Where Farmers Markets and CSAs Fall Short

Mary Berry, daughter of poet Wendell Berry, wants to take local food beyond ‘a faddish economy.’

John Collins

Marry Berry, executive director of the Berry Center, is fomenting an agrarian revolution. (Courtesy of the Berry Center)

Every­thing we eat has a sto­ry behind it. The bread aisle (at the store with the mas­sive park­ing lot) is a thrill ride. That sto­ry starts on stretch­es of land in places you’ve nev­er been. Its main char­ac­ters are gene-splic­ing sci­en­tists, patent­ed life forms and huge indus­tri­al robots. Fleets of 18-wheel­ers make epic road trips before the nar­ra­tive cli­max­es in the cash reg­is­ter of one mega-cor­po­ra­tion or anoth­er. By com­par­i­son, the sto­ry of sus­tain­ably raised, local­ly mar­ket­ed food is a bucol­ic tale: a hop from farm to table.

'If you’re far away from a mountaintop that’s been removed, but are still using electricity that’s cheap because of it, you still have responsibility.'

In 1975, Wen­dell Berry — the poet, nov­el­ist, farmer, activist and philoso­pher — released The Unset­tling of Amer­i­ca. That col­lec­tion of essays focused on the cul­tur­al and envi­ron­men­tal impli­ca­tions of mod­ern agri­cul­ture and the need to put intel­li­gence before prof­it when it comes to the busi­ness of farm­ing. On Octo­ber 4 on PBS, Moy­ers & Com­pa­ny will present Wen­dell Berry: Poet and Prophet, a doc­u­men­tary pro­duced by the Schu­mann Media Cen­ter that fea­tures a con­ver­sa­tion between vet­er­an jour­nal­ist Bill Moy­ers and rur­al Amer­i­ca’s man of letters.

Thir­ty-eight years after the pub­li­ca­tion of The Unset­tling of Amer­i­ca, we remain dis­con­nect­ed from the pro­duc­tion of the food that keeps us alive. What we put in our mouths we trust to the hands of an indus­try so mas­sive it’s dif­fi­cult to com­pre­hend. Trans­form­ing the cur­rent sys­tem into one that val­ues healthy land, pro­duc­tion on a sen­si­ble scale and a reli­able mar­ket­place for small farm­ers requires a David-at-the-heels-of-Goliath kind of mindset.

Small farm­ers must select which stones to throw at Big Ag. And Mary Berry, Wendell’s daugh­ter, is help­ing them take aim as exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Berry Cen­ter in New Cas­tle, Ky.

Why did you and your father cre­ate the Berry Center?

The Berry Center’s goal is to insti­tu­tion­al­ize agrar­i­an thought and make a move­ment towards cul­tur­al change. We’ve been devel­op­ing a four-year farm degree at St. Cather­ine Col­lege in Wash­ing­ton Coun­ty, Ken­tucky. We’re also work­ing on a farm school, in Hen­ry Coun­ty, to help new or exist­ing farm­ers learn what they need to know to get out of the com­mod­i­ty econ­o­my and into a local food econ­o­my. We’re talk­ing about every­thing farm­ers and landown­ers can pro­duce on their land — from tim­ber to toma­toes — and how to keep them secure, and out of a boom and bust economy.

We need to look at the eco­nom­ic sys­tem first. Farm­ers aren’t mov­ing toward local food, but they will if they think there’s a reli­able mar­ket. Right now, they’re in corn and soy­beans because that’s where the mon­ey is. And in Ken­tucky there are a lot of beef cat­tle, and beef cat­tle, if they’re well raised, and are depen­dent on peren­ni­al grass­es, that’s good. If they’re raised on CAFOs [con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions] — on feed­lots — that’s not good.

The excite­ment for local food in Louisville, the clos­est big city, is not matched in the coun­try­side where I live. It’s an uncer­tain mar­ket. Farm­ers are scared of it, and right­ly so. Even farm­ers who are doing well at farm­ers mar­kets are uncer­tain because they are unable to plan ahead. We need a food sys­tem that allows farm­ers to plan their eco­nom­ic year. That would mean farm­ers sign­ing con­tracts. A good exam­ple: The largest school sys­tem in Ken­tucky is now con­tract­ing with some local farm­ers for pro­duce and meat. The inter­est in the entre­pre­neur­ial aspect of small farms is won­der­ful and needs to con­tin­ue, but we’re try­ing to take it a step further.

What would be a good food system?

There’s not one answer. They’ll be many and we’re still try­ing to fig­ure it out. I lis­ten to peo­ple work­ing on agri­cul­tur­al ideas talk about food sys­tems,” but I don’t know what they’re refer­ring to. We don’t have one. There is a sys­tem that’s high­ly depen­dent on poi­sons and petro­le­um. And maybe some places have the begin­nings of a small food sys­tem. But we’re not there yet. For exam­ple, I’ve heard peo­ple refer to the Louisville Food­shed.” What does that mean? How far out does that go? Louisville is sur­round­ed by small farms. And I know it’s pos­si­ble that Louisville can be fed by the land­scape around it. We just need to fig­ure out a way to make that work for the farmers.

Is there a cul­tur­al shift in agri­cul­tur­al aware­ness tak­ing place?

Urban people’s inter­est in where their food comes from, and the qual­i­ty of it — their wor­ry about poi­soned food, soil loss, tox­i­c­i­ty, etc. — is a good thing. Com­mu­ni­ty Sup­port­ed Agri­cul­ture (CSAs), farm­ers mar­kets, urban gar­dens, com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens and school gar­dens are also all good. The wor­ry, to me, is that all of this is entre­pre­neur­ial. Too many CSAs in any giv­en area can make it hard for a farmer to sell enough CSA shares to get by. Our work is to try to get farm­ers out of a fad­dish economy.

The oth­er day, I was talk­ing to a friend of mine who had the first CSA in Ken­tucky. He was say­ing that the CSA is a great mod­el for a young farmer. He paid off his farm with a CSA. (He had bor­rowed the mon­ey in the 1980s, at 13 per­cent inter­est.) But he said, You know what? It’s a young person’s game.” And that’s true, sim­ply because it’s real­ly hard work. He’s 55 now, sus­tain­ably log­ging on his own land and doing fine, but do we want farm­ers to quit at 55? No. We need a place for farm­ers, an econ­o­my for them to func­tion in. This is crit­i­cal and cru­cial. If we stick only with the local food” part of the move­ment, it’s not going to amount to much. We’ve got to simul­ta­ne­ous­ly talk about cul­tur­al change and land use more gen­er­al­ly. No mat­ter how dif­fer­ent things seem to be, we are still a land-based econ­o­my. Peo­ple seem to not know that, but we are.

Are young peo­ple latch­ing onto this cul­tur­al change?

Very right­ly, a lot of young peo­ple see agri­cul­ture as the place to work in. If we can turn around agri­cul­ture, we can deal with a lot of our oth­er prob­lems. Young peo­ple inter­est­ed in agri­cul­ture these days might final­ly be what Wal­lace Steg­n­er called stick­ers.” They appear to be in it for the long haul.

Why do you think that’s the case?

Part of it is because our econ­o­my just isn’t what it was before 2008. Many of the back-to-the-lan­ders who were around Hen­ry Coun­ty in the 1970s had col­lege degrees from good uni­ver­si­ties. When the going got rough on farms, they had a lot to fall back on. I don’t think that’s the case any­more. Young peo­ple under­stand that they’re not going to grad­u­ate from col­lege and make what­ev­er they thought — $100,000 a year, $50,000 — right off the bat. It’s just not out there. So they are look­ing for a dif­fer­ent way. Maybe agri­cul­ture will be where more young peo­ple will end up.

Does this land-based edu­ca­tion you advo­cate have a place in urban com­mu­ni­ties and universities?

Absolute­ly. This is not just for rur­al peo­ple. And thank God, because there are only 15 per­cent of us left in rur­al Amer­i­ca. This is about all of us. We all need to under­stand what’s going on. If you’re far away from a moun­tain­top that’s been removed, but are still using elec­tric­i­ty that’s cheap because of it, you still have respon­si­bil­i­ty. We have to be good cit­i­zens. And a way to be a good urban cit­i­zen is to be an informed shop­per and eater. In this econ­o­my it’s almost impos­si­ble. We are all com­plic­it in what’s wrong here. But if you, or if I, think about the place where we’re from — its health and its wel­fare — then that makes it eas­i­er to imag­ine hav­ing some effect on it.

Do you and your father ever disagree?

My father and I have nev­er had a seri­ous dis­agree­ment about any­thing, at least not since I was a teenag­er and want­ed to stay out all night. I have always thought that farms and farm peo­ple, and the health of the place where we were liv­ing were impor­tant. But I’m try­ing to work on pol­i­cy in a way that Dad­dy hasn’t. I need­ed to take a pub­lic role in this strug­gle. And that real­ly didn’t hap­pen until five years ago when I was appoint­ed — by Oba­ma actu­al­ly, although I don’t think he knows it — to the Ken­tucky state board of the Farm Ser­vice Agency. It allowed me to see the two sides of agri­cul­ture at the same time: the grass­roots, small farm world (which I was obvi­ous­ly much more famil­iar with) and the Farm Ser­vice Agency side, which is a mas­sive USDA pro­gram. That’s when I real­ized the two sides were absolute­ly polarized. 

Nei­ther side under­stood what was going on. The grass­roots peo­ple didn’t under­stand much about the his­to­ry of agri­cul­ture and were very small in their inter­ests. They were talk­ing about farms much small­er than I con­sid­ered a tra­di­tion­al Ken­tucky farm. On the USDA side, I thought I’d find peo­ple who under­stood the prob­lems with Big Ag that my father and his friends had been talk­ing about for a long time. It turned out they hadn’t even heard of them. 

I get asked if I ever feel bad about preach­ing to the choir, and I say, You know what? The choir doesn’t under­stand rur­al places very well or the lives of farm­ers very well.” Very often peo­ple in urban places think, If we just got rid of sub­si­dies then a whole lot of farm­ers would start rais­ing organ­ic cucum­bers and broc­coli.” Well, it’s not going to hap­pen that way.

How does this move­ment press forward?

It’s incred­i­ble to me how threat­ened Big Ag feels. What’s the local food mar­ket— like 1 per­cent? But we have to be ready for how threat­ened they’re going to be. And we have to be very care­ful. One of the weak­ness­es of our move­ment is bas­tardized lan­guage. If you lis­ten to ads from Wal-Mart and big chain gro­cery stores, they’ve got our lan­guage. They’re talk­ing local, local, local” and sus­tain­ably raised,” and that’s just bull­shit. If the big gro­cery store claims they’re sell­ing local pro­duce, find out what they’re talk­ing about. And if you can’t, that means they’re lying. You have to edu­cate your­self. You have to be vig­i­lant. It real­ly makes the world more inter­est­ing. It’s called liv­ing an informed, awake life, and it’s way more inter­est­ing than sleep­walk­ing through it.

John Collins is the edi­tor of Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. He lives between Min­neapo­lis and La Pointe, Wis­con­sin, a vil­lage on Made­line Island in Lake Superior.
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