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Center for Respect of Life and Environment (CRLE)
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Towards A New Production Ethic


Brief Summary of the History and Purpose of
the Soul of Agriculture Project

The Soul of Agriculture project is an effort to join all the constituencies of family managed farming in a unified statement of the shared values of family farming. It seeks also, by joint deliberations of impacted constituencies, to make explicit the often unstated underlying ethical principles which sustain that form of farming and justify its public policy support. These ethical principles protect the values of all groups, not just the farmers. Framed and expressed by the constituencies themselves they will appeal to consumers, rural communities, labor, environmental groups and farm animal welfare interests. A national consensus on these values and ethical principles will be both instructive and energizing in policy making arenas where many representatives would otherwise not realize why preserving family farming is important. It will be a realistic statement of the needs of farm families as well as the unreplaceable goods they can provide their constituents in an adequately rewarding economic structure. As such this consensus statement can also form a basis for K-12 curriculum on the place of farming in America.

The Soul of Agriculture was formed in 1996 to bring about this consensus statement and gave itself its name because its work was seen as exposing the very soul of the work of farming: why it is worth doing rather than not. "Soul" also seeks, in forming this consensus statement, to provide attractive pictures of a more beautiful and livable future for such farming and the kinds of interactions between farming, its families, workers, communities, its livestock and the environment which make the policy efforts to save family farming worthwhile. In the extended narrative below the impressive work accomplished so far, with hundreds of farmers, environmentalists, labor groups, rural churches, academics, and farm animal welfare leaders involved, is described. 1999 and 2000 are the years in which we must spread the work to the whole country, from its largely midwest, northern plains and northeastern beginnings. Strategically located, well connected persons must be found and chosen to bring farm groups together with the diverse constituencies to work on, amplify, amend and critique a draft statement of values, ethics and beautiful futures formed by a massive collaboration in Minneapolis in November of 1997. This draft, issued in March of 1998, has been made the focus of retreats, conferences and publicity through the following years. It is called Creating a New Vision of Farming. This is viewable on this page in executive summary and in a complete draft (PDF).

The consensus goal is a statement wide and flexible enough to fit radically diverse kinds of farming. But it is anticipated that in some cases parallel documents and appendices will be needed to capture the different challenges of economy, husbandry, market access and environment. Rural church groups will wish to add to the basic statement the rich source of motivation and insight found in their extensive literature on values and ethics in farming. Soul of Agriculture has the task of promoting and supporting this work. It does this with the assistance of its advisory board and hundreds of supporters already involved. It does this by promoting the project directly and through the networks which its supporters belong to. It is currently finding effective collaborators and seeking funds for them, when needed, to convene consensus formation activities. It will support their work also by collecting, synthesizing and disseminating the results of consensus formation. It will maintain these results on this web site to promote and archive this ongoing process around the country.
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Formation of the Soul of Agriculture Project

Early in 1996, Fred Kirschenmann and others long concerned with the future of agriculture became convinced that a new cohesive statement of the values and ethical principles of the vocation of agriculture must be a part of any serious national and local dialogue and action aimed at preserving that future. Inspired in part by the work of Paul Thompson, The Spirit of the Soil, Fred and others formed, in September of 1996, a planning committee to initiate a national dialogue to develop a restatement of the basic values and ethics of farming embraced by farmers and the public. It would be, they envisioned, the heart of a movement to make such an ethics effective in practice and supported by the public. This support would be due to its foundation on shared values of farmers and the public, including the basic values of safe, abundant, sustainable food and fiber supplies; the environmental values of clean air, water, natural balance, the beauty of wild and cultivated rural landscapes, the well-being of domestic and wild animal and plant species; and the social values of stability in farm and rural communities through adequate incomes and viable working conditions for farmers and workers.

In early 1997 the process was well under way, given a name "The Soul of Agriculture," and a home in The Center for Respect of Life and Environment in Washington D.C. With the planning committee acting as a secretariat and convener, a "drafting committee" was designated, made up of farmers, rural community, farm-organization and farm-worker leaders, environmentalists, sustainable agriculture and consumer representatives and applied ethicists. Their task was to draft an initial vision of a vigorous new ethic of production agriculture which would start the process toward the ideal described above.

In March, 1997 the drafting committee met and did produce a remarkable efflorescence of ideas, ideals, vibrant statements of values and principles, frank warnings of obstacles and frustrations and appealing pictures of a better future. A skilled reporter-editor in attendance, Brad DeVries, shaped this abundance into a "Vision Statement/Call to Action." Different, maturing versions of this document were circulated and commented on until just shortly before a national Soul of AgricultureConference was convened by the planning committee, November 14-16, 1997 in Minneapolis. This conference was attended by 210 individuals committed to various segments of the common project, roughly of the same profile as the drafting committee. Some 74 persons gave presentations followed by break-out sessions of all the attendees. Organized into working groups, this body enriched the draft "Vision Statement" with additions, criticisms, new perspectives, and calls for significant revisions. This collective wisdom was mined for the present version. Like all the earlier versions, it is not intended to represent a consensus statement. It is still a "Vision Statement" meant to promote more thinking and development. Further enrichment, beyond continual amendment of the statement itself, which must be kept to a manageable size for use in a national consultative process, may be in the form of succinct essays presented as appendices, or parallel statements which enrich the vision with the insights and needs of a group's special history, region or constituency.
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Major Conference and Its Product

The "brief history" above recounts the build-up, by tremendous efforts, to the November 1997 conference. This three-day, $60,000, strongly attended conference had an astonishing array of diverse agriculturally related constituencies, all animated by the conviction that an important step in defending the values of family farming is an explicit consensus statement of those values and the principles that must guide all involved parties if those values are to be secured into the future. 1998 was devoted to first reducing the stacks of incisive and often passionate presentations and recorded break-out sessions into a workable draft statement of the future steps to be taken by the Soul project and the first effort at capturing in some logical and succinct order all the values and principles proposed by the attendees. Completed by February 1st, 1998, this document, now called Creating a New Vision of Farming, was immediately made available to as many constituent groups as possible.
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Conceptual History of the Soul of Agriculture

Here the history we recount is the conceptual inspiration for the project which gives it its special goals. One of the principal thinkers behind Soul is Fred Kirschenmann who was affected by passages in Paul Thompson's Spirit of the Soil. He, with Paul, recognized that what is missing in the arena of efforts to save family managed farming is a solid national conviction that family managed farming is worth saving. And it is not surprising that this conviction is missing from national policy discourse when it is hard to find it clearly articulated and pursued with practical measures even in our Land Grant agricultural schools. Most of the supporters of family managed farming are convinced that there is this or that unique value in family managed farming, but a powerful and explicit statement of that worth is lacking. Among the reasons for the lack is that defenders of any great value are often so caught up in the daily work of constructing and defending what they love that they have little time for reaffirmations of value. But this is surely a mistake because the public and its legislators have lost a true sense of what that value is. It is not even taught in rural schools and industrialized farming has laid fictitious claims to embody those values. The public simply does not know what values will be lost if we lose family managed farming

The initiators and continued supporters of Soul are convinced that there is a way of asking the question: "What is so important about family farming as opposed to, say, the family hardware store?" which makes it essential to the policy process. No energy expended, no funds, no planning aimed at some vision of farming which is good for family farmers makes any sense unless there is a broadly accepted (way beyond the farm community), well stated and defensible agreement that family farming, actually or in some potential form, is worth saving. On the other hand, to have located and clearly stated in an unequivocal and consensus way what public goods are best secured through the retention of a vigorous family farming system will direct policy makers so that they save that system in a form that assures those values. To save the apple tree while making it sterile is a policy danger. We want to save family farming in a way that secures its ability to protect the highest values it can provide the public.

Asking the question "what form of family farming is worth saving?" made another set of convictions clear. One farm-boy turned Cornell rural sociologist put it this way: He feared the work of Soul of Agriculture, in trumpeting the values of family farming had the danger of being a boosterism for a system, many of whose forms did not deserve saving and which were in no way distinguishable, in terms of deleterious public impacts, from any industrial operation. His frankness caused everyone to re-emphasize that Soul is not a public relations effort but will seek consensus on the more difficult issue: what changes in behavior farmers and their constituencies must commit themselves to so that the promised values are realized. This is the consensus on ethical principles--a far more difficult task. It is a task which is extremely relevant, to policy in an era when policies which seek to achieve good ends (e.g. make medical care affordable) do so by means which destroy the end (here: deprive doctors of their ability to choose the best therapy). A realistic consensus on the mutual commitments farmers and their public supporters must make would be so close to policy that it could be called proto-policy. But it is not policy because policy will differ from region to region, from crop to crop and from year to year, given the circumstances. But the basic commitments will not. What are these commitments? To answer this question is a principal task of the Soul of Agriculture process: to find a consensus on those basic mutual commitments of family farmers and those who wish to enjoy the values which are uniquely within its potential

As various Soul of Agriculture collaborators began to conduct consensus formation activities and the coordinator began to pursue funds to support such activities the question of the policy pay-off of the Soul project was raised. Much work was being done all over the country trying to formalize and gain public support for farm-friendly policy replacements for "freedom to farm" policies. The question was asked by funders: How will Soul of Agriculture contribute to this critical work?

Many Soul advisers said simply: "Policy is not the job of Soul of Agriculture." But others said: "In some way it has to be, otherwise it will be regarded by all as irrelevant navel gazing." But this latter response overlooks the obvious relevance to any serious and comprehensive policy process of first agreeing on what the values are which justify asking for public support of a policy.

Consequently on this website the reader will find Consensus Formation Tools which are appropriate for forming such an agreement as part of a policy making exercise. The knowledge of those values provides the target of the policies and the agreement on the mutual obligations needed to preserve the values provides the willingness to share the distributed burden which every equitable policy will impose.

Hence rather than to question the relevance of the unique role of the Soul of Agriculture process, the challenge is reversed: What hope is there for finding consistent and well designed policy where: (1) its target is not explicit and (2) its costs no one recognizes an ethical obligation to bear? That is: what chance will even good policy have if participants have not agreed to support its costs by agreeing to an appropriate set of mutual obligations? For example what hope for success is there in protecting one value of family farming, namely the provision of opportunities for employment, if there is not first a mutual agreement that creating rural jobs is a value and that mutual (not just farmers) commitments are needed to find ways to make that employment humane, just and rewarding for workers and their families? It should be obvious, therefore, that the consensus statement of the values and the mutual ethical obligations are both essential to policy deliberations and are not policy. They are pre-policy but destined, if well done, to underpin and outlast many succeeding policies.

The final defense of this pre-policy responsibility of the Soul of Agriculture project is that a crowd of insightful, committed and extremely busy policy makers and advocates want to be sure it is done and will resist any significant dilution of it.
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