“Advice? I don’t like to advise people I’ll never see again. I have become really adept at dodging the request for advice,” said a jocular Wendell Berry, as he sat on stage with his dear friend – and fellow farmer and writer – David Kline before several hundred CROPP farmers at the 2014 Annual Meeting in La Crosse, Wis.
Berry had been asked by Mission Executive Theresa Marquez, what words of wisdom he had for the farmer-owned co-op. And despite his playfully gruff answer, he has not been adept at dodging requests for advice. In fact, the opposite is true; since he first published The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture in 1977, Berry has used writing as a tool of influence to champion the value of family farming and caring for the earth. For CEO George Siemon, Berry’s writing rang with the clarity of a bell, calling for him to serve family farmers. “The Unsettling of America… was an eye opener to a whole set of values that I needed to understand,” reflected Siemon in his opening remarks to the awards banquet. “Truly, I can say that Wendell Berry is someone who inspired me to be up here today. I can say that he was the bow that shot my arrow.”
Berry was born in Henry County, Ky. in 1934 before the Second World War in the midst of the Great Depression. After attending school on one coast and teaching on the other, he returned home to the farming community where his family has been working the land for 200 years, and where he has lived and worked with his wife, Tanya Berry, ever since. The author of more than 40 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction—written only by daylight with pen and paper—he has received numerous accolades over the past decades and given several generations of readers the words to describe their feelings, hopes, frustrations and visions. As Marquez said – and countless quotes scrawled in notebooks, pasted to teacher’s doors, and nestled into speeches and sermons attest – “His words are timeless, his insights priceless, his love of farming and the land unquestionable.”
At the annual meeting, Berry opened the awards banquet with an excerpt from a speech he gave at The Future of Food conference in 2011. “Epic feats of engineering require only a few brilliant technicians and a lot of money. But feeding a world of people year to year for a long time requires cultures of husbandry fitted to the nature of millions of unique small places — precisely the kind of cultures that industrialism has purposely disvalued, uprooted and destroyed,” read Berry. He continued by outlining seven actions “for everybody, requiring everybody’s intelligence.” (Read the full text of Wendell’s speech here.)
And then he read a love story. Down in the Valley Where the Green Grass Grows tells the tale of Big Ellis, the kind of bumbling neighbor one imagines every farmer will recognize, who needs help courting Annie May Cordle. Berry’s power, still as sharp as ever, to awaken conviction lays in his balance between stark, often bleak realism and playful imagination. (See videos of his presentations at the CROPP Annual Meeting here.)
The following day, with David Kline at his side – of whom he said, “David and his family have become dear to me. They are people I’ve rejoiced in and worried about and thought about all these 30 years” – he talked with urgency and fear about chemical agriculture, making a strong case for why pesticides are among our gravest threats. “What’s it going to cost us?” he asked. “To try to figure out what their effects are is almost impossible, even for experts.”
His darkness can be magnetic, as can his sweet, almost goofy laugh. The audience nodded in agreement and amusement when he retooled the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “People think loving your neighbor is a virtue and maybe it’ll get you to heaven, but actually, what you have as a result of loving your neighbor is a neighbor,” he said. “This doesn’t mean you have your heart go pitter pat over your neighbor. Your neighbor is usually not as nice a person as you are, you know. You have to fall back on hypocrisy – you’ll have to treat your neighbor as if you love him. But anyway, if you do that, what you have is a neighbor, and a neighbor is an economic advantage.”
Earlier in the day, during a meandering conversation overlooking the Mississippi River, he had said, “I’m more and more concerned with the economic value of intangibles – knowledge, familiarity, affection, loyalty, sympathy. If you have livestock, sympathy is an economic asset.” He has often talked about love and affection, not as sentimentalities, but as the basis for human action and inspiration. Looking to the future, he described the necessity and value of patience. “You’re going to have to teach your children to be patient, because the solution, when it comes about, is going to be complex,” he said. “It’s going to have to be made everywhere. It’s going to take a long time… To be patient in an emergency is a very strict kind of discipline… The daily solutions are the ones that ultimately are going to count.”
“Twenty years ago I was really dealing with the likelihood that I wouldn’t see any change at all. And if I continued my advocacy I’d just have to do it with the support of my family and with allies like David Kline. And almost at the same time, I realized something else really was happening. And a lot has happened in those 20 years: farmers markets, the involvements of the chefs and restaurant people, the community supported agriculture farms… Anybody interested in these efforts now is likely to know about Organic Valley.”
During his visit, he hadn’t given strict advice, but instead, he had presented the determination and constancy of belief that he has lived. He lauded how much has been accomplished and then made a call to continue our patient and, as he calls it, radical work. “Continuity is the business of a real culture.”
Lola Milholland works at the Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit Ecotrust on communications projects and is assistant editor of its free quarterly magazine, Edible Portland. She’s the daughter of Mission Executive Theresa Marquez and proudly keeps her mom’s sourdough culture bubbling and alive.