I recently visited the poultry research facility of a large agricultural university. I’d been excited about the trip because I naively thought this place would be researching different breeds and growing environments. I was giddy thinking about large fields where every heritage breed of chicken and turkey grazed happily (I love heritage livestock and love to see animals on good pasture). Instead, the facility researched modern industrial techniques so I only saw warehouses filled with meat birds and warehouses filled with egg birds.
These buildings weren’t hellish. Terrible conditions certainly exist and are shamefully common in contemporary agriculture. But those conditions aren’t ubiquitous. This facility wasn’t filled with deformed or bloody birds. No one was actively mistreating the chickens, beating them or prodding them with tasers. Still, the scene was difficult to bear. The dim fluorescent lights hurt my eyes. The sound of the squawking over the industrial fans was deafening. And the noxious smell of built up chicken feces made me want to vomit. Everything about the place was ugly.
I’m sure most people in the chicken industry would shrug at this. “Who cares? No one said this was pretty. We’re making products people want in the cheapest way possible.” And that really strikes to the heart of things. Contemporary agriculture has taken on the language and techniques of industrial production. And that’s why I prefer the term “industrial agriculture” over “big agriculture.” Because the problem with contemporary agriculture is more than one of scale. The problem is that we treat farms like factories with nothing but inputs and outputs.
For those knowledgeable about agriculture, the negative consequences of industrial farming are often thought of as environmental and economic. We now know that plants need more than just water and something to grow in. We know that soil microbes are crucial. We know that erosion can turn the most fertile land barren. We know that fields and pastures must be carefully tended or their production can plummet.
But a deeper problem with industrial farming is that it severs agriculture from creation. It is certainly no accident Genesis paints a vibrant picture of a beautiful and life giving garden. The imagery isn’t meant to be an idyllic scene, bucolic or nostalgic. Instead, the garden account shows man as the pinnacle of creation but still very much a part of everything else made by God. We were meant to live in creation, in communion with and sustained by the growing things God made.
Agriculture, as it was always practiced until very recently, exemplified this connection to and dependency on creation. In an address to an agricultural convention in 1946, Pope Pius XII told the farmers, “You live in continual contact with nature. It is actual contact, since your lives are lived in places still remote from the excesses of an artificial civilization. Under the sun of the Heavenly Father your lives are dedicated to bringing forth from the depths of the earth the abundant riches which His hand has hidden there for you. Your contact with Mother Earth has also a deep social significance, because your families are not merely consumer-communities but also and especially producer-communities.”
Pope Pius recognized that good agriculture is not just nourishing to humanity in the literal sense that it provides food. Good agriculture is also life giving to those farmers with their hands in the soil.
Again, there is science that backs up this idea that human beings thrive “in nature.” That “fresh air,” sunlight, and trees really are good for us mentally and physically. So, naturally, an agricultural system that pulls a farmer away from good land -good earth- cannot be good for that farmer.
But there is another consequence for farmers (and everyone else, I think) with an industrial approach to farming… it’s ugly. I’m not saying here that every aspect of all modern farming is ugly! Amber waves of grain are still beautiful and there are still good animals on good pasture in some places. And I’m not saying here that every aspect of “traditional farming” is beautiful. But I’ve seen enough slaughterhouses and feedlots and chicken warehouses to know that, in general, industrial farming is ugly.
So now we return to the question my hypothetical poultry man asked at the beginning, “Who cares?” If agriculture is simply about producing food, why does it matter?
Well, because agriculture isn’t only about producing food. At least it wasn’t meant to be. In the very beginning, when God created the world, scripture tells us, “Out of the ground the Lord God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food.” (Genesis 2:9) Of the food-producing plants God created, Genesis lists two qualities; “pleasing to the sight and good for food.” That is; beautiful and productive. Of course, agriculture must be productive. But it ought to be beautiful, too. Scripture even lists beauty as the first quality of what God made.
Beauty is still important, even vital, to good farming. We were made for beauty. We were made to seek beauty and make beautiful things. And few things are more beautiful than a garden growing well or an animal thriving.
I’ve been blessed this past year to work on a farm that is beautiful as well as productive. I’ve loved being able to take care of happy chickens, cows, goats, and pigs. I get to see healthy plants grown well in well cared for soil. And more than all this, I’ve been blessed to see my children enjoying these things. I’ve seen firsthand how children thrive on beauty. They were made for this. And that’s why it matters that farming be beautiful. We were made for this.