Center for Food Safety (CFS) is proud to honor American poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry with the first annual American Food & Farming Award.
Together with our distinguished host committee, comprised of 36 Members of Congress, CFS is celebrating the lifelong achievements of Mr. Berry, September 10, 2015, at a special event on Capitol Hill. The evening will include remarks and contributions from Rep. Chellie Pingree (ME); former Rep. Dennis Kucinich (OH); and Rep. John Yarmuth (KY).
“We are honored to present this award to Wendell Berry. Mr. Berry has for decades been the conscience of American farming, exposing the destruction and devastation of industrial agribusiness, while being this country’s most important advocate for returning ‘culture’ to our agriculture,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety.
Remarks Presented by Mary Berry The Louisville Harmony and Health Initiative Convening of Global Leaders In Honor of His Royal Highness Prince Charles of Wales Louisville, Ky. March 20, 2015
The Berry Center is putting my father’s writing to work by advocating for farmers, land- conserving communities and healthy economies. Food is a cultural product and we must work on a culture that supports good farming, one that allows farmers to afford to farm well. We must institutionalize agrarianism. That involves some practical, slow, tedious work. It also involves the most necessary life affirming work I can think of except for the work of good farming itself.
The Berry Center is working to create an economic sector in which small and medium size farms can compete, make a decent living, and build thriving rural communities. We have many projects and partners including The Berry Farming Program at St. Catharine College where we address the desperate need for more farmers. Two of our projects seem to me to fit the purposes of this meeting very well.
To be sure, Berry’s “rugged individualism” is simply a more poetic term for our common complaint of “entitlement” — an accusation usually aimed at the young, which upon closer inspection reveals itself as a major undercurrent of capitalist society itself. Contemplating how we got there, Berry points to the aberrant evolution of property rights — something that originated as protection of the private individual and mutated into destruction of the public good:
Rugged individualism of this kind has cost us dearly in lost topsoil, in destroyed forests, in the increasing toxicity of the world, and in annihilated species.
When property rights become absolute they are invariably destructive, for then they are used to justify not only the abuse of things of permanent value for the temporary benefit of legal owners, but also the appropriation and abuse of things to which the would-be owners have no rights at all, but which can belong only to the public or to the entire community of living creatures: the atmosphere, the water cycle, wilderness, ecosystems, the possibility of life.
I found a possible answer to this question while reading the words of farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of American Culture and Agriculture. To examine how people act in the world Berry puts forward the ideal types of “ the exploiter” and “ the nurturer.” An exploiter prioritizes accumulating wealth and acting efficiently, and has a tendency towards specialization. The nurturer thinks in terms of the overall health and longevity of the system and is prone to holistic thought. Berry explains:
“The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health – his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s.”
The main thrust of Berry’s argument is that American society has swung towards the exploiter side of the spectrum and that environmental degradation, poor health, and over specialization has resulted.
What is relevant here in regards to spirituality is the idea that every person has characteristics of the exploiter and the nurturer inside of them.
There’s always something new headed your way, especially if you live beside a river. I visited Wendell Berry recently and we had the most marvelous time just sitting on his porch watching the Kentucky River flow by. The whole state had been experiencing serious flooding at that time and the river was way out of banks, licking up against his garden. Not as high as the “Thirty Seven Flood,” as it is referred to in Kentucky, which covered what would become his garden. (Everyone along the river knows exactly how high that famous flood rose, either in memory and with in-land markers.) We were discussing the awful erosion this part of Kentucky has suffered because of last few years’ corn and soybean craze that suckered landowners to once again cultivate land that their ancestors had learned the hard way should be kept in pasture. We had seen lots of gullies newly gouged out the rolling landscape on our way to Wendell’s farm. I was wondering how much mud would be deposited in the Gulf of Mexico just from this flood. Then Wendell said, in that tone of voice he assumes when he is about to say something droll: “But I haven’t seen any basketballs float by for an hour or so.”
The landscapes of our country are now virtually deserted. In the vast, relatively flat acreage of the Midwest now given over exclusively to the production of corn and soybeans, the number of farmers is lower than it has ever been. I don’t know what the average number of acres per farmer now is, but I do know that you often can drive for hours through those corn-and-bean deserts without seeing a human being beyond the road ditches, or any green plant other than corn and soybeans. Any people you may see at work, if you see any at work anywhere, almost certainly will be inside the temperature-controlled cabs of large tractors, the connection between the human organism and the soil organism perfectly interrupted by the machine. Thus we have transposed our culture, our cultural goal, of sedentary, indoor work to the fields. Some of the “field work,” unsurprisingly, is now done by airplanes.
This contact, such as it is, between land and people is now brief and infrequent, occurring mainly at the times of planting and harvest. The speed and scale of this work have increased until it is impossible to give close attention to anything beyond the performance of the equipment. The condition of the crop of course is of concern and is observed, but not the condition of the land. And so the technological focus of industrial agriculture by which species diversity has been reduced to one or two crops is reducing human participation ever nearer to zero. Under the preponderant rule of “labor-saving,” the worker’s attention to the work place has been effectively nullified even when the worker is present. The “farming” of corn-and-bean farmers—and of others as fully industrialized—has been brought down from the complex arts of tending or husbanding the land to the application of purchased inputs according to the instructions conveyed by labels and operators’ manuals.
To make as much sense as I can of our predicament, I turn to Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, and his perception that for any parcel of land in human use there is an “eyes-to-acres ratio” that is right and is necessary to save it from destruction. By “eyes” Wes means a competent watchfulness, aware of the nature and the history of the place, constantly present, always alert for signs of harm and signs of health. The necessary ratio of eyes to acres is not constant from one place to another, nor is it scientifically predictable or computable for any place, because from place to place there are too many natural and human variables. The need for the right eyes-to-acres ratio appears nonetheless to have the force of law.
Your presence among us honors us. We have taken courage from your courage in opposing those who destroy for short-term profit the substance, health, and beauty of this world, which we did not make and cannot conserve except in obedience to its natural laws and to the divine imperative of human stewardship.
You will not be surprised to learn that in Kentucky, as in much of the world, the ways of conserving the land, the water, and the air are repeatedly blocked by the combination of corporate wealth, political connivance, academic complacency, and a deficit of hope where hope is most needed.
Here as elsewhere, the damages done by surface mining are severe, permanent, and largely unrestrained; the loss of land to "development" is, arithmetically, unsustainable; our use of our forests is for the most part ecologically unsound; our farmlands are eroding under an increasing burden of annual grain crops; those lands are priced beyond the reach of aspiring small farmers; and our streams are everywhere degraded by chemical and other pollutants.
But I believe you will be unsurprised also to learn that in Kentucky, as in places similarly exploited and threatened all over the world, there is a growing number of people and groups of people competently aware of, and determinedly opposed to, the diminishment of the natural health and beauty of our state and our world. We are proud to welcome you into the company of friends and allies who, like you, are unrestingly committed to the work of ecological sense and sanity.
That odour can smell as romance for a time. We invite apprentices into the life of our farm each year as a part of our Prairie Apprenticeship Program and to some folks the smell and squish of pig poop can prompt a sort of “I’m a Farmer” kind of moment. It’s as if the smell were incense wafting in from a Wendell Berry novel carrying with it a sense of venerable work, unsullied nativeness, and untarnished community life. But soon enough anyone enlisted to scoop hog stool will come to smell it for what it is and after they’re done and washed in the evening their hands will still smell of feces.