This is our final essay in our July series on the lives of rural Christians and the rural Church. To read more essays in this series, please click here.
Lately when I hear people advocating for “the common good,” my ears perk up. It is a concept I’ve heard for decades, an ethic that looks beyond the self and privileges the good of the whole, of the community, above the individual. In rural communities, it seems that agriculture or, more broadly, growing and sharing food, has become a focal point for rebuilding lost community, for rallying around values that relate to a common good instead of individual goods. However, for the landowner, figuring out one’s place in this ethic can be a struggle. I’m experiencing this first-hand as my husband and I, along with the two other couples who share our land, consider the future of our property.
When people consider how to “use” their land, there is often a tension between the mainstream value of profitability and basically any other virtue you can name. One can say that maximizing the profit of the land through intensive farming is a value, particularly if doing so financially supports a family. In a world where almost everything has become a commodity and individual wealth an aim above all other aims, it is hard to think along alternative ethical lines when making decisions, particularly about land and family.
Land itself is most commonly seen as a financial asset. It is assessed for its ability to create wealth. Farms are traditionally passed along to children. If the next generation doesn’t want to move onto or work the land, the farm is often sold and the profits distributed to the children, the heirs. More and more, farmland is sold to developers because they offer the highest price.
Viewing land primarily, or solely, from an economic perspective is how things have worked in the United States since American settlers following “manifest destiny” laid claim to land that rightfully belonged to native people. Following the European model, land became a way to acquire, and pass on, wealth and status.
However, an alternative ethic around land has grown up recently, particularly in the work of Wendell Berry, that says land and living on the land has worth that goes beyond its dollar value. This ethic is grounded in the idea of the common good and recognizes that beyond self-interest, land can be worked to benefit the whole organism: the topsoil, the plant communities, the pollinators and wildlife, and any neighbors who draw from the same watershed and depend on the health of the land and its creatures.
Cities apply this principle of the common good when they build parks and set aside land for prairie restoration, protect wetlands, and plant trees. Rather than developing every inch of land, and selling it to the highest bidder to improve the tax base, or forgoing investment in trees to save money, the city recognizes that the city will do better if the people have what they need to thrive. The common good, at its best, provides a win-win situation for the community, as the value of property (and the tax base) rises due to the accessibility of good schools and open spaces.
I live on an 80-acre property shared by three families. It was not “the family farm,” but rather was bought from the Sisters of the Order of Saint Benedict of Saint Joseph. It was their hog farm back in the day, and they sold it in 1987 to my husband and his first wife, and my brother- and sister-in-law, for a price that made it possible for two young couples to “live on the land” and raise children. The initial vision was to form an Oblate community. And even when the Oblate community didn’t develop beyond the initial two couples, and with no farming going on other than gardening and raising chickens, the families engaged their children with the land and also shared things in common. My husband’s brother and his family built a house on the property in the 1990s, bringing the number of families to three, and I married into the whole thing a decade ago. The three families share common buildings and equipment and care for the property together. My husband, Steve, left teaching in the late 1990s and has become a prairie landscaper. Much of what goes on at the property involves caring for woodlands, wetlands, and newly-established prairie. Buckthorn removal and controlled burns and path and prairie plot maintenance. All three families get a great deal of enjoyment from the land.
Among the values treasured by the people on our farm are the beauty of the land itself and the way living on it shaped the characters of the children raised here by fostering cooperation, imagination, problem solving, and ingenuity. Now young adults, they have gravitated toward occupations that involve working with their hands, collaboration, and the arts.
And, over the years, it’s been clear what maintaining this habitat has done for the life of other creatures in this place. In spring we are serenaded by birds and also by a large number of frogs in the wetlands. A pair of sandhill cranes nest here every year. The wildflowers attract and nourish large numbers of bees and butterflies. There are turtles in the ponds. A blue heron feasts regularly at the large pond. There are deer, but they have never once bothered our garden because other food is plentiful (unfortunately this includes young trees in Steve’s tree nursery).
But it does not seem like any of the six children of the farm will move back here and maintain this lifestyle. So, we have been holding regular discussions to decide how to formalize the informal cooperative agreement we’ve lived by in hopes this way of life is carried on by a future generation.
These discussions have not been easy. Members of our little collective have struggled not to see the property as a financial asset to be passed along to the children by selling for the highest price or to benefit themselves by seeing it as a retirement asset. If we follow through with the plan that places common good at the center, putting the common land into some kind of trust and affirming that the property continues undeveloped (not turned into a subdivision) and available to young families, when these three couples leave the land it will be sold below market value. Rather than selling the house plus acreage as currently platted, each family would be selling their own home and conveying on the new owners a share in common land they agree to maintain for the common good.
This also requires trust, of course. Once the property is sold, it passes to the new group of people who own it. Because of this, we have written bylaws, but there is nothing that says new owners couldn’t change those bylaws and break up or sell off the property. We don’t know who these people will be—they are probably not family members—and once relinquished, the property will be in their hands. Maintaining such a countercultural project for another generation is not within our control and will surely be fraught with difficulties. Even the early idealism of the current members didn’t pan out as far as the Oblate community went.
As with so many things, however, all you can do is give it your best effort, be true to your vision and values, and then let go. Realizing that this kind of trust and commitment diminishes as we age (a pattern we have observed of becoming more driven by self-interest as one ages), we are trying to get things in place now.
What has come out of these meetings so far is a draft of bylaws that affirm the way we want to work together to continue stewarding the property and what conditions we want to put in place for passing on shares in the land. A second document outlines our philosophy, which is basically a discussion of the common good and how the farm members contribute to that common good. It is rooted in Aristotle and Aquinas, as interpreted by contemporary philosophers and writers Wendell Berry and Alisdair MacIntyre. At its core is this quote from MacIntyre’s book Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, in which he draws on the example of Wendell Berry:
…individuals who farm need to regard themselves as contributing to a larger project, that of making their particular farm productive while sustaining the land through generations of care. Farmers have to understand the particularities of each of their fields and of their farm animals, acting in the light of standards that they have made their own rather than responding to pressures to maximize productivity and short-run profitability. Those individuals at work on a particular farm serve the good of the farm and through so acting achieve their own goods.
We are not farmers. We have had a different relationship to this land, and to our working lives, than farmers. We are all middle-class people who recognize our privilege and the way this land has formed us and given generously to us. And still, it is difficult in the current age and dominant culture not to act from self-interest and maximize profit and gain. It is difficult to maintain the commitment to the common good, all the way to the end.
Like this post? Subscribe to have new posts sent to you by email the same day they are posted.
Dorothy Bass says
Susan, this is such a thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection. You explore your own family’s specific stake in issues of sustainability, community, and common good that we should all be struggling with in one way or another during this time of global peril. Thank you for giving us a down-to-earth example of the kinds of choices that will necessarily arise as our private-property way of life intersects with other needs.
I’ve been thinking of these concerns lately while reading two books I recommend to others who find Susan’s piece compelling: Richard Powers’s new novel, The Overstory, and Ellen Davis’s Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture.
Susan Sink says
Thank you, Dorothy! I will definitely look up at the least Richard Powers’ novel!