The Berry Center puts the words of writer Wendell Berry and his family into action for Kentucky's small farmers and an agrarian way of life.
Driving the Kentucky River road in Henry County near Port Royal, Kentucky, I'm struck by how the land differs from the massive, relatively flat fields of cotton and soybeans I remember from my childhood in Alabama.
Had I not known that Wendell Berry works this fertile terrain, I might have completely overlooked the small family farms that are tucked into these hills. But I did know that he writes and farms alongside the river on some of these very rises, having read many of his agricultural essays and especially his poignant collection The Unsettling of America. Berry's poetry, fiction and nonfiction has long championed the agrarian lifestyle and its resilience in the face of many challenges — from industrial agribusiness to less-than-ideal farmland to sometimes careless farmers — but, in a country where such small farms are all too often neglected and disappearing, how many others are fully aware of the challenges that threaten their very existence?
That's where The Berry Center comes in. Much like the new film The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry isn't so much a documentary about the writer himself, but rather uses his words and themes from his work to advocate for small Kentucky farms and a sustainable agricultural lifestyle, The Berry Center also puts words into action through its many programs and educational efforts.
A non-profit organization founded in 2011 and grounded in the work and lives of three generations of Berry men — John Berry, Sr., John Berry, Jr., and Wendell Berry — The Berry Center, according to Executive Director Mary Berry, "celebrates Kentucky and its farming citizens by stopping the destruction of the state and its small farming communities."
The Berry Center addresses topics such as land use, farm policy, local food infrastructure, urban education about farming, and general farmer education with the overarching aim of promoting a healthy and sustainable agriculture in this state and in this country.
In order to accomplish such a significant task, The Berry Center focuses its work around focused efforts that include programs and policies that protect local food producers in the marketplace; establishing a repository of papers, speeches and letters from three generations of Berry men on issues related to small-farm agriculture; organizing and participating in conferences with like-minded institutions that seek to work on problems and solutions for small farmers and rural communities; and preparing farmers and future generations of farmers to commit to small-farm agriculture through the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program.
Perhaps the most exciting and innovative of these efforts, the Berry Farming Program, started at St. Catherine's College in the fall of 2013, builds not only on the work of the Berry family, but also on an idea espoused by one of Wendell Berry's friends, Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. In his Becoming Native to This Place, Jackson challenges universities to question the promise of upward mobility and instead educate "the young to return home, or to go to some other place, and dig in."
The Berry Farming Program seeks to answer this charge with a degree in Farming and Ecological Agrarianism. Such a "Major in Homecoming" connects young farmers with people and places from and on which they might learn before taking a financial risk, hopefully making digging in more feasible for many of them.
The recent closing of St. Catherine's College has made the need of and interest in such a program under the auspices of The Berry Center even more obvious. Several colleges and universities have expressed an interest in housing the Berry Farming Program. Over the coming year, The Berry Center will be refining the program and preparing to partner with an institution to continue the work started at St. Catherine's College. Hopefully, this refining and re-implementation will lead to similar programs and degrees at other universities under the oversight of The Berry Center.
Through projects such as these, The Berry Center fulfills its mission by advocating for farmers, land conserving communities and healthy regional economies. The goal of the Center is not necessarily to make the small farms along the Kentucky River stand out more than they already do. Rather, the Berry Center hopes to help farmers in Henry Country, throughout Kentucky, and across the United States keep their farms healthy and sustainable for future generations of homecomers. In the process, such small farms do stand out, for they encourage aspiring farmers that, to borrow a phrase from the late small farmer and author Gene Logsdon, "You Can Go Home Again."
Photos courtesy of Guy Mendes (top two); The Berry Center
For more information on The Berry Center and its work to advocate for Kentucky's small farms and farmers, visit BerryCenter.org.
Kentucky for Kentucky will host a screening of the new documentary The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry 7:30 p.m. July 28 at The Kentucky Theater, 214 E. Main St., Lexington, KY. Visit the event page for tickets and information!
Richard A. Bailey is an Associate Professor of History at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, where he teaches American history. The author of Race and Redemption in Puritan New England (Oxford, 2011), Richard is currently working on several projects focusing on the life and writings of Wendell Berry and the effects Berry's unique Kentucky voice has had on life, society and culture in America.