Words to Live By, Words to Farm By

In December 2013, Wendell Berry came to Stone Barns Center to speak at the Young Farmers Conference.

It was an honor for us, and a momentous occasion—one of the best and brightest in our first decade, and a moment that the beginning farmers assembled will surely never forget.

Poet, writer, sage and one of the most respected and beloved advocates of farming and the agrarian way of life, Berry doesn’t like to leave his home place in Kentucky much these days. But he will when he can help a cause he believes in; when he can guide and inspire others to take up farming and care for the land. Berry believes in farming that responds to the nature of a particular place, practiced in harmony with the environment.

The following are selected excerpts from his talks at Stone Barns.

ON THE STATE OF FARMING
Our county at home the last two years has been invaded by corn and beans. It’s like being the pharaoh of old and seeing the plagues let loose upon the country. Farms that have been mostly in grass all my life are now stuffed from line fence to line fence with corn or beans.

The idea of using the land according to ecological principles means using it according to your best intelligence. [But] what we’ve done is train our farmers to take instructions from experts; “you’re just a farmer.” Put that “just” in front of it, and you’ve made a radical reduction .…People have to have freedom to use their own intelligence in their own work, and this means everything we’ve ever meant by freedom.

Wes Jackson has said [our universities] have only one major: upward mobility. We need another one: home coming. Educating people to go home is shockingly new in our time.

Patience. If you think of farming as a science in some kind of collaboration with mechanical and chemical engineering, then you don’t see any reason for patience. If you see it as an art that rises out of respect for places, and love for places, and the wish to do the best by the places that you’re using, then you see that patience has to enter in.

My friend, [a] forester, says to know a patch of forest takes decades; that’s all there is to it. He’s talking not just about accumulating data, but accumulating sympathy that permits the place to speak back to the person who’s using it.

TO BEGINNING FARMERS
I don’t think that a bunch of young farmers have ever been placed exactly the way you are. Things are really in a bad state on the land.…It’s been getting worse right on until you’ve come to your turn to take up the care of it.

These things—mountaintop removal, fracking—show our willingness to go the limit in land destruction. Some people will destroy it completely, and a lot of people will tolerate it. So it’s a very hopeful thing to see so many people here with an interest in farming. But you’re burdened first of all with this burden of land use—this pit that it’s fallen into. You’re also burdened with a terrific responsibility because you’re going to be finding solutions and making examples, solving problems, setting patterns for the next bunch who’re going to come after you. It better be possible [for a farmer to form a deep connection to the land and place if he or she wasn’t born there].…but you have to take on patience as a virtue. Learn to practice it; accept your own ignorance and mistakes as a curriculum. This is very humbling to do. It’s after all what hereditary farmers do. And it doesn’t hurt to have a job in town.…But it is possible; it all depends a lot on your character, your strength, your doggedness, your ability to suffer.

You’re not going to get familiar with your place by being frantic on it all the time, hurrying from one job to the other.…You’re going to learn a lot about your place from sitting down and looking at it.…Going somewhere and sitting down is a country pleasure.…Not working on Sunday is a terrific idea.

OBSERVATIONS
I live at an old river landing… on the Kentucky River. My community of Port Royal is up at the top of the hill.… The consciousness of the community is oriented toward the river.…[Today], the boys, the girls are not going to the river to swim. When my mother was a girl, she and her friends would go all the way to the river to swim.… My brother and I hitchhiked and rode bicycles from the county seat, 10 miles to the river to go swimming, and we had the run of all the territory between. I grew up in bunches of boys roaming the countryside, pretty much had the run of it when we weren’t put to work. That’s just gone. You don’t see kids outside the houses any more.…And the practical pertinence is that children playing outdoors learn a lot that would be useful to them if they stayed on and farmed.…The loss of country pleasures is a big, big loss. I’ve done a lot of sitting and looking; that’s called writing.… Sometimes I’ll watch the creatures who are neighbors to me in that place. And finally it came to me: those are not wild animals, those creatures. They’re leading their domestic lives, they’re making homes, raising their children, hunting up food—more seriously, more skillfully domestic than my life.…The wild creatures inhabiting that landscape now are these out-of-control industrial humans, and these domestic, native, original creatures of the place know it.

There’s no place as interesting to me as my only little own place. That’s because of the associations that have gotten to be piled up on it. Every step I take, I’m crossing the tracks of someone I’ve known well and loved, and I recover these stories in my mind, and I give thanks.…I come under the influence of it more all the time.