Wendell Berry on "The Bad Modern History of Farming"

To make the economies of the land and of land use something like sustainable, we would have to begin with attention to the difference between the industrial economy of inert materials and monetary abstractions and an authentic land economy that must include the kindly husbanding of living creatures. This is the critical issue. 

If farming is no more than an industry to be unendingly transformed by technologies, then farmers can be replaced by engineers, and engineers finally by robots, in the progress toward our evident goal of human uselessness. If, on the contrary, because of the uniqueness and fragility of each one of the world’s myriad of small places, the land economies must involve a creaturely affection and care, then we must look back three or four generations and think again.

From its beginning, industrialism has depended on its own, and on most people’s, willingness to ignore everything that does not serve the cheapest possible production of merchandise and, therefore, the highest possible profit. And so to look back and think again, we must acknowledge real needs that have continued through the years to be unacknowledged: the need to see and respect the inescapable dependence even of our present economy, as of our lives, upon nature and the natural world; and upon the need, just as important, to see and respect our inescapable dependence upon the economies—of farming, ranching, forestry, fishing, and mining—by which the goods of nature are made serviceable to human good.

Read the complete essay at The Progressive.


On the Work of the Berry Family and the Berry Center

Mary’s work is steeped in her family’s past in more ways than one. The Berry Center is housed in what was her grandfather’s law office beginning in 1927, an historic building in downtown New Castle. To inform her own practices and the work of the future, important archival work is happening there. Big John was a fervent documentarian. In his career, he kept records of his efforts in law and in farming, as well as proof of the progress and problems around him. His sons followed suit, both continuing to observe the agrarian world where they were immersed. Combined, the efforts of the three offer a keen insight into rural, agrarian life in Kentucky, though much of their work has been lost and scattered in trash bins and forgotten files. But through the Berry Center, their writings are being assembled and organized for pressing work. 

Using the writings of her family members and her own vast experiences, Mary is going to pilot a program she hopes will restore what was lost in her hometown. 

Applying the principles of the Burley Tobacco Program, Mary Berry hopes to make local cattle agriculture thrive. As it stands, Kentucky has the most beef cattle of any state east of the Mississippi. Still, it’s uncommon for family farms to make a living on cattle alone.

The Local Beef Initiative will begin by taking a group of up to six farmers and placing them in a co-op, similar to the one established by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative. Farmers in the co-op will be required to raise the cows on grass and without antibiotics or hormones, in return for access to parity pricing — achieved by maintaining a relationship with a processor and distributor. 

In this scenario, the Berry Center would play the role that the federal government did in the Burley Tobacco Program, putting mechanisms into place, establishing parity pricing, taking the farmers involved out of competition with each other and preventing them from overproducing. 

“My hope is that once we get the Local Beef Initiative going that young farmers who are involved will say to their friends, ‘You know, I've done this with the Berry Center ... and I've made some money. You should have a look.’ You could convince farmers that way a lot faster than any of us could convince them just going and knocking on their door.” 

Read the complete article by Jodi Cash at The Bitter Southerner.


Wendell Berry on BBC Radio 3

Ian McMillan celebrates the rural in Reformation poetry and in contemporary work, with a new commission by Luke Wright (inspired by Hans Sachs' 1523 poem 'The Wittenberg Nightingale'). He is also joined by the poets Wendell Berry, the Jamaican Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris and art historian Rosemary Shirley.

Poet and theatre maker Luke Wright's new poetry collection 'The Toll' is published by Penned in the Margins, and he is also touring a show based on the book. Luke's first play 'What I Learned from Johnny Bevan' won The Saboteur award for 'Best Spoken Word Show', and his new play 'Frankie Vah' will have its premiere at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival (26-27 May).

Mervyn Morris is the Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing and West Indian Literature at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. His collected poems, 'Peelin Orange', is published by Carcanet.

Rosemary Shirley is a lecturer in art history at the School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University and her work focuses on contemporary rural contexts. Rosemary has curated the exhibition 'Creating the Countryside' which is at Compton Verney Gallery until June 18th.

Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist and farmer who has been awarded The National Humanities Medal and the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. 'The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry' is published by Penguin.

Listen to the program (which vanishes 29 days from now) at BBC Radio 3.


Bees, Wendell Berry and Christian Life

As many of you know, I like quoting Wendell Berry and I think he is very pro-bee.

“The word agriculture,” Wendell Berry writes in The Unsettling of America. “After all, does not mean ‘agriscience,’ much less ‘agribusiness’. It means ‘cultivation of the land.’ And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and cult.   The ideas of tillage and worship are joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both ‘to revolve’ and ‘to dwell’.   To live, to survive on the Earth, to care for the soil, and to worship, are all bound at the root to the idea of a cycle.”

Bees network with flowers and with the hive. This network creates better plants, better harvests.   The better plants wither and die, turning into better soil. The soil then houses better plants. The cycle continues.   The bees network seeks to co-operate with the local good and make it better; if the bees were ever to rob, exploit, cut-off, or steal then the honey would be threatened.

“If we corrupt agriculture we corrupt culture,” Wendell Berry adds. “For in nature and within certain invariable social necessities we are one body, and what afflicts the hand will afflict the brain.”

            A network of bees-when doing what is good- will bring good to the neighbourhood, the land.

A friend of mine once borrowed her teenage sons’ car and it smelled like a sick boy’s locker room.   When the boy came home, she insisted on why he never cleaned it. He insisted he did but there was another reason for the smell.   A quiet fellow, he simply apologized and went to his room.

The next day, she saw her son driving out of his school and she unintentionally followed him home (you do this, at times, as a parent of a teenager).   She watched him make several stops, all to people who were digging in trash cans along the way.   Her son would go in the back of his car and offer bags of recycled bottles (Or “empties” as we call them in Alberta) to these folks. He would talk to them, listen, and in one case, he prayed with them.

When they both got at home, she confronted him and he confessed that he was collecting all of the recycles from his church, school, and work for the purpose of getting to know the homeless population of his neighbourhood. “They’re invisible,” he said. “And I think it’s best for everyone if they weren’t.”

Her son was acting like a bee.

Read the whole article by Eric Kregel at ericjkregel.


Wendell Berry and others on BBC Radio 4

On Start the Week Andrew Marr talks to the American writer, poet and farmer Wendell Berry. In his latest collection of essays, The World-Ending Fire, Berry speaks out against the degradation of the earth andthe violence and greed of unbridled consumerism, while evoking the awe he feels as he walks the land in his native Kentucky.

His challenge to the false call of progress and the American Dream is echoed in the writing of Paul Kingsnorth, whose book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist eschews the grand narrative of a global green movement to focus on what matters - the small plot of land beneath his feet.

Kate Raworth calls herself a renegade economist and, like Berry and Kingsnorth, challenges orthodox thinking, as she points to new ways to understand the global economy which take into consideration human prosperity and ecological sustainability.

Listen to the very good conversation at BBC Radio 4.


Iowa Eliminates Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

On April 19, 2017, the Iowa state legislature voted to completely defund The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Founded in 1987, the Center "helps to identify and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources."

Bryce Oates reports in The Daily Yonder:

“Yep. It’s true. After 30 years we’re dead,” [Mark] Rasmussen [director of the Leopold Center] said. “It looks like we’re closing up shop on July 1st We just learned about the possibility a week ago. It passed the Senate, and just passed the House around midnight this morning (Wednesday).”

All that remains to make the closure final for Iowa Governor Terry Branstad (R) to sign the legislation into law. Rasmussen said he’s sure Branstad will sign the bill this week.

The Leopold Center is funded through the state’s Groundwater Protection Fund, created in 1987 from a fee on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticide sales. The center also maintains an annual appropriation from Iowa State University (ISU) and has a $5 million endowment. The Leopold Center uses the state funds to pay the center’s staff and to support a grants to farmers to document sustainable-agriculture research.

Rasmussen said there is no way to stop the closure. “It’s right there in the text of the bill. ‘Elimination of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.’ I guess I thought we had a little bit more pride than that in Iowa. I thought we cared a little bit more.”

Larry Koehrsen writes of this "shame" in the Boone News-Republican:

Over the past 30 years, the Leopold Center has been a leader in making over 500 competitive grants to further the cause of sustainable agriculture and resource conservation. Information and data resulting from these projects have been widely distributed to researchers, educators, the agricultural community, and the general public.

We owe much to the leadership of Leopold and the continuation of his legacy through the work of the Leopold Center. Iowa is a better place because of what has been accomplished. And yet, there is so much more to do. We continue to lose topsoil to wind and water erosion. Our rivers and lakes are impaired for recreation and water supply uses. Our agricultural model is not sustainable for the long term.

The destructive legislation was pushed through on a partisan basis with no advance notice. There was minimal opportunity for input from the general and agricultural community.

This was a shameful display of political arrogance. Shameful because so little is being done elsewhere by the legislature to cope with water quality and resource conservation. Shameful because this degrades the memory and heritage of one of the Iowa pioneers of land stewardship. Shameful because the image of Iowa conveyed to the nation and the world has been tainted. Shame on us if we let this action go unchallenged.

 It appears that the legislature's action has yet to be signed by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad. See one Iowan's plea HERE.

"The Loss of the Leopold Center is a Loss for All of Us" (Land Stewardship Project, 4/20/17)

"Leopold Center is honored by farmers, academics around the world" (The Des Moines Register, 4/25/17)

"Where's Aldo? Budget Kills the Leopold Center" (The Daily Iowan, 5/8/17)


Wendell Berry cited on Soil

The urge to “get the dirt on someone” fuels tabloids and websites, while focusing on actual soil seems less titillating. But it shouldn’t.

Wendell Berry calls soil “the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. … Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

Our soil absorbs everything we do, everything we are, everything we’ll ever create or buy or throw out or dream up or be.

The awful reality that fact entails is a lot to swallow – and swallow it, we do, since everything we eat depends on soil, too. But there are steps we can take to return our land to better health. And for Erie County residents, the Millfair Compost and Recycling Center, located on Millfair Road at the border of Millcreek and Fairview townships, is a good place to start.

Read the whole article by Katie Chriest at Erie Reader.


Thoughts about Wendell Berry and the UK

There’s a new collection of Wendell Berry’s essays available, edited by Paul Kingsnorth of Dark Mountain fame, which was reviewed by premier league literary hack DJ Taylor in last week’s Guardian Review. Taylor’s review entertained me, because his reaction was quite similar to mine when I first read Berry in the 1990s:

“Hey, this is really conservative…reactionary…utopian…”

“Hang on, this is really humane, clear-eyed and, er, pretty convincing”.

I wrote a letter to the Guardian along these lines, which to my astonishment they published in this week’s edition. I was delighted to get the phrase ‘egalitarian agrarian populism’ into a national newspaper (I’d have preferred ‘left agrarian populism’, but in view of recent harangues here at Small Farm Future I wanted to aim for maximum inclusivity).

Taylor’s review touched on the issue of whether there were any UK versions of Berry – the closest he could think of were the Distributists “a bizarre coalition of traditional conservatives…and left-leaning radicals” who were “the last genuinely reactionary political movement in the UK”, together with the likes of George Ewart Evans and John Stewart Collis, who he concedes aren’t really very close.

Read the whole article by Chris Smaje at Small Farm Future and Resilience.


Review of recent UK Wendell Berry collection

In the end Chesterton’s mock-medievalism – his idea that we should all be much better off with a pig than a radiogram – defies most of the classifications of contemporary politics. In his brief introduction to The World‑Ending Fire, Paul Kingsnorth makes the same point about Wendell Berry’s half-century campaign on behalf of old-style US agrarianism, the sanctity of the dairy farm and the sharecropper’s 40-acre plot. From one angle, Berry (born 1934), with his sonorous, preacher’s style and his horror of colonising concrete, looks like an arch-conservative, and yet money, markets and corporatism are forever looming into his sights. From another, he looks like a classic eco-lefty pitting himself against the big battalions of agri-business, and yet his assaults on individualism, rootlessness and urban snobbery will be enough to leave most leftwingers feeling deeply uncomfortable.

All this is further complicated by the particular locales (or rather, locale, as the author has stayed tethered to his native Kentucky for the last 50 years) through which Berry so observantly passes. He is not, for instance, a great-outdoors merchant in the manner of Edward Hoagland and Annie Proulx; he is more interested in soil quality than fauna. The mistiness that most British writers bring to considerations of that tantalising notion of “the land” is altogether beyond him, and on the evidence of the 30 or so pieces collected here, he never wrote a sentimental line in his life. About the closest equivalent to his tough-minded, small-scale environmentalism on this side of the Atlantic would be the George Ewart Evans of Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay or the John Stewart Collis of The Worm Forgives the Plough, and even that is not very close.

Read the complete review by DJ Taylor at The Guardian.