“Have we met before?”
This is the first thing said by the dark-haired woman sitting behind the heavy wooden desk in the bookshop associated with the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky. Her hair stops just below her ears and she smiles brightly. The walls are made of stone and the ceiling boasts some hefty wooden beams. The building has a feeling of age unusual to most rural American buildings. Books are shelved from floor to ceiling and two walls of the four are solely dedicated to the impressive writings of Mr. Wendell Berry, the agrarian thinker, poet and fiction writer.
“It is unlikely.” I respond. “I am travelling from Ireland.”
Not only does this fact not deter the presumptive feeling of recognition, it inspires the telling of a trip to Co. Kerry and Co. Tipperary made the previous year. The lady, who’s name is Virginia, informs me that, upon crossing the border into Co. Tipperary, she was struck by the green, under-exploited landscape and compared it to the first sight that must have greeted the pioneers who discovered the green lands of Kentucky in 1792. This is the first of many analogies between Ireland and Kentucky that arise during my visit.
The Berry Center was established in 2011 by Mary Berry, daughter of Wendell Berry, as a nonprofit that gives a voice to the needs of the small-to-medium farmer. Its ethos is based on the work and thinking of Wendell Berry and his father John M. Berry. Wendell Berry is one of America’s foremost spokesmen for conscious land use and John M. Berry established the Burley Tobacco Program, a co-op for Kentucky tobacco farmers, in 1921. Since its creation, the Center has established an archive of all of Wendell Berry’s publications, founded the multi-disciplinary practical farming course called the Berry Farming Program and prototyped a new iteration of the Burley Tobacco Program which focuses on diverse crops, as well as running the well-stocked New Castle book shop. One of the key tenants of the institution is the importance of parity, or equal opportunity, for farmers instead of direct subsidies from the government. The Berry Center argues for a social reality in which farming and farmers are treated by the state and the common market in a manner equal to their social and economic importance.
Baccy in Kentucky
I had the opportunity to drive the surrounding countryside with Virginia, who is in fact the daughter of Mary, as my guide. A story that best illustrates the problems and proposed solutions seen by the Berrys is the story of the rise and fall of Burley tobacco farming in New Castle.
Tobacco is native to North America and until the 1920s, Kentucky produced more tobacco then any other state.*
The town of New Castle was built around the tobacco trade. A labor-intensive crop, the farming of tobacco requires planting, topping, harvesting with tomahawks, stacking on average ten leaves on one stick, carrying the sticks into a drying room, hanging the sticks from up to three stories high and then sorting the dried leaves into three categories for sale. By the time the leaves have been sent to market, seeds are being sown to start the next season of growth. All told, tobacco farming requires many hands. Virginia talks of working in the drying shed sorting leaves as a child and of being part of a community that helped each other plant, cut and harvest. She describes the shared work as the glue that kept the community together. When the tobacco crop began to fail the community began to show signs of strain for the first time.
Since then, efforts have been made to replace the lagging tobacco industry with other crops such as grapes and hemp but still New Castle is a community without a centre. Urban migration is common and the purchasing of large swathes of land by individuals makes it difficult for those who leave to return. What farmers are left grow soy beans and corn. These two crops are unsuited to the soft soils of the Kentucky Basin but the America Government provides subsidies for each field of corn or soy planted so these are seen as the best crops to plant. Virginia herself expresses frustration at the difficulty of acquiring land near her home place. Currently she is living in the city but thinks of farming almost daily.
The situation of a town with a thinning community and an ailing economy is common in most rural areas around the world, including Ireland. What makes the writings of Wendell Berry, and by dint the Berry Center, radical is that he advocates for a prioritising of our rural spaces and our farmers in a time when 66% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas by 2050 and less than 1% of America’s population are employed as farmers.* * His writings are urgent and they are on behalf of our environment and habitat.
After my visit to the Berry Center and the surrounding Kentucky countryside, I am left with questions: are there young people interested in a life of farming as Wendell Berry portrays it? Where are they? Is there any land left for new farmers to acquire and are there still people to teach them? Will there be enough social and government support for a small-to-medium farming startup? Or has the time of the small-to-medium farmer passed and if so, what does this mean for our food systems and our relationship with our land?