Lost and Found in Wendell Berry’s Kentucky
by Charles Calley of South Ryegate, VT
We heard Wendell Berry’s family is putting his words into action in Henry County, Kentucky, so we decided to go take a look.
It was early on a cold March morning when Sarah and I found ourselves driving north beside the Kentucky River. We were hoping to enter the county through its back gate, which we figured was up from the river, now running emerald green and swollen on our right.
No road sign announced Henry County so when we sensed we were there we took the next left, which brought us up the Kentucky’s escarpment, through a thick woods, and onto a tangle of narrow, curvy winding up and down roads. They were almost as bad as back home. The state road map didn’t show county roads and our GPS couldn’t find service, so soon we were helplessly, but happily, lost.
We had been on the road more than a month before Kentucky. We had been married 52 years and had recently rented out our farm to a promising young man and we were sick of winter and Covid so decided to break out with a road trip. We left Vermont in our silver farm pickup in a snowstorm and high-tailed it for Mobile Bay. Then we started backroading on the two-lane blacktop through rural areas of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and then Kentucky.
Now we were trying to find our way in the homeplace of America’s foremost farmer and most famous agrarian writer of novels, poems and essays. Rural America hasn’t known such a champion since Thomas Jefferson, who, as he wrote the Declaration of Independence 250 years ago, envisioned a bountiful nation full of self-sufficient family farms.
Henry County is not like the race horse country around Lexington with palatial estates and lush pastures edged with miles of white fences. Henry is more of a working farm and working class county. Wendell Berry laments the loss of farms in his county, but we noticed there are more than a few left. We saw small and medium sized family farms, but no big Confined Animal Feed Operations, although there may well be one.
Lots of beef cattle are being raised in Henry County. It looks like there are some commercial vegetable farms too. At one place we came to a full stop right in the road because we saw not only the farm before us but more on the next ridge and farms on the ridge beyond that. Even places that are no longer farms retain some of the vestiges in the form of a hog pen or chicken run out back.
Yet, there were enough grown-up pastures and dilapidated fences to indicate that the county had once had many more farmers than today. Berry remains optimistic however. He says there are still a sufficient number to save the day, or as he says in The Art of Loading Brush, “enough to be a salvageable remnant of real farmers … a saving remnant it may even be, but that is for the future to know.”
As we drove around, the landscape induced us to remember characters in Berry’s novels, of which we had read many. Where would Hannah Coulter have lived? Is that Andy Catlett’s place on that steep hillside over there? “You need a haircut,” Sarah said. “I’m keeping an eye peeled for Jayber Crow’s barber shop.”
In our travels on the two-lane blacktop of the South we had seen town after town full of shuttered stores and seemingly devoid of any small businesses or signs of individual economic effort. Most depressing of all were the county seats, the courthouse towns. We stopped in a couple dozen of them and walked around. There would be a magnificent courthouse on a well landscaped lot faced on four sides by commercial streets with all, or nearly all, the shops empty. There would be lawyer offices, maybe a bank, an insurance agent and a small diner, but that’s it. In some places it looked like people had to drive 40 miles or more to the interstate exits just to shop for groceries.
At a town in Mississippi, the owner of a thrift shop told us over the counter that “Business was bad before Covid but Covid just hollowed out the square.” Towns that had once been the commercial destinations for surrounding countrysides filled with family farms were now humbled and homeless. One after another, all the courthouse towns we saw were fast, fast asleep – all save one.
We drove up a rise and all of a sudden were beside a big red brick courthouse. We had found New Castle, shire town of Henry County. The town is significantly smaller than the other county seats we had visited, yet significantly busier. There were open shops and people on the sidewalks, even young people. There were two restaurants open and something we hadn’t seen in any of the other county seats – a bookstore.
The reason for the activity wasn’t hard to find. A couple hundred yards down from the courthouse square was a beautiful white brick building housing The Berry Center. Inside, a serious salvage operation is underway.
Wendell’s dynamo of a daughter, Mary Berry, a farmer herself, founded the center in 2011. “I wanted to go to work on the root problems. Not just the symptoms of the problems so I started The Berry Center to do just that,” Mary said. Serving on the board of directors is her brother, Den, who has farmed all his life in the county.
At the center, a half dozen staffers, including an archivist, are searching for salvageable remnants of American agriculture, studying them, building a library, looking for potential, looking for fits. They are trying to process salvageable remnants into saving remnants. It goes something like the sewing of a patchwork quilt, or a coat of many colors, but on a much bigger scale.
“Our vision is that we will become a nation of small land holders supplying their own needs and the needs of the urban people nearest them,” said Mary Berry. “The hope that the freed slaves had for 40 acres and a mule is so meaningful. It’s the most American of dreams, and it speaks to so much that we need to think about.”
Having a computer and being online helps the salvaging process immensely, but when computers first came out Wendell Berry famously wrote in a national magazine that he wouldn’t be buying one. His daughter has an independent streak, however, and The Berry Center is online in a beautiful way.
Someone interested in rural America could spend hours strolling through the center’s website. [www.BerryCenter.org] It’s the online inspirational equivalent of a walk through a meadow in May. There are all sorts of articles about agrarian matters, videos, beautiful pictures, and 10 years worth of the quarterly newsletter. These newsletters are a treasure full of information about the growth of the center and the rebirth of agriculture in America and are the heart of the website. You can find writings by Wendell that haven’t been published elsewhere. And Mary Berry is a good writer in her own right. You can find there, too, articles by other agrarian writers, such as Wendell’s friends Wes Jackson and Gary Snyder.
One remnant under the microscope at The Berry Center was founded more than 80 years ago and has been closely connected with the Berry family. Tobacco has been king in Henry County for most of the county’s existence but during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, it cost more to produce tobacco than the price for which it could be sold. Farms were failing right and left. That led Wendell’s father, John Berry Sr., a lawyer in New Castle, to launch the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association. His eldest son, Atty. John Berry Jr., was also heavily involved.
Burley is tobacco that dries naturally, without application of external heat, and was the strain of tobacco grown in Henry and surrounding counties. The cooperative formed to stabilize the rural economy was what’s known as a producers’ cooperative, which were encouraged and helped financially by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Basically, farmers were given an allotment of a certain acreage that could be planted, the co-op purchased the entire burley crop of its members and sold it at the best price it could get. Instead of hundreds of individual farmers dealing individually with the tobacco corporation buyers, there became hundreds of farmers acting together with one voice telling the corporations what its asking price was and then negotiating from a position of strength.
The Berry Center considers this cooperative to be the most important agricultural organization Kentucky ever had.
During the 63 years of the co-op’s existence, the two John Berrys accumulated hundreds of items of documents and correspondence with notes in the margins and attachments. John Sr.’s documents alone take up 26 cubic feet of space. It’s taken the archivist, Michele Guthrie, years to organize all the data, along with Wendell’s extensive writings and correspondence. She says “Archives tell stories of the people whose work is preserved to inform and educate researchers, students, donors, and the general public.”
Now, amid another spell of hard times in rural America, the Berry Center has brought the tobacco cooperative back to life by using it as a model for the building of a new cooperative, this time for producers of grass-fed beef. Pork and lamb will be added later. Our Home Place Meat is up to 12 member small and medium sized family farms and growing. The co-op buys the entire crop of animals from its members and processes it through a slaughterhouse in the county that the Berry Center was instrumental in establishing.
Next door to the Berry Center is a building that houses the headquarters of the co-op along with a meat market. Besides over-the-counter sales, the co-op sells to restaurants, stores, through farmers’ markets and online, where it is sold all over the United States. Co-op ads say “eat with a clear conscience.” Every package of Our Home Place Meat carries a decal saying “Approved by Wendell Berry.” [www.OurHomePlaceMeat.com]
The co-op’s member producers have developed a specialty meat product called “rose veal.” Veal is the meat of young calves, often three or four months old. Traditionally “vealers” were fed only their mother’s milk and hitched in a dark part of the barn so their meat wouldn’t turn red and would be extra tender. Industrial veal raising involves horrible practices much worse than that. But there’s no way the Berry stamp of approval is going on meat from animals treated cruelly. Co-op vealers get to run outside in the sunshine and eat grass and are weaned at slaughter.
Another product developed by the co-op is called Berry Beef and is marketed through high-end restaurants in Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati. This meat is from cattle raised on pasture for most of their lives and then “finished” on grain for their last month or so. This product has enabled the co-op to attract new member producers and restaurant buyers who aren’t totally persuaded about the superiority of grass-fed meat.
In 2021 Our Home Place Meat brought $227,000 into Henry County. And that was as the co-op was recovering from the loss of restaurant customers due to Covid closures.
Our Home Place Meat provides a template that could be replicated all over the United States and for crops other than meat, such as maple syrup, hemp, fruits and vegetables. Now any salvageable remnant farmers anywhere have a resource to tap for help launching a co-op and thus creating a saving remnant. The Berry Center is ready to help them.
Another salvage job The Berry Center has underway is for salvageable remnants who aren’t farmers, or at least not yet. They may not know they are salvageable remnants and they may be people who live in cities and have never even had a chance for a garden. But they are people, often young people, disenchanted with an economy based on greed that is polluting earth’s atmosphere so thoroughly that it is threatening the very existence of life on earth. They would like to do something about it, even if just on an individual basis. They want to farm but they don’t know how.
The Berry Center has joined forces with Sterling College, a small four-year college specializing in environmental and agricultural studies located at Craftsbury Common in Vermont, another place with salvageable remnants. The center and the college have together organized the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College and it’s up and running.
The way it works is that students who have completed two years at Sterling may apply to the Berry program. If accepted, they spend their final two years in Henry County and – The Berry Center pays their tuition. Room and board is on the students, but the center has purchased a big house on a New Castle back street that serves as a dormitory. Upon graduation, students are awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in sustainable agriculture and food systems.
The program also takes in students who have completed two years at an accredited college other than Sterling and will pay their tuition too. These applicants who have not spent the last two years exposed to agriculture in Sterling’s farming program are expected to have some other connection to agriculture.
This education takes place at a 200 acre farm upcounty which The Berry Center has purchased and equipped as a school. The program specializes in raising beef cattle, sheep, draft animals and pastured poultry “a combination that provides the most potential for farm income,” says the program’s prospectus. “The curriculum is focused on the survival of small and mid-scale farms. We study how to be profitable within ecological bounds. . . Our approach to farming is modestly scaled, humble and attuned to rural places.”
The program also runs a big, diverse garden and a greenhouse to provide education about growing vegetables. Then there’s a 50 acre farm woodlot where students learn forest management. “This farming program is exactly what most needs doing here,” says Wendell on the program’s website.
We were hungry when we left The Berry Center so we walked across the street to the Newcastle Tavern. The waitress honeyed us and told us all the beef they serve is from Our Home Place Meat.
Then the lunch crowd began arriving. A young woman with two little kids took a table. Then another young woman with more little ones sat down at another table. Then the husbands arrived. Five older women came in together. It seemed like a lunch club. A couple of workmen by themselves and a couple businessmen arrived. Soon the place was hopping. A poster in the window told of an upcoming live music event at the tavern. It seems the town has some nightlife.
The waitress had found out our story and told the manager who came out to speak with us. The Berry Center has brought lots of people to town and has been great for business, he said.
After dinner we strolled back across the street to The Bookstore at The Berry Center, where we found an eclectic selections of books that has been put together with great care and a deep love of rural America. And there are more than agricultural and environmental titles.
The store sells books by and about Native Americans and African Americans. There’s science fiction too and a wonderful children’s and Young Adults’ section that features all the old classics with a rural flavor, such as Ox Cart Man. There are many books from small publishing houses, such as Larkspur Press out of Monterey, KY, which has published a hand printed and bound edition of When Children Ruled the World: A Christmas Story.
Of course there is everything Wendell has written for publication, including that essay he wrote back in the 1980’s called “Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer.” It got him in trouble with the women’s movement of the time. He was writing his manuscripts in pencil on yellow legal pads and his wife was typing them. Exploitation of women. Wendell responded with “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine.” Turns out Tanya wasn’t just typing. Both essays are in a pamphlet you can buy for $10.
And while Wendell may write his manuscripts in pencil, and the bookstore does carry his pencils, the store has an online presence and sells books online. That’s where most of the sales come from and more books are available on line than are physically for sale in the store. [www.BerryCenterBookstore.com]
The store isn’t focused on the New York Times best seller lists like many other stores. It does carry some best sellers, though, and does feature such great American authors as Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Tobias Wolff, and Scott Turow, who were schoolmates of Wendell’s at Wallace Stegner’s writing program at Stanford University in the 1950’s. Lots of Stegner titles too.
The store runs a program called the Agrarian Literary League, which provides books for people unable to afford them. Every year it chooses one book to spread around without worrying about collecting a fee. 2021’s selection was Wendell’s Fidelity: Five Stories. Members of the league buy one copy of the book for themselves and one to donate.
The Berry bookstore is set up in a small nicely restored 200-year-old building made of wooden slabs. It would probably fit three or four times over inside Larry McMurtry’s mammoth bookstore in Marfa, Texas. But The Bookstore at The Berry Center has something else going for it.
It’s the birthplace of another initiative of The Berry Center called the Agrarian Culture Center. It was started, as Wendell tells it, “because we don’t just have an agricultural problem, we have a cultural problem, especially in our depopulated rural places … and we needed to deal with the miseducation of young people who want to farm.” The mission is “bringing humanities programming to rural communities, fostering the preservation of local histories through dialogue and storytelling, strengthening pride and stewardship of place, and conserving the unique culture found in rural places.”
The cultural center is home to the Tanya Amyx Berry Agrarian Library, which is a massive collection of data that includes all the archives assembled by Michele Guthrie. It is available free online at The Berry Center’s website.
The director of both the bookstore and the Agrarian Culture Center is Virginia Berry Aguilar, who is the daughter of Mary and her farmer husband Steve Smith. Virginia is of the ninth generation of Berrys raised in Henry County. She and her husband Ben, who is director of operations at The Berry Center, are the parents of Lucinda who is going on three and whose great grandfather is Wendell Berry.
Minding the store that afternoon was an intelligent, well-spoken young lady in her early twenties. She said she’s in New Castle because her father is one of the professors at the farming program. We were wearing out the floor choosing books, bringing them to the counter and going back for more, talking with her as we shopped. She said one reason the store has such a wide range of books is because just about everyone at The Berry Center makes recommendations of which titles to offer.
It’s a store for people having trouble finding a good book to read but it was going to be awhile before we had that problem again. Our piles were growing taller and taller. It’s a good thing we had a truck waiting outside.