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Wendell Berry

This essay is a reworking of a speech Berry delivered at Shakertown, March 11, 1998. What is especially remarkable is its timeliness today.

Is there a vision for rural America? This is a subject I approach with a good deal of uneasiness, for I know something of the history of visions in rural Kentucky. The Bible says that where there is no vision the people perish. It is also true that where the vision is wrong the people perish.

In Kentucky we know that the important question is, “Who has the vision?” The coal companies have had a vision of the Kentucky coalfields. The timber companies have had a vision of Kentucky forests. The tobacco companies have had a vision of Kentucky farms, and so have the packing houses and the grain dealers. The great agribusiness, timber, and coal corporations still have a vision of rural Kentucky; and in their vision the bottom dollar is always passing from the strong to the weak, and the top dollar from the weak to the strong. Meanwhile, rural Kentucky is always shrinking because of the visions of subdividers and developers.

Rural Kentucky is now being told by virtually everybody to get ready to “compete in the Global Economy.” This means that we now have an opportunity to sell the same things we have always sold at even lower prices. The Global Economy is nothing more than the old corporate economy that we have known and suffered for generations, but now expanded to international scale and proportionately greater greed, indifference, and power. This economy really has no vision. It has only an ambition, which is the buy more for less, and to sell less for more. It is an economy that pays no maintenance. Whatever it uses, it uses up.

This economy adheres to the simple-minded belief that if all is well on Wall Street, then all must be well in places such as rural Kentucky. It holds that if the rich are getting richer and technological progress is continuing to put money into their pockets, then snail farmers and independent local business people have no right to complain, for the way things are is the way things ought to be, and is moreover the only way things can be.

Far worse is the fact these principles are subscribed to, not just by the shareholders and officers of the great corporations, but also by the overwhelming majority of our public servants in the governments, bureaucracies, and schools.

The localities of the world – which is to say the local people who are loyal to their places and communities – obviously have got to speak for themselves and defend themselves. If they don’t, then nobody will, and much of value will be lost. We must realize that here in Kentucky, any effort of local self-defense is hampered by severe political and educational deficiencies.

Over and over again, for generations, state government has demonstrated its reluctance to oppose the moneyed interests, even in defense of the land and the people of the state. If our roadsides and streams must be filthy to accommodate the food and drink industries, then we will have filthy streams and roadsides. If the timber industry wants a free hand in our forests, then we will not protect our forests. If agribusiness wants chicken and hog factories at the expense of our small farmers and a rational local development of our rural economies, then agribusiness will have its way.

Our school system does not prepare young people to live at home and take care of things. It prepares them for export. Everywhere we turn in Kentucky, in our efforts to save, not just things pleasant to have but also things essential to local health and economy, we run up against the limits of our system of education. For instance, 95% of Kentucky’s woodlands are owned privately by 440,000 landowners, only a tiny fraction of whom have any notion either of the worth of their holdings or of how to take care of them. There could hardly be more damaging evidence of educational failure. Far too many of our farmers think that their woodlands are valuable principally as shade for livestock.

I have not made the foregoing criticisms just for the pleasure of complaining. It would be a pleasure if I could believe that I have overstated the case, but I have more than likely understated it. The fact of the matter is that rural Kentucky is now more endangered than it has ever been. We are losing our farmers; the old are dying, the young are leaving. We have serious soil erosion. We are losing land to “development.” We are in depression, and under threat. If you look for the money made from the products and the labor of one of our rural counties, you will see that very little of it is retained within the country line and not much more within the boundaries of the state. The story of these losses – of soil, land, farmers, economic resources and opportunities – is an ongoing story. We are going to be living with that story and its consequences for a long time.

I’m far from believing that rural Kentucky is a place for optimists. It would be unwise to risk underestimating the difficulties we are in. On the other hand, I do believe that rural Kentucky is a place for hope. I’m hopeful because I have seen for myself, that we have people who are doing a good job, both as producers and as stewards of the land. And so I know that things can be better; we have good examples in front of us; abuse is not the inevitable consequence of use.

I am hopeful too because more and more people are coming to agree that we cannot allow the fate of our land and our communities to be determined by people in other places. We must take charge of our own fate and become ourselves capable of the necessary kindness toward the future.

In short, visions for rural Kentucky make me nervous. What I’m really nervous about is people have visions for other people. Generally, I don’t mind advice that begins, “Not bossing you or anything, but you could do it this way.” But I would mind living in somebody else’s political or economic or technological vision. I don’t want to live next door to a hog factory or a chemical plant. Nor do I want to live in a community where its future is determined by people who do not care about it. I know that some economies reduce freedom and economic opportunity.

The visions I am comfortable with are small-scale, private, inexpensive visions of improvement. There are no good farmers, probably, who do not see visions of ways their farms could be improved: their farms could be more diverse, more productive, better fenced; there could be a wider margin between carrying capacity and numbers of livestock, giving comfort in dry years; there are scars that could be healed, woodlands that could be protected – and so on. I’m comfortable too with consumers’ visions of fresher, healthier, more trustworthy produce from the local countryside, of farmers’ markets, of ways in which local citizens could invest their money and work in a community-conserving and land-conserving local economy. I like visions that come from the spirit of neighborliness and care and thrift.

But even small, modest visions can be wrong. I know this from experience. If you visited my very marginal farm, you would see that I have had some visions that were right, and some that were wrong. I have had some visions that I could not have had if I had not been ignorant.

Our political principles of democracy and liberty are meant to protect our visions about how we want to live and work, and they are meant to protect us again other people’s visions. But our political principles can’t protect us from having the wrong visions about land use.

There is no doubt that we need a vision for rural Kentucky. We need, I think, a lot of visions for rural Kentucky. But if those visions are not to be (again) destructive and too costly, then we must take the trouble to know rural Kentucky in all its great diversity of landscapes, soils, economies, and natural and human communities. We must learn together to think from the ground up. We can’t find the best ways of using caring for our land just by forcing our visions and ideas upon it. The real question is how to fit in. How can human economies be fitted into nature’s economies without finally destroying both? There is a thread of wisdom running through our cultural inheritance that says everything depends on knowing where we are. It says that farmers and gardeners and forester must consult the nation of the place. It says that in any given place there are certain things that nature will permit us to do without damage, certain things that nature will help us find do, and certain things that nature will penalize or punish us for doing.

Why are we concerned to keep family farms alive in Kentucky? The reason is not because we are sentimental or old-fashioned or because we want to “turn back the clock.” We will find the true reason in the landscape. Most of our state, from the point of view of land use, is difficult. It is hilly, rolling or steep, small-featured, vulnerable to erosion, easy to abuse. Much of it has been abused, however, pretty it may look. Difficult land calls for farming that is diverse, small in scale, skillful, and careful. And it must be culturally continuous – by which I mean that in fragile landscape the cost of learning the same things over and over again by experience is insupportable. Local memory has a practical economic and ecological value. In a country such as ours, it is clear that the land itself requires a stable, knowledgeable community of small landowners who are motivated by family ties, and by just economic returns, to use the land well. You can say confidently, for example, that in Kentucky some land can be row-cropped frequently, some infrequently, and some not at all; some should be permanently in grass; some should be permanently wooded. But if our land is to be used well, then these issues must be decided correctly for every stream bottom, slope, and ridge in the state – and the decisions and the reasons for them must be remembered.

Difficult land calls for good farmers and foresters, and if given a chance to do so, it will make good ones. Henry Besuden, the great Southdown breeder of Clark County, instructed me in this. “If I had inherited a good farm in Bourbon or Fayette County, I would have been just another Bluegrass farmer,” he told me, leaving it to me to see his point, which was that he had inherited a poor, rundown farm, and it had made him an excellent farmer. He also said, “It’s good to have nature working for you. She works at a minimum wage.”

Our land itself tells us what Henry Besuden had so carefully learned. Difficult land calls for excellent stewardship. If the human economy does not provide that quality of use and care, then we lose the productivity of the land. It is not clean how we can, by policy, agree to such a loss, or how we can afford to do so. Drive the back roads of any section of our state where Burley tobacco is grown, remembering as you drive that any land that will grow good tobacco is by that measure very highly productive, and ask yourself if that land can be kept productive by corporate management and migrant labor. Such a proposition, I think, makes the point of my argument very clear.

And now just one more question: Why is there this interest in linking urban with rural citizens? The drive for these partnerships has been growing in our state, and in the nation, over the past several years. Why? I think it is because urban and rural people have begun to realize that they share the same land, and therefore the same fate. I think they have begun to realize that to divide the human community up into “competing interests” finally doesn’t work because finally is a false version of reality. Urban people are seeing that good farming makes good food, that the best food comes from nearest home, that there is no distinction between the quality of land use and the quality of the landscape, or between land quality and water quality. Rural people are beginning to understand that the economy they have now is largely the invention of urban people, and that if they are to have a better economy they will have to get help from urban people.

Recently, at the end of a careful discussion, the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association made common cause with a number of health groups that were opposed to smoking. These one-time competitors and opponents defined a common ground, a community of interest, a way of working together. This surely sets the pattern that we must follow in defining the common ground between city and country people, producers, and consumers.

Since we urban and rural people have a common ground, the ground on which we call the Commonwealth of Kentucky, there is no reason that we can’t cooperate in its defense and improvement. There is no reason we can’t quit competing and start to cooperate, and no reason we can’t benefit mutually from our cooperation. To hold securely in possession and in trust a beautiful countryside, producing a dependable, healthful supply of food and other necessities, would be good for everybody. We don’t have to destroy our land in order to live from it. We don’t have to defeat and damage one another in order to prosper. There is a better way, and I think we’re beginning to find it.


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