—I tried to deal in the dissertation of what is the kind of cycle of colonization over three hundred years in American agriculture. So I—I sketched that out and then I talked about the present state of ethics in agriculture, what are the main philosophies and there were four, and one of them is holism, and according to one
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ethicist who wrote about it, it was the one who had the least merit and I thought that wasn’t very fair at all. So I set about taking that challenge from him and using the writings of Allen Savory and Wes Jackson and people who were advocating a holistic agriculture and something that I saw in theology, which was from a Protestant theologian named H. Richard Niebuhr. He wasn’t as famous as his brother who advised four Presidents, Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote all those wonderful books and was really influential, but H. Richard was kind of an egghead guy. He was a philosopher at Yale, but he was saying, you know these—these approaches to ethics, to the good and the right,
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they’re too abstract. What we need is something closer to the ground where people make moral decisions. So he began to come up with an approach he called responsibility ethics. Unfortunately, he died in ’62, before he finished this kind of work, but he left enough to where a book was published called, The Responsible Self, and it was published posthumous—posthumously and I read that book and it influenced me a lot. I said, this guy’s on to something. He’s on to how an artistic ethic—an artistic approach to agriculture would look in an ethical system. So I took his main forms—some of his main tenets about responsibility ethics and I used them as a way to illuminate the—the ethical approach of holism and that’s kind of how my dissertation turned out. So…
DT: Can you clarify what you mean by holism—by maybe, describing what you meant by colonial—it sounded like almost like cannibalistic approach to agriculture?
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DB: Yeah it was, yes, okay, sure. Colonization was basically when I see the dynamic of colonization is instead of seeing the connection between people and land or what geographers called nature and culture, you get a split. Where as culture makes nature a colony and that’s what we did. We came, and we set up our systems of agriculture and we colonized the land and ecological communities that were there instead of continuing some kind of tapestry or a network where human and ecological communities are joined, we tore them apart. So that’s I think a basic movement of colonization, is it makes a colony of nature. That gets into a lot of specific issues, but I think generally that’s—
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that’s the thrust of colonization. People use it in economic terms like we colonized Africa, or the nation—or European countries colonized Latin America, but we haven’t applied it to our approach to agriculture, which I think in—in American agriculture has been a cycle—or cycles of colonization that have helped to get us where we are today. And what it does is not only destroy the habitats and destroy ecological communities, it ends up destroying the human communities.
DT: Well, can you sketch that out by describing how cotton perhaps has been colonized?
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DB: Well, yes, the colonization of cotton—and that is that anything that’s part of life in the same soil as cotton is—is taken out. You know, is—is separated and pulled out to where you have a monoculture, so yeah, I think that’s—it—it goes along with colonization. And so then instead of growing or living with nature and producing food in a way that gives life to the whole, not just the people or not just to a money economy, but to all the creatures that live there, you’re just highlighting and taking care of this cotton
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plant and destroying, you know, everything else that—that would be harmful or that would be inter—that would interact in cycles. So that’s where I would say holism is different. Holism says that something is good—an action is morally good in the way that it promotes the whole fabric of life. So you know, that does get back to Aldo Leopold; I think that actually comes from him. I think he tends to be right to the—to the extent that
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it promotes the integrity of the whole community—biotic community he called it. So I like that definition and I think that’s what Allan Savory was talking about is that the way we graze, the way we do agriculture, we’re either decertifying or we’re increasing biodiversity. And I just didn’t hear a lot of people talking about that unconventional farming. It was like, yes, we’re using the Ogallala aquifer, and we’ll use it till it’s gone.
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And then we’ll think of something else—we’ll have some kind of technological fix, we’ll bring water in. They said that in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and people still talk about it—that we’re going to import water, which—which won’t ever happen. So that—that was the mentality of colonization, I think that you use, you separate and you exhaust and then you have hope in technological solutions—that they’ll come along, where as holism is different.
DT: (inaudible)
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DB: So even though this was very big in environmental studies and environmental history, I didn’t hear too much talk about it in agriculture so I wanted to take some of those principles and some of that thinking and try to flash it out for a sustainable agriculture.
DT: And you said that you worked through it in your dissertation, but you also started to draft a book for the public press as well. Can you talk about where it’s going there?
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DB: That’s really at the beginning stages and that has more to do with what—yeah, well, that has to do with this whole thing of how did we get to be, as Dannenbaum called it, born in the country—a nation born in the country, to one that where less then two percent have anything to do with food production now on—on, you know, in conventional agriculture. How did that happen? It didn’t take very long, about a century. So I think there’s a lot that happened in the last century that we need to talk about and
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I’ve tried to write a dissertation about it, which hardly anyone would want to read. So I got the idea that that’s not the route. I need to try something that’s literature—historical nonfiction. So I’m trying to write a historical, nonfiction book about this century where we lost our relationship with the land, and I want to tell this story through—about ten people, who lived chronologically in that century who were either part of this community where I live or people that I know personally. And I’m just at the beginning of that, but I
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think that the ten people I’ve selected illustrate these stages that I was talking about of starting where people were pretty close to the land, they suffered or they were blessed by rain or drought. I mean they lived that close. To today, you can live thousands of miles away and own a piece of land somewhere that someone’s taking care of for you or you can push buttons today and grow your crops basically, you don’t have to have your hands
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on it too much, in the soil, on the living aspects of it. That’s kind of the way that I would see. Also I see that this relationship went from being embodied to being disembodied to maybe now being re-embodied. Kind of what I was telling you about earlier. We started with a grass economy and a hundred years later it seems like we might be going back there.
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Start of reel 2244
DT: During the last tape, you talked towards the end about sort of colonial, extractive attitude towards the land and the communities around here, and in more recent years it seems like you’re seeing a trend towards a more restorational opportunity here to try and recover the community and the soil, and I was wondering if you could talk about some of the different avenues you see opening up.
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DB: After the, yet another boon and then bust cycle, the boon being one of the most recent ones was sugar beets in this area. They grew sugar beets. They have a huge plant in Hereford to process them, a Holly Sugar Plant. They even did a—an expansion where they built an ionization kind of extractor thing. Well, this was big here. People would grow those sugar beets and gross $1200-$1400 an acre. Yeah, a lot bigger—a lot better then corn. And there’s just all these different players in it, like the truckers—mostly
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Mexican drivers to drive all these things to the plant. So there was a whole army that kind of got out to harvest and then all the people who were in my first parish at Hereford who worked at that plant, but that went away. Why? Well, it’s—it’s kept up by the artificial—the sugar bill in this country that keeps our price higher, subsidizing the sugar price as compared to the—compared to the global price, but also the water was playing out, a very extractive crop. It’s very hard on the soil, so much so that when you plant it,
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you can’t grow it again for five or six years. So it was really taking the best that our land had to offer in terms of soil fertility and in terms of water. So what happened too was some freezes that made the—the product—the—the crop go bad and the—the—the plant not wanting to stand the expanse, so they had to stay out in the fields and this sort of thing, so it created a lot of bad blood. I did write a little article on it in the quarterly—in the Promised Land Quarterly about how it was a real destruction of—of cooperation. It
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took a whole lot of people working on this and instead of there being trust and taking care of each other, you know, the common good kind of thing in terms of the human common good, it was—it was let go. So it fell away in the mid ‘90’s and what—what it looked like is okay, now what are we going to do, but I see one of the things that’s come in and changed things here the most has been the conservation reserve program, the CRP. And it started I believe in 1985 and what it allowed farmers to do was to idle marginal land—land that as many people would of say, should’ve never been taken out of grass. So they
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idled it by planting it to a grass, and with receiving a government payment per acre for ten years to keep that land out of production. So this wasn’t the first time this happened, that land was taken out of production to bring down the stockpiles of commodities. I think we had the soil bank in the ‘50’s and we had something else along the way. But this was—worked out in a really good ecological conservation way, I think. First of all, instead of having miles and miles of cotton fields from here to Lubbock or lots of open
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land, you now see a little bit more of a patchwork where there’s a quarter section or a half section of CRP grass that breaks up this endless line of fields. So when the wind does get to blow, there’s a little bit more to break that—to break that up. It also allows for some options. Initially people were really afraid about what it would do to communities. For example, you couldn’t sell farm machinery because twenty five percent of the counties farm land is now in CRP, so a lot of fuss was raised about this in the beginning, and I’m
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sure it did affect some—some businesses, but the long-term affect would be also that it produces an income—a steady income—for some—some landowners. But again, I think the ecological affect was to take out marginal land, to cut soil erosion, to get some biodiversity going, and then this interesting thing of in these draught years the past three and four summers, they’ve allowed emergency grazing of the CRP. And that’s been really good. For one thing, its allowed these cow-calf operations that have come back into the area for the medium and small producer to have an outlet. I think a lot more of those cows would have had to have been sold in the past three and fours summers had
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there not been the Conservation Reserve Program. So by allowing that emergency grazing, there was a place for the animals for four to six months. But another interesting thing happened, that it makes a lot of ecological sense. All the old grass that had been there for seven, eight, maybe even ten years finally was grazed off. So what you saw the next year was a whole lot of new growth. A profusion of grass instead of that monoculture of old world bluestem or sprangletop, you started to see some other grasses
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coming in and a lot less of the weeds and the forbs. So its transformed this area. In Nazareth for example, irrigation has really been going—going south. I mean, that’s not the eight-inch wells, the six inch wells as people call them, the seven hundred gallons a minute—they don’t exist anymore. Maybe there’s four hundred, that’s a big well, or three hundred. There’s a lot of two hundred gallons a minute wells. So as that threshold is lowered as the aquifer and the ability to pump it at that level has declined, you see
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those wells are—are being closed, shut down. And east of here and north of here you’ve got lots of sections, lots of acreage but there’s no irrigation going on. So what’s the affect? I’m sure the aquifer’s not dropping three or four feet a year now. I think the figures from the High Planes Underground Water District would—would—would collaborate with the fact that some of them have stabilized. The aquifers stabilized in some areas and that’s good news, I think, for the long term and even the short term. It has allowed what I think is the beginning of—of a grass economy to come back into play. And who would’ve thought it in the ‘80’s that we would—we would get there? You’ve
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heard people all along, I’ve heard people say, this will all go back to grass someday. Well, it’s a wonderful idealistic statement, but how? Well the CRP has provided a way for, whether—whether government policy people or USDA people planned it or not, I think it’s the first stage of a return to some kind of grass economy.
DT: I think you mentioned earlier off tape that a couple called the Poppers were coming to town for one of your seminars and I was wondering what their views are about this possibility of a grass economy?
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DB: Fifteen years ago, these two geographers from Rutgers, Frank and Deborah Popper did what geographers do, which is look at statistics and economic trends and population numbers and concluded that for almost a century there’s been a failed national policy for the Great Plains area—that the Great Plains has been plagued by nominal farming, a whole problem of shortage of water and up and down, economic cycles, booms and busts. So their conclusion was something radically different is going to need to be done, and so they proposed the metaphor, or the idea of the buffalo comments, which is, the way I read it…
DT: You were explaining just before about the idea of the buffalo comments, can you explain what that means?
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DB: Yes, that, after looking at a century of—of economic and demographic trends, the Poppers have concluded that we have failed the policy approach to the Great Plains, national policy, and that what’s needed is something radically different. So they’re proposing that a way to return the Great Plains to a grassland and that maybe it’s a place where the bison are more adapted than—than the cattle, and that with bison could come eco-tourism and perhaps the—the—the Indian tribes—the Native American tribes could
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be allowed to come back on and hunt, and a recreation of—of the world’s largest, or natural park, a grasslands and a commons, so that it would require the de-privatization of the Great Plains. So that was their—their theory and a lot of people when they heard that heard, all the people have to get out, and of course that created a huge ruckus and that was in the late ‘80’s. So I have listened—I mean, when I came into contact with that I thought it was interesting, and through my years at Berkeley, I started to think, wouldn’t
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it be interesting to get the Poppers, to, you know, in the same kind of program, to talk to someone like Allan Nation, editor of the stock—of—of the Stockman Grass Farmer, who talks about management intensive grazing and grass farming. Because I think that the Poppers were talking about and would some how agree to is that the Great Plains needs to return to a grass economy. And interestingly, there are people that have been talking about that like Allan Nation, who are saying that we need to make a shift in agriculture from growing crops to, you know, growing—farming grass, and that as H. R. M. says too, that that’s your best—that’s your most profitable dollar is when you take
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sunlight and animals convert that sun—sunlight into something that—that we can use and it’s the most efficient kind of conversion that doesn’t involve feed grains and a whole lot of purchased inputs. And that if we were to follow that kind of grass economy we could return not over—not only profitability to farmers and stock growers and communities, but also to—to—we would improve the land, increase the ecological capitol.
DT: Maybe you can discuss how this is played out in your families own businesses. I think you’ve been helping your brother Allen run Paidom Meats. Can you tell me a little bit about that experience?
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DB: I’ve been interested in it for a long time and what I’ve always enjoyed about my family is I could take some concepts to them and talk to them and they would find a way to put it into practice. First, with the composting and the organic farming, but even from the beginning, livestock were a part of it. So we’ve always had a lot of livestock, not just the dairy animals, but grazing. We’ve always grazed a lot of cattle in the winter. So the
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aspects of holistic management that talked about using animals as a tool to improve the land were really attractive and that was something I could talk to my brothers who were farming. I could talk to them in an easy way about it. So right away, they began to try to do some paddock grazing, where—planned grazing, you know, where you expose an acreage to the animals for a short time and then move them off and allow that forage to recover, to re-grow. And—and—so they bought into that pretty easily. My brother
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Bob paddocked early and he started his own little meat business already in the early ‘90’s called ‘Bob’s Best Beef’. He had twenty-five cows on 180 acres of pasture. Well, that’s when the drought of the ‘90’s started to take hold too, so he hasn’t been able to keep that many cows and the marketing end is hard. For people out here, I think for farmers in general, to turn from doing—being simply a producer, which they’re very used to, to having to also be a marketer, that’s very hard. It is something they’re not
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accustomed to at all. So that made it hard for—for Bob. Now my brother Allen, on the other hand, he has more of that marketing background, and—and had a finance degree, so he started out that way. I think another difficulty for agriculture people is making a transition from one thing to another. When you have all your money and financial burden that you’re carrying from a particular operation, it’s really hard to retool it to something else. For example, to move from growing crops to—to farming grass, that’s a
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big—a big step. It’s easier for people who don’t start out with that burden and that would be in my opinion, my brother Allen. He never had all the assets, financial assets of growing crops, so he could start out just with animals, and he did. He started with cows; he bought eleven cows and leased acreages. He didn’t own land, he just leased and that allowed him to—to build up a good—a good size cowherd. At the same time he knew some people to where he could begin marketing and nearby communities, mostly largely
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cities and that’s really essential too. You can produce fifty calves to—easily in a year on a lot of these operations, but how would you sell it, how would you market it? And I think that’s the—the scary part of the grass economy, or changing to some—something else that will always confront people. How do we market this? How—how are we going to get our—our value out of it? So, what Allen was able to was—was to not go into debt, and by leasing land, to build up a cow herd and sell product, and he also had a, I think a
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pretty interesting way of marketing too, where he made it very customer friendly and went the direct marketing route, which is something you hear a lot about today. And I think it’s important to a grass economy because the products produced by it aren’t going to be conventional products that would be sold in any gro—grocery store. It’s carving out a new niche in the product line. So he’s been able to do that and other people in—in this state elsewhere have as well. And a lot of that information is out there, so it’s helping people make those connections, and individuals who do want to make a change.
DT: I think I’ve heard you compare it to an artisan kind of a product, sort of like the vineyards. Can you elaborate on that?
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DB: That idea comes from Allan Nation in—in his publication, Stockman Grass Farmer, but it connects to a lot of the things that you hear in the community food security movement and that is to think of an area like we do a water shed, but instead of it being a water shed they say it’s a food shed. And for example, when people—when you can—people can reason now very easily okay, our water comes from a particular water shed, but to think in the same way about our food, that’s hard, because we don’t have any idea sometimes where our food comes from other than somewhere far away. So, the—
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the—the artisanal type food would mean that it comes from a particular region and it’s a—it’s of the highest quality and it’s not in large quantities, high quality, and not large volume and distinct to a region and the kind of conditions that exist there. So it would be a type of product that some larger producer or corporation couldn’t mimic, which is some of what’s happened in the organic market. The people who produce the milk now have huge diaries just like conventional growers. So there’s nothing artisanal about that. If
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you buy Horizon Milk or whatever, it goes—comes from the same dairies all over the country. So this would be distinct to where meat from the intermountain region would have a particular label, so it would be identifiable like wines from a particular vineyard. The benefit of that is people are willing to pay more for that kind of food if that kind of quality can be upheld and—and be assured and to identify it with the region.
DW: This sounds a little like when we interviewed Hightower and we talked about the Taste of Texas program, this sort of—did you do any work with any groups like TDA [Texas Department of Agriculture] or anything developing in this market?
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DB: No. Not at this point, but I—I’m familiar with that, Taste of Texas. So I don’t know if that’s on the…
DT: It seems to me that you’ve worked on a slice of the Taste of Texas, if you will, both through actually working on a ranch, which you do with—with your brother Allen, to promulgating some of these ideas through the Promised Land Network, and also through your work as a—as a priest when you were ministering to some of your congregation. Now in your role as, I guess a former priest and a continuing writer and thinker about this, what do you think your best forum is for the kinds of ideas and—that you want to advance?
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DB: I would still say the conferences are key because they’ve attracted an audience. Connecting with bigger things, like something going on at Texas Tech, any way to—to connect it with something that’s placed based. You know, with their interests now in studying natural history and the humanities, I think there’s some interest in something like that, especially if it has historical connections or cultural preservation connections. Another area is, and this kind of fits with my work as a parish pries, to go to those towns where I used to work and sell in the farmers markets or one thing I told my brother when
I went to work for him, what did I have to offer him—I said, well, I have relationships to offer you and you are a direct marketer—you’re doing relationship marketing. So I don’t
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know so much about the techniques of production, but I have a lot of networks—relationships to offer you. And so I—I try to do that. I know people after fifteen years who are interested in this and a lot of different places. So I try to connect them with this and can say to them, you know, you have this interest in this and this and that of sustainability or of—of conservation, or of environmental movement, here’s the food angle, I mean, here’s the food piece, and it’s—it’s crucial or it’s important and oh, okay, sure, where can I get this? So.
DT: What’s it like trying to convert somebody who’s a consumer at the grocery store into somebody’s who’s sort of a citizen of the food shed?
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DB: It’s hard and I wouldn’t start at the—at the grocery, so that’s where going to forums where people are looking for alternatives, that’s the good place to start. I mentioned we started going to the farmer’s markets. You know, I’ve heard about them for fifteen years. I myself never have gone, but now I am to sell and it’s amazing. It’s easy because people there are looking for a choice. So when you say, are you interested in grass fed meats, they’ll stop and listen. If I was in the United Supermarket or a Walmart Super Center, and I said that, no one would hear me. And, of course people are
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concerned about price, but one of the amazing things about this niche product, about an artisanal product, it doesn’t have to be so totally out of line price wise. It doesn’t have to be so expensive that only wealthy people can afford it because I think this is a big concern. Can people who are on limited budges—or as people say on a working person’s budget—afford this kind of food? I think they have—we have to have that. It has to be
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that way or we’re—we’re not going to get very far. In these kind of rural areas we don’t have those kind of high incomes. So that’s a forum. As I mentioned, getting a PhD, I would like to teach, but again, I’m not sure if ag colleges are interested in agricultural ethics in the way that I would present it. There’s still a lot of fear that there’s a turf that needs to be protected and I wouldn’t be part of protecting that turf.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about the land grant colleges and their attitude, either through their research programs or educational curricula, towards agricultural ethics and sustainable ag?
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DB: We wouldn’t have the kind of farm policy we have without the—the coalition between the state, the university and between producers. And so the research, the land grants are a vital part of this whole thing. How information and knowledge is produced and how it’s marketed, they’re—they’re big players in that. And as they’ve pointed out they’re one of the most success—successful institutions of education the world has known. If you say—if you point to the fact that we have the cheapest, most productive,
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safest food system in the world. Okay, you could start out there and there’s some—generally there’s truth in that, but it hides all the costs. And there have been a lot of costs at the kind of food production system, agricultural production system that the land grant universities have helped put in place. Would—will they be as helpful to making a change to a sustainable agriculture? I’m not sure. This is where—when I try to talk with people in the land grant institution, I meet a lot of resistance. One, that I don’t know what I’m
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talking about, even though I’m from a farming background, maybe more so then some of those people who are in the positions—the teaching positions. I mean I have as much or more farm background as they do; that I come out of a religious background, and a pastoral ministry background seems to have disqualified me too. So my new status might make it even more interesting. But bringing up the ethics—that is the hard—the hard point. The agricultural research has been immune to questions of ethics. There’s been an
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assumption that as long as you’re feeding the world, you’re doing the right and the good, and it’s—it’s that approach. Another approach is this is science and that is somehow above these questions, it’s value free, we’re objective in our approach. Ethics, that’s at another level, it’s not at our level. So there’s been a real reticence on those two fronts: one, assuming that we’re right to assuming that this is not the place for ethical discussions. I think that’s beginning to bring down, but it’s very slow. If you counted up the number of land grant colleges that have courses in agricultural ethics, it’s still extremely small.
DW: (inaudible) to something like the feedlot, the calf (?), things like that as well. I was—you know, that’s the claim that if you eat, (?) a vegetarian or vegan (?), if you eat the meat, you taste the pain, is what they all tell me. Not that we haven’t had our share of rib eyes on this trip, but I’m wondering how that part, if you speak for the other part of those kingdoms, the plant kingdom, animal kingdom, have a responsibility to the ag brothers and sisters fits into that (inaudible) ?
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DB: I think that that’s really off the radar screen for—for land grant colleges because again, it’s heavily invested in production. And the response to any kind of animal pain would be, well, we’ve redesigned the—the kill floor and the slaughter plant to where the animal is less stressed or has the least amount of stress, it’s faster and it’s therefore as painless as possible. So that would be the humane consideration, but do we have any
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more responsibilities as to animal waste pol—pollution, confining a lot of animals in—in conditions that require us to cut their tails off or to dock their—to, you know to—to alter any of their—their body parts. I don’t think that that question is really taken up seriously in—in land grant colleges. That’s a fringe question I would think most of them would consider that—that’s a fringe element of the humane society or you know, PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] or something like that, but that’s not one of their ethical questions. They’re simply designing the systems and they’re, they are—receive a mark of approval by their ability
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to produce a profit and to be efficient. And I think the biggest problem with ethics and agriculture is the claim of those are external problems or that some of the costs that I would bring up that create moral dilemmas, they would be classified as external costs. They may be social costs or environmental costs, but most, many I should say, ag researchers would say those are external to the questions of production.
DT: It sounds like the land grant colleges you speak of their—their goal is to address these questions of profit and efficiency and trying to externalize as many of the costs as possible. What do you see as being the challenges and opportunities for that matter in agriculture? How do they differ and what are they?
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DB: Well, simply—quite simply, one of them would be to that we have to identify and—and—and include the costs instead of externalizing the costs—that social and environmental costs are real costs, whether they’re long term or short term, it doesn’t matter. We might have more leverage to work with if—if they’re long term, but there’s still a short term ramification too. So that will become profitable not just financially, but
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ecologically when we start including and having a whole cost accounting that takes in all the factors of production and not discounting things like water, air quality and trauma to animals or to people. If you follow what’s his name, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser, with that chapter on the dan—most dangerous job in America, where he said in 1999, one—ten percent of all the meatpacking workers in the country were either
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injured or for some reason were not able to—were reported–reported an injury during that year. So it’s incredibly dangerous. So it’s not just the trauma to the animals, which is considerable and I don’t think we’re even beginning to gauge that, but then the cost to the people who are in the production system. So, and that so far is just treated, as, you know, it’s a—it’s an unfortunate consequence, but one, that the benefits still outweigh the costs in the utilitarian approach to production. So I would say we’ve got to modify, and
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in my—in my thinking, even scrap the utilitarian approach. It has not served us well in agriculture and I would advocate a more holistic approach, which doesn’t diminish or cancel out or eliminate the questions of profit or benefit or cost, but—but it calculates them over a much larger field of actors, not just human, but also the land, and—and the animals that we’re managing or whatever. The second thing is that it be based on a critical analysis that we not—not—not assuming we’re right from the beginning, but that
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we have some kind of a historical analysis of what we’re doing whether it’s livestock production or crop production. We’re not just in this situation presently divorced from everything that ever happened. There—there are historical movements that have gone into where we’re at today and those are a valuable source of—of moral decision making, of moral discernment of ethical consideration. You have to know the history of what
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brought us to where we’re at today to make good moral decisions. So if we’re going to change the ethics of production as Paul Thompson says, what we need is a good produc—production ethic he says, that’s what we have an environmental ethic, but we don’t have a production ethic. Okay, if we’re going to get one, I would say we need some kind of historical, critical analysis.
DT: Can you give me an example of some the historical landmarks do you think that have brought us to the point where we are now?
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DB: Okay, in livestock production, we’ve definitely gone from something that a lot of people are involved in to something that very few people are involved in. That’s a historical movement. Livestock were traditionally in the beginning of this country and up until the past century, something that a lot of people had their hands on and now it’s curious that we have such a concentrated few who have most of the means of ownership
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and—and much of the benefit. So that didn’t happen overnight. There’s—there are historical movements to that and one would be, I think, the loss of open range, and of commons that people could draw on and did for centuries to something that was highly privatized and concentrated in a few owners. So that’s a—that’s a historical marker when—when things like the diary industry or hog production or even chicken poultry were concentrated in the hands of very few owners who not only controlled the processing and distribution, but now largely control the production end.
DT: Maybe you can also draw us an example of historical landmarks in farming as opposed to raising livestock.
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DB: The same, or similar. There was a—a whole time of construction, what I—what I say is what was existing nat—in a native situation like in the prairies of the Midwest or in the—the short grass prairies here where people came and established new property structures and you had this incredible construction boom. I mean that’s when all these towns originated about the same historical time. But that didn’t continue, instead, things
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narrowed down entir—into a type of economic funnel where instead of having a lot of small producers or widely wide spread ownership, you had fewer and fewer getting bigger and bigger and that has had a big impact on farming. And it’s one of the factors that has led to the depopulation of small towns—not the only factor, but one of them. So that’s a huge—that was a big historical moment I think, or a landmark when widespread ownership failed or went away in favor of a concentration of ownership which is really fueled not just by prices but by policies—national policies.
DT: Policies such as…
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DB: The farm programs and the—the bias towards larger producers. It’s easier to make payments to very large producers. One of the reasons why minorities like black farmers have always been off the page, you know, as far as on payments because they’re—we’re—we’re not interested in forty-acre farms or ten-acre farms and in many circumstances, and certainly there was a racial bias, but I would say that that was already the beginning that the farm programs didn’t just reward everyone on an equal basis, they grew into something that rewarded those who produced the most—large production.
DT: Can you talk a little bit about the historical roots of the current day, can you look into the future and paint us a picture of how you hope the communities might look in the years to come or the farms around here, what they might appear to be?
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DB: I would like to see the farms—anybody in food production as some—as contributing to—to the ecological capital, that instead of having less we start to have more; more grass and therefore more habitat. One of the things with Conservation Reserve Program is there’s a lit—there’s more habitat now. It’s not the best habitat for all the native wildlife that was here, but it certainly has increased things for, like raptors, hawks, deer, and other small mammals. So it makes a difference when everything’s not
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in a constant state of, you know, being bared for cropland, but that there’s some permanent cover, which I think it helps increase ecological capital. And in the same way having our land here covered would I think tend to at least diminish depletion of the aquifer and maybe even lead to getting some proper water cycling going on again. So that again, we—we turn from just an extractive approach to land to one that’s more of a
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trying to live in some kind of a relationship with the land. When you’re doing that it’s harder to just ‘X’ out different players on the land like the wildlife or the animals because you realize, no, they’re part of this whole dance and they’re part of what helps things to—to work here. I would like to see also that in terms of production and marketing, that somehow we do find a way to market our market products and produce that will keep dollars circulating in the region and in the towns and not just have an outflow of capital,
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to larger metropolitan areas that are—don’t really know what’s going on particularly. It doesn’t mean that that’s totally going to go away, but I think that kind of marketing lends itself to—to where only big players, only concentrated interests can be in the game and control everything. So farming with a sense of place, that, when you farm here or produce anything here, livestock or crops, that it doesn’t look like just somewhere else with the same chemicals, the same kind of machinery. I’m not talking about being
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Luddites as far as technology, but that we would use those things to create something that fits with where we’re at. This is a semi-arid region, that’s not going to change. So we can’t grow a lot of crops. We certainly can’t use things that are going to take a lot of water, but this is a grassland for—for eons and that’s got to be the basis of our agriculture and our food production. And that, on the reverse side that for consumers that they know about that too, that they have that sense of place and a feeling of a food shed also. So instead of going to buy just what’s the cheapest and seemingly the best kind of food, that
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they begin to have options to buy food and know where it comes from, that they—they’re conscious in their choices. If we’re going to have a nation where ninety eight percent or more people are—are urban. That’s a huge—that can have a huge impact if that’s a kind of a lifestyle where we make food choices and not just are—live as consumers. Where we think about what we eat connects us to land and to people and to creation and therefore. Even though all of us can’t be out producing food, we can be part of the food
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shed of the food web. And I think that kind of an agriculture is much more attractive to—to young people. It’s something you can be involved with whereas if it’s just all mechanical and huge machinery, it’s not safe for—for kids or teenagers to be involved with it. So it’s really easy to be distanced from that. That’s just what somebody does out there. I don’t know what or when and I certainly can’t do it because, you know, I’m just a kid. Whereas, I think I grew up in the kind of agriculture where we were very involved. We were a big part of it when we were kids.
DT: Maybe you could tell us a little bit about that. It seems that what you’re describing is restoring some sort of relationship with the land and some sort of involvement with it. Can you maybe tell if there’s a special place in this area or elsewhere in the outdoors where you can go and enjoy and get that kind of reconnection that you’re discussing?
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DB: I think you can get it in agricultural communities. Some people wouldn’t believe that, but I do. When I want to have a good walk, I can’t do it even here along the highways too much, but I can go out there to the farm and I can walk on those dirt roads and no one will drive past and dust me or—and I can see the change of seasons, I can walk at night and I can hear things and see things and that’s just different. I always ask my brothers, do you ever walk across your farm? Because the things you see just by—or having a pasture that you graze, but that you never walk across at any point during the 00:41:49 – 2244
year—what you miss. So I think having a landscape where we live and we have our hands on it and we touch it and have a tactile relationship with it, is really important to the survival of agriculture as something that the people are going to be involved with. I know there’s a lot of focus on what kind of environmental effect agriculture has and it’s a good question—the environmental impact—but impact on human beings isn’t great either, witnessed by however many three hundred thousand farm families leaving in the
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1980’s, you know. It was a financial collapse, but it’s also a moral collapse too. I mean there’s nothing compelling to want you think—to help you, to attract you to this lifestyle. I think that doesn’t mean there aren’t any examples, there are some I mean like Joel Salatin in Virginia, where he has his kids involved, but that’s going to take a different kind of approach to farming than—than what’s mainstream right now. But what I think what—what—in doing that, then we don’t have to worry about people just leaving, you know, the brain drain, the out migration. Because it will be interesting to people, just like it’s interesting and enthu—and exciting to live around a national park or to live in a—in a
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beautiful area. You want to live there. Strangely, and I didn’t think I would, I want to live here now. I think it has something to do with the land. I keep thinking that the land calls me back. When my parents ask me, well, why do you have to come and live here, you’ve lived lots of other places, why can’t you go and live there? I say to them, I am
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rooted here. I have a visceral connection to this place. It goes right over their heads. I don’t say they don’t understand at all, it just sounds weird to them. But that’s how I feel and I have experienced it and I don’t know how I’m going to do it financially, but I know in some way I’m going to live here. I won’t depend on just here. I like to go to other places and I like to be—the cultural interaction with other areas, even other parts of the world, but I also want to be rooted someplace and I want to be rooted in a landscape.
DT: Well thank you, you make a compelling case for doing that, and thank you very much. Is there anything you’d like to add?
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DB: No, I think there’s a lot of threads in there that maybe will come together for something.
End of Reel 2244
End of interview with Darryl Birkenfeld