Tag: agrarian studies

Lest We Forget: Killing by the Numbers

Sarah Underwood—

Sometimes, the forgetting of history is accidental and gradual—a lost document, a mistranslation, or the unfortunate lack of a written record in the first place. On other occasions, events do not have to pass into history before they are forgotten. Those are the ones that are concealed from the start and for a reason. In Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, Timothy Pachirat tries to discover the reason for the extensive concealment within American slaughterhouses. In June 2004, the author took an entry-level position in an Omaha slaughterhouse and found that the work was so contained that although it is certainly hidden from consumers and the outside world, it is also concealed from the workers inside the walls.

In his first job in the slaughterhouse, Pachirat hangs approximately twenty-five hundred livers a day inside the slaughterhouse’s cooler. His isolation from the actual death of the cattle, combined with the monotony of his work, shows him how “killing evaporates into a routinized, almost hallucinatory, blur.” The main function of slaughterhouses is concealed from the workers themselves by both the sameness of the work (“Five hooks, dip the rag, wring it. Five hooks, dip the rag, wring it.”) and the extremely nuanced division of labor—Pachirat includes an appendix of the 121 positions it takes to process just one cow.

The existence of a single one of these 121 jobs allows the other 120 workers to maintain the belief that they do not take part in the deaths that occur every twelve seconds in the slaughterhouses. This worker is the “knocker,” who shoots a bolt gun into the cow’s head. Most of the workers understand the knocker to be the only employee to actually kill the cattle. In reality, the knocker only begins a process that lasts for fifty feet on the kill floor. The bolt gun does not necessarily kill the cow, nor does it even always render it unconscious. Other provisions have to be made for cattle that are still conscious as they are dragged along the kill floor. On the production line, there is no black-and-white division between “alive” and “dead,” but rather a grey area that lasts for long minutes.

The author’s point, however, is not to provide gruesome scenes for voyeurs or enrage us with sensationalism. Instead, he shows how the affects the people whose lives are forever altered by the work their circumstances force them to take. When Pachirat suggests to his coworkers that he is interested in taking a position as a knocker, one man says, “Nobody wants to do that. You’ll have bad dreams.” Another tells him that knockers have to attend therapy sessions because “…that will mess you up…that’s killing.” The responsibility of slaughtering is ostensibly placed on one worker, so while the 120 are somewhat separated from the work, the one (knocker) is separated from both the work and all of his coworkers. All of the workers are affected in ways that most of us would not want to imagine when we buy products from modern meatpacking companies. When another person has to go home every night wiping brains from his face or pulling guts from her hair, though, we start to consider why we know so little about the conditions under which our food is produced.

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Notes from a Native New Yorker: Studying The Ground, and Ourselves

Michelle Stein—


Notes from the Ground: Science, Soil & Society in the American Countryside, by Benjamin R. Cohen is primarily the story of the merger of agriculture and science in early America, and all the attendant debates and developments in agricultural life. But in the spirit of the season of back to school, I hoped to read Notes From The Ground through the lens of education, a goal easily accomplished; you can’t help but be struck by the many parallels to questions in education.

Throughout the book Cohen shows the variety of ways in which farmers sought to improve their land and soil.  Many farmers looked inwardly towards themselves, their farms, and their own communities for ideas and advice.  Early American agricultural society had much in common with the ideas of farming stemmed in part from Virgil’s Georgics.  Virgil held farming and hard work in high esteem and a foundation for a nation and progress.  The land was regarded as beautiful as well as a place of work and morality.

As the 19th century progressed, chemists began to carefully study the science of the soil.  The use of scientific knowledge even by those working with the soil on a daily basis could and would ultimately redefine how farmers interacted with the land.  Increased understanding of the soil and land derived from scientific study was immensely valuable and foolish to ignore.  But many American farmers were wary of information gathered by those with no direct connection to the land.  At a minimum, many hoped that those pursuing improvement of land morally, with careful consideration to how to use new knowledge while also maintaining the treatment of the land taken by the georgics.

How does this tie to the world of education?  The farmers and scientists in Cohen’s book lived through a time of fast-paced change and development.  This is not much different from the educational experience, and the story of how science and agriculture offers up many of the same questions and practices as today’s educational world.

Notes from the Ground delves into the question of how one approaches new information: it is not to be taken at face value, but considered thoughtfully and incorporated into one’s life and worldview.  The farmers who were faced with new practices all responded in different ways.  The practical, real life experience is also a hallmark of today’s educational system, though not solely in the realm of farming.  At a young age, field trips often tied to the in-school curriculum, and many colleges offer credit for a variety of out-of-classroom experiences.  Cohen also writes the books and presses on farming that emerged in the 19th century, and of course reading and writing are fundamental parts of any educational experience.

The parallels go even beyond these perhaps standard examples.  Cohen writes in his Introduction that “this study of science and agriculture is about the relationships between ideas of and practices in the environment.”  Along those same lines, I would argue that this study of science, agriculture, and environment is about the study of how we change and learn.


Michelle Stein is a former Yale Press intern and a forever book-lover.

Contradictions in Love of Land: American Georgics

No matter where you are in the U.S. this summer, you have probably felt the effects of the record-setting heat. While most of us are just sweating a little more than usual, our country’s agricultural community faces a depressing situation. The heat arrived with an extreme drought throughout much of the American South. Farmers in at least fourteen states might suffer as much as they did during the 1930s, the New York Times said last month. Agricultural experts now predict a considerable loss of livelihood for American farmers and ranchers, especially in Texas, where more than 90% of the state is experiencing extreme drought, according to Reuters.

For many Americans, dealing with the constant threats from nature as part of our daily routine—besides rising food prices—seems unimaginable. Indeed, in a nation that began with a majority of farmers, less than 2% of us are even employed in agriculture anymore. With so many citizens uninvolved with growing their own food, and with a landscape always increasingly altered by chemicals and erosion, it becomes more necessary for everyone to try to understand the relationship between our country and farming. American Georgics: Writings on Farming, Culture, and the Land, edited by Edwin C. Hagenstein, Sara M. Gregg, and Brian Donahue, explores why agrarianism has been so important to the United States. Agrarianism is the belief that the manner in which land is farmed affects the health of both the individual and society as a whole. Its ideal would be to have “a healthy proportion of the citizenry” work the land.

From our nation’s beginning, the image of the agrarian community has been shaped by those who sought to mythologize or industrialize, preserve the rural way of life or create something more productive. American farms have impressed outsiders at least since 1782, when Crèvecoeur wrote Letters from an American Farmer. English emigrant William Cobbett wrote in 1819 that American laborers, especially compared to English laborers, “are the best that I ever saw” because of “the great quantity” and variety of work each unusually robust man could complete. A man could only be his own master if he owned land and made his own rules: Cobbett declared, “[hours] were made for slaves.” Not everyone had the luxury of idealizing, of course. The exclusion of slaves was sometimes touched upon in the early period, hardly ever the exclusion of women and Native Americans. Louisa May Alcott fictionalized her childhood in 1873, describing her experiences on a communal farm that eventually failed to the point that her family nearly starved, proving just how much of a risk farmers had to take. From Henry David Thoreau to Willa Cather, writers have tried to express the complex but vital relationship Americans have with their land.