The Berry Farming Program at St. Catharine College is working hard to “[d]raw succinct and tangible connections between education and communities and the land.”[1] Recent publications illustrate this effort.

On February 7, 2016, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly featured PBS correspondent Judith Valente’s interviews with SCC students and faculty, Mary Berry, and Dominican Sister Claire McGowan. This segment offers a glimpse at how “an ethical and spiritual relationship to land stewardship [is] the center point, not something out on the periphery” of the Berry Farming Program.[2]

On February 9, 2016, The Whole Horse Project: An Editorial Collective published part 1 of 2 of BFP Coordinator Dr. Leah Bayens’s article “‘A Way of Thought Based on Land’: Institutionalizing Agrarian Thought.” Below, you’ll find an excerpt of this piece about the prospects and perils of institutional agrarianism.

SCC professor Dr. Tara Tuttle responded to this article in “Flint and the Need for Institutional Affection.” Dr. Tuttle offers a thoughtful assessment of the prospects for institutionalizing agrarian thought–and the travesties that result from a dearth of neighborly affection. Using the Flint water poisoning as a case study, she asks:

“Could Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) have supported the decisions of the emergency manager responsible for Flint’s polluted water supply—the decision to switch from a safe water source to a polluted one—if he were exposed to agrarian values at some point during his path to higher education? Optimistically, perhaps naively, I think he could not.”[3]

We hope you’ll take time to read and view these pieces.

Excerpt from ‘A Way of Thought Based on Land’: Institutionalizing Agrarian Thought

Dr. Leah Bayens

The Whole Horse Project

February 9, 2016

Before I ever met him, Wendell Berry had already influenced some of my most deeply held beliefs. This is not particularly novel. People from across the country and further afield say the same of their experience reading this Kentucky farmer and writer’s essays, fiction, and poetry. His aficionados run the gamut: farmers, teachers, writers, women religious, monks, economists, gardeners, shopkeepers, journalists, heiresses, artists, researchers of all stripes, community organizers, doctors, cooks, ascetics, distillers, lawyers, politicians, conservationists, preservationist, wilderness advocates, and even the President of the United States[4] and the Prince of Wales.[5]

Visitors to Berry’s Henry County, Kentucky, farm lay out their personal and philosophical quandaries, seeking his advice on farming practices and on peaceable ways in the presence of fear. Colleges and universities grant him honorary degrees, citing, as Duke University did, their admiration for Berry’s “respect for the land, love of community, and the stewardship of creation,” as well as his “belief that industrialization poses a threat to the natural world.”[6] The U.S. government bestows on him the nation’s highest honors, recognizing his persistence as “a great contrary to the compromises others take in stride” and his defense of “what is being lost to the forces of modernization.”[6] Economists look to him for counsel about how to reunite ecology and economy through oikos, home, or as Berry puts it, “the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods.”[7]

In The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Berry’s 1977 landmark critique of industrial agriculture, he articulates the crux of the problem then and now:

That one American farmer can now feed himself and fifty-six other people may be, within the narrow view of the specialist, a triumph of technology; by no stretch of reason can it be considered a triumph of agriculture or of culture. It has been made possible by the substitution of energy for knowledge, of methodology for care, of technology for morality. . . .[8]

Berry suggests an alternative standard: “the standard of nature.” [9]Nature’s standard requires that people ask of a place “what nature would permit them to do there, and what they could do there with the least harm to the place and to their natural and human neighbors.”[10]

Words like these made good sense to me. They fomented my decision to help bolster sustainable, ecology-based, civic-minded agriculture. The nature-as-standard concept guided my study of nineteenth-century American and environmental literature toward ecology and agrarian beliefs and practices. Studying my family’s farm informed and deepened this education, as did my work with grassroots groups to uphold the interdependent rights of nature and its human communities. I shared what I learned with my students. I showed them classrooms beyond buildings and campus to make sure they knew how to merge academic and lived experiences.

Four years ago, all of this led me to accepting a charge directly from Berry and his family. In the winter of 2011, I found myself in the living room of a 150-year-old farm house in Henry County, chatting with Wendell and his daughter Mary about the prospect of having me, a brand new, bona-fide doctor of English, design a transdisciplinary, experiential-learning oriented, ecology-based sustainable agriculture curriculum. Mary Berry had just launched an organization in New Castle, Kentucky, called The Berry Center, which would extend her family’s efforts to support small family farms. In addition to working on agricultural policy, the Center aims to improve farmer education. To that end, the Berry family had been looking for a small, rural college that evinced a commitment to land stewardship and community engagement and would embrace a program grounded in Wendell’s vision of culture as inseparable from agriculture. They found a partner in St. Catharine College, a liberal arts school in central Kentucky where the Dominican Sisters of Peace have been farming and teaching since 1823.

I am not a farmer, and I do not have an agricultural science background. Nevertheless, they deemed me a good fit to direct this program because of my commitment to ecological agrarianism, which is, as Berry puts it, “a way of thought based on land,” a “practice, a set of attitudes, a loyalty, and a passion.” It is philosophically and literally a grassroots paradigm, one that “rises up from the fields, woods, and streams—from the complex of soils, slopes, weathers, connections, influences, and exchanges that we mean when we speak, for example, of the local community or the local watershed.”[11]

Ecological agrarianism entails faith in the liberatory potential of citizen-directed and parity-driven agricultural economies. It also recognizes the problematic ends to which agrarian ideologies historically have been put: slavery, sharecropping, and patriarchy. This multivalenced approach to agrarianism helps explain why the Berrys were interested in placing a humanities scholar at the helm of a sustainable agriculture curriculum. What I lacked in the sciences, I made up for in the art of cultural studies.

To figure out what this necessary, if intimidating, task might look like, we sat in that Henry County farmhouse and tried to determine what we wanted our students to do and to become—not simply their jobs as farmers, organizers, artists, researchers and the like, but what relationships to place we hoped they would cultivate. What experiences and ethics might inform their ways of living and the vocations they would adopt? Berry turned to the ideas of love and affection. He hoped that through meaningful engagements and relationships, we could impart to students affections for communities, land, and people.

We hoped to help students and ourselves view the world through an ecological lens. As Mary Berry put it, we hoped to “institutionaliz[e] agrarian thought.”[12] But how do we institutionalize agrarian thought? And how do we maintain bonds of affection for specific places without lapsing into a perfunctory—or even worse, a discriminatory—version of agrarian ideology? How might postsecondary education effect this sort of personal and systemic change?

– See more at:

[1] Berry, Wendell. Personal communication with Leah Bayens. Henry County, Kentucky, January 2012.

[2] Bayens, Leah. “Wendell Berry Farming Program.” Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Public Broadcasting Service. 7 Feb. 2016.

[3] Tuttle, Tara. “Flint and the Need for Institutionalized Affection.” The Whole Horse Project: An Editorial Collective. Ed. Danny Mayer. 24 Feb. 2016.

[4] President Barack Obama awarded Berry the 2010 National Humanities Medal. In the article “Wendell Berry’s Wild Spirit,” published in Garden and Gun, Berry’s protégé Erik Reece documents that, as Obama presented the award, he told Berry that reading his poetry had improved his writing.

[5] President Barack Obama awarded Berry the 2010 National Humanities Medal. In the article “Wendell Berry’s Wild Spirit,” published in Garden and Gun, Berry’s protégé Erik Reece documents that, as Obama presented the award, he told Berry that reading his poetry had improved his writing.

[6] Berry holds honorary degrees from Duke University, Western Kentucky University, Sewanee: The University of the South, Centre College, and Santa Clara University.

[7] Not only was Berry granted the 2010 National Humanities Medal, but he also received, for reasons cited above, the 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture appointment. The NEH dubs the Jefferson Lecture the “highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.”

[8] Berry, Wendell. “It All Turns on Affection.” National Endowment for the Humanities. 2012.

[9] Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977. p. 33.

[10] Berry, Wendell. “Nature as Measure.” What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990. p. 207.

[11] Berry, “Nature as Measure.” What Are People For? San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990. p. 209.

[12] Berry, Wendell. “The Whole Horse.” The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Ed. Norman Wirzba. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2002. p. 239

[13] In a 2013 interview, Mary Berry states that The Berry Center’s goal is to “institutionalize agrarian thought and make a movement towards cultural change.” The Berry Farming Program at St Catharine College is one piece of that work.