“We have become a nation of fantasists … to believe that consumption is as vital an economy activity as production,” Wendell Berry said at the beginning of his lecture. Titled “Simple Solutions, Package Deals and the 50 Year Farm Bill,” the lecture filled every seat of the ’62 Center MainStage auditorium last Thursday night. Berry, a farmer, writer and teacher, has published over 50 books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry about agrarian issues. His work advocates sustainable agriculture, local economies and close-knit communities.
Berry began by discussing the relationship between humans and nature, and how modern American society has forgotten, ignored or abused that connection. “It is becoming harder to remember that our lives depend on land use, and that land use depends on the ecosphere,” Berry said. He outlined the inextricable ties between “a healthful human economy” and “healthful land, water and air.” With industrialism and mass production, he said, “we have allowed forestry to mimic mining,” meaning that deforestation and land abuse has turned renewable resources into nonrenewable resources.
Berry then described how some American agriculturalists do view the land as an active part of a relationship rather than as an expendable resource. To illustrate this type of farming, Berry recounted his experiences observing small farms that struck the right balance between work and rest, for both people and animals. Small-scale farms used to be the norm in America, but, according to Berry, “the long distance food economy…disrupted the structure of rural communities.”
Berry noted that the farming of the past was not perfect and that it is not possible any longer. “I’m not trying to turn back the clock,” Berry said. “I know we cannot recover the top soil [lost to land abuse and erosion]… nor recover our communities, flawed as they were, before the 1950s. We do need an authentic understanding of our decisions.”
Berry said that the invigoration of local economies can reverse poor agricultural decisions. He cited the recent growth of farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture and better public understanding of food as examples local initiatives. “It is becoming possible to imagine the development of local farm and food economies. We need to be moving also into local integration of forestry,” he said. Berry predicted that small-scale farming will likely happen by necessity, if not by public desire. He named soil erosion, water pollution, toxic fish, surface mining, mountaintop removal and the destruction of rural communities as some of the tangible failures that will encourage small-scale agriculture.
Berry went on to describe the 50 Year Farm Bill legislation written by Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute. The bill zooms in on agriculture through an ecological lens and advocates increasing the percentage of perennial plants from 20 percent to 80 percent over 50 years. Perennial grains would also be introduced. Compared to annual plants, perennials use more solar energy, encourage soil to soak up water and more productively use nutrients. They thus require less fuel and equipment. “It would go literally to the roots of our problem,” Berry said.
He then underscored the importance of reducing the size and increasing the number of farms in America. However, such structural changes would require more people working on farms. “We can’t get the best work with underpaid and overworked people,” Berry said. He described his vision as a “countryside of settled families and stable communities…who are willing to accept actual responsibility and do actual work [and who] own the land.”
Berry said that people must recognize that farming is complex and that scientists cannot simply determine a quick-fix algorithm. “The simple-mindedness of simple solutions has made us incapable of [understanding agriculture] within the context of actual economy,” he said.
According to Berry, the two main aims of industrialism – to replace people with machines and to produce as cheaply as possible – arise from this overly simplistic view. “We’re all part of one another,” Berry said. “But we can’t act that out on the scale of millions of people – we have to do it [as] neighborhoods.”
In the question and answer session following his lecture, Berry addressed many issues, including how universities feed into the industrial mindset, how to make rural life attractive to young people, the dynamics of his own farm, and local currencies. He reminded this audience to ask themselve, “Where are we? What’s happened here? What should have happened here? What should be happening from now on? What is the nature of this place? What will nature permit us to do here? What will nature help us to do here?”