Mary Berry, a Kentucky farmer and daughter of writer Wendell Berry, started the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, to address the “central issue of our time: a healthy and sustainable agriculture in this country.” The organization is working with colleges to create educational programs, with farming organizations to find healthier ways of providing food to cities, and with those who influence policy to instigate new programs. Its mission is to continue Wendell Berry’s work, “by bringing focus, knowledge, and cohesiveness to the work of changing our ruinous industrial agriculture system into a culture that uses nature as the standard, that accepts no permanent damage to the ecosphere, and that takes into consideration human health in local communities.”
Food Tank: What made you start the Berry Center?
Mary Berry: About four years ago I was appointed to the Farm Services State Board in Kentucky, a federal appointment to a state board, and it was my first experience with a big USDA program. It was interesting, because for the first time two small farmers representing small farming were appointed to that board. At roughly the same time I was elected onto the board of a small grassroots group that has had great success in Kentucky working on the problems of local agriculture and small farming.
The interesting thing is it was the first time I could juxtapose the two sides of agriculture—the small and the large. I was pretty amazed at how little the sides knew about each other…. The small agriculture side is so small and entrepreneurial. It didn’t know much about the history of farming in our area, and the big agriculture side has just bought hook line and sinker that it’s got to be the way it is, toxic and so on.
So I said to Daddy we’ve got to make a cultural change, and we’ve got to work on education and access to capital, on land use issues and policies, and he said it sounds like you’re starting a center, and I said maybe I am, and he said do it. So with the help of some very good friends I set about to work on something that is now called the Berry Center.
FT: How is the Berry Center educating farmers on sustainable farming?
MB: We started a small farm agriculture degree at a little college called St. Catharine College in the geographical center of Kentucky. It’s a four-year degree program, an interdisciplinary program that started with the deans of the school and a woman named Leah Bayens, who is running the program…. We just enrolled our first class last fall.
We are also talking to a couple of private schools that are going to graduate people who will be in a position to make decisions, people who will have power, and we want those people to have an agrarian education, or at least have a piece of an agrarian education.
We’re talking about a course like “readings in agriculture,” something like that, which means that people who will be in a position of making decisions will understand that we’re in a land-based economy, just like we’ve always been. Our major problem with agriculture, and as far as I’m concerned with every other problem we’ve faced, is bad land use, and if we don’t address land use, we won’t have done much of anything.
FT: Can you say more about how the Berry Center is working to address some of the problems facing farming?
MB: It’s a bipolar situation for farmers and consumers—it’s either very small and entrepreneurial, or it’s huge. There’s nothing in between, and we’re interested in what could be in between. I think farmers in our area would be willing to grow for a local food economy if there’s a contract, if there’s something involved that tells them that they’re not going to go to market and lose their shirts.
So we are getting people together to work on this question of what we can do. We’re exploring the possibility in Louisville of what kind of agreement can be made between a city and the countryside around it. We’ve got a good beginning—the Louisville Farm to Table program, which has made more progress on a local food economy in the last five years than I’ve seen in 30. There are contracts with school systems. Institutions are beginning to look for local food.
What we’ve got right now are farmers always farming in a state of emergency, making decisions in the middle of an emergency—economic, cultural, weather related—we ought to become a culture that values them enough to make good policy around them. But I don’t think it will be federal; I don’t think it will even be state; I think it might have to be, as people say now, food shed by food shed. I don’t know how it will look, but I think there are hopeful signs.
What inspires me every day is the idea of Louisville being fed by a healthy, thriving, rural landscape. Healthy landscapes, healthy farms, and Louisville will be better off, and the countryside around it will be better off. We’re working hard to try to get some infrastructure in place for local food, vegetable processors, slaughterhouses, things like that. We’re working with local leadership and local people.
FT: How do you envision using the library containing your father’s and grandfather’s writings in the context of the Berry Center’s work?
MB: My grandfather remembered farmers leaving tobacco houses with tears running down their faces [because they got nothing for a year of work], and he thought then, “If I can do something about this I will.”
In the course of his career he worked on the Burley Tobacco Program, which was started as a hemp program by Robert Worth Bingham. My grandfather wrote the piece of the Tobacco Program that worked for 75 years. It took farmers out of a boom and bust economy; it protected the land and the people from overproduction. It took parity into consideration. It was a price support, not a subsidy, and it meant that there was an economic system for farmers to function in.
That program ended 10 years ago, and our economy has been in free fall every since because nothing took its place…. The tobacco companies can now contract directly with farmers, which puts farmers in the same position that chicken and hog farmers are. They have no power at all, and they’ll take what they’re given.
We’re using the information [we have] to learn as much as we can about the Burley Tobacco Program. And we don’t see any reason why it can’t be used at least as a model for everything that farmers can produce, from timber to tomatoes, to protect farmers in the marketplace.
FT: How does your father’s work influence the Berry Center’s mission?
MB: One of the reasons continuing my father’s and my family’s work is so important is because it is unique in its wholeness. My father sees things from a rural point of view, in a way that I think is rare and getting rarer all the time.
I hear people talking a lot about urban agriculture, the possibility that cities can feed themselves and so on, and while I think that it’s good for cities to think of food production and for people to have home gardens and community gardens, I think that to ignore the abandoned countryside is crazy.
[In our community] we’re faced with the falling apart of our local culture every day…. I think it’s interesting to think about the fact that the push and the desire for well-raised local food or the demand for it going up is meeting the rural culture coming down, and it was bound to happen.
So we’ve got to resettle America. Except this time I think we can do it better, more thoughtfully, without thinking that we can use [the land] endlessly. How about this time settling with land use in mind?