“A Way of Thought Based on Land”:

Institutionalizing Agrarian Thought

By Leah Bayens

February Featured Essay

Editor’s note: this is part one of Leah’s two-part series on the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program at St. Catharine College in Kentucky. PBS has also recently featured Wendell Berry and the program; watch the PBS video here.

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 States1 and the Prince of Wales.2

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.”3 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.”4 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.”5

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. This ‘accomplishment’ is not primarily the work of farmers—who have been, by and large, its victims—but of a collaboration of corporations, university specialists, and government agencies.  It is therefore an agricultural development not motivated by agricultural aims or disciplines, but by the ambitions of merchants, industrialists, bureaucrats, and academic careerists. We should not be surprised to find that its effect on both farmland and the farm people has been ruinous. It has divided all land into two kinds—that which permits the use of large equipment and that which does not. And it has divided all farmers into two kinds—those who have sufficient ‘business sense’ and managerial ability to handle the large acreages necessary to finance large machines and those who do not.6

Berry suggests an alternative standard: “the standard of nature.”7 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.”8

On The Fence
“On the Fence” by Brian Connors Manke

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.”9

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.”10 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?

"Jagged Hydrangea" by Brian Connors Manke
“Jagged Hydrangea” by Brian Connors Manke

An Affection-Based Curriculum

To create a curriculum of affection, we turned to Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lecture, in which he intoned that affection “is personal.” He said:

If it is not personal it is nothing.… The word ‘affection’ and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful.

Affection helps us to become “stickers,” the term Berry’s mentor Wallace Stegner used to describe people who “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”11 Affection, we decided, formed the cornerstone of our hopes for the kinds of people our students become—people who are motivated by “such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”12

In this vein, we dubbed our program a “Major in Homecoming,” one that, as Berry’s friend and colleague Wes Jackson, of The Land Institute in Kansas, says, prepares “the young to return home, or to go some other place, and dig in.”13 That means urban, rural, and everything in between. But given the exodus from farming communities worldwide, we deemed it especially important for people to settle into the nooks, crannies, and hollers of rural places and to know how to rely on nature as the measure for their land use. Instead of resettling the countryside with students who “have no economic or cultural ties to the land and are not a community,” as Berry cautioned over three decades ago, we need to resettle it with people who can apply agrarian tenets of living within limits.14

This entails teaching students how to employ the range of sustainable agriculture tenets—certainly in terms of the science of agroecology (such as practicing soil conservation, encouraging biodiversity, rotating crops, and avoiding synthetic inputs), but also in terms of the social equity side of sustainable agriculture. This pedagogy leads to aspirations that highlight interdependence, such as:

  • promoting conditions that are healthy and humane for workers, consumers, and animals
  • providing a fair wage for farmers and community partners
  • strengthening local economic networks
  • enhancing and supporting connections between rural and urban communities
  • satisfying human food and fiber needs without compromising future generations’ needs

In all of this, we try to show students the inseparable connections between disciplines and to move toward forms of study in which “disciplinary boundaries begin to lose their efficacy.”15

These goals undergird the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program, or the BFP for short. Launched in fall 2013, the BFP entwines the arts, the sciences, and professional studies to foster a holistic understanding of students’ relationship to nature and the communities therein.16 Students in the BFP’s degrees concentrate their studies in one of four areas: agroecology, plant and soil stewardship, environmental arts and humanities, or community leadership. The idea is to rear people who can transform the swath of factors that shape agricultural land use as well as food and fiber consumption. 17

Regardless of which concentration they select, students take courses that intersperse liberal and practical arts: ecology, soil science, ecological literature, food studies, agrarian histories, ethics, food systems development, heritage arts, ecospirituality, whole farms design, rural sociology, and marketing and budgeting, to name a handful. We want farmers who will make decisions informed by literary configurations of the land and writers who will have dug their hands in the dirt. The program pulls together faculty from a variety of disciplines, which is one way we can lodge ecological agrarianism throughout our institution. We have also added BFP courses to the general education slates of all students. In the long run, we aim to teach students how to read specific places by using methods of inquiry that are transferrable so that they can connect to the places they call home.

In all of our majors, students complete nine to twelve credit hours of experiential learning. Some of those hours are devoted to agricultural work on our campus Homeplace Farm or through internships at other locations; other hours are devoted to learning about the spectrum of community components that make sustainable agriculture possible. This past summer, 13 of our 25 BFP students worked with 11 organizations. They learned seed saving and indigenous farming techniques at Navdanya Biodiversity Center in Dehradun, India, and medicinal plant applications at a newly minted sustainable agriculture school in Koutoura, Burkina Faso. They served their neighbors through projects such as a therapeutic garden development for the Brain Injury Alliance of Kentucky and veteran farmer training with Growing Warriors in Lexington, Kentucky. One student conducted perennial agriculture research at The Land Institute. In these ways, our curriculum begins to meet Berry’s call to revamp the prevalent understanding of education as an industry—and to turn it toward its proper use, which is “to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible” by helping them decipher “what things are more important than other things.”18

A number of BFP students have joined the Refugee Agriculture Partnership Program (RAPP) in Louisville, Kentucky, to develop and help maintain community gardens and to teach extension-style classes. One student from Africa, Ruth Kayembe, testifies that although she “didn’t know much about farming” before working with RAPP, she was thrilled to have a practical experience to which she could “apply what [she has] been studying in school in theories.” She writes,

When I started working with RAPP, I realized that this internship had much more to offer than just working in a normal farm. First of all, I had the opportunity to work with refugees from different countries of Africa and Asia. Refugees have knowledge in agriculture since most of them come from farming families. Therefore they have a lot more to give by sharing their experience and knowledge when practicing agriculture in the United States.19

Ruth’s colleague, Rachel Cox-Mendoza, a senior in the community leadership concentration of our Farming and Ecological Agrarianism major, describes teaching gardening classes for RAPP:

Teaching the children at the English school in itself was enjoyable. It was an opportunity to excite students about gardening, food, and nature. Sustainable agriculture in a broad sense should be ecologically sound, financially stable, and socially minded. The children’s classes met the social and ecological legs of sustainability. The classes built community among its members and the neighborhoods in which we live. Teaching the value of growing food ourselves, we further strengthen the community of future urban farmers and growers.20

Through these experiences with community members, Ruth and Rachel came to understand education as a mutual production of knowledge.

Getting students out in the field and into meaningful relationships with community members and with each other is no easy logistical task, but we believe that immersive education is essential. Two families that neighbor the college are exemplary. Fiber artist Norma Jean Campbell lives across the road from the college. She raises sheep and processes, dyes, and spins her own wool for loom-woven nineteenth-century patterns and hand-felted sculptures of historical, local, and fanciful figures. She hosts our students for “dye-ins,” as she and her spinning club call their day-long fiber dyeing workshops, and she tutors them in her age-old, inventive techniques. Our neighbor Arthur Young likewise brings to bear decades of farming experience as he instructs all of us—including our college’s president, our dean, and soil ecology and livestock husbandry students—in healthy pasture management on his hillside farm. Our students are completely enamored with and respectful of Arthur and Norma Jean, evidence of a growing affection for these mentors.

The Scale of Change

Since becoming director of the Berry Farming Program, the gravity of my charge has intensified. I am encouraged by the extraordinary students drawn to our program and by the mounting support for community food systems. However, I am more keenly aware than ever of the scale of the changes necessary to move from an industrialized, global agricultural model to a sustainable, community-based paradigm.

Granted, good work is afoot. My students, colleagues, and I join thousands of people who are studying and practicing agroecological production methods. We are calling into play new policies and figuring out alternative investment and funding schemas. We are establishing routes for small- and mid-size produce processing and marketing. We are engaging agrarian concepts in art and literature and religion and history. We are figuring out how to cross barriers of food and farming access based on geography, race, class, and gender. We are building relationships with our neighbors and taking care of each other. In all of this, we are sussing out how to be guided by an ontology that centers on the interdependence of human health and ecological health.

This last task is by far the most difficult because it involves ways of being that are infused with nature-as-standard thinking. The ecological agrarianism Berry Farming Program participants practice holds up nature as “the final judge, law-giver, and pattern-maker of and for the human use of the earth.”21 As if this edict weren’t difficult enough to internalize on a personal level, we are taking on the colossal task of using an undergraduate education grounded in affection for place to generate systemic change.

Attempting to spur a fundamental social restructuring using institutions of higher education is both reasonable and preposterous. It is reasonable in that it calls on education’s true potential. It is preposterous because it runs counter to the way most institutions actually function.

Editor: Danny Mayer

Copyediting by Jordan Wick

Featured Image: “Land Listening by Brian Connors Manke