Tilth's celebration and conference will take place November 7-9, 2014.
Raj Patel joins us Saturday morning as the T-40 Keynote Speaker and Mary Berry, Executive Director of The Berry Center, who joins us Sunday afternoon as the T-40 Capnote Speaker. Daughter of Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry who spoke at the first Tilth conference in 1974, Mary continues her family’s mission to bring focus to the plight of our environment and health at the hands of industrial agriculture, while honoring the work of organic and sustainable farmers in an ever-changing rural landscape.
T-40 will be no different than other conferences in that there will be ample opportunity to network after the hard work of learning is complete. The conference will kick off Friday November 7, 2014 with two day-long symposia to choose from plus an all-day information fair. Mealtimes are always perfect for visiting with friends old and new while enjoying delicious organic food. Social events planned for this year include a Friday evening Reception featuring local beer and local bites to enjoy while visiting the Poster Session; the informative and fun weekend Trade Show; and the popular annual Wine Tasting and Auction followed by the never-to-be-missed Saturday Night Dance.
My friend Mark Musick has reminded me that today is a very special anniversay: "His speech was the genesis of "The Unsettling of America" and the catalyst for the Tilth movement in the Pacific Northwest."
On July 1, 1974 Wendell Berry spoke at the “Agriculture for a Small Planet” symposium in Spokane, which was one of a series of environmental conferences hosted as part of Expo 74. Wendell’s speech that day, and his subsequent letter to members of the symposium staff, inspired the Tilth movement in the Pacific Northwest.
Wendell had been invited to represent the “Labor Intensive Micro-Systems Viewpoint” on the panel and he was introduced by the moderator, Bob Stilger. Below is a transcript of Wendell’s speech, followed by questions and answers. It’s significant to note that Wendell’s talk, written in longhand on yellow legal pad, was the nucleus for his book,The Unsettling of America, published in 1977.
The Culture of Agriculture
When Bob asked me to come out here I said I wouldn’t have time to write a speech, but I largely underestimated the travel time between Kentucky and Spokane. The speech is not filled out. It sort of gives the structure of my thinking about the problems that I’ve observed in agriculture.
I was asked to talk about “Labor Intensive Micro-Systems Agriculture.” That’s not my language, and it’s not the sort of language I wish to use because it’s the way people speak when they don’t want to be understood by most people. I’m not sure what to make of these particular phrases, but they seem to suggest a very methodological or technological approach to agriculture. Part of my purpose here is to suggest that any such approach will necessarily be too simple.
Berry might have used his NEH lecture to point out the complex set of factors for the poor price his grandfather got for his tobacco crop in 1907. He might even have mentioned the words “progressivism” and “cronyism,” asking his listeners to consider what role cigar makers played in lobbying Progressive era politicians to protect the cigar market from the upstart and more economical machine-rolled cigarette? But pointing up the negative roles of Progressivism, cronyism and the leviathan state in an NEH lecture funded by the leviathan federal government isn’t something you see very often.
At the time Berry’s grandfather came home empty-handed, he and other Kentucky tobacco farmers might have taken the poor price for their tobacco crop as a signal that there was an oversupply of tobacco in the U.S. market, that the tobacco boom was on hold, and that it was time to focus more of their farming efforts elsewhere.
They might also have reasonably concluded that the dip in demand had been caused by government efforts to ban cigarette sales. Perhaps some did, but the Berry family was among those who responded by blaming the Tobacco Trust and joining efforts to demand “fair” prices for their tobacco.
Grant Wood’s 1930 painting of a pitchfork-wielding farm couple heralds our return to Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. How to interpret this portrait? How to interpret American Gothic, which to my mind means the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Through the lens ofThe Unsettling of America, an interpretation becomes clear; these farmers have disappeared, have sold their land to an agribusiness, and have longed ago moved to the city. If there is a land ethic in their faces, that has been replaced with specialists.
When describing the industrialized agriculture, Wendell Berry said modern farmers “can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.” He’s referring to how industrial agriculture breaks up the cycles in traditional farming and in nature into throughputs that require inputs and create waste, instead of feeding off of their own byproducts. Attempts to undo this trend and recreate cycles come in many forms, but few are as creative and progressive as The Plant, a former Chicago meatpacking facility whose eco-friendly transformation was spearheaded by Bubbly Dynamics, LLC. The separate businesses housed within The Plant produce and process food and work together to eliminate waste while feeding off of one another’s byproducts. The goal: produce food with zero net impact.
The 61-year-old physicist, ecologist and author from Delhi, India then served up a penetrating deconstruction of the mechanistic mindset and the industrial food system it has spawned. This is the same mindset Walmart and Target now intend to apply to organic food.
“For a short time,” Shiva said, “the mechanistic mind has projected onto the world the false idea that food production is and must be of necessity an industrial activity. That’s a world view that is in profound error.”
“When food becomes a commodity it loses its quality, its taste, and its capacity to provide true nutrition,” she said. Industrial agriculture turns the earth into units of production, farmers into high-tech sharecroppers, and is the single biggest contributor to our declining environment. She said industrial agriculture distorts the proper relationship between humans and the natural world.
Although he has never been a full-time farmer, Berry credits his rural upbringing as essential to his illustrious career. He smiles wistfully as he describes hanging around tobacco barns as a kid, listening to “wonderful talk by people who really know how to talk.” In addition to writing and editing, he taught English at the University of Kentucky for nearly twenty years. In 1964, Berry and his wife, Tanya, moved their family to Port Royal, Kentucky and purchased 125 acres they call Lane’s Landing where they raise grains, vegetables, and livestock. This simple but radical commitment to place has come to not only define his writing, but also serves as an embodied expression of his philosophy, activism, and land ethic. Berry believes that our social and physical hyper-mobility is antithetical to cultivating sustainable communities. As Berry says, “We’re using the word “wild” wrong. There are no wild animals. They’re not wild; they’redomestic—going about their business, making their homes. They think we’re wild. We’re not doing a good job of making our homes, raising our children. We’re just being wild!”
Earlier this month, luminaries of the food movement — who also happen to be longtime friends — took the stage at Cooper Union’s historic Great Hall. Attendees flocked from across the nation to watch farmer-poet Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, president of The Land Institute, join New York Times columnist Mark Bittman for a friendly conversation about the current state of food and farming, how we got here and what lies before us.
A frisson of excitement filled the air of the amphitheater (the event had sold out in only hours after being posted) on this otherwise gloomy Friday night as Berry, Jackson and Bittman rubbed elbows with urban gardeners, academics, literati, society folks, activists and students in anticipation of the discourse.
Last Friday three men at the heart of my passion for the intellectual investigation of food systems spoke at Cooper Union about Nature as Measure. In the forward to the eponymously titled book, Wendell Berry quotes longtime friend and the book's author Wes Jackson saying, "Do not try to improve on this patch of native prairie for it will serve as your standard by which to judge your agricultural practices. There is no higher standard..." In other words, no human intervention can create a more perfect natural world because nature is perfection. Just as one man quoted from the other in print, so too did the two men share glimpses of their intimate relationship on stage by completing their responses to Mark Bittman's prompts with quotes from each other's long histories of writings.