Wendell Berry’s Take on the Future of American Land

March 28, 2014

triangle land conservancy

In an interview with Roger Cohn, executive editor of Yale Environment 360, Wendell Berry, a long time author, teacher, and activist, talks about the importance of local, sustainable farming. His views on the future of land in the United States are both pessimistic and optimistic.

On the negative side, industrial agriculture has spread, drowning small, local farms as well as moving into sensitive ecosystems. Mountaintop removal mining has increased in intensity, which he characterizes as “as near total destruction as you can imagine.”

In positive terms, there are many people who have a very real connection with the land. “A deep familiarity,” he explains in the interview, “is a dear thing, just in human terms.” Not only that, it’s “money in the bank because it helps you preserve the working capital of the place.” While small, Berry says we have “a promising start on what we call, loosely, sustainable land use.”

So what does Berry recommend for a sustainable agricultural future? On the small scale, growers should practice better management of the farms themselves. For example, on his steep slopes Berry makes sure “to keep it covered with permanent pasture or woodland.” Even larger farms on flat land should plant cover crops to decrease the soil erosion rates.

On the larger scale, Berry advocates moving from an agricultural system dominated by 80% annual plants, like beans or corns, and only 20% perennials, to the opposite. As he says, “It’s pretty clear that annual plants are nature’s emergency service. They’re the plans that come in after, say, a landslide, after the land has been exposed, and they give it a temporary cover while the perennials are getting started. So our predominantly annual agriculture keeps the land in a state of emergency.” By making the switch to a system dominated by perennial crops, farmers will be working with the land, not forcing it to grow annual plants year after year.

As the interview drew to a close, Berry left Cohn with an important thought: “[O]ur side requires commitment, it requires effort, it requires a continual effort to define and understand what is possible – not only what is desirable, but what is possible in the immediate circumstances.”

Here at TLC, we are working towards Berry’s vision of a sustainable future for land in the United States through our work in the Triangle. While our Nature Preserves protect land from development, our Local Farms and Food program supports “agriculture programs, community gardens and urban farming and protect[s] land to ensure our region can grow fresh, local food for generations to come.”

To read the full interview with Wendell Berry, click here.

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