For six decades, writer Wendell Berry has spoken out in defense of local agriculture, rural communities, and the importance of caring for the land. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about his Kentucky farm, his activism, and why he remains hopeful for the future.
Wendell Berry wrote about and practiced “sustainable agriculture” long before the term was widely used. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, in which he argued against industrial agriculture and for small-scale, local-based farming, had a strong influence on the environmental and local food movements in the U.S.
Berry has long balanced the diverse roles of writer, activist, teacher, and farmer. At age 79, he still lives on the farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, where he grew up, and uses traditional methods to work the land there. And he still speaks eloquently about the importance of local communities and of caring for the land, while warning of the destructive potential of industrialization and technology.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn, Berry talked about his Kentucky farm and why he has remained there, why he would risk arrest to protest mountaintop removal mining, why the sustainable agriculture movement faces an uphill battle, and why strong rural communities are important. “A deep familiarity between a local community and a local landscape is a dear thing, just in human terms,” Berry said. “It’s also, down the line, money in the bank, because it helps you to preserve the working capital of the place.”
Yale Environment 360: You’ve been writing about and practicing what is now known as sustainable agriculture since before that term was widely used. In recent years, there’s been a movement among some people toward sustainable agriculture. Do you feel sustainable agriculture is gaining ground in a significant way that could slow the growth of industrial agriculture, or is it more of a boutique type of thing?
Wendell Berry: Well, we are a young country. By the time settlement reached Kentucky it was 1775, and the industrial revolution was already underway. So we’ve been 238 years in Kentucky, we Old World people. And what we have done there in that time has not been sustainable. In fact, it has been the opposite. There’s less now of everything in the way of natural gifts, less of everything than what was there when we came. Sometimes we have radically reduced the original gift. And so for Americans to talk about sustainability is a bit of a joke, because we haven’t sustained anything very long — and a lot of things we haven’t sustained at all.
The acreage that is now under the influence of the local food effort or the sustainable agriculture effort is at present tiny, and industrial agriculture is blasting ahead at a great rate. For instance, in the last two years, the high price of corn and soybeans has driven that kind of agriculture into the highly vulnerable uplands of my home country. I can show you farms that in my lifetime have been mostly in grass that are now suddenly covered, line fence to line fence, with monocultures of corn or beans….
So we have these two things, a promising start on what we call, loosely, sustainable land use, and we have a still far larger industrial extractive agriculture operating, really, against the land.
e360: On your place where you live now and farm, what are some of the practices that you employ and use to take good care of the land and make it sustainable?
Berry: The farm that my wife and I have is in every way marginal. Every foot of it is either steep, which is most of it, or it floods [Laughs]. So it’s land that you can learn a lot from in a hurry because it is so demanding of care. The way to deal with that land is to keep it covered with permanent pasture or woodland. We have some slopes in pasture that ought to have remained woodland, but we’ve kept most of it going the way it came to us.
e360: And do you do forest logging there as well?
Berry: Most of our woodland we don’t use, but some we use for firewood, an occasional saw log, fence posts, that sort of thing. The emerald ash borer [a destructive beetle] is now among us, and we are cutting the large trees that the emerald ash borer has killed. The ash wood is valuable as sawed lumber, and it’s also wonderful firewood… My son does woodworking, and so it’s worthwhile to him to have supplies of sawed boards laid up.
e360: You write a lot about local agriculture and the local economy, about local traditions and the importance of connections to the land. Why do you think this is so important?
Berry: That starts with the obvious perception that land that is in human use requires human care. And this calls for keeping in mind the history of such land, of what has worked well on it and the mistakes that have been made on it. To lose this living memory of what has happened to the place is really to lose an economic asset.
I’m more and more concerned with the economic values of such intangibles as affection, knowledge, and memory. A deep familiarity between a local community and the local landscape is a dear thing, just in human terms. It’s also, down the line, money in the bank because it helps you to preserve the working capital of the place.
e360: You along with Wes Jackson of the Land Institute have proposed a 50-year farm bill. Can you explain what that is and how it would differ from typical U.S. farm bills?
Berry: Unlike the typical U.S. farm bill, the 50-Year Farm Bill attempts to address the real and ongoing problems of agriculture: erosion, toxicity, loss of genetic and species diversity, and the destruction of rural communities, or the destruction, where it still survives, of the culture of husbandry. It begins with the fact that at present, 80 percent of the land is planted annually in annual crops such as corn and beans, and 20 percent in perennials. It proposes a 50-year program for the gradual inversion of that ratio to 80 percent perennial cover and 20 percent annuals. It’s pretty clear that annual plants are nature’s emergency service. They’re the plants that come in after, say, a landslide, after the land has been exposed, and they give it a temporary cover while the perennials are getting started. So our predominantly annual agriculture keeps the land in a state of emergency.
It’s hard to make a permanent agriculture on the basis of an emergency strategy. By now the planted acreages have grown so large that most soybean and corn fields, for instance, are not seeded to cover crops, and so they lie exposed to the weather all winter. You can drive through Iowa in April before the new crops have been planted and started to grow, and you don’t see anything green mile after mile. It’s more deserted than a desert. And the soil erosion rates in Iowa are scandalous.
e360: I know you’ve had people tell you that your writing has inspired them to think about chucking their jobs and their city life and go farm. What do you tell them?
Berry: Well, I try to recommend caution. You don’t want somebody who’s 45 or 50 years old, who doesn’t know anything about farming, to throw up his or her present life and undertake to make a living from farming at a time when farmers, experienced farmers, are failing and going out of business. So characteristically I’ve said, “If you do this, keep your town job. If you’re not independently wealthy, you’ve got to have a dependable income from somewhere off the farm.” And I’ve tried to stress the difference between depending on the weather, on nature, for an income and depending on a salary. There’s a very wide gulf between those two kinds of dependence.
e360: Three years ago you participated in a sit-in at the governor’s office in Kentucky over the issue of mountaintop removal mining. What was that like, and why did you get involved with it in the first place?
Berry: I got involved because I was tired of talking. I saw that we were going to Frankfort [the state capital] every year and trying to talk to senators and representatives in the General Assembly, and to the governor if we could.Their very understandable impulse was to get rid of us as quickly as possible and have us leave feeling good… There are two parties in Kentucky — the party of coal and the party of everything else. Both the Democratic politicians and the Republican politicians, mostly, in most areas of the state, have to pay homage to coal, to even think about running for office.
So it was clear that talking wasn’t going to do any good. I don’t think what we wound up doing did any good either, but we had to raise the stakes somehow. And so we did go to Frankfort, confront the governor, and we had a list of requests that he would have to grant or he would not get rid of us. And he pulled a pretty smart trick on us. He invited us to spend the weekend. For obvious reasons, he didn’t want pictures in the paper of these innocent people being led off in handcuffs, and he said “Just stay, be my guests.” He outsmarted us. But he couldn’t neutralize us — the circumstance that he put us in really gave us a lot of visibility, a lot of contact with the press, and attracted a lot of sympathy.
e360: Do you think any positive developments have occurred since then?
Berry: No. I think we’ve got to keep up our opposition to land abuse and we’ve got to continue to communicate what that’s all about and what it signifies. What it signifies is that some people are willing to go the limit in earth destruction, to put it entirely at risk and destroy it entirely to preserve “our way of life.” A lot of people are willing to tolerate that.
Mountaintop removal is as near total destruction as you can imagine, because it does away with the forest, it does away with the topsoil that sustained the forest, it does away with the very topography — even people’s family graveyards go. And it’s done in complete disregard not only of the land but of the people who live downhill, whose lives are threatened, whose water supplies are destroyed, whose homes are damaged. The people downhill, downstream, and ahead of us in time are totally disregarded.
e360: As someone who’s followed your writing over the years, it seems to me that in some ways you’ve become more radical in your thinking, unlike a lot of people who as they get older tend to become more conservative. Do you think that’s true, and if so, why?
Berry: It’s true. One reason is that as I’ve grown older I’ve understood more clearly the difficulties that we’re in, the bad fix that we’re in and that we’re leaving to our children. And as I’ve grown older I’ve understood that when I put my comfort on the line as a protester or whatever, I’m doing
what old people ought to do. I have less life to live than the young people. I think the old people ought to be the first ones in line to risk arrest.
e360: I’ve heard you describing the difference between optimism and hope, and you said that in terms of the issues you really care about, you would not describe yourself as optimistic but as hopeful. Can you explain that?
Berry: The issue of hope is complex and the sources of hope are complex. The things hoped for tend to be specific and to imply an agenda of work, things that can be done. Optimism is a general program that suggests that things are going to come out swell, pretty much whether we help out or not. This is largely unjustified by circumstances and history. One of the things that I think people on my side of these issues are always worried about is the ready availability of cynicism, despair, nihilism — those things that really are luxuries that permit people to give up, relax about the problems. Relax and let them happen. Another thing that can bring that about is so-called objectivity — the idea that this way might be right but on the other hand the opposite way might be right. We find this among academic people pretty frequently — the idea that you don’t take a stand, you just talk about the various possibilities.
But our side requires commitment, it requires effort, it requires a continual effort to define and understand what is possible — not only what is desirable, but what is possible in the immediate circumstances.
e360: You’ve had many opportunities over the years to leave Port Royal — you had teaching jobs at universities — but you made the decision to go back and stay there. Why?
Berry: Well because I love the place. Both my father and my mother came from the Port Royal neighborhood, and I was one of the farm-raised young people who loved both farming and the place. Port Royal is what a lot of people have been schooled to call “nowhere.” I remember a college student who told me, “I’m from a little nowhere place in Illinois.” And I said, ”Wait a minute. I want to ask you something: Who told you that where you come from in Illinois is nowhere? There is no such place as nowhere.” We’ve dumped our garbage in our places, we’ve polluted them and mistreated them in every way, because we thought they were nowhere. It’s extremely important, it seems to me, that those nowhere places should be inhabited by people who will speak for them.
e360: You’ve had four careers, really — writer, farmer, activist, and teacher. How do you see those parts of your life fitting together?
Berry: A question I’m often asked is, “How have you balanced these various pursuits?” And the word “balance” always implies that I have balanced them, and of course I haven’t. It’s been difficult and sometimes a struggle to keep it all going.
e360: Difficult in what way?
Berry: Well, to find time for it all. I’ve known writers — I think it’s true also of other artists — who thought that you had to put your art before everything. But if you have a marriage and a family and a farm, you’re just going to find that you can’t always put your art first, and moreover that you shouldn’t. There are a number of things more important than your art. It’s wrong to favor it over your family, or over your place, or over your animals.