Wendell Berry on the Farm Bill

Gracy Olmstead: The Farm Bill usually promotes short-term economic gains over long-term ecological health (something the 50-year Farm Bill seeks to fix). How do we get Washington politicians to support more sustainable forms of agriculture?

Wendell Berry: The problem here is not so much that of the shortness of the term of planning or of shortsightedness as it is of ecological and agricultural ignorance and a sort of moral blindness. The problems we ought to be dealing with are not problems because they are going to cause us trouble in the future. They are problems because they are obviously and clearly causing trouble right now. We ought to be doing our best to solve them right now.

If politicians and journalists want to know about the problems of agriculture, they are not likely to go out into “rural America” to observe the condition of the fields and the waterways or to talk to the farmers and the ex-farmers, the ex-merchants of the small towns, or to talk to the mayors and county judges of rural counties. Instead, they are very likely to talk to academic and bureaucratic experts, who are tightly bound within the industrial structure of agriculture, agri-science and agribusiness.

Alan Guebert was right when he said in one of his columns that this farm bill will be much like the last one insofar as it will not address the real problems of agriculture. Those problems, as you know, are soil erosion, soil degradation, the pollution of waterways by sediment and toxic chemicals, various ecological damages, the elimination of small farms, the destruction of the cultures of husbandry and the ruin of country towns and communities. And maybe we should add specifically the curse of overproduction, which at present, as often before, is the major and the cruelest problem.

Those problems could be summed up as the triumph of industrialism and industrial values over the lives of living creatures, and over the life of the living world. The preferences and choices of industrialism do not imply a limit of any kind. They rest instead upon the premises of limitless economic growth and limitless consumption, which of course implies limitless waste, and finally exhaustion.

Nothing can take form except within limits. No cure is possible, either in policy or practice, except within understood limits, which is to say within a correct diagnosis. This requires patience. A good solution has to begin with a description of the problem that is full, clear, and reliable.

Read all of "Wendell Berry's Right Kind of Farming," an interview with Gracy Olmstead at The New York Times.


A review of "The Essential Wendell Berry"

Agrarianism is the theme he returns to with great regularity and is also the subject of his best-known book, the 1977 classic The Unsettling of America, a compressed version of which is included in this collection. A good part of Berry’s career has involved excoriating mechanized, chemicalized mega-farming as a brutal, life-threatening assault that kills the soil and sends it down the river, guts farming communities, renders moot our relationship to animals and sky and other people, and widens a dualism between us and the earth that is ruining our health, our minds, our ability to live satisfying lives, and the American (and global) culture.

These works are mostly about small-town America, and mostly set on Berry’s farm at Lane’s Landing, once a riverboat stop on the Kentucky River near Port Royal, Kentucky. But not one word stoops to smug nostalgia. He is instead trying to prove that science and economics happen in a place: he draws endlessly and non-repetitively on the deep well of the lived truth of farm life, which delivers up sweet, clear lines of poetry and local lore and a kind of immediate authenticity.

That authority is the reason we read Wendell Berry. When he tells us precisely what ails us as a nation, that a “Faustian economics” of “corporate fundamentalism” fuels a “world-ending fire” of limitless consumerism that is our ruin, we believe him. We want to scream it from the rooftops. But he goes a step further. He doesn’t leave the question begged, but answers it:

Small solutions, unrelentingly practical, that will be made by individuals in relation to small parcels of land.

Read all of "How to Fight the Fire" by Dean Kuipers at Los Angeles Review of Books.


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 in conversation about local economies

Listen to a conversation between two giants of the local economy movement in this extended episode. Helena Norberg-Hodge founded Local Futures, produced the film The Economics of Happiness, and wrote the book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. Wendell Berry is a poet and activist, an author of over 40 books, and a lifelong advocate for ecological health, the beauty of rural life, and small-scale farming. Their far-reaching discussion touches on human nature, technology, experiential knowledge, agriculture policy, happiness, wildness, and local food systems.

Listen to "Beautiful Places: A Conversation with Wendell Berry" at Local Futures.


Concerning new Wendell Berry collection, "The World-Ending Fire"

It would be as reductive to call Wendell Berry a conservationist as it would be to call him an essayist. In the 31 pieces collected in The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry, the National Humanities Medal-winning poet, novelist, essayist, conservationist and farmer expounds on topics that range from farming, technology, economics, man’s proper relationship to nature, government, and social movements, to industrial disasters, marriage, the human acquisition of knowledge, drowning, labor, animal husbandry, eating, education, the Bible, Huckleberry Finn, and pleasure. Written between 1968 and 2011, all of the essays are ultimately about the same thing: how to live a rightly-ordered life.

Berry is not the type of chipper environmentalist who believes that capitalism can persist unabated as long as we install more solar panels. Nor is he the type of cerebral climate catastrophist who considers all action futile, opting instead to mutter into his wine glass about the anthropocene. In his view, the rightly-ordered life respects nature’s ability to give us sustenance and to destroy us, as it brings both the yearly flowering of bluebells and the deadly currents of the flooded Kentucky River. Topsoil is “Christ-like in its passivity and beneficence.” Nature is, in the words of the poet Edmund Spenser, “the greatest goddesse… the ‘equall mother’ of all,” who “knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.’” She operates as God’s deputy to mete out earthly justice. And she has a warrant out for us.

Read "What Wendell Berry Wants" by Colette Shade at The New Republic.

The World-Ending Fire will be published on May 8, 2018 by Counterpoint.


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.


On Wendell Berry's "The Art of Loading Brush"

In the end, Berry’s mournful story teaches us that it is not utopian, not ridiculous, to insist upon a different economy than a profit-driven capitalism, a different community than one separated by an industrially determined notion of individual freedom from a sustainable and local engagement with the land. It will take time to do, it will be complicated, it will probably not last forever, it will not satisfy everyone, and in the meantime it will have costs. But to take those caveats as proof that a thing cannot be done, that the economic and technological logic of growth is simply and always inevitable, is to blind oneself to a deeper set of possibilities: the possibility of taking collective responsibility for one’s place, emphasizing provision over profit, prioritizing public goods and public safety over corporate balance-sheets, and working out, one bit at a time, in Berry’s words, “a harmonious balance among a diversity of interests.” When it is done right, he concludes, for however long it lasts, “it is a grand masterpiece to behold”

Read "What Wendell Berry’s Brush Teaches Us About Capitalism, Community, and 'Inevitability'" by Russell Arben Fox at Front Porch Republic.


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.


On Wendell Berry, Options, and Fatherhood

And while farming is not really an option for most, I do think that it is in our work that we men, as fathers, can have the greatest impact on how our lives unfold in more human ways into today’s societal environment.   We long for our “vocation” and our “work” to be the same thing, which is actually another common thread in Berry’s work, because, especially for the laymen, those things ought to be united in the common idea of “economy” – the union or meaning, work, place, and home.  Berry’s idea holds a fuller understanding of vocation than either the typical Catholic or secular society does.  “Vocation,” to many Catholics, means the overarching “state” of religious, clergy, or lay that a person is called to. “Vocation” in secular society means your trade, generally, but one merely chosen and trained for.  But to Berry, vocation is that particular state that includes a “thing” you make because we were made to make, and this he presents in contrast to a mere “job”, which is had for the sake of money alone:

“[Vocations] are specific kinds of work to which [people] are summoned by God or by their natural gifts or talents.  The kind of work may be cabinet-making or music-making, cooking or forestry, medicine or mechanics, science or law or philosophy or farming – any kind of work that is whole…  A “job,” by contrast, is understood as any work whatever that one can earn money by doing…” (Wendell Berry, The Art of Loading Brush, 79).

Read the complete essay by Jason Craig at Catholic Exchange.


Wendell Berry's "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age"

I want to say something about the decline, the virtual ruin, of rural life, and about the influence and effect of agricultural surpluses, which I believe are accountable for more destruction of land and people than any other economic “factor.” This is a task that ought to be taken up by an economist, which I am not. But economists, even agricultural economists, farm-raised as many of them have been, do not live in rural communities, as I do, and they appear not to care, as I do, that rural communities like mine all over the country are either dying or dead. And so, only partly qualified as I am, I will undertake this writing in the hope that I am contributing to a conversation that will attract others better qualified. 

I have at hand an article from the Wall Street Journal of February 22, 2016, entitled “The U.S. Economy Is in Good Shape.” The article is by Martin Feldstein, “chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Ronald Reagan . . . a professor at Harvard and a member of the Journal’s board of contributors.” Among economists, Prof. Feldstein appears to be somewhere near the top of the pile. And yet his economic optimism is founded entirely upon current measures of “incomes,” “unemployment,” and “industrial production,” all abstractions narrowly focused. Nowhere in his analysis does he mention the natural world, or the economies of land use by which the wealth of nature is made available to the “American economy.” Mr. Feldstein believes that “the big uncertainties that now hang over our economy are political.” 

Read "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age" at Sierra.