Skip to main content

Awards & Honors: 2012 Jefferson Lecturer

Wendell E. Berry Appreciation

The Thing (or Things) About Wendell Berry

By Mark Bittman

That Wendell Berry is an anomaly is obvious to almost everyone who’s heard of him. That he is a hero, even an icon to some, is maybe saying something. I know of no one who so combines the qualities of being literate and down to earth; well educated and unpretentious; demanding and humble; country and sophisticated.

It doesn’t stop there. He’s never formally studied economics, but, in my opinion, he is a “better” economist—in the sense of smart, analytical, comprehending, comprehensible and most importantly sensible—than all but a handful of those we encounter at universities or in the press. (And, of course, only a small handful of economists would agree with that statement.)

Perhaps these seemingly contradictory descriptions could apply to people outside of the United States, but to me it makes Wendell uniquely American. Add to this that he is among our best-known, most-adored, most-prolific, and widely admired poets, essayists, novelists (he studied with Wallace Stegner, in a seminar with Ken Kesey and Ernest J. Gaines) and social critics, a writer of almost incomparable breadth.

Did I mention that he is also a farmer, a philosopher, a teacher, an activist? And that he’s been doing most of the things that I’ve mentioned here since the sixties, when he first spoke out against the war in Vietnam? And he continues doing most of them: Nearing eighty, he hasn’t slowed down so much as honed his focus. Last year, for example, he was part of a group that sat in at the Kentucky governor’s office to protest mountaintop removal for mining.

So why is Wendell Berry not among our best-known national figures? I could be sarcastic here, and say that the answer is simple: He makes too much sense. But we have at least a few national figures who have made sense. The difference is that although Wendell is hardly a shy man, he hasn’t sought the spotlight, and he’s remained largely in his remote corner of Kentucky. This is because he believes in fidelity not only to family—his grown children and, of course, Tanya, his wife, are there also—but to land. It’s also because he likes it there. He’s at home, and he believes in being at home.

There’s another reason, of course: Wendell is controversial, unique, and not simplistic. You’re not going to see him on the Today show or in People magazine. He doesn’t speak in sound bites but in leisurely, often literary sentences that, while not at all difficult to understand, require actual concentration and thought, two functions that are sadly in short supply in popular culture.

Let’s examine the “controversial” description for a moment. Like so many others who are concerned about the way we raise and process food in this country and in this world, I came to “know” Wendell through his writing about food and agriculture. I don’t want to quote Wendell’s writings at length here, but I long remembered something I read by him back in the eighties about family farms in which he asked—as I recalled—“Do the people of this country own its land, or don’t they?” (The actual quote, which I just looked up, is this: “Shall the usable property of our country be democratically divided, or not?” You can find that in “A Defense of the Family Farm,” which was published in 1986 and is in the collection Bringing It to the Table.)

I guess I didn’t mention that Wendell is a radical, too. But he’s not an old-left or a new-left kind of radical; he is Wendell. He will argue—and I’m not sure I agree with him on this one, but I wouldn’t try contradicting him face to face, because he’d (verbally) clobber me—that college is not the best choice for all of our young people.

He will argue—convincingly, and on this I’m quite sure he’s right—that a sustainable, well-tended family farm run by thoughtful people who understand their land will generate more dollars per acre than any kind of industrial farm you can name. He has practical notions about farming woodlands—that is, working lumber as a sustainable and profitable crop—that could change the lives of rural people from Vermont to Minnesota, and of course down through Appalachia as well.

I know some of this because I’ve read Wendell’s work over the years (it’s helped me understand my relationship not only to the earth but to women as well; that’s another story). I also know it because I took this opportunity to visit with Wendell and Tanya and their daughter Mary a few weeks ago.

It was an early March weekend of winter’s last gasp: It snowed four inches the morning I drove out to Wendell’s house in Henry County, but Wendell was caring for his newborn lambs, and expecting further deliveries any hour.

One of the great ironies of Wendell’s life and work is that this region, the land he grew up on, and which has nurtured his family for five or six or more generations, is—or at least was—tobacco country. (You might have a look at the photo book Tobacco Harvest: An Elegy, for which Wendell wrote a touching and nostalgic essay.) Tobacco and, more important, the farm-support policies it spawned, were a part of Wendell’s young life, and he still believes that the model of the tobacco program, which set maximum production levels as well as minimum prices, is one that could work to help young or otherwise struggling farmers, regardless of their crop or state: “It’s comparatively simple,” he said to me. “In trying to establish local food economies we’re trying to bring both the nightmare of supply and the nightmare of demand into existence simultaneously. Sometimes you may wake up in the night wondering, ‘Where’s the demand coming from?’ First thing you know, you’re waking up in the middle of the night saying, ‘The demand is there—where’s the supply?!’”

This is the basic problem in real family farming, not big farms that happen to be bought by people who are in families (there is a difference, obviously). The tobacco program, for a time, had that solved, and it wasn’t the tobacco program’s fault—really, it was just a coincidence!—that the product itself turned out to be problematic. Whether that particular model of government “intervention” (a kinder, gentler, and simpler word is “help”) can help us help family farms provide us with food remains to be seen. But something needs to happen, and that’s a fundamental message we hear from Wendell over and over.

Government can’t solve all of our problems, of course. We also have to listen to the land—Wendell cites Alexander Pope, who called it the “the genius of the place.” Some land “wants” livestock, some wants woods, and some wants row crops—often different row crops in different years. “Diverse is not only possible, diverse is necessary, because in real farming you can’t depend on any given crop to be good every year.”

One of our major and ongoing problems is that kids mostly leave farms. So even if you’re a real family running a real farm, if you think you’re going to farm your land for twenty or thirty years and your kids are going to leave anyway, all you need to do is buy a huge combine with a GPS and “put the chemicals on,” as they say, and—as long as you don’t care what happens to the land down the road—it’s a living.

Wendell argues, as many of us now do, that good farming practices not only preserve the land but produce good food, and good food will lower medical bills. That, in turn, means you can charge more for food and real (by which I mean, I guess, sustainable) farming becomes more practical for principled farmers.

That’s not enough, though. First of all, he says, “we must not, ever, forget the people in poverty who need affordable good food now.” He adds, “There’s not a small town in this county that isn’t either dead or dying, and that’s largely attributable to chain stores and buying discounts.” One way to fight that, we agree, is to encourage the government to boost family farms rather than industrial ones, as it’s been doing since at least the fifties. And, as he’s written recently, “the extreme destructiveness—and therefore fragility—of industrial agriculture is not a secret.”

Equally big, though, and huge in Wendell’s thought, is stewardship. (We didn’t talk about stewardship of the planet, but if you think globally while Wendell talks locally it’s easy enough to get the message.) Stewardship doesn’t mean only knowing your farm, although Wendell talks about that all the time, it means keeping people on the farms. One of our burning questions, he says, is, “How are we going to get a population of people on the land that aren’t telling their children, ‘Honey, don’t ever farm. Get out of here as quick as you can,’ but ‘There’s a place for you here. You can farm.’?”

Obviously the farm-leaving trend has been with us for a while, and the farm-staying thing hasn’t gained much traction, but this is why Wendell thinks “higher” education has been oversold, and that it’s time to rethink sending farm kids to college automatically. “By the time they get out, they’re so deeply in debt they can’t afford to farm. There is legitimate room in this society, and in this economy, for people who don’t want to go to college.”

Wendell has a way of talking to city people that allows us to empathize with the farm life, to understand its difficulties, its appeals, and its amazing different concerns. “There’s something that comes into a person from knowing how to work a team of horses that they can’t get any other way.”

But the pro-real-farm message is not all for romantic or nostalgic reasons, in case that’s the reasoning I’m mistakenly getting across. On the one hand there’s what Wendell calls the “internal” effort of people who want to farm; and we want to give them support because it’s good for the rest of us, and it’s good for the land. “But,” he says, “there’s also the set of external pressures.” By this he means the increasing cost of fossil fuels, of transportation, the environmental pressures caused by industrial agriculture, the “externalities” that are not currently reflected in the costs of food but will ultimately be paid.

“The great question,” he says, “is whether the internal efforts will be ready to meet the external pressures when they really begin to mount, and if we begin to see great disorder and violence. And this is something to think about, something that’s always, in human history, been necessary to think about.”

At the end of the day, he seems to believe, the solution involves some combination of economy (“Not,” he stresses, “economics. Economy.”) and passion, love, tenderness. “Of course, you can have all the passion but if you’re not making a decent living for your loved ones, it all goes for naught.” We need to make sure farmers are making a living.

“But at the same time, although it’s morally wrong to destroy the land community, people are going to sustain it not because it’s morally right but because they want to; affection is going to be the determining motive. Economic constraint might cancel out affection, but affection is going to be the motivating cause. So what it comes down to—and you can imagine trying to convince a politician in Washington of this—is that we need to subsidize affection.”

What’s more radical than that? I couldn’t ask, because it was then that Mr. Berry remembered there were seven new lambs to take care of down at the barn. It’s spring, after all.

Mark Bittman, a New York Times columnist, is the author of How to Cook Everything: The Basics.