• Ideas

Wendell Berry Discusses Rediscovering Rural America

4 minute read

You talk about a new generation of “homecomers.” What does that mean?

By homecomer, I mean somebody who’s gone away and come back to the farm or to the local community. To rural America. Somebody who followed the universal advice that they couldn’t amount to anything where they grew up and have gone away and have found reason to come back. I visited a cheese co-op in Vermont. The members were not getting rich, but you could say they were thriving or prospering in a modest way, which would be quite enough if everybody were doing that.

What do you say to environmentalists who believe it would be better for more people to live in cities?

The more people who live in cities, the fewer there are who have knowledge of what I’m calling the economic landscapes. So that’s the wrong way to get a lobby for better land care. There’s nobody lobbying for the best use of farming and forest and mining landscapes. This has been a kind of sore point with me for a long time. You have to understand, I’ve been at this for more than 50 years, and my allies and I have done no good. For land use and land maintenance in those economic landscapes, we have done no good. We’ve not ever been able to put any meaningful restraints on the coal industry. They’ve done what they wanted to do. So-called farming has become increasingly dependent on toxic chemicals. There’s still too much soil erosion.

Why are farmers suffering?

The problem is surplus production. As long as they remain solvent and their farms remain productive, there’s no way farmers can stop themselves from overproducing without help from the government.

Your wife says your principal asset as a writer has been your “knack for repeating yourself.” Why keep repeating yourself?

Because things aren’t improving out here in this newly discovered rural America. Actually, it was discovered a long time ago by the Republicans and the corporations — the Democrats had forgotten it for quite a long time, and they’ve just rediscovered it. Forty years ago, I wrote a book called The Unsettling of America. The tragedy of that book is that it’s still pertinent. If it had gone out of print because of irrelevance, it would have been a much happier book. In 1977, I thought that the farming population was at a disastrous low. Now it’s somewhere below 1%.

Your main concern with economists is that they think commodities can always come from somewhere else.

This has been a dominant idea throughout our history: if you don’t have it here, you can get it from somewhere else. If you use up this commodity here, you can’t produce it here anymore, you’ve worn out the possibility here, get it from somewhere else. Or if you’re short of labor or you’re too good for certain kinds of labor, go to Africa and get some slaves. That recourse has haunted us, has plagued us to death.

What’s growing on your farm these days?

Grass and trees. We have just handed over our ewe flock and the use of our pastures to some neighbors to increase the production capacity of their flock and their pastures. Our farming operation is pretty much reduced. We’re experiencing the expectable reduction of strength and endurance. We had a big garden when the children were young and we were young and strong. We raised virtually everything we ate. We had poultry and two milk cows, and we fattened two meat hogs every year, and a calf, and grew the big garden. It’s extremely gratifying to sit down to a meal you’ve grown every bit of.

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