Protecting Farmers in the Marketplace

Big John, Wendell Berry, Den Berry
Wendell, Den and John M. Berry Sr.

My father began the 2012 Jefferson lecture with this story, “One night in the winter of 1907, at what we have always called the home place in Henry County, Kentucky, my father, then six years old, sat with his older brother and listened as their parents spoke of the uses they would have for the money from their 1906 tobacco crop. The crop was to be sold at auction in Louisville on the next day. They would have been sitting in the light of a kerosene lamp, close to the stove, warming themselves before bedtime. They were not wealthy people. I believe that the debt on their farm was not fully paid, there would have been interest to pay, there would have been other debts. The depression of the 1890’s would have left them burdened. Perhaps, after the income from the crop had paid their obligations, there would be some money that they could spend as they chose. At around two o’clock the next morning, my father was wakened by a horse’s shod hooves on the stones of the driveway. His father was leaving to catch the train to see the crop sold.”

“He came home that evening, as my father later would put it, “without a dime.” After the crop had paid its transportation to market and the commission on its sale, there was nothing left. Thus began my father’s lifelong advocacy, later my brother’s and my own, and now my daughter’s and my son’s, for small farmers and for land-conserving economies.”

I was raised on that story and have now written and told it many times. Every time I tell  or read it again I am moved by how much agrarian history is packed into a couple of paragraphs. For instance, it didn’t occur to me until the last couple of years that my grandfather who loved the law and practiced it here in New Castle until he was eighty-five, but whose passion was farming, went to law school because he couldn’t afford to farm.

My grandfather got his law degree from George Washington University and came home. He spent the rest of his life in service to the place and the people that he honored and loved. I remember him saying, after telling the story of my great grandfather’s 1907 tobacco crop that he had thought then, “when I grow up I am going to do something about this,” and he did.

What he did was the modern Burley Tobacco Program. In a book called, The Producer’s Program compiled in 1992 to celebrate The Burley Tobacco Co-operative Association, Inc. Randy Greene wrote this about my grandfather,

“Throughout the co-op’s modern history, its every ponderance, statement, and action were virtually synonymous with the values of this lone small-town attorney. But a closer look at the man reveals that he also contributed significantly to the less obvious, corporate character of the Co-op. For half an average man’s lifetime, he had penned almost every major, public document that the Co-op issued- within the industry, to state legislatures, and to Congress, yet few of these pages credited his authorship, or when they did, the byline was shared with others, Even in group photos of the association’s leaders, the lean, tall Berry typically stood in the rear, And following his retirement at the age of seventy-four, he would live another sixteen years- much of which was devoted, albeit behind the scenes, to the Co-op’s various causes.”

Michele Guthrie, our archivist here at The Berry Center is archiving the papers of John Berry, Sr., and John Berry, Jr.’s so that we can better understand a program that served the interest of diversified farmers in the eight-state Burley Belt. My husband, Steve Smith says of the Producers Program, “It is the only farm program that served the interests of the people it was meant to serve.”

Our interest in The Program has nothing to do with tobacco. Besides the fact that we don’t want farmers again dependent on a dangerous crop, we don’t want them dependent on ONE crop. We do want farmers out of a boom and bust economy and we do want to be a culture that supports a farm population that understands good land use. That is what the Tobacco Program did and that is what must be done again. My father wrote that,

“The singular demand for production has been unable to acknowledge the importance of the sources of production in nature and in human culture. Of course agriculture must be productive; it must preserve the land, and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well. A further requirement, therefore, is that if the land is to be used well, the people who use it must be able to afford to use it well. Nothing that has happened in the agricultural revolution of the last fifty years has disproved or invalidated these requirements, though everything that has happened has ignored or defied them.”

One of the most compelling pieces of the Tobacco Program is its use of the concept of parity. My grandfather said this in a speech to congress in 1948, “The parity concept is the happiest and most fortunate thought that has visited the minds of statesmen of this country in generations. It accords with our way of life, and it gives real and tangible meaning to the philosophy of “equal opportunity.” It is a consistent American way of striving for, and approaching, parity of income without the use of direct subsidy payments by the government. It must be preserved and effectuated to the end that farmers may continue to enjoy the high standard of living and opportunity which they have had only a taste of.”

For a short while, in Henry County, Kentucky diversified farmers had a stable economy within which to function. The farms showed it, the little towns showed it and it was beautiful. The program ended some twelve years ago and for those who have eyes to see the destruction is everywhere.

How did the program work?  More about that and my Uncle John’s work with the program next month.

For further reading see:

 Berry, Wendell E. “The Problem of Tobacco.” Sex, Economy Freedom & Community. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.  53 – 68.