Berry Urges Need for Local Economies of Farming and Forestry

December 07, 2009

December 7, 2009 — Speaking at the University of Virginia on Dec. 3, Wendell Berry, a poet and writer with a small farm in Kentucky, decried the industrialization of farming, forestry and mining that he said has damaged land and forest ecosystems and destroyed communities. He warned the present industrial systems cannot last.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Anne Bromley:

An overflow crowd of more than 200 filled the auditorium of the Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library to hear Berry's lecture, "Simple Solutions, Package Deals and a 50-Year Farm Bill." An estimated 200 more outside the library had to be turned away.

"Land, water and air cannot be healthful apart from a healthful human economy," said Berry, the author of more than 40 books, from poetry to essays on environmental topics such as the local food movement.

"It is becoming harder to remember – especially, it seems, for most economists – that our lives depend upon the economies of land use, and that the land-using economies depend, in turn, on the ecosphere."

He argued that too often we look for simple solutions instead of thinking about the consequences of choices.

"We like to believe that all choices are simple, as between an obvious good and an obvious evil. ... But in the economies of land use there are no simple choices and consequences that do not ramify perhaps endlessly," he said.

"The same interests and forces that have brought about our centralized, long-distance agricultural economy have also brought about a centralized, long-distance forest economy. The economic principle is everywhere the same: a domestic colonialism that extracts an immense wealth from our rural landscapes, returning as near nothing as possible ... or worse than nothing," said Berry, whose visit was sponsored by the Brown College Visiting Environmental Writers and Scholars Lecture Series.

Money doesn't produce goods, and consumption is not "as vital an economic activity as production," he said.

"We tolerate fabulous capitalists who think a bet on a debt is an asset."

Recent changes toward local economies are taking place because of individuals' and communities' decisions, not from top political leadership, Wall Street or the media, he noted.

"Given the growing demand for local food, and the increasing numbers of farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture farms, it is becoming possible to imagine the development of local farm and food economies in which communities and localities produce, process, market and consume local farm products, marketing any surpluses to outside demand," he said.

When communities primarily export local raw materials, they lose the jobs that would go with manufacturing the raw materials. It forces young people to move to where the jobs are, hence destroying the communities, he said.

He also pointed out that making the economy local would make it diverse. People would establish small businesses to take care of local needs, including those of farmers.

"If we attempt to make our versatile landscapes as responsive as possible to the diversity of local needs, then we would be solving, not one, but many problems," he said, mentioning the agrarian ideal of Thomas Jefferson.

Local economies promise "not luxury or extravagance for a few, but a modest, decent, sustainable prosperity for many. I doubt it would produce one billionaire," he said.

"We don't have to be consenting victims of agribusiness-as-usual," Berry said, describing a plan the Land Institute has proposed to the U.S. secretary of agriculture: a 50-year farm bill. The proposal would help restore health to the soil and land, and eventually farm communities, by increasing the acreage of perennial plants to produce pastures, forage crops and, in 10 years, grain crops.

Replacing annual monoculture farming of crops like corn and soybeans with perennial grasses and legumes would make the soil healthier, he said.

"It would take cattle, hogs and poultry out of the animal factories and put them back on farms, where they belong," Berry said. "Diversification would tend to reduce the size and increase the number of farms; it would bring more people into agriculture, where at least some of them belong."

He said he worried about how to get more people – "skilled in physical work, who have workable minds" – to choose farming and living in small communities. He would not want to see continued dependence on migrant workers. The "settled families" in communities should include "people of any race or origin who are willing to accept the actual responsibilities and do the actual work that go with the ownership and good use of land. The people who do the land's work should own the land."

The Brown College spring lineup of writers includes: Michael Lundblad (Feb. 4), an assistant professor of English at Colorado State University and director of animality studies, an interdisciplinary approach to studying the animal nature of humans and the cultural and literary treatment of animals; Rebecca Solnit (Feb. 23-26), a contributing editor at Orion Magazine and best-selling author of 10 books of essays, among them her latest, "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster"; and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder (April 13-14), whose writing blends nature, America's native past and Zen Buddhism.

— By Anne Bromley