Reading Wendell Berry in a Wendy's

I was reading Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America while eating my 4 for $4 meal in a Wendy’s. I had never experienced cognitive dissonance so extreme before that moment and I don’t reckon I ever will again.

That moment felt like waking up. With a maybe-chicken nugget sopping with honey mustard between my teeth, I realized just how disconnected from the earth I was. All of a sudden I understood that my relationship with the ground and its produce was mediated to me through layers and layers of abstractions and processes and people, a relationship that, if mapped on to that between two people, could not sustain anything like intimacy and would be doomed to bitterness and failure. So it was between me and the earth under my feet, this separation represented materially by layers of cloth, rubber, asphalt, and concrete. We had a disordered relationship and while it would be easy to lay the blame at the feet of the culture to which I belong, in the end I was an offending party. Whether all the fast food spots in the country closed their doors or continued to sell their genetically modified wares in perpetuity, I needed to say sorry and mean it.

Read all of "Gardening, Wendy’s, and Wendell Berry" by Nathaniel Marshall at The Blue Scholar.

Earl Butz v. Wendell Berry debate transcript

Thanks to the generosity of Mark Musick, here is a link to a transcript of the debate (audio here) between former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and Wendell Berry. It occured on November 13, 1977 at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana. Originally published in the Spring, 1978 edition of The CoEvolution Quarterly, the text here was re-printed in News that Stayed News: Ten Years of CoEvolution Quarterly, published in 1986. Download Earl Butz v. Wendell Berry - 11-13-77

BUTZ: I asked Dr. Berry this evening how big a farm he had, and he said fifty acres. I said, "Do you farm with horses?" He said, "Yes." But you see, Dr. Berry can do that because he has a substantial income as a poet, as a writer, as a professor at the University of Kentucky. He can afford to pay the electric bill—he doesn't have to have kerosene lights. He can afford to have an automobile—he doesn't have to drive a horse and buggy. He can afford to do those things because he takes outside income. Let's never forget that. That's true of many writers who write about such things as he does.

People say, "Butz, you're not for the family farmer." Of course I am. I'm for the family farm to make a decent living for the farm family. I don't want that family to starve to death slowly. I want that family to be able to enjoy some of the amenities of life-a color TV set, electric lights, indoor toilets. I want them to be able to afford an automobile and a vacation trip once in a while.


BERRY: Well, since Mr. Butz referred to my life, which is something I didn't intend to do, I may as well tell you about it. I know a little bit more about it than Mr. Butz. I am a school teacher and a writer. I've written a lot of books, which haven't exactly sold like hot-cakes. I may have made a year's salary out of it by now—not a large year's salary. I turned away from the main line of a teaching career. I was living in New York City, and I got a chance to come home and teach in the University of Kentucky. And then I went all the way home, to Henry County where my family, seven generations of my family, have lived and now live—not on the farm I live on, but on the next farm.

I just had twelve acres for a while, most of it steep, and I could hardly have called myself a farmer then. But a developer bought the forty acres next to me and was going to cover it up with little cottages, without any plumbing or sewage. He did some rather bad bulldozer work on it and made a hideous mess of it and failed. Then I bought him out, and I've spent the last four years restoring that forty acres. It has been expensive. The land could never have paid for the operation. I paid for it out of my salary. It's productive land now—steep; by modern standards, marginal. It's producing enough cattle now to pay the taxes, and we're taking our subsistence from it. I should say that subsistence taken off that little farm makes our domestic economy extremely sound. I've done the work with horses.

I've done it because I like horses, and because driving horses, I'm independent of the oil companies. I like that. Also, having horses makes economic sense. A good broke team of young mares now brings from two thousand to ten thousand dollars without any trouble at all. So I don't want any of you all to worry about me, because I farm with horses.

I was wondering how my neighbors were thinking about it until one stopped—an old man—and told me how proud he was of me, and until another stopped just the other day, a young man, and asked me if I could find him a team. He said that he thought he'd cultivate his crops with them and do—one—a better job, and—two—a cheaper job than he could with his tractor. He's right on both counts.

On Wendell Berry's 1977 debate with Earl Butz

[Note: The chronology of Berry's life found at the back of each Library of America volume says that this debate took place in November of 1978. But other evidence contradicts that. I'm pretty sure that the LoA chronology is wrong. tm]

In 1977, two of the most influential figures in the history of American agriculture met at Manchester College in North Manchester, Indiana, to debate two widely differing visions of farming, culture, and the future of American farmland. Wendell Berry, the renowned poet, farmer, and writer defined the difference between himself and his rival, Earl Butz—the Secretary of Agriculture (1971 to 1976) widely credited with setting in motion the rapid consolidation of farmland in the United States—in simple terms. “We may never meet,” said Berry, “because he’s arguing from quantities while I’m arguing from values.” Where Berry saw the widespread loss of community, rural values, and care for the land, Butz saw an opportunity for increased profits. 

The 1977 debate between Wendell Berry and Earl Butz, still relatively unknown next to the rest of Wendell Berry’s oeuvre, provides a fascinating look into the ideology of industrial agriculture and the courage of those who oppose it. The work of farmers, writers, and activists like Wendell Berry inspire the work of Agrarian Trust to radically transform the US food system. The agricultural system built by profit-motivated politicians like Earl Butz, and its destructive effects on our health, communities, and livelihoods can no longer be justified. 

Read all of "Butz’s Law of Economics" by Noah Wurtz at Agrarian Trust

Listen to the debate here: Wendell Berry vs. Earl Butz debate 1977

Our Home Place Meat from The Berry Center

NEW CASTLE — For more than a century Henry County relied on tobacco to keep its farmers and its economy going.

For most of the second half of the 20th century a federal program stabilized the price of tobacco, guaranteeing those farmers a steady, predictable income. That all changed in the new century after Congress ended tobacco price supports.

Just as all that change was underway, Mary Berry, the daughter of Henry County’s renowned author, activist, farmer and environmentalist Wendell Berry, founded The Berry Center to carry on his vision of “prosperous well-tended farms serving and supporting healthy local communities.”

Thinking about how to help farmers prosper, they began with the mantra, “start with what you have.” With tobacco gone, what Henry County had was cattle and pasture.

No state east of the Mississippi River produces more cattle than Kentucky.

Read all of "Happy Cows, good food, more profits for farmers" by Jacalyn Carfagno at Kentucky Lantern.

Wendell Berry speaks against bourbon distillery's re-zoning request

I am aware of the belief that when a great and wealthy corporate power, with its expensive agents and lawyers, comes to so humble a place as Henry County, we mere citizens have no choice. Those who say that we have no choice are too young, or their memories are too short. During the last 50 years I have taken part in opposition to at least six large projects, backed by plenty of money and power, and all of them were rejected. The example best suited to the present occasion would be the Louisville International Jetport, proposed in the early 1970s. In that instance as in the others, the opposition had no support from any public institution. In every case, it was the opposition of the local people that made the difference. Like the Angel’s Envy project, the projected airport promised local taxes.

Like Angel’s Envy, the Jefferson County Air Board offered its project as the answer to local needs and greeds. An agent of the Air Board suggested to our farmers that for any land taken they would be paid more than twice its fair market value. But our farmers refused the bait. You could say that, more than any other group, the farmers defeated the airport.

Read all of "Wendell Berry: Good Henry Co. farmland should not be sacrificed to bourbon tourism" at Lexington Herald-Leader. 

A Profile of Wendell and Mary Berry

Wendell Berry has spent a lifetime promoting an agrarian vision in which people and animals live in harmony with the land. As we drive around in his ancient pickup truck near his farm in Point Royal, Kentucky, he describes the way a farmer, plowing with a team of horses, understands when they need to rest.

“There’s sympathy when he looks at his team and he knows he’s asked enough of them,” Berry tells me. “By the same sort of sympathy, a farmer farming on the right scale knows the needs of the land.”

As we drive through Henry County, which includes Port Royal, Berry tells stories about the people who have lived here for generations. The winding country road rises and falls past small plots broken up by hollows and steep hillsides. Crumbling rock walls, more than a century old, line many of the fields. Nowadays, many of the people who live here are retirees or commute to jobs elsewhere.

Read all of "A Way of Life Being Lost" by Ruth Conniff in The Progressive.

Reflections on Wendell Berry's The Art of Loading Brush

Despite at times feeling as though my entire life is a casualty of modernity’s ills while reading Berry, “The Art of Loading Brush” is a fantastic book. With an authority and complexity that only comes from experience, Berry’s writing on farming, local communities and human connection to the land is beautifully instructive. The book is a collection of essays, short stories and poems that explore much of what Berry has spent his entire life writing about — considerations of ethics and aesthetics, individual and cultural, in the context of politics, economics and community living.  

Read "My Introduction to Agrarianism" by Sharon Spaulding at The Daily Campus.

And follow it with "An agrarian vocabulary" also by Sharon Spaulding.

Wendell Berry Farming Program at Sterling College seeks applicants for 2021

Undergraduate students looking for more ag education can receive it at little to no cost.

Sterling College, located in Craftsbury, Vt., has established a field site in Henry County, Ky. for the Wendell Berry Farming Program.

Aside from some student fees, there is no tuition cost for the program.

Providing ag students with an education so they don’t have to worry about paying off debt helps them invest in their businesses rather than student loan payments, said Dr. Leah Bayens, dean of the Wendell Berry Farming Program.

“We see how difficult it is, especially for new and beginning farmers, to be able to make a livelihood out of farming,” she told “Minimizing student debt would set people up for success and would really allow them to focus more energy on good land stewardship as opposed to paying down thousands of dollars of student loan debt.”

Read all of "Sterling College offering tuition-free ag program" by Diego Flammini at