WE USED TO CALL IT the gas chamber back in high school, when I worked in the produce basement of a local supermarket, cello-wrapping lettuce, mushrooms, green beans and anything that could possibly be contained in see-through plastic. The chamber was a clever little metal cupboard that you rolled hard-as-baseballs green tomatoes into, and hit a switch that zapped the veggies with a mysterious gas that made the things ripen, so to speak - which is to say they turned red and could be inserted into those silly little plastic trays that hold trios of tomatoes. Nothing quite like produce in bondage.

If that sounds unappetizing, consider that those treasonous tomatoes were actually bred for the gas chamber. We're speaking here of the venerable Rutgers tomato developed with who knows how many of our tax dollars at the university of the same name: a bulbous little mass of fiber calculated to be picked green by machines and stored for months on end until the wonders of modern science summon it from tomato limbo and turn it red. Don't expect it to have any taste or texture. There's but one raison d'etre for the Rutgers tomato: efficiency.

And that's a problem, a cultural crisis. Because any society that can call a Rutgers tomato a tomato is in serious trouble. Think of it: a world in which tomatoes do not fall apart, but language and reason do.

This is the very essence of Wendell Berry's perceptive and annoying new book, The Unsettling of America. Berry does here for agriculture what the late E. M. Schumacher did for economics in his Small is Beautiful - namely, to take a broad cultural look at a topic normally studied in a most scientific fashion. Like Schumacher, Berry is devastating in looking at the way the human element gets booted out of most scientific disciplines by their respective self-proclaimed experts. But also like Schumacher, Berry seems to say that the answer to all this is religion, citing the Amish as the Great American Farmers.

Maybe. But that's probably not a necessary inference - just as Schumacher didn't need to claim that Christian brotherhood was the economic bridge between the world's haves and have-nots. Both Schumacher and Berry have needlessly given their opponents a nifty straw scarecrow to set fire to. And the smoke from that crow-teaser never should have been allowed to obscure the serious material presented.

Berry starts off at the jugular, questioning how seriously most non-native Americans consider anything. "We have never really intended to be," he writes in his opening page. "The continent is said to have been discovered by an Italian who was on his way to India." From here he can move on to his essential theme: "The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care."

Lest it be thought that Berry is your standard Volvo-driving liberal, he does throw plenty of curve balls. He manages to point out, for instance, that the Sierra Club, publisher of this book, has owned stocks and bonds in plenty of corporations with horrendous records of polluting and strip-mining. To Berry, this is simply an example of "the demise of the modern character - specialization." Conservationists, for him, cannot quite see the people beyond their own farce. Thus, "in Audubon Magazine almost always the beautiful pictures are without man; the ugly ones with him."

Berry emerges from all this a reactionary, a Marxist, a liberal, a populist, a revivalist, and a literary analyst. He launches into Earl Butz, questioning how he could have referred to food as "agripower" and then warn against its use as "a political tool." He advocates a return to the use of draft horses in farming. He at once blames religious prudery for the spread of the flush toilet, and then lectures for ten pages on sexual fidelity.

If all this sounds like a free-wheeling leap into the corncrib, that's largely what it is. Berry doesn't pretend to have the answers. But he's got enough spunk in him to thrash out into things that he, as a kentucky farmer, sees encroaching on a very special, almost magical way of life. Like much government talk about agriculture, this book often seems dizzy. At least here there's a person behind the dizziness.

Compre, for example, Berry's statement that "it is impossible to care for each other more or differently that we care for the earth," with this one from James E. Bostic Jr., a former Butz assistant: "Just stop for a minute and think about what it means to live in a land where 95 per cent of the people can be freed from the drudgery of preparing their own food."

Think about that the next time a Rutgers tomato falls off the table and stubs your bare toe.