Food feeds social growth

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Anthropology, agriculture interwine for ECTC educator

By Robert Villanueva

Farming is a foundation for what Pem Buck teaches in her anthropology class at Elizabethtown Community and Technical College.


Though her class is not specifically about farming, Buck said, anthropology is about understanding how social structures work. Producing food is one of the basic foundations for that, so how a society organizes itself to produce food is important to the subject.

Producing food is among Buck’s personal background as is experiencing other cultures.

Shortly after she and her husband, David, graduated college in the early ’70s, they took an extended trip overseas.

“We lived in India for two years at that point,” Buck said.

In the mid-’70s, the couple bought about 90 acres of pasture and woods in Upton. They did not farm much, with the exception of keeping a small garden and raising some dairy goats.

“We made a lot of cheese and sold milk,” she said.

By 1982, Buck started teaching part time at then Elizabethtown Community College. She has taught sociology, anthropology and women’s studies. In phased retirement, Buck teaches only the latter two subjects on a limited schedule.

She and her husband stopped goat farming in the mid-90s, when their children went to college.

The couple always had horses, though, Buck said. About 10 years ago, after her old horse died, she was on a drive when she saw “three golden mares and foals.”

Buck saw Haflingers, a breed of horse known for their golden coats. She now raises and sells Haflingers as well as enjoys driving them, pulling a cart.

“They’re very sane and not real big, and I knew that I wanted to drive,” she said.

As Buck continues to teach, she also finds time to author works of nonfiction.

“They feed each other,” Buck said.

Her first book was “Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power and Privilege in Kentucky,” which was followed by a textbook on cultural anthropology, now in its third edition.

Buck’s third book, not yet published, is a nonfiction work about early tobacco growing in Virginia.

For classroom discussion, Buck relates farming to how inequality is created through agricultural production. Farming historically has been dependent on cheap, controllable labor, she said.

“In India, for instance, that was done in the caste system,” she said.

In tobacco farming in Virginia, indentured servants were used. Other examples, she said, are sharecropping and slavery.

Over the years, farming has changed, Buck said.

“We’ve shifted to mechanized agriculture, which is vastly more expensive,” she said.

Buck pointed to a study presented by an anthropologist that broke down different types of farming based on total calories of energy expended on all levels. That includes everything from production of equipment and supplies used to harvesting product.

Whereas non-mechanized farming, which might include plowing, horses and fertilizer, has a calories-used-versus-calories-received ratio of about 1-to-50, mechanized farming that includes heavy equipment has a ratio of 8-to-1.

“You can see why there’s a problem with our farming system,” Buck said.

A solution, she said, would require “a total reorganization of U.S. society” and a closing of the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

“Pem really pays attention to what she sees, and to what she reads,” David said. “She loves it when she finds pieces falling into place that enable her to see the whole picture of something more clearly than before.”

David said his wife often gets to present those understandings to her students. It also is a two-way street, he said.

Often it has been things she sees and hears from students that help her put pieces together.

“As for me, it’s a real treat that we get to discuss all these things together,” he said.

Pem said she believes solutions to problems, such as inequality, are possible.

“If it’s not a piece of nature, it can be changed,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Robert Villanueva can be reached at 270-505-1743 or rvillanueva@thenewsenterprise.com.

More about Pem Buck

  • City of birth: Easton, Pa.
  • City of residence: Upton
  • Favorite music: Classical and ’60s-variety folk music
  • Favorite TV: “Doc Martin” via Netflix but no television otherwise. “We pulled the plug on 9/11,” she said.
  • Hobbies: Horses, sewing, reading mysteries
  • Favorite agricultural product: Black krim tomatoes