Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, Thomas Jefferson famously opined in his Notes on the State of Virginia, adding, in what sounds like a snarky aside, “if ever he had a chosen people.” Jefferson maintained that God made the breasts of farmers “his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue.”
Champion of religious liberty and religious minorities, Jefferson in these words was making clear that, whether or not a Supreme Being was the source of farmers’ blessedness, there was something about the activity of cultivation, of familiarity with the land, of obedience to its rhythms and seasons to coax bounty forth, that made for better citizens. Farmers seemed meritorious to Jefferson for a range of reasons. They were active and independent. They looked “up to heaven” and “to their own soil and industry” for their flourishing. Therefore they were ready for liberty and self-government.
Indeed, agriculture seemed to our third president so foolproof a way to encourage human flourishing that he ventured, “Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example.” That is: woe betide the nation whose farmers fall into misery.
Jefferson’s words haunt when spoken over a mental-health crisis troubling some farm states, as reported in a recent NPR segment. Some agricultural sectors prosper but in others, the failure not only of crops and prices but a way of life is causing grief, leading to substance-abuse problems, overdose, and suicide. America’s life expectancy rate declined for the third year in a row, announced Center for Disease Control. The NPR report on farmers’ mental health notes that Minnesota’s suicide rate has risen forty percent in the last several decades.
The Minnesota state department of agriculture retains services of a psychologist to address farmer stress. That psychologist, Ted Matthews,offers some insight into what is troubling farmers. Unlike others who might be unhappy in their jobs, farmers can’t just quit and do something else. For the farmer, a job might also be a home and a whole way of life. life. At stake is not only income but identity, land and a living passed down from one generation to the next. It is no small thing to let go. Some farmers might feel guilty about losing their farms, Matthews speculates, even if it were not their fault.
Matthews presents the example of dairy farmers as among the most beleaguered–a job nobody would do unless they were born into it, he quips. Twelve hours every day for seven days a week every day of the year. “Sell out as fast as you can,” is the advice offered to small dairy farmers in an NBC investigation of their plight. Exhausted by the work and disappointed by earnings from it, farmers can become depressed, “truly isolated,” in Matthews’s words, as their spouses work in town. Substance abuse is no surprising response to true isolation.
This is not only the farmer’s problem. It is ours.
Floods of commentary in recent years mark food supply as inescapably a moral question , connected to politics as much as to health concerns, connected to justice as much as to the environment. We rely on the labor of others to produce the food we eat. Food-movement conversations, it is hoped, may have made us care about the safety and wholeness not only of food itself but of the people who produce it. We depend on them. They are not dispensable.
Or are they? Jobs that no one wants to do are among the readiest for replacement by automation. The near-future specter staring down many of us in our jobs also peers through the barn door. Should robots become dairy farmers? So suggests a Nebraska dairy extension educator, Kim Clark. According to Clark, cows actually might prefer to be milked by robots. With robots, cows can “go in and get milked as frequently as they feel they need to, it’s consistent”– unlike humans—and “the cows can lay down and eat and drink, and that’s the perfect life for them.” Younger farmers might prefer robots too, because it “take[s] the employees out of the equation,” which Clark thinks be better for everyone all the way around.
No! No! No! would say Thomas Jefferson. And Wendell Berry. And lots of others. To be sure, farms already use plenty of machinery and technology to get crops from field to market. But this kind of creative destruction ignores features of farming central to Americans’ sense of its importance. What matters about farming is not only the food it produces but the way it uses land and creatures in production, the way its disciplines shape the farmer, and the way relationships build among those who produce and consume food.
We all should be uneasy that, this winter, the future looks so bleak to those who put bounty on our tables that some of them refuse life. Matthews helpfully offers mental-health resources for the problem. Neither economic nor therapeutic resources may be sufficient to the need. The problem, loneliness, is a spiritual one too. There is no reason to single out the Land of 10,000 Lakes. These stresses belong to all of us and admit no easy solution. Nevertheless, the buyer of milk or butter or cheese, or anything else we take with our daily bread, might start by caring who makes what we put on our tables.
Minnesotans do “look up to heaven”: about 74% of those in the state identify as Christian and 5% other religions, according to a 2014 Pew Research study of America’s religious landscape. What difference does that make? Beyond what we may want to claim as obvious, finding God a refuge and strength present in trouble, that upward gaze recalls that the earth is not for our despoiling, that vocations are honorable, that justice and mercy are proper pursuits, that loving neighbor is our call.
We might take reflection on this as a discipline of the season, this season spent anticipating good news from angels’ trumpets. After all, their glad tidings, Immanuel, was a promise of deliverance from human isolation.