In an interview with Yale Environment 360, writer, teacher and sustainable agriculturist Wendell Berry advocates returning perennial plants and a ‘culture of husbandry’ to local communities. He has proposed a ’50 year farm bill with Wes Jackson of the Land Institute to address ‘real’ concerns plaguing farmers. He writes:
Unlike the typical U.S. farm bill, the 50-Year Farm Bill attempts to address the real and ongoing problems of agriculture: erosion, toxicity, loss of genetic and species diversity, and the destruction of rural communities, or the destruction, where it still survives, of the culture of husbandry. It begins with the fact that at present, 80 percent of the land is planted annually in annual crops such as corn and beans, and 20 percent in perennials. It proposes a 50-year program for the gradual inversion of that ratio to 80 percent perennial cover and 20 percent annuals. It’s pretty clear that annual plants are nature’s emergency service. They’re the plants that come in after, say, a landslide, after the land has been exposed, and they give it a temporary cover while the perennials are getting started. So our predominantly annual agriculture keeps the land in a state of emergency.
It’s hard to make a permanent agriculture on the basis of an emergency strategy. By now the planted acreages have grown so large that most soybean and corn fields, for instance, are not seeded to cover crops, and so they lie exposed to the weather all winter. You can drive through Iowa in April before the new crops have been planted and started to grow, and you don’t see anything green mile after mile. It’s more deserted than a desert. And the soil erosion rates in Iowa are scandalous.
Berry has been an outspoken opponent of the devastating practice of mountain top removal coal extraction to ecosystems, animals and people. He describes it thus:
Mountaintop removal is as near total destruction as you can imagine, because it does away with the forest, it does away with the topsoil that sustained the forest, it does away with the very topography — even people’s family graveyards go. And it’s done in complete disregard not only of the land but of the people who live downhill, whose lives are threatened, whose water supplies are destroyed, whose homes are damaged. The people downhill, downstream, and ahead of us in time are totally disregarded.
Berry expresses that although he has hope, he is no optimist when it comes to the future of farming in the face of unsustainable, industrial agriculture. Yale 360 interviewer asks him whether in relation to his home state of Kentucky, “Sustainable agriculture is gaining ground in a significant way that could slow the growth of industrial agriculture, or is it more of a boutique type of thing?”
Well, we are a young country. By the time settlement reached Kentucky it was 1775, and the industrial revolution was already underway. So we’ve been 238 years in Kentucky, we Old World people. And what we have done there in that time has not been sustainable. In fact, it has been the opposite. There’s less now of everything in the way of natural gifts, less of everything than what was there when we came. Sometimes we have radically reduced the original gift. And so for Americans to talk about sustainability is a bit of a joke, because we haven’t sustained anything very long — and a lot of things we haven’t sustained at all.
The acreage that is now under the influence of the local food effort or the sustainable agriculture effort is at present tiny, and industrial agriculture is blasting ahead at a great rate. For instance, in the last two years, the high price of corn and soybeans has driven that kind of agriculture into the highly vulnerable uplands of my home country. I can show you farms that in my lifetime have been mostly in grass that are now suddenly covered, line fence to line fence, with monocultures of corn or beans….
So we have these two things, a promising start on what we call, loosely, sustainable land use, and we have a still far larger industrial extractive agriculture operating, really, against the land.