Thursday, May 7, 2009

Two cultures and the farm

[Anne, whose sister and brother-in-law are dairy goat farmers in New England, wrote this post.]

I visit my sister three or four times a year. When I leave academia behind and am stacking hay or feeding goats up on the farm, the idea of CP Snow’s two cultures shrinks into insignificance, or even irrelevance. Viewed from so far away, those two cultures on isolated, protected university campuses – there are good reasons that academia has been known as “The Ivory Tower” for centuries – merge into one, dwarfed by a much greater chasm, that between the academy and the outside world. On one side, at the farm on the hill, it’s hard physical work with survival on the line, and on the other, in the Pennsylvania valley I call home, it’s the life of the mind, where the main thing at risk is whether our research papers will be published and where we make a ritual out of running, forcing ourselves to remember that we’ve got a body and that it needs some care.

"What's Jack up to today?" I asked my sister.

"He's out tedding the fields," she replied.

When we had this conversation I had never heard of tedding. Every word I don't know is a window into the cultural divide, attached as it is to a set of practices I know little if anything about. Some words describe equipment I have seen when I drive by farm fields but never thought about – tedders, diskers, seeders – and some evoke a history as old as agriculture itself, since soil has been prepared for tillage as long as people have been planting crops, whether with hand held sticks, crude implements pulled by animals or mega-machines specialized to a single task.

The vocabulary of farming is a constant indicator of the divide, but there are many other landmarks. Separate calendars, for instance; academics measure their year by semester and holiday breaks, farmers measure theirs by season – planting, haying, breeding, birthing, harvesting. Or even by weather report – if it’s going to rain tomorrow, there will be no mowing of standing hay today because it won’t dry (but class will still be held). And, the seasons are likely to be delimited by events academics have no way to notice; my sister text messaged me one late April evening to say that the barn swallows had returned that afternoon.

The kinds of risks that farmers and academics are exposed to scarcely even overlap; farming has one of the highest accident rates in America and life expectancy of a farmer is on the order of four years less than that of a professor. Society has decided we’ve got very different economic worth, too; small farmers on average earn far less than half of what professors do. Farmers are at the mercy of unpredictable events beyond their control – drought, rain, animals contracting disease, the price of grain, the ever declining price the farmer earns for produce sold at market, the cost of health insurance – while unpredictability has been fairly well eliminated from a professor’s working life. A professor with tenure, at least.

I recognize that I could make similar comparisons between academics and miners, or soldiers, or athletes or musicians or visual artists and the lists would differ only in detail. The singular difference is that farmers provide the rest of us, including miners and artists, with sustenance. They are tied to the land and the seasons in ways that most of the rest of us can, and do, ignore.

I was at the farm when Ken heard that he and colleagues had gotten a large grant to study the genetics of the evolution of skull shape in primates. This project has nothing to do with disease, so doesn’t claim to be contributing to future health – a claim that sells a lot of science, particularly modern genetics, but this study is basic science.

When I told my sister about the project, she looked at me skeptically and asked, “Why do we care?”

And, surrounded as I was by goats and hard work, I couldn’t help but see her point, even though I work on this project myself. Why should her tax money be spent to fund a project to further knowledge that will have no practical application in any of our lifetimes, if ever, when she can’t even afford health insurance, and just barely the grain to keep her animals alive? Academics do provide knowledge, edification, and social advance for students. We also provide much highly technical knowledge that starts out very abstract and theoretical and some of it does, eventually, work its way to farm and field. Still, I felt a whiff of sympathy with Chairman Mao: send all the professors to the countryside, let them learn the value of real work. Though, in my version, they wouldn’t have to stay ten years; a week or two would do.


Anne Buchanan said...

My sister emailed to say:

You might have mentioned that these farmers (your sister, at least) and probably most farmers, choose that lifestyle despite the risks and difficulties and lack of appreciation by much of this culture. Are you guys still working on that primate skull project in between blogging?

(Yes, that's one of the things we're doing between blogs!)

Anonymous said...

hi! i've been reading this blog for awhile now. got the link from the page the link Ken Weiss gave on his "Crotchets and Quiddities" (something i enjoy reading too!). I'm an undergraduate in Environmental Engineering, but my "randomness" leads me to places like this. =)

i always wonder when science(or the humanities) go into stuffs where it wouldn't help anything to the human population in general. CERN project anyone? knowledge is great, i don't disagree with that, but isn't it weird farm people are the ones labelled as simple, and those colliding particles are glorified?


Anne Buchanan said...

Thanks very much for the comment, thepretentious1. We're glad you found us, by whatever circuitous route you took, and glad you're enjoying the blog.

You probably won't be surprised to hear that I share your feeling about the simple farmer/glorified colliding particles dichotomy. I don't think that science for it's own sake is all bad, by any means, but sometimes priorities do seem mixed up. You've chosen to go into an applied science, and that's a good solution.

My sister once asked me if we could work on developing a vaccine in our lab for a very frustrating, and crippling, disease that goats frequently get called caprine arthritis encephalitis. I was quite unhappy to have to tell her that, no, we couldn't do that in our lab.