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Wendell Berry: A Strong Voice for Local Farming and the Land

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Wendell Berry wrote about and practiced "sustainable agriculture" long before the term was widely used. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, in which he argued against industrial agriculture and for small-scale, local-based farming, had a strong influence on the environmental and local food movements in the U.S. 

Berry has long balanced the diverse roles of writer, activist, teacher, and farmer. At age 79, he still lives on the farm near Port Royal, Kentucky, where he grew up, and uses traditional methods to work the land there. And he still speaks eloquently about the importance of local communities and of caring for the land, while warning of the destructive potential of industrialization and technology.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 editor Roger Cohn, Berry talked about his Kentucky farm and why he has remained there, why he would risk arrest to protest mountaintop removal mining, why the sustainable agriculture movement faces an uphill battle, and why strong rural communities are important. "A deep familiarity between a local community and a local landscape is a dear thing, just in human terms," Berry said. "It's also, down the line, money in the bank, because it helps you to preserve the working capital of the place."

Yale Environment 360: You've been writing about and practicing what is now known as sustainable agriculture since before that term was widely used. In recent years, there's been a movement among some people toward sustainable agriculture. Do you feel sustainable agriculture is gaining ground in a significant way that could slow the growth of industrial agriculture, or is it more of a boutique type of thing?

Wendell Berry: Well, we are a young country. By the time settlement reached Kentucky it was 1775, and the industrial revolution was already underway. So we've been 238 years in Kentucky, we Old World people. And what we have done there in that time has not been sustainable. In fact, it has been the opposite. There's less now of everything in the way of natural gifts, less of everything than what was there when we came. Sometimes we have radically reduced the original gift. And so for Americans to talk about sustainability is a bit of a joke, because we haven't sustained anything very long - and a lot of things we haven't sustained at all.   


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