By Errol Castens/Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
OXFORD – About the time Mary Berry’s great-grandfather went to market with his tobacco crop in January 1907, prices collapsed.
The auctioneer’s fee equaled what a buyer paid for his crop, and her great-grandfather came home without a dime to show for his year’s work.
That memory shaped the life of her grandfather, John Berry Sr., she said, who shaped Kentucky’s Burley Tobacco Program and helped stabilize the state’s farm economy for 75 years. Her father, author and farmer Wendell Berry, and her uncle, attorney and farmer John Berry Jr., have also devoted much of their adult lives to the preservation of farming communities.
“The tobacco program meant farmers in our rolling countryside could make a living plowing only their best, flattest ground, and leave the rest in pastures for beef and sheep,” Mary Berry said.
A farmer in her own right since 1981 and the director of the Berry Center, Mary Berry spoke Saturday at Gaining Ground Mississippi’s annual sustainable living conference.
“She is dedicating her life’s work to preserving and promoting the legacy of what many of us think is America’s preeminent family for sustainable agriculture, sustainable communities and sustainable lives,” said Johnny Wray, president of Gaining Ground Mississippi.
Berry said the ecological, economic and human costs of industrial farming are unsustainable. After World War II, she said, the industrial farming model called for “the displacement of nearly the entire farming population and the replacement of their labor and good farming practices with machines and toxic chemicals.”
Berry said the survival of farmers requires them to adopt methods that minimize commercial inputs while preserving soil fertility, water quality and other environmental values. One model of that is the “50-Year Farm Bill” devised by Wendell Berry and Land Institute founder Wes Jackson, which promotes moving largely to farming based on perennial (permanent) crops that require no plowing.
“If farmers do not want to cooperate with their own destruction, they will have to reduce their dependence on those global economic forces that intend and approve and profit from the destruction of farmers, and they will have to increase their dependence on local nature and local intelligence,” she said.
She noted that just as important is the creation of local food systems.
“The long-broken connections between towns and cities and their surrounding landscapes will have to be restored,” she said, noting just such an effort in Louisville, Ky.
“If communities of farmers and consumers wish to promote a sustainable, safe, reasonably inexpensive supply of food, they must accept that the best, safest and most dependable source of food for a city is not the global economy with its extreme vulnerabilities and extravagant transportation costs but its own surrounding countryside,” Berry said.
While economics, sciences, politics and other disciplines enter the equation of local food security and the sustainability of farming for future generations, Berry said solving the intertwined issues of ecological and human health, food security and the survival of farming families and communities will also require a commitment to place.
“The people in this country have always been divided between boomers and stickers,” she said. “The boomers get what they want or can out of a place and move on. Mining, and now agriculture, have become fine examples of this. Stickers, on the contrary, are motivated by affection.”
“Of my family, I can only say we have shared in the faults and virtues of our kind and our times, but we have been stickers. It is important to say that some people, for some reason, cannot stick where they started, but even then, as my father or Wes Jackson says, ‘Just get somewhere and stay.’”