Posted by: DCox | March 19, 2009

Wendell Berry on the family farm

cows-grazingThe following excerpt is from the book, Jayber Crow. Athey Keith is a farmer attuned to the bio-rhythms of the land that he belongs to. Notice that I didn’t say that the land belonged to him; Athey understood that he was a caretaker for the farm. He understood the carrying capacity of the land, it’s biological nature, it’s vulnerability. He understood that he was a part of the agro-ecosystem, but only a part. He learned the bio-rhythms of the land through long years of being its student.

His son-in-law, Troy, hadn’t apprenticed with the land. He grew up after WWII and as such believed in the industrialization of farming.

As I read Wendell Berry’s writing below, I’m drawn to the beauty of his words — not only the eloquence, but also his ability to convey a spirituality inherent in the Creation. I hope to reflect more about food, land, and the interconnectedness between humanity and the remainder of Creation in subsequent blogs.

In coming to the Keith place, he [Troy] had come into an order that perhaps he did not even recognize. Over a long time, the coming and passing of several generations, the old farm had settled into its patterns and cycles of work – its annual plowing moving from field to field; its animals arriving by birth or purchase, feeding and growing, thriving and departing. Its patterns and cycles were virtually the farm’s own understanding of what it was doing, of what it could do without diminishment. This order was not unintelligent or rigid. It tightened and slackened, shifted and changed in response to the markets and the weather. The Depression had changed it somewhat, and so had the war. But through all changes so far, the farm had endured. Its cycles of cropping and grazing, thought and work, were articulations of its wish to cohere and to last. The farm, so to speak, desired all of its lives to flourish.

Athey was not exactly, or not only, what is called a “landowner.” He was the farmer’s farmer, but also its creature and belonging. He lived its life, and it lived his; he knew that, of the two lives, his was meant to be the smaller and the shorter.

Of all this Troy had no idea, not a suspicion. He thought the farm existed to serve and enlarge him. And it seemed that this was the way it was going to be… Troy’s sole response to that winter afternoon’s walk with Athey was: “We need to grow more corn.”

This brought Athey to a stop. The law of the farm was in the balance between crops (including hay and pasture) and livestock. The farm would have not more livestock than it could carry without strain. No more land would be plowed for grain crops than could be fertilized with manure from the animals. No more grain would be grown than the animals could eat. Except in case of unexpected surpluses or deficiencies, the farm did not sell or buy livestock feed. “I mean my grain and hay to leave my place on foot,” Athey like to say. This was a conserving principle; it strictly limited both the amount of land that would be plowed and the amount of supplies that would have to be bought. Athey did not save money at the expense of his farm or his family, but he looked upon spending it as a last resort; he spent no more than necessary, and he hated debt. You can see where my [Jayber] sympathies were. He was, in his son-in-law’s opinion, “tight” and unwilling to take the necessary risks.

Wendell Berry has been a prolific writer about agriculture in the United States. If you’re interested in reading some of his non-fiction, I recommend the book, The Unsettling of America.


%d bloggers like this: