Welcome to the Berry Center located in New Castle, Kentucky. I write this today from the law offices of Berry and Floyd where my grandfather, John M. Berry, Sr. started his law practice in 1927. It was in this building that a good deal of the work of crafting and then shepherding the Burley Tobacco Program happened. My grandfather remembered his father coming home from selling his tobacco crop in 1908 with nothing to show for a year’s work. When he got a little older he could remember men leaving tobacco warehouses with tears running down their faces. He would tell us that he thought then, “If I can do anything about this I will.” And he did. In so doing he started the Berry family’s public work to try to draw attention to the problems of rural Kentucky and to the value of what we were losing so quickly. Not just farms, topsoil, and fertility but farm people and the invaluable knowledge that they hold and pass down. We have not valued country people as a society and so we have nearly lost the people who understand land use. Why does this matter so much? Because we are talking about fertility. A society that is satisfied with short term economics while destroying the source of its own survival can not last. My grandfather knew that and passed that knowledge down to his sons John Berry, Jr. and Wendell Berry. The Berry Center was formed to continue their work, in fact, to institutionalize their work.
To that end, the Berry Center has partnered with Sterling College to launch the Wendell Berry Farming Program, a no-tuition, junior- and senior-year agriculture curriculum in Henry County, Kentucky. The program is committed to serving Kentucky students who intend to farm. The full-time slate of classes scheduled to launch in August 2019 builds on short courses taught in Henry County August 2018 and January 2019.Thanks to generous philanthropic support from the NoVo Foundation, starting in fall 2019, students will not pay tuition for the Wendell Berry Farming Program as they pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in sustainable agriculture from Sterling.
My father, Wendell, says that when you begin a study of any discipline and ask the right questions you will be led out of your discipline. We have found at Sterling College people who understand this and who are committed to the community they serve. We are committed to working with them to build an education that includes culture with the study of agriculture and to graduate young people who know where they are, can value what they have and can make themselves useful and at home in a place. We desperately need people who can do this in our countryside and in our cities, too. We know that our students will not all be from Kentucky and that what they learn with us will be taken wherever they make their home and that place will be a better place because of what they learned. We see this program as a pilot program that will move into other parts of our state and the country.
Our work at The Berry Center in New Castle is focusing on archiving and cataloging John Berry, Sr. and John Berry, Jr.’s papers. That work is being done by Michele Guthrie, a dear friend of the Berry family and a retired librarian. Besides saving the papers, we are using what Michele is finding to start the work of applying the Burley Tobacco Program to other farm products. We know that it is not a perfect fit to today’s marketplace but it is a program that worked to keep farmers on their farms for seventy-five years, brought parity into farmer’s economic lives, and gave farmers, the people who understand land use and stable economy, the ability to plan their year around. (We need to remember also that farmers were not tobacco specialists. These people were food producers too.) We don’t feel that it is fair to encourage young farmers to get in to the production of any crop without some protection in the marketplace. The tobacco program is, at least, the best model we know of to protect farmers from a boom and bust economy.
We are beginning the work of studying “The Fifty Year Farm Plan” to see how it can work in Kentucky. The plan has been proposed by The Land Institute in Kansas and was written by Wes Jackson, Fred Kirschenmann and Wendell Berry. The plan’s emphasis is on perennial agriculture and involves The Land Institute’s work on perennial grain crops. In Kentucky, where so much of our land should never be plowed, our focus needs to be on permanent pasture, forests, and perennial crops, with the best and least vulnerable of our land reserved for annual crops.
This is just some of the good work we have ahead of us. We will be publishing a quarterly newsletter to keep our members up to date with our work. Please consider joining us as we work to keep the work of the Berry family going in Kentucky. One of our goals is to partner with other entities and be of help to any group working on our dearest hope: a healthy countryside populated by prosperous farmers feeding the cities near them. Let us know what you are doing and how we can help.