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Visions for Rural Kentucky

A vision for rural Kentucky...is a subject I approach with a good deal of uneasiness, for I know something of the history of visions in rural Kentucky. The Bible says that where there is no vision the people perish. It is also true that where the vision is wrong the people perish.

In Kentucky we know that the important question is, "Who has the vision?" The coal companies have had a vision of the Kentucky coalfields. The timber companies have had a vision of Kentucky forests. The tobacco companies have had a vision of Kentucky farms, and so have the packing houses and the grain dealers. The great agribusiness, timber, and coal corporations still have a vision of rural Kentucky, and in their vision the bottom dollar is always passing from the strong to the weak, and the top dollar from the weak to the strong. And of course rural Kentucky is always shrinking because of the visions of subdividers and developers.

The fact of the matter is that rural Kentucky is now more endangered than it has ever been. We are losing our farmers; the old are dying, the young are leaving. We have serious soil erosion. We are losing land to "development." We are in depression, and under threat. If you look for the money made from the products and the labor of one of our rural counties, you will see that very little of it is retained within the county line and not much more within the boundaries of the state. The story of these losses—of soil, land, farmers, economic resources and opportunities—is an ongoing story. We are going to be living with that story and its consequences for a long time.

I'm far from believing that rural Kentucky is a place for optimists. It would be unwise to risk underestimating the difficulties we are in. On the other hand, I do believe that rural Kentucky is a place for hope. I'm hopeful because I know, I have seen for myself, that we have people who are doing a good job, both as producers and as stewards of the land. And so I know that things can be better; we have good examples in front of us; abuse is not the inevitable consequence of use.

What I'm really nervous about is people who have visions for other people. Generally, I don't mind advice that begins, "Not bossing you or anything, but you could do it this way." But I would mind living in somebody else's political or economic or technological vision. I don't want to live next-door to a hog factory or chemical plant. I don't want to live where my community's fate and future will be determined by people who don't care about it. I know that some economies reduce freedom and economic opportunity.

The visions I am comfortable with are small-scale, private, inexpensive visions of improvement. There are no good farmers, probably, who do not see visions of the ways their farms could be improved: their farms could be more diverse, more productive, better fenced; there could be a wider margin between carrying capacity and numbers of livestock, giving comfort in dry years; there are scars that could be healed, woodlands that could be protected—and so on. I'm comfortable too with consumers' visions of fresher, healthier, more trustworthy produce from the local countryside, of farmers' markets, of ways in which local citizens could invest their money and work in a community-conserving and land-conserving local economy. I like visions that come from the spirit of neighborliness and care and thrift.

But even small, modest visions can be wrong. I know this from experience. If you visited my very marginal farm, you would see that I have had some visions that were right, and some that were wrong. I have had some visions that I could not have had if I had not been ignorant.

Our political principles of democracy and liberty are meant to protect our visions about how we want to live and work, and they're meant to protect us against other people's visions. But our political principles can't protect us from having the wrong visions about land use.

There is no doubt that we need a vision for rural Kentucky. We need, I think, a lot of visions for rural Kentucky. But if those visions are not to be (again) destructive and too costly, then we must take the trouble to know rural Kentucky and all its great diversity of landscapes, soil, economies, and natural and human communities. We must learn together to think from the ground up. We can't find the best ways of using and caring for our land just by forcing our visions and ideas upon it. The real question is how to fit in. How can human economies be fitted into nature's economies without finally destroying both? There's a thread of wisdom running through our cultural inheritance that says that everything depends on knowing where we are. It says that farmers and gardeners and foresters must consult the nature of the place. It says that in any given place there are certain things that nature will permit us to do without damage, certain things that nature will help us to do, and certain things that nature will penalize or punish us for doing.

To hold securely in possession and in trust a beautiful countryside, producing a dependable, healthful supply of food and other necessities, would be good for everybody. We don't have to destroy our land in order to live from it. We don't have to defeat and damage one another in order to prosper. There is a better way, and I think we're beginning to find it.