The Resettling of America

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By Brad Bowman

The Berry Center’s conference laid the framework for a pragmatic homecoming and resettling of rural America with heavyweights in backgrounds from academics, activism, agriculture and theology.


The center’s conference — “From Unsettling to Resettling: What Will it Take to Resettle America” — Friday at Louisville’s Brown Hotel emphasized the global need for solutions to industrial scale farming, responsible land stewardship and how destructive agricultural practices impact food production, resources and communities on a global scale.

The event began with a welcome address from Charles, Prince of Wales, for the Berry Center’s celebration of  the 36-year anniversary of Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.”

Prince Charles praised not just Berry’s work, but the work of Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and officials like Sarah Fritschner, who have worked for Louisville’s regional food movement. He emphasized how the conference’s topics of true-cost accounting of modern food production and ethical land use closely relate to a project he launched in London nine years ago called Accounting for Sustainability.

“This kind of thinking where such factors such as the damage and external costs of intensive food production ... gain to make an impact around the world,” the Prince said. “The true cost of production… becomes much more obvious which approach is less destructive and less expensive in the long run — the one that damages the earth or the one that considers its health apparent.”

The Prince of Wales said the task attendees and he alike face is persuading business and government departments to be accountable for the impact they make on the environment.

A broader range of accountability and true-accounting showed in the roster of guest speakers and panelists for the conference.

The conference brought Wes Jackson, President of the Land Institute, a collaborator with Berry and Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center who brought the 50 year farm bill to Congress in 2009, Mark Bomford, from the Yale Sustainable Food Project, his brother Michael Bomford, from Kentucky State University’s Center for Sustainability of Farms and Families, Norm Wirzba, a research professor both for the Theology, Ecology and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School and Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Louisville’s Sarah Fritschner of the Farm to Table Program who has helped  bring $1.5 million in Kentucky grown food to Jefferson County Public Schools and the Louisville area.

Jackson said one major requirement of a homecoming major (someone wanting to resettle in rural America) that they wouldn’t get in most conventional universities is an historical imagination.

“This isn’t about how to manage your livestock, or manage your crops,” Jackson said. “But what people carry in their minds in order to overcome this leviathan that we’ve had to deal with now for far too long.”

Jackson said the historical imagination will be a necessity for students. He borrowed this concept from a writer at the New Yorker who wrote, Jackson believed about the Spanish Inquisition.

“He wrote that, ‘…If you are studying history and you have a big view of history then you will run the risk of falling into melodrama and fantasy of just seeing big’,” Jackson said. “On the other hand he wrote that, ‘…If you just see little you will miss history as you seem to study it,’ so it requires seeing small and thinking big.”

Jackson said Berry’s book, “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” showed that historical imagination.

“Wendell wrote that ‘…We came with vision but not sight…we came across the continent cutting the forest and plowing the fields never to know what we were doing because we weren’t aware of what we were undoing,’” Jackson said. “We institutionalized people into a surplus so when fossil fuels replaced many farmers Wendell asked in his book, ‘…what are people for?’.”

Jackson sat on a panel that discussed  in depth the education of homecoming and creating cultural change with Wurzba, the Bomfords, Dr. Leah Bayens who will teach the Farming and Ecological Program at St. Catharine College and Dr. Ellen Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke University Divinity School.

Several panels throughout the conference on Friday focused on creating change, making a paradigm shift from conventional agricultural practices supplemented by practical applications and how it could work in a sustainable fashion.

Mary Berry, of the Berry Center, voiced the Center’s own sustainability concerns.

Berry proposed that the Berry Center’s mission and blueprint for the homecoming and education of future and current farmers, and those that must understand sound land use, would come from the farming degree offered at St. Catharine’s College in Washington County, or through hands on experience on farmland in Henry County donated by Fischer.

But Berry and the center’s mission also lies in a broader vision comprised of a land based economy loyal to the legacy of the Berry family.

“My grandfather John Berry Sr. was a co-owner of the Burley Tobacco Grower Program, “ Berry said. “My Uncle John Berry Jr., protected that program for many years as its president and legal counsel. Brother John, as I call him, has been a tireless defender of small towns, small farms and farmers as a lawyer, a farmer, a banker, and a Kentucky State Senator.”

Berry said the Burley Tobacco Grower Program and its success for 75 years is the reason 84,000 small farms populate Kentucky today.

“It was a farm program that worked the way it was supposed to work,” Berry said.

“It was the economic under gurney for diversified farms. It protected farmers and the land from overproduction. It was a price support not a subsidy.

“My father said to me recently that his father’s work was the important work that he and John had just continued it. And now that work continues at the Berry Center.”

Berry said the Burley Tobacco Program put an economy on the ground for small farmers and she believed it has been forgotten because of the stigma of tobacco. In archiving the works of John Berry Sr. and John Berry Jr., Berry said it will help the center understand the Burley Tobacco Program and whether it will work for other markets.

Berry said her family’s ability to see the whole problem set their work apart and the center will continue to do that.

“Our work at the Berry Center and your work wherever you are is to take the strength of this local food movement and make a cultural change,” Berry said.

“To do this we must work on education for homecoming, true accounting, good farm policy like the 50 year farm bill and we must not forget that our essential work is good land use.”