Wendell Berry on Local, Sustainable Agriculture

In Environment, International Public Health, International Trade on October 7, 2006 at 5:01 pm

Earlier this week I posted a poem by Wendell Berry – poet, farmer, essayist, novelist. Heres an excerpt from a fantastic interview with Sojourner magazine, in which he discusses the difficulties faced by American farmers, and the need for local, sustainable agriculture. Also, the fact that our current system of exporting and importing food is completely reliant on fossil fuels, and that it would collapse if fossil fuel production slowed or stopped. What would we do then, starve? How do you feed cities of millions if your local farms are producing for export, the city relies on import, and there’s no fossil fuel to do the job? Smells like Babylon to me.

BERRY: Tobacco acreages have declined here because the companies can fill their needs more cheaply elsewhere. The other products we grow are thrown into the world market to compete as best they can. With the help of subsidies, of course. In Kentucky we have always raised for export…

As it used to be, the subsistence economy carried people through the hard times, and what you might call the housewife’s economy of cream and eggs often held these farms and their families together. The wives would go to town with eggs and cream once a week, buy groceries with the proceeds, and sometimes come home with money. Or they’d sell a few old hens, that sort of thing. So that’s the first lesson to learn about agriculture, as far as I’m concerned: It needs a sound subsistence basis. People need to feed themselves, next they need to feed their own communities. That’s what we’re working for now. We want to develop a local food economy that local producers will supply and that the local consumers will support. It’s ridiculous that we should be importing food into this state while our farmers are suffering.

BERGER: What are the models that are being used here in Kentucky to resist the economic pressure from the larger market?

BERRY: Community-supported agriculture, farmer’s markets, direct marketing of meat, that sort of thing. There’s an effort under way to develop a retail market for local produce. But this is hard to bring about.

The local landscape used to contribute food to Louisville. There was a significant amount of truck farming going in those days. That’s gone. The stockyard’s gone, the packinghouses are gone. So there’s Louisville economically and culturally isolated from its rich agricultural landscape. Which is ridiculous.

BERGER: It’s almost a process of reweaving the city life with its agricultural counterpart – its breadbasket.

BERRY: That’s right – building commercial linkages between the city and its local countryside. And there are good reasons to do that. You’ve got the prospect, to begin with, of better, fresher food…

You have the possibility that urban consumers, by fulfilling their responsibility to local producers, can make secure their local food supply in the face of various threats… The influence of local consumers could work, not only to maintain farming in the local landscape, but also to diversify it. And American agriculture is badly in need of diversity. Another threat to the present food system of course is the likelihood that petroleum is not going to get any cheaper.

BERGER: That happened in Venezuela a few years ago. They had an oil producer’s strike and people lost their gasoline supply. As a result they couldn’t truck food anywhere. Whole communities were starving because they couldn’t get access to food in stores, and they didn’t have any capacity to feed themselves.

BERRY: What could be more terrible? There are lots of bad things that can happen to a food economy that’s both extensive and centralized. There’s no substitute for petroleum. And from what I read, the curve of discovery and production of petroleum is about to decline. To have a growth economy based on a declining fuel supply is bound to be stressful.

  1. […] Recently, Krems made a post that contained a description of sustainable agriculture as being an alternative to the current direction of the agriculural system in the US.  In the current issue of L Magazine,  the Red hook Community Farm is given as a good example of what Krems’ post was describing.  What makes it even more interesting is that it exists in Brooklyn, which isn’t typically thought of when you hear the terms farm or agriculture.  Below is the entire article, written by Amanda Park Taylor: […]

  2. There is another angle to this, and that is to actually icorporate agriculture into the built environment, rather than having it segregated outside of it. The environmental and social benefits to doing this have been expounded upon for decades. But what has held back urban and suburban agriculture is the lack of a viable business model. SPIN-Farming now provides one. SPIN is a non-technical, easy-to-learn, inexpensive-to-implement farming system that makes it possible to earn significant income from land under an acre in size. Minimal infrastructure, reliance on hand labor to accomplish most farming tasks, utilization of existing water sources to meet irrigation needs, and situating close to markets all keep investment and overhead costs low. SPIN therefore removes the 2 big barriers to entry for new farmers – they don’t need a lot of land or money, and it makes farming compatible with densely populated areas. Start-up investment ranges from $5,350 for a 5,000 square foot hobby farm to $15,700 for a full acre full-time farm, with gross revenue ranging from $16,900 for the hobby farm to $60,000 for the acre model. Here in Philadelphia, PA we applied SPIN-Farming to create Somerton Tanks Farm, a half acre demonstration farm located on Philadelphia Water Department land. In its fourth year of operation the farm grossed $68,000 from a little over a half acre.
    There is now a growing corps of farmers across Canada and the U.S who are taking up commercial farming in their backyards and front lawns and neighborhood plots in cities and towns. You can see some of these backyard, front lawn and small plot farmers in action in the gallery area of the SPIN-Farming web site (www.spinfarming.com).

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