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Farming and Culture in the United States: Farm-Based Education Inspired by Anthroposophy

January 31, 2012

By Dana Burns, Farm-Based Educators Inspired by Anthroposophy (FBEIBA) Coordinator


Over the lifetime of this country the percentage of the workforce who listed their primary occupation as ‘farmer,’ has gone from 90% of a total population of 3,929,214 in 1790 to less than 0.6% of the workforce of a population of 308,745,438 in 2010. This actually means that there were more farmers in the US in 1790 than there are today! Even in 1950, farmers represented 12.2% of the labor force.

During my youth in the 1960s many, but not all, people had at least some, if distant, connection to a farm-maybe a grandfather, uncle, etc. was a farmer or a retired farmer. For the youth of the last few decades, having a direct experience with or a family connection to a farm is rare. What are the implications — both deep and broad — of this trend?

Is there possibly a link between the precipitous decline in farming and farm culture and the emergence of some of the critical problems facing this country today such as chronic disease, psychiatric and behavioral disorders, and an economic crisis without a reliable and resourceful populace fit to meet it? Could farm-based education inspired by anthroposophy have a role in finding solutions?

A number of both behavioral and medical pathologies have increased exponentially in the last decades. Rather than determining and addressing the causes of these epidemics, people are turning to the pharmaceutical industry for solutions at an alarming rate as documented in 2009 by studies by Medco Health Solutions Inc.:

“Children were the leading growth demographic for the pharmaceutical industry in 2009, with more than 1 in 4 children taking at least one prescription medicine to treat a chronic condition.” [In descending order of prevalence, the medications were treating: asthma, ADHD, Antidepressants, Antipsychotics, Antihypertensives, Sleep aids, Non-insulin diabetes, and Statins for high cholesterol.] “Prescription drug addiction is a very serious problem in the US, and is typified in part by the more than 20 percent of American adults that are now hooked on pharmaceuticals for conditions like anxiety and depression. . . One in five adults — and one in four women — now regularly takes at least one drug for psychiatric or behavioral disorders.

The study found that the use of behavioral drugs among adults has skyrocketed by 22 percent since 2001 — and based on current trends, such drug use in general is expected to continue to increase.

Is there a correlation?  Is this a coincidence? Could our severance with our farms, with our food, and with meaningful work be part of the problem?

Many people have responded positively to the great void in the connection with agriculture as can be seen in the popularity of community supported agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets, gardening, raising chickens in cities, and a strong, society-wide interest in farm-based education. But is there more beneath the surface that we are missing with the present-day lack of connections with farms and agriculture?

Even in these financially difficult times, I have heard many employers lament the lack of skill level and work ethic of employees. On the other hand, I have heard them praise those same characteristics of employees that grew up on farms.

“When I hire someone that grew up on a farm, they show up to work!” and “We always look at the resumes of applicants who grew up on farms first; they make the best workers!” are just a few of the comments I have heard by random employers.

Many farmers and ranchers say that they cannot even get people to apply for jobs that involve manual labor.  In Alabama, for example, the unemployment rate is 18.2%. Alabama’s Governor Bentley helped pass anti-immigration law HB56 to help free up jobs from illegal immigrants for American citizens. Nevertheless, farmers were left in a desperate situation with no or very few workers.

Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs in Bloomberg Businessweek (November 9, 2011) documents this phenomenon:

“‘Why try to make Americans do this work when they clearly don’t want it? They come one day, and don’t show up the next,’ Castro says.”
Or, “‘Oh, I tried to hire them,’ Smith says. ‘I put a radio ad out-out of Birmingham. About 15 to 20 people showed up, and most of them quit. They couldn’t work fast enough to make the money they thought they could make, so they just quit.’”

Work ethic, perseverance, and skills may represent just a portion of the human capacities engendered by farms and meaningful farm work that could be actually vital for people to have in these challenging economic times. Not least of our considerations should be: Who will be able to grow our food? Who will have the skills and abilities to make our lives hang together in the physical realities of this planet? This does not even begin to consider the tremendous physical, emotional, and therapeutic benefits realized by engaging will activity by working on a farm, or learning a craft or a trade such as what is found in the work of Aonghus Gordon of Ruskin Mill featured at this year’s Western Waldorf Educator’s Conference.

Rudolf Steiner had the great insight to incorporate farming into the third grade Waldorf curriculum. The first Waldorf school began in 1919.  At that time in the U.S., farmers made up 27% of the labor force. What would Steiner do today in America when farmers make up 0.6% of the labor force?

Today in America Waldorf schools are well and admiringly known for their emphasis on the arts. This is confirmed even by Wikipedia’s description of the Waldorf Education curriculum: “The arts generally play a significant role throughout the pedagogy and Waldorf education’s unique integration of the arts into traditional content has been cited as a model for other schools.”

Though this is admirable, there was no mention of will activities, farming, or work in this curriculum section in Wikipedia. Steiner’s view of the human being emphasizes the interplay between and the importance of each of thinking, feeling, and willing. Farming is clearly a strong will activity. Society as a whole had much more will activity in the early 1900s than it does today, even though Steiner was already lamenting negative changes in agricultural life at the time of his writing. Although the Waldorf curriculum does incorporate some will activity, might today’s students and world in the 21st century benefit from even more?

With the deeper understanding of the human being and of human development, and the terminologies of will, ego, etc. to go with it, Anthroposophy has great potential to inform, explore, and add to the farm-based educational movement. Farm-Based Educators Inspired By Anthroposophy (FBEIBA) was started in 2009, in part, to begin conversation about and bring consciousness to these issues. Please join with us in using anthroposophy to continue the conversation and explore the profound pertinence and implications to the human being, to society, and to the earth of farm-based education!

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 31, 2012 2:23 pm

    Now, agriculture is more like a factory of food. There is no place to observe the moon and the application of the principles of biodynamic agriculture.

  2. February 3, 2012 5:26 am

    I do agree with many points, even though waldorf schools are good for what they offer i am also trying to see which ones are still teaching how to make shoes for example, or other very meaningful taks on a weekly basis. A life with meaningful work is something very much needed for children, specially those with special needs too and adults with disabilities.

  3. Julie Drigot permalink
    February 3, 2012 9:01 am

    Thanks for a well written article Dana! I agree with Raquel. Waldorf Schools can offer something real vs. something virtual. But Waldorf Schools need to embrace whole-hearted, roll up your sleeves kind of labor and on a regular basis instead of just in 3rd grade.

    There are far too many parents who think their child should be on a college track and they equate lots of homework with high academic scores, and sports skills over practical work skills. Field trips on a regular basis are replaced for real work experiences that produce and contribute to the family table.

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