Digging Deeper: Seven Questions with Mary Berry

Thirty-eight years after its publication, Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America” is as relevant as ever. For all the talk about local food and sustainable farms, the gap between farmers and eaters remains wide, and our culture and the environment continue to be sacrificed for yield and profit.

No one knows this better than Wendell’s daughter, Mary Berry. She is his self-proclaimed biggest fan and, as the executive director of the Berry Center, a well-known advocate for the preservation of rural culture and agriculture in her own right. Founded in 2011, the Berry Center aims to put her father’s writings to work: advocating for the farmers, land conservation and healthy regional economies. Berry spoke to Jane Black about her family’s legacy and her vision to support small sustainable farms. Edited excerpts follow:

Black: Your father, Wendell Berry, is a hero to so many people in the sustainable agriculture movement. But your work at the Berry Center honors not only his work, but your uncle and grandfather’s too.

Berry: My father says that his father did the important work. He and John, his brother, took it up. The work my grandfather did—and he would not have said it this way, but I will—was as the principle author of the Burley Tobacco Program, which was voted in in 1942 and ended about 11 years ago. It brought a stable economy to farmers in the eight-state Burley tobacco region. It protected them from over production, allowed them to plan an economic year, and it fostered a lot of intangibles like the ability for rural life to thrive.

Black: What did the program do?

Berry: It offered price support, not a subsidy. And it didn’t cost the federal government anything. It offered farmers stability—a market they could count on. For example, years ago we bought a 200-acre farm with a five-acre tobacco base, and that’s what we made our farm payment with. We borrowed money against the tobacco crop because we knew what that tobacco would bring. The rest of the farm was highly diversified. It was farming that fit the farm.

Black: So what does a modern version of that kind of program look like?

Berry: That is what we are studying at the Berry Center. To be clear, it has nothing to do with tobacco. Instead, it’s a program that works to protect land-conserving economies. In my dreams, there might be a vegetable base near Louisville. Or a timber base. There are a lot of ways it could work. One thing I do know is that it won’t be a federal program again. For one, we have no friends in high places. But the tobacco program was an anomaly [because it was passed after the national crisis of the Dust Bowl.] It flew in the face of the free market.

What I am working on now, and what seems right in my mind, is working to reconnect cities with landscapes around them. The closest city to us is Louisville, and Louisville knows what it needs—sort of. There have already been two studies done that quantify the city’s need and desire for local food. The Berry Center is doing a supply-side study to match the demand-side studies. After that, we’ll have a pretty good picture of Louisville’s foodshed, what the farmers want, and what they see as barriers. We see opportunities around organic grain for distilleries. We see opportunity for beef cattle, which is still strong around here. We have to find a place to start and expand from there.

Black: Part of that work is building enthusiasm among small, local farmers about local food. It doesn’t have the same appeal to many of them that it does to city shoppers.

Berry: You are so right. The excitement in the cities is not met in the countryside. And that’s because there’s no stability in it. I’ve been part of work to diversify beyond tobacco for 30 years. And in that time, I have seen an honest attempt to try new things by a lot of very good farmers. Many of them lost their shirts. My father says, “You have one chance with a farmer.” We’re hoping that we have two.

Right now, most of the focus is on entrepreneurial efforts. [Farmers who market their own products to consumers or process them into jams, cheese, etc.] That’s where I believe we’ve stopped. We want the farmer to do everything. But that’s what the tobacco program did so brilliantly. It gave them something they could count on, some protection in the free market. As my grandfather said, no one is going to get rich raising tobacco. But they’ll have a good life. And they won’t lose everything if something goes wrong.

Black: I think that’s sometimes hard for city people like me to understand. You look at a farmers market and think, the local food system is booming.

Berry: I am so tired of hearing people talk about a “local food system.” I haven’t seen one. Yes, there are some small places where people have figured out something. But Louisville doesn’t have a local food system. We are working on one, with good intentions. The city government is being intentional in its support of one. But we don’t have a way for Henry County farmers to know what they need to raise, to plan their year around it and to get it to Louisville to the places it needs to be. That’s a local food system. Right now, it’s still highly tenuous and small. We have to take correct, slow steps toward building one.

Black: The national food movement, then, clearly has a long way to go. But what do you see happening now that you find exciting? And what’s most worrisome?

Berry: I’ve been involved in this for so long: Farming for a living for 32 years and growing up going to meetings with daddy. So for 50 years, say, I’ve been watching this unfold. When I was young, except for his family and some allies scattered around the country, he was alone. He was talking about things that other people weren’t talking about. He was worrying about agriculture in this country in ways that other people weren’t. Now everywhere I go, there are people of good intention working hard where they are to do the right thing, to try to figure it out. I have to remind myself that really that’s pretty quick. The ruination happened pretty quickly. But the restoration, in some ways, has been phenomenally fast in terms of awareness.

What’s worrisome is that we haven’t been able to put any kind of economy around this. We haven’t had the public will to do it. I think the problem is simply that as long as there is tons of food, food is the last thing on anybody’s mind. I was reading a novel not so long ago that talked about London getting hungry in three days during the Blitz. Three days! These things are kind of apocalyptic, and maybe it’s not the best way to talk about it. But the work that we are all trying to do to restore agriculture is the essential work of the time. What else is homeland security anyway?

Black: What then is your advice to people who want to make a difference?

Berry: Have you read “It All Turns on Affection?” It’s an essay my father wrote for the Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment of the Arts. In it, my father tells the story of his grandfather coming home from the tobacco auction in the winter of 1907 without a dime for his year’s work. This story, told over and over in my family, launched my grandfather’s life-long advocacy for land-conserving communities. As I said earlier, my father and uncle took it up and now I have taken it up. He didn’t wait until everyone started wringing their hands over the plight of the farmer. He used his great intelligence and his education and took it home and went to work on the problem. That is our hope. That people with intelligence and good will will bring their energy and enthusiasm and values back to their homes. And if they can’t go home, they will go somewhere and dig in and start solving the problems that are right in front of them.