Keynote Address by Alice Waters at Monticello’s commemoration of Jefferson’s 274th birthday April 13, 2017
"Thank you to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and to the University of Virginia, for honoring me with this Medal for Citizen Leadership. This medal has really inspired me. And thank you for giving me the opportunity, today, to pay tribute to Thomas Jefferson on his birthday.
Jefferson is the founding father who has influenced me more than any other figure in American history. He inspires me for one big reason: Because he dreamed of the same future I dream of today: a nation given its essential character and its deepest principles by the values of farmers.
Yes, he founded the University of Virginia and wrote the statute for religious freedom and the Declaration of Independence. But my admiration for Jefferson grows almost entirely out of my appreciation for what I understand to be at the heart of his agrarian philosophy.
There is a tendency among historians to dismiss Jefferson’s dream of a nation of freeholders, in which small, self-sufficient farmers would spread across and populate the growing country. Instead the pendulum of history swung towards cities and industrialization, and Jefferson’s dream is sometimes seen as a naïve Enlightenment fantasy. It is my belief, however, that if we are going to survive the 21st century, we have to embrace a philosophy of responsibility towards the land—which means a return to Jefferson’s small-scale agrarian ideals.
You see Jefferson’s ideals and values not just in his writings, but in his love for beauty, all around us here today; he was always thinking about beauty and proportion. You see his values in his garden book, and the way he kept his long-hand, pen-and-ink records, and in his beautiful drawings of the fields of Monticello. You see his values in his botanical curiosity, which was insatiable, and in the sheer diversity of what he planted. You see his values in the pleasure he took in his successes, and in the routine way he handled failures.
As we all know, he collected hundreds of fruits and vegetables. Just reading the names of their varieties is exhilarating. Food from all over the world. He loved variety, but he wasn’t collecting just to build a collection. He was a ruthless, methodical experimenter. He always kept track of things. Even when he was in the President’s House, he made a tabulation of thirty-seven different vegetables that were available in the Washington market at the time. It showed their first and last appearances for sale. Wherever he was, he observed. He paid attention. He recorded things. And he enjoyed it all.
Back in Monticello, he tried planting forty different kinds of kidney bean before he narrowed the field down to his two favorites. This took years and years, but he wanted only the best kidney beans. And kidney beans are only one of the many kinds of beans he grew: white beans from Tuscany, green and yellow pole beans, Windsor beans, rare beans from the northern Great Plains. Whatever the vegetable, he was always keen on finding the best varieties. And it is pretty clear from the record that by best, he meant not only the ones that thrived and produced well, but above all, the ones that tasted best.
Edmund Bacon, his farm manager here at Monticello, noted that Jefferson “was never a great eater, but what he did eat he wanted to be very choice.” I can relate to that.
And when he planted his enormous experimental garden here, he was searching for “very choice” varieties that could be propagated and made available to the entire nation. The idea that we should actively search for the very choicest, the very most delicious, pleasurable food goes against a persistent strain of puritanical American thought—the kind of thinking that prioritizes high yields, convenience, and profits. This ultimately led to something very different from what Jefferson had dreamed of as the future of food: It led to a depopulated countryside and a demoralized rural population; factory farming that relies on huge and unsustainable inputs of fuel and chemicals; and unhealthy processed food that is processed to be as addictive as possible.
Jefferson imagined a different future, a nation of small farmers growing delicious food. And as he wrote in a famous letter to the first Supreme Court Justice, John Jay: “cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, & they are tied to their country & wedded to it’s liberty & interests by the most lasting bands.”
I share Jefferson’s belief in an agrarian ideal of a farmer because I know young men and women farming today who are upholding that ideal. And I have enormous hope that there will be more and more of them with every passing year.
The restaurant I founded forty-six years ago helped create a demand for small farmers like that.
When we started looking for ingredients to cook with, we started out looking for taste, for the variety that tasted best—not the one that had the longest shelf-life or was the easiest to ship—and that meant we had to look nearby, in order to find the food that was freshest and most alive. And this took us to the doorsteps of local organic farms.
We started out by telling the farmers what we thought we were looking for. We told them what to plant; we gave them seeds. And as our mutual experiment progressed over the years, we found that, more and more, they were telling us what to do. Now it’s the farmers who tell us what to cook. They’ve learned over the years what they are capable of, and they are constantly teaching us in turn. Together we have woven ourselves together into a community. And the demand for raw materials like ours—fresh, local, organic, sustainably grown—has led to more and more farmers’ markets and farm-to-table restaurants
Small organic farmers like these are helping to remake society by bringing us back to our senses. They are reminding us of what Jefferson’s agrarian world was like.
What are the benevolent values of these farmer-citizens? Well, let us consider for a moment what they are not. They are not the malignant values of our fast-food consumer culture. The messages we get from corporate advertising tell us that food is cheap and abundant, and that abundance is guaranteed; that it is okay to waste; that we can depend on someone else’s cheap labor; that preparation is drudgery; that speed is a virtue in itself; that advertising confers value; that personal responsibility is negotiable; and that someone else will always clean up after you.
None of the farmers I know believe any of these things!
The values of Jefferson’s farmer-citizen are the values of civic virtue: devotion to the land and to justice and social harmony; honesty, self-reliance, patriotism, and cooperation; and belief in science and public education. Citizenship still requires empathy, and gratitude, and mutual respect, just as it did in Jefferson’s time, and it requires a set of human values that will allow us to live together. And one of those is a love for nature. Love of nature, in all its miraculous variety, is what can spark our imagination and make us see that we are all in this together.
As our greatest living agrarian philosopher, Wendell Berry, has said, “it all turns on affection.” Writing of his grandfather’s love for his farm, he writes, “modest joy in a modest holding is the promise of a stable, democratic society.” He goes on to say that it is a necessity that we support “the cause of stable, restorative, locally adapted economies of mostly family-sized farms, ranches, shops, and trades.”
You can’t just ask people to collaborate and love one another and create a community. Communities have to develop organically, in a reciprocal, everyday process. That process begins with eating together. And the process continues, and real communities begin to emerge, when you start to make daily transactions because you value someone’s work. You go to your neighborhood bakery and you pay for your bread, but you do more than exchange money for a product: You support each other. You want their delicious bread!
I have believed for a long time now that the erosion of a sense of shared civic purpose in American life can be reversed by what I call edible education. We need to make a concerted effort to educate every child in what it means to plant and grow and cook and serve food to one another. And I think that could best be accomplished if school lunch were free—and treated as an academic subject, from kindergarten through high school, and beyond. Eating together, and eating well, is the not only the foundation of good health, but of civilization itself.
Twenty per cent of our population is in school. If every school lunch program in the country sourced its ingredients only from local, sustainable farms, agriculture would change overnight. And schools should likewise buy ingredients only from farms where human labor is treated with dignity and rewarded with a fair wage.
The progress of social justice in our nation since Jefferson’s day has not been as rapid or as complete as many of us would wish, but we cannot deny that there has been some progress. And school-supported agriculture would accelerate this far beyond where Jefferson was able to go. With a diversity of people—and not just beans!—and with an abundance of affection, we can move together toward a healthy, sustainable, and egalitarian future.
This is the second American Revolution that we need. Rather than a call to arms, this is a call to farms!"