50-year farm lore

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WILLIAMSTOWN -- In an op-ed column Wendell Berry wrote in 2008, he observed, "For 50 or 60 years, we have let ourselves believe that as long as we have money we will have food. This is a mistake. If we continue our offenses against the land and the labor by which we are fed, the food supply will decline, and we will have a problem far more complex than the failure of our paper economy. The government will bring forth no food by providing hundreds of billions of dollars to the agribusiness corporations."

Berry has been writing about agriculture and food for more than 40 years, becoming a voice of reason and clarity in the confusion of words and political language surrounding farming and food. While politicians insist on the necessity of industrialization, Berry argues that the United States has moved us further and further away from good land practices.

"Does the production in the hands of fewer and fewer operators really serve the ends of cleanliness and health?" he asked In 1977.

Berry, who is the author of 50 books of poetry, fiction and essays, will speak this evening at the Williams College ‘62 Center at 8 p.m. on "Simple Solutions, Packaged Deals, and a 50-Year Farm Bill." The lecture is free and open to the public.

Berry lives and farms in Kentucky, with his wife, Tanya Berry, and serves on the advisory board of Orion Magazine in Great Barrington.

"Wendell has been the keystone writer for Orion over the 27 years of the magazine's history. His ability to synthesize sustainability, politics, spirituality, and ethics makes him one of the most important American writers -- environmental or otherwise -- of the last 50 years," said H. Emerson Blake, Orion's editor-in-chief.

James Nolan, chair of the Dept. of Anthropology and Sociology and the W. Ford Schumann Faculty Fellow in Democratic Studies at Williams, invited Berry to speak. He invited Berry, he said, because of the growing interest in environmentalism and sustainability among students and in the community.

Nolan's winter studies class two years ago studied agrarianism and read Berry's essays. This spring, Berry will be visiting Nolan's class "Ways of Knowing" where students are reading his essay collection, "Bringing it to the Table."

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"The 50-year farm bill makes sense," Nolan said; "there are no easy solutions, and Berry is skeptical of the quick solution."

In January 2009, Berry and his friend Wes Jackson, the founder and president of The Land Institute in Kansas, wrote a column in the New York Times proposing "a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities."

They point out that "Thoughtful farmers and consumers everywhere are already making many necessary changes in the production and marketing of food," but we "need national agricultural policy based on ecological principles. Our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable."

Berry suggests that the way we have changed the language we use to talk about agriculture is part of the problem we face.

"Husbandry is the name of all the practices that sustain life by connecting us conservingly to our places and our world; it is the art of keeping tied all the strands in the living network that sustains us," he wrote.

But we no longer say animal husbandry or soil husbandry: Instead we say animal science and soil science.

"This change is worth lingering over, because of what it tells us about our susceptibility to poppycock," he writes. "Purporting to increase the sophistication of the humble art of farming, this change in fact brutally oversimplifies it."

Berry reminds us that, just as we cannot be free "if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else, we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else."


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