Monday, August 5, 2019

My Favorite Farmer

Wendell Berry, the inimitable farmer, who is also a novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, and cultural critic, is celebrating his 85th birthday today. Please join me in wishing Mr. Berry a Happy Birthday. 
Photo of Berry by Steve Hebert of the NY Times
Favorite Farmers?
I now refer to Berry as “my favorite farmer.” Why would I do that? (And who would even have a list of favorite farmers?!)
Well, I am the son of a farmer, and I would have to say that my father (1915~2007) was my favorite farmer—even though my appreciation for him, of course, was for far more than his being a farmer.
Another of my favorite farmers was Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farm in Georgia. I have long had great admiration for Jordan, and in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, in July 2012 I posted a blog article titled “In Praise of Clarence Jordan.”
My appreciation for Jordan (d. 1969), though, was primarily because of his public words and actions rather than because of how he farmed.
Wendell Berry is now my favorite living farmer—but just as for my father and Clarence Jordan, it is for far more than his being a farmer that I admire him and seek to honor him today on his birthday. Still, his being a farmer is also of significance.
Becoming a Farmer
In the summer of 1964, Berry moved back to Kentucky, to a small acreage on the Kentucky River near where he was born in 1934. In the 1964-65 academic year, I lived in east Kentucky, serving as pastor of the Clay City Baptist Church and making numerous trips to Louisville where I was a graduate student.
As I regularly crossed the Kentucky River south of Frankfort on I-64, I didn’t know the man whom I would later call my favorite farmer lived downstream, not far from where that river flows into the Ohio River. In fact, it would be several years before I would even hear the name Wendell Berry.
Through the years, however, I began to hear more and more about Berry and became increasingly impressed with him as a farmer, as a writer/poet, and as an environmentalist. His is truly a prophetic voice that needs to be heard and heeded today.
Small Farmer, Large Influence
Since from back in the 1970s, many of us have used what we thought was a good slogan: “Think globally, act locally.” It was with some consternation, then, that I recently discovered that Berry did not particularly like that slogan.
Berry emphasizes the importance of thinking locally as well as acting locally. One of his essays is titled “Think Little.” In that 1970 essay he writes, “For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. A better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little.”
Thinking little, in part, means seeking to change one’s own lifestyle and consumption habits for the sake of the environment rather than trying to change the world.
Berry writes in that essay, now republished in The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry (2017),  
If you are concerned about air pollution, help push for government controls, but drive your car less, use less fuel in your home. . . . if you are fearful of the destruction of the environment, then learn to quit being an environmental parasite. . . . To have a healthy environment we will all have to give up things we like; we may even have to give up things we have come to think of as necessities (p. 55).
Through the decades Berry has lived out his ideals on his small Kentucky acreage. He has farmed with horses rather than with tractors. And one of his well-known essays is “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” (1987).
In this modern world, there probably can’t be many people who think like and especially who live like Wendell Berry. Nevertheless, the world is certainly better off because of the way he thinks and lives—and because of the way he has been able to share his wisdom so widely, despite not using a computer.
Berry’s is not the final word on the issues he addresses. But his is, indeed, a good and important word that needs to be considered with utmost seriousness.


  1. On a couple of counts, this is a most welcome blog today. The idea of my favorite farmer, like you, took me instantly to my father, Howard. Like the four Fulk generations before him, he farmed all of his life in Platte County, Mo. The family legacy was also taken up by my dad's Uncle Robert, his son Dennis, and grandson Brian...three generations doing tireless work done through their uncanny connection to the land and nature. They are now my three favorite living farmers.

    On another happy count, Wendell Berry is Carolyn's favorite poet. His poem "The Country of Marriage" was read at our wedding by good friend and Mizzou professor emeritus Ben Nelms. I can still hear his expressive voice offering the words, "We are more together than we know, how else could we keep on discovering we are more together than we thought?"

    A happy birthday, indeed, Wendell Berry!

    1. Thanks for sharing this, David. I found it interesting that you and Carolyn had Berry's poem read at your wedding, and I enjoyed looking that up and reading it probably for the first time.

      My father farmed in Worth County (Mo.) from 1945 until his death in 2007 (although he didn't do a lot for several years before his death in 2007 when he still lived on the farm). His father George (1878~1952) would be my second favorite farmer whom I knew personally. George's father William (1849~1880) was a farmer who died very young--and his widow, my great-grandmother Rachel (1852~1941) lived and worked on farms the rest of her life. In 1844 William's father Franklin (1818~1905) migrated with his father Littleton (1788~1845), to what is now Worth County and each farmed there their deaths. So like you, David, I come from a long line of Missouri farmers.

  2. I know nothing of Wendell Berry, but my Dad's family were farmers back to their forced immigration from France in the 1700s and before. My grandfather was a very successful farmer, even during the depression, and was the first to switch to using tractors in his county. Mom's father was also a farmer, but always used his mule team until he sold out in the late '40s. He was never "successful", but was always able to provide for his family so long as they all helped with the chores. Dad used his farming experience as a connection point with the people he served in central Africa. He could relate to issues, like drought; and the foolishness of government agriculture programs in that country - directed by bureaucrats who knew nothing of ag.

    I have an appreciation for Koinonia Farms as well. We considered a similar strategy in working with refugees while I was with World Relief. I once spoke with Don Mosely and his wife about the concept used at Koinonia and Jubilee Partners in GA.

    Ag is what feeds the world. But it does require good practices.

    Judging by His parables, Jesus knew something about ag and related business as well - and the concept of being a profitable farmer and the good use of capital to accomplish that.

  3. A local Thinking Friend who was born and reared in West Africa sent me before 9 a.m. this morning with these pertinent comments/questions.

    "I enjoyed your essay, but why today would the world rely on horses for farming? Isn't the U.S a great power today, because of its industrial scale - its reliance on machines, in other words--in farming? Would the rest of the world, which the U.S. has happily fed for about a century now, not be famished if its farmers now rely on horses? I come from a Third World country and know so much about hunger!"

    1. These are certainly legitimate questions, and I am not sure how Mr. Berry would respond to them. But as I said in the article, "In this modern world, there probably can’t be many people who think like and especially who live like Wendell Berry."

      But what Mr. Berry does by only farming with horses and by not using a computer emphasizes the problems associated with mechanization and commercialization. He continues to make an importance emphasis on the serious problem of land abuse and the potential future disasters linked to the (over)use of herbicides and pesticides.

      I don't think that Mr. Berry is calling on everyone to live as he does and to farm only with horses. Rather, his is a prophetic stance which challenges us all to examine our consumption of resources and the problems linked to consumerism.

  4. Local Thinking Friend Bob Leeper shares comments from an old friend of his, a man who is "a Kansas boy who grew up around farm life":

    "I never tire of reading Berry's writing. I wish I'd known about him when Carol and I had the farm. I was sure I couldn't compete with industrial farmers. I didn't know about the concept of a sustainable farm. That includes a mix of crops and livestock. The livestock is vital for fertilizer. He seems to get more and more attention."

  5. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas:

    "Thank you, again, for another good one! I was first made aware of Wendell Berry in one of Dr. Paul Simmons’ ethics classes at Southern Seminary when I believe Mr. Berry was a guest speaker. . . . I am certain Berry’s Gift of Good Land and "The Unsettling of America" were part of class discussion. I was hooked from that moment.

    "Later, his lecture, interview(s) on NPR (for some reason I am thinking there were two), and writings would inspire me to be a sustainable agriculturalists on my own 105 acre farm in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, the Boston Mountain section/range.

    "I have many of Berry’s books in my library, which I always enjoy rereading. In addition to the two mentioned above, "What are People for?" is another of my favorites.

    "Happy birthday, Mr. Berry!"

    1. Thanks, Tom, for your comments. I was happy to hear of your fondness for Wendell Berry--but I was not surprised at that. You seem to have read him more extensively, and to have been more directly influenced by him, than I have.

  6. Glad to know more about Wendell Berry. Until systematic, government-driven regulations are in place, individual efforts to improve the environment are more about individual spiritual discipline than making an actual impact on the trajectory of climate change. And maybe that is OK. Individual adaptability and resilience will be needed to live with the coming devastation (and choices to self-deny now may help to prepare for future challenges). I am not holding my breath for the systematic changes to happen that are needed to turn back the toll of climate change.

    This article below is a kind of counterpoint to Berry's message:
    'I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle.
    Stop obsessing over your environmental “sins.” Fight the oil and gas industry instead.'

    1. Karen, thanks for your comments and especially for posting the link to the Vox article. As I said at the end of my article, Berry's is not the final word. Along with his important emphasis that needs to be seriously considered, the opposite position in the Vox article needs to be taken seriously also. Both emphases are good and important, I think, and it would be a mistake for most of us to just take one side or the other.

      Back in 1990, Context Institute (which was founded in 1979 as one of the earliest NGOs to focus on sustainability) published an article about Berry but which was largely critical of his position. The title of that article is "The Utility of Global Thinking." (Here is the link:

      This article concludes, " . . . we cannot all return to the rustic life Wendell Berry returned to many years ago." Thus, "global thinking is not futile. It is a necessity."

  7. Leroy:
    My dad was raised on a farm in the Missouri Ozarks, along with his ten brothers and sisters. My wife was raised on an Oklahoma farm. My dad believed it was an essential healthy child development practice for his children to experience farm life so me and my two brothers worked as farm hands during our summer vacation from school. As you know, my dad believed he was called into the ministry after he began a career farming and cattle raising. Dad sensed a wholesomeness and virgin quality in farm-life that so many others, probably including Wendell Berry, have experienced. After he retired, he went back to farming and cattle raising on a small scale that seemed to give him a peace and rest that he had not known for many years. I think it is significant that Jesus used illustrations from farm life. It seems a little paradoxical that Mr. Berry used electricity and trucks but not tractors?
    Thanks for another stimulating blog.

    Truett Baker

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Truett. I didn't know your father farmed and raised cattle both before and after his many years in the ministry.

      I think Berry did not use horses partly because his was/is a rather small acreage and much of it was rather steep and not conducive for efficient use of a tractor. He was/is definitely for simple living and against unnecessary "modernization," but seems to use whatever he thinks is necessary.