Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Will TSU's May Town Research Hub Support Small Agriculture or Capture It For Corporate Agribusiness?

Wendell Berry points to the destructive tendencies of universities crossing the purposes of agriculture:
If agriculture is acknowledged to have anything to do with culture, then its study has to include people. But the agriculture experts ruled people out when they made their discipline a specialty--or, rather, when they sorted it into a collection of specialties--and moved it into its own "college" in the university. This specialty collection is interested in soils (in the limited sense of soil chemistry), in plants and animals, and in machines and chemicals. It is not interested in people.

So much has been assumed and so little has been articulated about the quality of support a new Tennessee State University agricultural research facility on Bells Bend would offer should May Town Center be approved and built. I admit to not knowing a lot about TSU's agricultural program, but I keep my eyes open for information, and at least one commenter on a media website recently argued that TSU already owns farmland for research purposes that is underutilized.

However, the larger question for me is: why are we giving TSU a pass on communicating the nature and purpose of its May Family-donated research wing? That institution should not be given the benefit of the doubt to do the right things. If the recent history of disappearing family farms and small-scale organic land-use holds, TSU will look to large agribusiness corporations that focus more on squeezing surplus value out of land and crops than they do the quality of the farming and the natural conservation of soil.

TSU's agribusiness philanthropists will likely argue, like May Town investors have, that they are agents of job creation for those local communities with ties to the university. They will likely stipulate that the university turn its focus away from small family farms, which Wendell Berry argues are the loci of quality of agriculture versus the quantity scales of agribusiness. TSU is likely to assume the conventional approach that small farms are inefficient to the production lines of agribusiness, and more likely to serve the employment interests of their constituent alumni and neighborhood groups than they are Tennessee's small family farmers.

At this preliminary stage it is not clear to me that TSU's presence on Bells Bend is net benefit for agriculture. They may in fact obstruct local agriculture by further enabling and maximizing agribusiness.

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