Wendell Berry speaks often of the agrarian concept of living within our means. What does this mean? Agrarian means related to the land, of agriculture. Living within your means to most people is not spending more than you make. Although this is part of Berry’s concept it is only part of the whole. In the sense of the agrarian concept, living within our means means to produce at the level on your farm that will be sustainable. It requires us to maintain a biological balance that will make the concept of sustainability a reality.
This should not be difficult for us to understand. For example, a 5 gallon bucket will work just fine until you attempt to put 6 gallons in it. If more folks understood this concept, the problem of overstocking a pasture would not be a concern. What we miss with overstocking, other than the money that most spend trying to solve the problem, is this if one of those cattle or sheep or goats is hungry every one of them is hungry. It would be so much better for the livestock as well as our profit and loss sheet, and for that matter the forage, if the balance between the production of the forage and the number of animals we are trying to feed was maintained.
Some believe that the loss of local agricultural knowledge is a key barrier to sustainability in farming systems and that true sustainability will require recognition and acceptance of a diversity of agricultural knowledge. That just means we need to know a lot of different stuff. Our problems are always a part of our thinking. One of our biggest problems is the desire to simplify things so as to eliminate the need to think. A good example would be using calculators in math class and turning out students who cannot do simple arithmetic. Industrial agriculture has been dumbing down how nature works for decades. It has all come down to adding inputs. Grass not looking very good needs fertilizer, livestock looking kind of rough needs feed and medicine, weeds looking too good need chemicals. It is not required that you think, just bring your checkbook.
Delbert McClinton has something to say about this. He is one of my favorite blues and honky-tonk singers and he sings a song about too much stuff that I really like and another one that says you lie so bad you just as well tell the truth.
This brings to mind two of the problems facing most livestock producers when it comes time to start making decisions and choices about how we will run our outfits. Most believe that we need much more stuff than is really required to run a grass farm. And we have been lied to so much that we will begin to believe that all that stuff is necessary. But then we begin to learn and understand the truth about grass production and how it applies to livestock production and it becomes so much easier and we find that the need for a lot of that stuff disappears.
Maybe that is a little strong, maybe lied to is not the case entirely. Maybe misinformed or misled would be a better way describe the push made by all of the folks who are in business to sell us stuff whether we need it or not. One of the first things you learn in the business of selling is to create in the mind of your potential customers a need for your product. If you don’t want to get caught in the cycle of “too much stuff” the very best tool at your disposal is knowledge. Understanding basic principles makes decision making easier and more reliable. A good decision is one that will work whether prices go up or down.
On second thought maybe lied to is not too strong. To those who understand no explanation is necessary, to those who don’t no explanation is sufficient.