Mary Berry on making small- and middle-scale farming viable again

Many believed that increasing sales of organic foods, once considered the backbone for building local food systems, would be a boon for farmers. And for some it has been. But the global organic industry—mimicking practices of industrial agriculture—simply bypasses most domestic farmers. Consider that the value of U.S. organic exports was $548 million in 2016, while our organic imports were at $1.65 billion. While some of the imports include high-value items that can't be grown in the U.S.—bananas, coffee, etc.—we also import many organic foods that we grow conventionally in this country. For example, we import organic corn and soy even though these are the two largest industrial crops grown in the U.S.

So how do we begin to build local, healthy farm and food models that are economically viable in the shadow of an entrenched giant, globalized ag industry? In today's political climate, this is going to have to be grassroots work. That work starts with new infrastructure systems that allow farmers to afford to keep farming.

Read all of "Renewing a Vision for Rural Prosperity" by Mary Berry and Debbie Baker at Civil Eats.


Wendell Berry calls for dairy solutions, production quotas, Walmart boycott

“The Farmer’s Pride” for March 15 features a heartbreaking story by Carilynn Coombs about the “termination” by Dean Foods of its “milk procurement contract” with her family —  along with more than a hundred other dairy farmers in Kentucky.

In that issue several articles deal with this subject, all pointing to calamity for families whose lives as farmers and whose farms are at stake. For its mistreatment of its until-now faithful suppliers, Dean Foods passes the responsibility to Walmart, which has built its own milk-bottling plant and, as usual, is competing against everybody.

The problem is a surplus of milk. Sharon Burton’s editorial, also in “The Farmer’s Pride” of March 15, and on the same subject, contains a penetrating insight: “I’m not talking about dairy farmers…I’m talking about rural America.” She is right. The story of Dean Foods’ cancelled contracts is a representative piece of the story of rural America since the 1950s, when Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture told farmers to “get big or get out.”

Read all of "Dairy Farmers Need Solutions" by Wendell Berry at Edible Louisville.


Wendell Berry in new Earth Day Journal from The Berry Center

from “For the Neighbors”

In the United States, which once were colonies, we made what we now call “rural America” a colony of the cities and the corporations. If the cities and corporations have wanted coal or copper or cotton or corn, the rule has been that they should go into the country and take its products for the lowest possible price but at an unbooked and immeasureable cost to the land and the people. 

And so we have had several centuries of plunder and waste and pollution, “backed” by concentrated wealth and power on a continental or global scale, but always enacted in the rural landscapes, country communities, and small towns, which have always been readily dismissable as “country” or “corny” or “the boondocks” or “the middle
of nowhere.” 

If all this adds up to global emergencies such as climate change, it also produces in universities, bureaus, think tanks, and the like, a hearty appetite for global solutions involving dramatic technologies, heroic breakthroughs, and epic sums of money. The necessary repairs, even so, will have to be made in the rural landscapes, country communities, and small towns where the trouble started. 

The great questions now overhanding these small rural places where the global problem will be solved are these: what will be the solutions? And How and on what scale and by whom and for whose ultimate benefit will they be installed? 

Read the whole article by Wendell Berry (and more from The Berry Center) at Earth Day Journal, Volume 1 (pdf).


Wendell Berry on dairy overproduction and the destruction of small farmers

For its mistreatment of its until-now faithful suppliers, Dean Foods passes the responsibility to Walmart, which has built its own milk-bottling plant and, as usual, is competing against everybody.

The problem is a surplus of milk. Sharon Burton’s editorial, also in “The Farmer’s Pride” of March 15, and on the same subject, contains a penetrating insight: “I’m not talking about dairy farmers…I’m talking about rural America.” She is right. The story of Dean Foods’ cancelled contracts is a representative piece of the story of rural America since the 1950s, when Eisenhower’s Secretary of Agriculture told farmers to “get big or get out.”

From then until now the ruling assumption among the experts has been that there are “too many farmers.” The instrument for getting rid of the dispensable farmers has been uncontrolled production. Farm surpluses depress prices, and low prices benefit the agribusiness corporations by ruining farmers.

And so the story of rural America has been the story of the dispossession of millions of farm families, the disintegration of rural communities, and the destruction of small businesses and small towns. Carilynn Coombs’s family is one of the two in Henry County whose contracts have been broken. And those are two of the remaining small handful of families in Henry County who still live by farming.

So it has been, and so it is, everywhere in rural America.

Read the whole article by Wendell Berry at Henry County Local.


An audio interview with Wendell Berry

Back to the Roots is a podcast that aims "to connect people with organic farmers across the country, from Amish country in Ohio and Indiana to farmers on the West Coast." They have just posted a substantial and wide-ranging interview/conversation with Wendell Berry.

See the list of podcasts HERE.

Go directly to the Wendell Berry interview (mp3) HERE.


On Wendell Berry's idealism and reality

It would be years before I learned to appreciate rural places in their complexity, to see their beauty without sacrificing their reality.

Because, like most rural communities, my small town is and was a complicated place. The rural communities I serve now are just as complex.

There might be rolling fields of produce, but they employ fewer and fewer people. People are friendly, but often only after a long initiation (my parents bought our house in 1989, but my father is still not considered a local). And in an age where fear is the dominant political language, suspicion of the stranger can twist strong community ties into an impenetrable knot.

Berry, of course, recognizes that the communities he writes about aren’t simple. In several of his essays in “What Matters: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth,” he insists on understanding the complexity of an economy and rebukes the fantasy of simple solutions.

In his work, I catch glimpses of the places in which I’ve served and lived. Berry knows about and portrays this other version of rural. But he doesn’t linger in the grittiness of it before moving back to the ideal.

Read all of "Why I hate Wendell Berry" by Allen T. Stanton at Faith & Leadership.


Q&A with Wendell Berry

Your wife says your principal asset as a writer has been your "knack for repeating yourself." Why keep repeating yourself?

Because things aren't improving out here in this newly discovered rural America. Actually, it was discovered a long time ago by the Republicans and the corporations — the Democrats had forgotten it for quite a long time, and they've just rediscovered it. Forty years ago, I wrote a book called The Unsettling of America. The tragedy of that book is that it's still pertinent. If it had gone out of print because of irrelevance, it would have been a much happier book. In 1977, I thought that the farming population was at a disastrous low. Now it's somewhere below 1%.

Your main concern with economists is that they think commodities can always come from somewhere else.

This has been a dominant idea throughout our history: if you don't have it here, you can get it from somewhere else. If you use up this commodity here, you can't produce it here anymore, you've worn out the possibility here, get it from somewhere else. Or if you're short of labor or you're too good for certain kinds of labor, go to Africa and get some slaves. That recourse has haunted us, has plagued us to death.

Read the complete interrogation by Sarah Begley at Time.


An interview with Mary Berry concerning Wendell Berry and the Given Life

This new book brings your dad’s work to a Catholic audience. What is your opinion of it?

It’s a really good introduction to daddy’s work for people who haven’t read him. I always think when I read what people have written about daddy, it’s very good. But I hope it leads people to read daddy’s work itself.

The book’s chapters cover twelve themes from your dad’s writings: givenness, humility, love, economics, work, Sabbath, stability, membership, the body and the earth, language, peaceableness and prophesy. Could you boil all of these themes down to one sentence?

The importance of daddy’s work, for me anyway, has been to learn to live within the limits I have—to accept the place I have, the work I do, and to be content within it, and not to be always thinking of another place or thing or some distraction, but to always live the life I’ve got. To put it into a sentence: For human beings trying to live sanely and consciously, part of that is learning to accept today, to accept what it offers and be content with the good work it offers.

The book concludes with an afterword featuring an interview of your dad. What did you take away from his words?

The thing I’m most attracted to in what daddy says is that we’re all complicit—I think Thomas Merton says somewhere we’re all part of the giant sham. I think the thing that’s worrisome to me in my travels and talks, as a left-leaning person, is that people think buying some tomatoes at a farmer’s market is enough. But it doesn’t really mean that much: We’ve got some very basic work to do on how we’re living. To understand how we’re all part of this mess involves making a change in how we live.

Read the complete interview by Sean Salai, S.J. at America Media.


Wendell Berry helps to open Sterling College Berry Center Farming Program

In "A Poem on Hope," Wendell Berry writes, "Because we have not made our lives to fit our places, the forests are ruined, the fields eroded, the streams polluted, the mountains overturned."

Words like those from the 83-year-old farmer, poet and essayist — whom environmental activist Bill McKibben calls "the prophet of responsibility" — have inspired many acolytes to turn to rural farming as the antidote to cultural and ecological destruction. Among them is Craftsbury native Tim Patterson, who recalled how, after many years abroad, he read Berry while in Thailand. In 2010, Patterson decided to return to his hometown and buy land.

Today, he's the director of admissions at Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, where he joined the crowd welcoming Berry for a brief appearance on Saturday. The self-styled "Mad Farmer" (the title of one of his poetry collections) had come to help announce a new partnership between the Berry Center, located in New Castle, Ky., and the Vermont college.

The Berry Farming Program at Sterling College represents a new iteration of the Berry Center's educational initiative. Through its collaboration with Sterling, the center will offer — in Kentucky — accredited undergraduate and continuing education courses in place-based ecology and farming, beginning in the fall of 2018. Specific curricula have yet to be released.

Read the whole article by Rachel Elizabeth Jones at Seven Days.


The Berry Farming Program finds a new home

August 18, 2017 • Craftsbury Common, VT and New Castle, KY • At an event marking the start of a yearlong celebration of the 60th year since the founding of Sterling, the College announced a partnership with The Berry Center through which it plans to begin offering undergraduate and continuing education programs in Kentucky in rural, placed-based ecology and farming starting in the fall of 2018.

For generations, Sterling College faculty and students have been inspired by the work of Wendell Berry. Published in 1977, Berry’s book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, launched a national conversation about the state of agriculture in our society. Berry is a novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer. President Obama awarded Berry with the National Humanities Medal in 2010, and he was inducted as a fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2013. The Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, was founded in 2011 to put Wendell Berry’s writing to work by advocating for farmers, land-conserving communities, and healthy regional economies.

This educational partnership recognizes the relationship between the environmental stewardship mission and curriculum of Sterling College and that of The Berry Center. The College’s curriculum and focus on the the working rural landscape inspired the organizations to work together. “We recognize the critical role that higher education should play, but has utterly failed to play, in preparing students to develop sound and just rural economies. Sterling stood out immediately, as a college with values and a curriculum we wanted to help promote,” said Mary Berry, Executive Director of the Berry Center.

See more at Sterling College.