Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver and the evolution of farming in the United States
By Suzanne Wilson Crable
Noonday, December 7, 2013
This paper, as I am sure like many of our papers, has changed drastically from my original idea. And I had no idea of how drastically my life had really changed until I began working on the paper. I totally did not have time to research and write this the way I intended to but I hope it will give you a glimpse of a side of the world I have come to treasure.
I have known about Wendell Berry as an Important Writer but, until this summer, I never read anything by him. My book group chose to read Jayber Crow, a novel I owned for years, tried to read and couldn’t get into it. My time being limited these days, I bought it from Audible and listened to it while working my hours at Turner Farm. Listening to the words made all the difference. I became captivated not so much by the plot (a criticism my friends voiced) as by the lyrical beauty of the setting and the use of the novel to spark reflection upon Berry’s various causes. Those causes, stewardship of the land, community, farming, are delineated throughout an exhaustive body of work. I will tell you right now that I have only skimmed the surface of his novels, poetry and essays. My plan going forward is to read his poetry frequently and work my way through the Port William membership novels and short stories. I have read most of Barbara Kingsolver’s novels but two of my favorites, Prodigal Summer and Flight Behavior draw strongly upon the method used by Berry to identify problems and offer solutions. Kingsolver’s work is more readily available to the general public; being read by the Oprah Book Club probably enabled her to take the time to create her non-fiction Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I thought I was pretty clever to see a very strong connection between Berry and Kingsolver until I found that they are correspondents and her work is informed by his. He and his wife Tanya are acknowledged as her mentors. Berry and Kingsolver’s writing explores the plight of the land and humankind in the 21st century highlighting the importance of the family farm, knowing where our food comes from and actions that we might take to be better stewards of “this fragile earth, our island home,” (Eucharistic Prayer).
Is worrying about where our food comes from and how it is produced an affectation of foodies and urban vegan rich folks? Or should it be front and center, pushing change in the way our world feeds itself? Berry, Kingsolver, Berry’s disciple Michael Pollan, and Pollan’s student Novella Carpenter all argue that changing the model of food production in the USA (and the world) is necessary for our personal health and that of the planet. Childhood and adult obesity have reached epidemic proportions in the same parts of the country where fracking, strip mining and mountain top removal are wreaking irreparable damage and farming is corporate or nonexistent. Coincidence? People living in urban areas do not see the devastation wrought; they just notice their gas bill is lower due to more natural gas made available through fracking. If fracking and mining are near your family farm, you may not be able to stay there when the groundwater is poisoned. Producing massive amounts of corn and soybeans degrade the soil and are used to make cheap, highly processed and fattening food products. Farms are huge and farmers (in general) are getting older. Debt is a way of life to enable production of the raw materials on the scale necessary for processed foods. This is all really depressing. The strident voices on either side could make one want to ignore the issue altogether. But the ideals expressed by Wendell Berry and the actions described by Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan and Novella Carpenter give us hope and the will to effect change.
Wendell Berry was born in Henry County Kentucky in 1934 seven years and 364 days after my father was born in Jefferson County, not that far away but worlds away. His middle name is Erdman, earth man in German (my son had a friend in Germany by that name). My father remembers the 1937 flood but as a city kid in Louisville sheltering a family whose home was flooded. The flood helps to change the course of Jayber Crow’s life and bring him to Port William, the fictional town used as the setting for Berry’s rural characters. More than 10 novels, novellas and short stories encompass the ongoing description of the lives of the Port William townfolk. The works are good literature although he has never had a bestseller. As he describes the life events of the Port William membership, we are presented with heroic and flawed people very much like ourselves. I think of them as parts of one enormous novel as Berry explores the same characters from many different angles. They might speak in their own voice in one piece then be observed by others in another. Each novel has a focus on a particular character trait or land concern. This can sometimes get in the way of a good story which is probably why they have never reached a huge audience. The ideas presented in his essays have rippled out widely; Bill McKibben calls him a prophet. Those ideas have their expression in the stories.
There was a wonderful interview, very rare, between Berry and Bill Moyers filmed earlier this year (aired in early October) that I commend to you. His poetry was highlighted along with his activism which began with the fight to keep the Red River Gorge from being flooded in the early 1970’s. I cannot imagine northeastern Kentucky without the Red River Gorge recreation area. When I went to Natural Bridge state park, I was overwhelmed with gratitude to Wendell Berry for his efforts to keep this area intact. Other evidence of the outcome of his efforts includes areas now permanently saved for world-renowned rock climbing with businesses that cater to this crowd. Restaurants advertise local food and other entrepreneurial efforts represent ways for people to make a living from the land in a way unimaginable 50 years ago. Preservation there might be keeping young people from moving away permanently.
Barbara Kingsolver’s novels Prodigal Summer, published in 2000, and Flight Behavior, published in 2012, explore the problems with making a living in the rural south, at first glance. Both books touch on family dynamics, family farming and the connections entwining families in small communities. Prodigal Summer is a vastly different book than The Poisonwood Bible and did not receive quite the same critical acclaim; it was not chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. The format follows three story lines (a device now used quite frequently) that meet up at the end throughout a fecund summer of transformation. Each character’s growth is of interest but Kingsolver uses their crises to raise questions about preserving the family farm, caring for the soil used to grow our food, and the recovery of species (animal and plant). There is healing for each character in the book; I like to have things come out alright in the end sometimes! No matter the differences in personality, most characters find healing from nature. Three strong female protagonists challenge what could be seen as male domination of nature. The elderly man that is trying to create a blight-resistant American chestnut quotes Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” as his justification for using pesticides and herbicides. But this message was given before the big screw-up by apple eating in the Garden of Eden, I would add. Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver might say that since we were thrown out of Eden, we must be stewards of what God left to us. We must “make a living” in harmony with the planet.
Flight Behavior has more of a traditional novel construction, following one woman’s transformation as she watches the possible extinction of monarch butterflies through seasons of climate change weather. Dellarobia is a statistic embodied: barely educated, from Tennessee, married young, smoking, scraping by on little income and Medicaid, unhappy. The only things she isn’t are obese and she once dreamed of college before her teen pregnancy. This is a much grittier, more realistic depiction of rural life than Prodigal Summer or any of Berry’s works. When the butterflies converge on the mountain owned by Dellarobia’s in-laws, more than a thousand miles from their former winter home, they attract people that would never visit Feathertown in the normal course of life. Dellarobia, as so many before her, finds her salvation in nature. There are echoes of a theme also found in Berry’s Jayber Crow of whether to cut down a stand of old growth forest, where the monarchs have landed. Important questions about the clash of the needs of people trying to survive in an economy with few jobs and the preservation of a bunch of trees or a family farm run through all of their fiction. In both of these novels, Kingsolver addresses the modern problems faced by rural America more realistically than Berry.
Jobs are scarce, careers almost nonexistent in these pockets of the south. There are many family farms remaining: in Kentucky the latest available statistics list 54,000 small farms, about 64% of the total number. The average yearly earnings for a small to mid-scale farm are $19,274 including government payments in the form of subsidies or crop insurance. Off-farm income really sustains the family, about $35,000. Drive the back roads and you see the aftermath of the interstate highways bypassing small towns, industrialization, strip mining, outsourcing: all the change of the 20th and 21st centuries. Change back will be slow. Berry’s work, in particular, describes the difficulty with making a living (this is a phrase he uses often, we need only to make a living, not a “killing”) as rural small-town life evaporates.
As I mentioned, my first Wendell Berry experience was Jayber Crow, published in 2000. The characters are explored differently throughout the cycle of novels and are seen from various angles throughout the work; the most recent is Hannah Coulter in 2004. He rarely uses a woman’s voice but this novel is lyrical, exploring the nurturing of a farm and a second marriage. This novel, his last?, really delves into the questions posed by the 21st century to rural America. Who will decide to do all the hard work to preserve a working farm? The houses are old, requiring constant maintenance. The land requires attention to keep it healthy and producing enough to support a family by its produce. Does the push for higher education mean that parents lose the generation who will maintain the farm? Both of Hannah’s children leave the farm but there is hope that her grandson will return; the book ends with this hope, once dashed, renewed. After the death of her husband, a real estate developer comes to visit Hannah:
“The sound of his engine had hardly died away before I realized that I could no longer imagine our place, I couldn’t see it in my mind’s eye. What did he see in it? A “country place” for some rich professional person in Louisville or Cincinnati, with our old once-renewed buildings shoved into a heap and burnt and everything brand-new? A hunting preserve for some sportsman’s club? A housing development called “The Woodlands”? Whatever vision he had of the place as it might be had driven the place as it is out of my mind. I felt bereft, and a little crazy. I felt a fierce homesickness. I put on my scarf and coat and went out.” Hannah Coulter, p.178.
Hannah walks the fields and woods as so many of Berry’s characters, and Berry himself, has done. Jayber Crow, the town barber, retires to a house on the river loaned to him by a friend after government regulations close down his “town” business. There is much mourning of the changes that accelerated after World War II. The cataclysmic nature of the war threads throughout his work, just as the 9/11 attacks have wrought change in this century that will continue to unfold. If World War II drove people to the cities, maybe 9/11 is sending them back to the country, back to the farm. And maybe the farm is coming to the city.
When you begin to do a google search for Wendell Berry, you get a wide range of references. I would make the case that he is the most influential person for this century that you might not have heard of. Many, many people have heard of Michael Pollan, for better or for worse! In every major book he has written on food, he references Wendell Berry. In 2006, The Omnivore’s Dilemma gave many a reader pause and recognized the stirrings among some parts of the country to reject the Wal-mart world. In 2007, Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle continued this exploration and became an invitation to a broader audience who would read anything by her to learn about eating locally and organically. I remember feeling very superior at this point; our family has belonged to a CSA since the late 90’s, we belonged to a food co-op buying club until 2006 and before that to the original Cincinnati Food Co-op in Northside (Tom since 1980!). But, no, not superior, just grateful that these alternatives were getting a very large audience and press discussion. My friend Melinda O’Briant, who was the Garden Manager at Turner Farm for many years and is now the Education Director, remembers that sales at the Turner Farm Market and at farmers’ markets went up dramatically with the popularity of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. In the acknowledgements for AVM, Kingsolver writes, “Wendell and Tanya Berry were there all along; everything we’ve said here, Wendell said first, in a quiet voice that makes the mountains tremble.”
Maybe we could look at Berry as a retro-revolutionary. He is pushing us to reclaim both the land and our hearts. His poetry is achingly beautiful. There are volumes and volumes of it; once again I have just scratched the surface. Berry writes about long-lasting love. He writes about love of many varieties: between a man and a woman, love of the farm, forest, river, birds, animals, love of our nation. There is discord, of course, but he believes in the possibility for healing, always. Even in poetry he explores the frustration felt by the push to more largeness and more mechanization of farming.
Here is the throwing-up-of-hands part. What do we do? Michael Pollan has championed an essay of Berry’s that can be seen as another manifesto: The Pleasures of Eating. Here he provides clear guidelines for eating responsibly. When one is ready to give up, we are given a list of things that we can change. We each have responsibility for the food economy and our decisions, when added to those of thousands then millions of others, can change the way we use nature in our production of our sustenance. The suggestions may not be totally easy for urbanites like us but what Berry does not recognize is the difficulty that rural Americans face. Those peculiar challenges are recognized in Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. Here’s a rundown of the seven ways Berry identifies as a path to reconnect with the land through eating:
- Participate in food production to the extent that you can. This could be having a little garden, battling with squirrels and deer to produce some tomatoes or it could be turning your whole front yard into a vegetable garden and start canning. The Turner Farm CSA requires sharers to work 2 hours a week in addition to paying for the share.
- Prepare your own food. Michael Pollan addresses this in his latest book, Cooked, and in In Defense of Food. This does not mean opening cans, combining the ingredients and microwaving them! We all need to do this sometimes but taking the time to cook also allows time to appreciate the colors, textures and tastes of each ingredient. Chopping can be a time for meditation. Even a few times a week for someone with an impossibly busy life like me really does calm me down and helps me to feel some control over my life.
- Learn the origins of the food you buy and buy the food produced closest to your home. We are fortunate in Cincinnati to live close to farming. There are still working farms in Hamilton County selling their produce to us. We have Findlay Market and an explosion in the past few years of farmers’ markets in our neighborhoods. There are dozens now. I have brought a few copies of the CORV 2013 Local Food Guide for your perusal. While organic produce might be preferred, food that has not travelled long distances is next best.
- Whenever possible, deal directly with a local farmer, gardener, or orchardist. This is really fun to do. If you shop regularly at a market, you have the opportunity to get to know your grower. When Turner sharers worked at Findlay and Bellevue markets, I loved talking to customers. We could explain how the food was grown and yes, it is more expensive. Berry doesn’t mention what my palate tells me: local food tastes better. January and February are pretty cold here and salad greens just don’t grow, forcing me to buy the bagged organic at Kroger. It is okay, better than iceberg lettuce, but almost a different food. You also gain an understanding of how the weather affects growth. Some years Dennis from Backyard Orchard fills my bag with apples and in drought summers he is counting them out carefully. This connects us back to our planet and to recognize that the weather is more than just inconvenient and uncomfortable. Are the actions of humans part of the problem?
- Learn about the economy and technology of industrial food production. For this, we look back to The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan discusses in detail the uncomfortable and unpalatable reality of growing massive amounts of “inexpensive” meat. In Berry’s Jayber Crow, the “villain” in the book is a young farmer who jumps completely into the industrial food complex, going into debt for machinery, planting only a few varieties of crops, eventually obliterating some of the beauty of Port William. When you think about this, it is easier to reduce the amount of meat (in particular) that you consume that comes from CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). We belong to a meat CSA also, more expensive but that makes me really pay attention to what I prepare, and we eat all of it!
- Learn what is involved in the best farming and gardening. Talk to your farmers, visit a farm when there is an open house. Supporting farmers that grow in ways that protect the earth they steward encourages these practices. Caring for the soil by rotating crops, using no or few pesticides and herbicides begins to turn the tide toward health for those acres. The more of us that change our buying habits to organic encourages more organic production.
- Learn as much as you can by direct observation and experience if possible, of the life histories of the food species. What do pigs really like to do? What about sheep and cows, chickens? Watching kale grow is not that exciting, except if you help plant it, weed it, harvest it and eat it. You can do this in your backyard.
Choosing some points that are easy for you to begin with might inspire you to do more. Pollan’s manifesto from In Defense of Food could help to shape your thinking: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Berry’s points look pretty clear to us at first but what about people like Kingsolver describes in Flight Behavior? What about people that live in food deserts? What about people that live at or below poverty level? What about people with work, family and commute schedules that make thinking about what and how they eat nearly impossible? What about pressure from the industrial food complex? What about the human body’s strong desire for sugar, salt and fat? Are these books enough to start shifting behavior around food in the United States? What about the 68.8% of Americans classified as overweight or obese? What about 30.4% of low-income preschoolers overweight or obese? What about government subsidies to farmers that do not help and may actually destroy small and family farms? What about SNAP and WIC? How on earth do we change all this for the better?
The descriptions of Dellarobia’s economic situation seem to be pretty accurate. The Food Research and Action Center has a Challenge for legislators and middle class people to live on the $4 per person per day for food through the SNAP program. I have not done this yet because I can see how hard this would be even for our thrifty family. Flight Behavior follows Dellarobia’s observation of the contrasts between her life and that of the researchers, eco-tourists and various environmentalists drawn to witness the monarchs on the mountain. She knows how much the hiking boots cost the visitors wear and she knows they would not understand her challenges. She has to admit to Ovid Byron (the researcher of monarchs) that the lights went out in their barn turned lab because she did not have the money to pay the electric bill. Understanding and education go both ways. Everyone in Noonday would attempt to do what Ovid Byron does for Dellarobia: do whatever is in their power to help her to make positive changes in her life. Realistic? It is literature; once again, it is nice for everything to sort of come out alright. But Kingsolver recognizes that this kind of change requires a cataclysmic event. Nature has reacted to the changes wrought by humans by altering the pattern of the butterflies. Like the butterfly effect on a major scale, many lives change after the butterflies land on the wrong mountain. What does it take for a woman to decide to leave one difficult life for another? Is this a character trait that will just emerge? Dellarobia is different from her peers, reacting to teen pregnancy predictably for that part of the world, getting married and intending to have the baby, and in stark contrast to her mother-in-law. But while living her life in Feathertown, she holds herself at arm’s length and is seeking change.
Farm City by Novella Carpenter is a memoir of her experiences in creating an urban farm. This is an extreme example of what someone might do to eat local. When she creates a garden, which becomes a small farm, on a vacant lot in an incredibly rough section of Oakland, CA, people are drawn to it. She is a student of Michael Pollan and quotes Wendell Berry. She also draws upon “The Pleasures of Eating” as she describes the history of urban farming. This little book and her blog are smart, funny, and she is sticking by her plot of land in the ghetto in spite of challenges by people who do not understand her mission. Might this happen in other places? It is happening and the other good news is that young people are leading this change. In reality, it has always happened. Carpenter’s research reveals that people living in cities have been growing food for themselves for thousands of years. It is the next generation that will pick up the burden of continuing to heal the planet; different and extreme farming methods are a part of this. Here in Cincinnati, a young couple I know has been working a garden in Over the Rhine with children from the neighborhood. The city proposed taking the space for CityRama, another good thing, but with a strong email campaign, the garden remains. Children living nearby in Over-the-Rhine wander by, get interested and can learn grow their food, learning where and how the system works, and selling it at Findlay Market. There are gardens popping up throughout the city in front yards (Oakley) and the Enright Ridge EcoVillage now has a large Community Supported Agriculture program. Maybe you read about the Our Harvest Food Hub Co-op in College Hill. My younger son helped out there when he was working for a nursery just down Winton Road where they are growing plants native to Ohio, yet another type of “farming.” There is a group in the East End, Urban Greens. Another young couple I know farms Finn Meadow Farms in Montgomery. One block east from Montgomery Road, behind Twin Lakes, is an oasis of farming. Marc worked at Turner Farm for a couple of years then found this opportunity. Farmers, making a huge generalization from those that I know and those I have read about, are independent souls. They are entrepreneurs, sometimes rascally and the farmers of the next generation in Cincinnati are smart and business-savvy. Megan Gambrill, the garden manager at Turner Farm, researches best organic farming practices and she is reaching out to share the food the farm produces with as wide an audience as possible. A growing number of family farmers are taking their farms in different directions, away from single crops such as tobacco and corn (as described in Prodigal Summer in which goats become a cash crop). This is the best chance for survival for small farms. The pool of people that would like to eat fresh and local food is growing. Remember the vegetable garden at the White House?
How is conservative Cincinnati responding to this push toward farming among young people? Quite positively! There are farmers’ markets in most neighborhoods. There is a market somewhere every day of the week in the peak growing months of May through October. There are even a few winter markets. I like to think that my mother and I were ahead of the curve; she always went to one of the oldest markets, now called the Farmer Produce Market of Cincinnati at Lunken Airport. She was quite the city woman but she loved melons and knew which farmers had the best, and let them know it if they were not of the quality she demanded. I am lucky to have had that experience then to meet Tom Crable and the co-op movement. One obstacle the farmers encounter is the negative reaction to the price of local, usually organic or organically grown food. There was a lively discussion on the CinciLocavore yahoogroup recently on pricing. Most farmers do not earn a living from farming, as we learned from the statistics and as starkly described in Prodigal Summer and Flight Behavior. You can expect to pay more for this food because it reflects the effort that goes into its production. You are less likely to waste such food (Americans waste about 40% of the food harvested, in many different ways) and the farmers at the farmers’ markets do not get farm subsidies so the price you pay is the price they need to get. This is hard to explain to newcomers to markets. For two years, Turner Farm had a booth at the new Bellevue Market in the parking lot of The Party Source (it has since closed due to the building going on in the lot). In spite of my best selling skills, we did nowhere near as well as we did at Findlay Market and even there we encountered surprise at how much food really costs. Bonnie Mitsui, the owner of Turner Farm, wanted the CSA sharers to work as well as pay for the food so we would understand the hard work involved in producing the amazingly great vegetables from the farm. Working full time, it’s tough for me to get my hours in. But as soon as I get out to the farm, I am happy to be there, sweating in the sunshine. Universally, the interns at Turner Farm are cheerful while working incredibly hard. I think that we have neglected a need that some people have to be farmers. There is a huge push for everyone to have a college education, but what are all those people going to do with that college degree? Adopting a career producing nutritious and tasty food should be a completely acceptable choice even for a college-educated person. Marc (from Finn Meadows) went to Harvard, Megan (from Turner) went to Washington and Lee University, Melinda (education director of Turner) went to Ohio State. Xavier now has a degree in Sustainability with the program coordinated by a former Turner Farm sharer. Cincinnati State has several programs geared toward a future in agriculture. The Civic Garden Center offers a variety of classes for amateurs as do many County Extension Services.
As Americans, we have to find a way to make money at all this interest in farming and growing our own food! There are urban farms and small farms sprouting up everywhere. Novella Carpenter and another urban farmer from Oakland wrote The Essential Urban Farmer as a primer for newbies. In Detroit where there are various groups taking over blighted areas and growing gardens or trees. Enright Ecovillage is an intentional community with a growing CSA called Urban Farm. The Oakley branch library has at least 10 books on community gardens and urban farms. This all comes back around to Wendell Berry again, of course, and the interconnectedness between people and food. It is very difficult to subsist on what you are able to grow on your own; we are meant to live in community and share our particular talents with one another. This could be selling our wares, bartering, growing our own or just being aware of where our food comes from.
Like most of you, I will never stop reading fiction. The stories told by Wendell Berry and Barbara Kingsolver present a painting of farm life in the past, present and the possibility of a brighter future for our farmers and our earth. It is easy to see that the actions of the characters might be ours. Memoirs by farmers approaching their craft in creative ways, conscious of the responsibility they have to nurture the earth (readily available at our wonderful public library) give us insight into the brave new world that we can create. The challenge for us is to do whatever we can, in any small way, to better our little part of the planet.
Berry, Wendell. Jayber Crow. New York: Counterpoint, 2000.
________Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food. Counterpoint Berkeley, 2009.
_______Collected Poems, 1957-1982. San Francisco: North Point, 1985.
_______Hannah Coulter. Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004.
_______Recollected Essays 1965-1980. San Francisco: North Point, 1981.
_______That Distant Land. Washington, DC: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004.
Carpenter, Novella. Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.
Kingsolver, Barbara. Prodigal Summer. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.
________Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. New York: Harper Collins 2007
_______Flight Behavior. New York: Harper, 2012.
Moyers & Company October 4, 2013. Wendell Berry: Poet & Prophet
Peters, Jason, ed. Wendell Berry: Life and Work. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007.
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
_______Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. New York: Penguin Books, 2013.
_______In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
Smith, Kimberly K. Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2003.
Food Research and Action Center: frac.org
Central Ohio River Valley
Suggested Related Reading
The Essential Urban Farmer. Novella Carpenter and Willow Rosenthal.
Farm Together Now. Amy Franceschini and Daniel Tucker
City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America. Laura J. Lawson
The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love. Kristin Kimball.
My Empire of Dirt. Manny Howard.
Folks, this ain’t normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World. Joel Salatin.
Guerilla Gardening: A Manualfesto. David Tracey.
Tender. Nigel Slater.