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 Farms.com. “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 Farms.com.


Meeting Wendell Berry

Nearly every weekday, Wendell or his wife, Tanya, will stop by his P.O. box. The retail hours of the post office are just 10:30 am to noon, but Berry, a prolific letter writer, is a frequent patron. (The mail route in Port Royal offers service on Berry’s road but, like most conveniences, he doesn’t use it. “We want to support the local post office,” Berry explains. “We need that post office.”)

Here, in Kentucky, he has seen industry — coal, for example, once one of the state’s biggest employers — fleece the land and the people, sowing resentment. “The idea that rural and urban America describe two economies, one thriving and the other failing, is preposterous,” he tells me. “We’re joined by one economy. And it’s a one-way economy — the sucking and the digging is out here. The delivery is in the city. They’re prospering because they’re plundering their own country.”

The resulting slow bleed of life and self-sufficiency from small towns alarms the author. When Berry was growing up, many people worked at local farms or businesses. Today, nearly everyone is a commuter, working under a boss, and the small farms he remembers have largely vanished. “It’s a very significant change,” Berry says, “from self-employed to employee.”

Recognizing the problem of keeping people living and working in small communities like Port Royal, Berry’s daughter, Mary, founded the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, in 2011. It is a nonprofit with the goal of strengthening the bond between small farmers and the urban communities they serve. Mary says she hoped she could help “give people who want to farm something to come home to.”

Read all of "Wendell Berry is still ahead of us" by Hope Reese at Vox.


French reflection on Wendell Berry's thought

Car Berry n’est pas un simple défenseur des intérêts matériels des agriculteurs, ni ne croit naïvement – comme Jefferson – qu’ils sont des citoyens plus vertueux parce que propriétaires ; il défend la qualité du travail des paysans, parce que c’est leur travail qui les rend susceptibles de devenir plus vertueux pour la société. En effet, ils sont intrinsèquement les intendants (stewards) de la nature, cela très précisément parce que leur rapport à la nature n’est pas contemplatif, voire touristique, mais instrumental. Ils sont à la nature ce que pour Péguy les artisans étaient à la matière : ceux qui expérimentent, dans leur travail et pour leur survie, la résistance, la logique propre de ce qui est en face d’eux, de ce dont ils dépendent pour vivre. Un artisan apprend qu’une simple erreur, un petit coup de travers dans son bout de bois ou sa pierre peut rendre caduque toute son œuvre ; il apprend donc à s’adapter à la matière elle-même. Il en va de même pour le paysan qui ne peut pas faire de la glèbe ce qu’il veut, comme il le veut et quand il le veut. Péguy opposait le travail de l’artisan à celui des fonderies, soulignant (peut-être avec un peu de légèreté, d’ailleurs) que lorsqu’une pièce de métal était mal faite, il suffisait de la fondre à nouveau et de la remettre dans le moule.

Read all of “Wendell Berry: paysan, poète et penseur de l’écologie” by Frédéric Dufoing at L'inactuelle.