Wisdom 101: Wendell Berry at Stone Barns

Joy was palpable in the air at the 6th Young Farmers Conference, as Wendell Berry came to Stone Barns Center the first week in December to address the annual gathering of beginning farmers. Called at times the “prophet of rural America” and the “modern-day Thoreau,” Berry—poet, farmer, author and activist—has been writing about farming and our relationship to the land for more than four decades. In the process, he has influenced two generations of Americans to care for the land and take up farming, and many of them were present. To witness the meeting and mutual admiration between 20-something-year-old beginning farmers and 79-year-old esteemed teacher was nothing short of remarkable, and very moving. “Magical” and “life-affirming” were just some of the words farmers used to describe Berry’s presence among them. 

The stone Hay Loft at Stone Barns was packed floorboard to rafter on Thursday night for Berry’s keynote conversation with his daughter, Mary Berry. In his introduction, Stone Barns President Fred Kirschenmann noted that ever since he first met Wendell Berry in the early ‘80s, Berry has been “a personal mentor.” More than anyone else, he said, “Wendell helped me understand what good farming is about.” 

“Your company in this effort has been invaluable,” replied Berry, noting that when he met Kirschenmann, at a time when he said he had few allies, “Fred showed me what’s possible.” For the past 40 years, Berry and Kirschenmann have been working to reform our relationship to land, farming and food. In 2009, together with their colleague Wes Jackson, President of The Land Institute, they proposed a 50-year farm bill to the Obama administration, a proposal that would lead to systemic change in American agriculture. For the assembled farmers, it was remarkable to see these two important leaders of a movement together in the same room.

“A bunch of young farmers have never been placed in the way you are,” said Berry, a 7th-generation farmer from Henry County, Kentucky. “Things are in a bad way,” he said, noting slumping public interest in the long-term care of the earth and an industry that has been “let loose on the land. . . our country invaded by corn and beans.” Farmers, he said, have been “burdened with a pit of land use”—problems such as fracking, oil and gas pipelines, mountaintop removal mining and other forms of destruction. “It’s a terrific responsibility, for you will need to find solutions and set patterns for what comes after.”

Berry’s advice was spare and direct.

Know the land’s limits, what the nature of the place offers you and allows. “Your familiarity with your place is money in the bank,” he said. “It’s wonderful to have nature work for you, and she works for minimum wage.”

Build community. Work with your neighbors. “The neighborly exchange of work in communities is an intangible. . . .Good farmers draw on intangibles.” It’s another form of capital, he said.

Practice thrift. Hunt and gather as a pleasure. “Be satisfied with things you’ve already got. . . .You may live all your lives on the edges of a bad economy.”

Fielding questions from farmers, Berry was asked if it’s possible to form a deep connection to land and place if you weren’t born there; if you didn’t grow up on a farm, such as is the case with many of today’s beginning farmers. Yes, he said, it is possible. But you must “practice patience as a virtue. Accept your own ignorance and mistakes as a curriculum.” It all depends on “character, strength, ability to suffer.” And, he added a bit playfully, yet seriously, “It doesn’t hurt to have a job in town,” as an insurance policy of sorts. Farming is difficult, a theme that Fred Kirschenmann echoed in his closing remarks the next day.    

Mary Berry said that it’s important in farming to enjoy yourself and your family as much as you can, for when you’re under economic stress, you can suffer. “Don’t be zealots: Eat salt, sugar, fry something once in a while”—an admonishment that sparked laughter. “Maybe those not raised on farms can avoid some of the mistakes that we made growing up on farms.” A farmer herself, Mary recently founded The Berry Center to archive and preserve her father’s and family’s writings. It also works to foster sound land use, farm policy, farmer education, urban education about farming and local food infrastructure.

“You won’t become familiar with a place by being frantic all the time,” said Wendell Berry. “Learn by looking at it, watching it. Going somewhere and sitting down is a country pleasure.” Both he and Mary talked about the loss of simple country pleasures in today’s world—pleasures like fishing and swimming in a river, resting on Sunday and stopping to observe animals in the woods, which, as Mary said, are “free to us in the places we’re lucky enough to get to know.”

After having the opportunity to talk to Wendell Berry in conversation with some Stone Barns staff, Zach Wolf, a 31-year-old farmer, said, “That was the best hour of my life.” He told Berry that he got into farming in large part because of Berry’s writings. Craig Haney, the 48-year-old Livestock Director at Stone Barns, was also present and said the same thing. Berry’s influence runs deep in this crowd.

In the introduction to Berry’s 2009 book, Bringing It to the Table, the journalist Michael Pollan wrote: “This indispensable voice is still out there addressing us in our time of need, and remains as bracing as ever.” And so it was at the National Young Farmers Conference.

We remain in a time of need—and we need Wendell Berry’s guiding words and example more than ever.