“A culture is not a collection of relics or ornaments, but a practical necessity, and its corruption invokes calamity. A healthy culture is a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration. It reveals the human necessities and the human limits. It clarifies our inescapable bonds to the earth and to each other. It assures that the necessary restraints are observed, that the necessary work is done, and that it is done well.
A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safe-guards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace. The growth of such a culture was once a strong possibility in the farm communities of this country. We now have only the sad remnants of those communities. If we allow another generation to pass without doing what is necessary to enhance and embolden the possibility now perishing with them, we will lose it all together. And then we will not only invoke calamity–we will deserve it.”
From The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture
by Wendell Berry
Matthew Derr, President of Sterling College in Craftsbury Commons, Vermont, quips that Sterling trains ecologists to be great farmers and trains farmers to be great ecologists. Sterling is one of a diminishing number of rural colleges.
Derr and his colleagues are asking the question, “What is the right role of rural colleges?” Rural working communities are dying. The average age of farmers is sixty-three. Young people are needed to stay and bring new enterprise if rural areas are again going to thrive.
In his talk for the Berkshire Community Land Trust’s Annual Meeting Derr describes this challenge as an opportunity—an opportunity for rural colleges to create a curriculum that brings higher education and working landscapes together. To achieve this purpose, Sterling meshes its strong liberal arts curriculum with the practical skills offered by the member farmers of the Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) in nearby Hardwick, VT. Local farmers are paid to give classes in draft horse husbandry, cheese making, bee keeping, maple syrup production, et al., on site at their farms. In the process they are passing on place-based knowledge and assuring a continuity of good husbandry.
In the same talk CAE’s Executive Director, Sarah Waring, describes the Center’s mission as transforming the region’s food system for social, economic, and ecological vitality. She emphasizes that the level of cooperation among the players in the system—farmers/producers, restaurants, stores, schools, hospitals, non-profits, local governments, and citizen/consumers—is essential to its success. Diversified small farms are not, by themselves, sustainable. There is a difference between a place-based economy and a place-based community. An economy is transactional in nature, a community reciprocal.
She gives the example of the Vermont Food Venture Center (VFVC), a shared-use food hub and business incubator designed for food entrepreneurs and farmers seeking to grow their business that was built by CAE with donated funds. VFVC has enabled farmers to craft ways to add value to their raw field-grown products without having to pay for the cost of the infrastructure. As the lead tenant of the facility, Jasper Hill Farm, a highly respected local cheese-maker, recognizes that it is subsidizing the operational cost of the building so that it can serve as a resource for further development of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom food system. Jasper Hill understands that it will take a community of successful farms to embolden a healthy rural culture.
Does this partnership between Sterling and CAE, between a rural college steeped in the liberal arts and the working farmers of its place, represent the education for the “home-coming” that Wes Jackson at The Land Institute is seeking? Surely in part.
At the 36th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, Wes said, “We’ve been working on this for some time now to figure out what a curriculum would look like that would educate people to go home rather than use their education for upward mobility if not lateral mobility, to go home, dig in, and be there long enough for affection to grow and for intelligent action on what is needed in that particular community to come about.”
At the Schumacher Center we would recommend enhancing the curriculum by adding the skills to imagine and crowd-source development of needed industries based on the land—wool processing and spinning, furniture manufacturing, hydro-electric generation, brick making, and other community supported industries. And with these, a knowledge of how to implement the community economic institutions to support such appropriately scaled industry—local currencies, community land trusts, and the principles of worker-owned cooperatives.
The Berry Center has recognized that Sterling College is addressing in Vermont the same questions that The Berry Center is addressing in Henry County, Kentucky: How can farmers afford to farm well? How do we become a culture that supports good farming?
In her talk for the Schumacher Center in June of 2018, Mary Berry described the collaboration between The Berry Center and Sterling College to launch The Berry Farming Program in order to draw tangible connections between education, communities, and the land.
“If food is a cultural product, and we believe that it is, then we believe that there is strength in beginning where our culture is and strengthening it. We believe that if mechanisms are put into place to move local products, if farm production is kept in line with demand, and farm prices are fair, the rural economy can heal itself.”
She adds, “My father’s subject has been the history of the industrialization of agriculture and the possibility of changing the standards by which that history is judged. . . . One of the most ruinous myths that has been visited on our countryside is the official doctrine that there are too many farmers. This has never been revoked. It was, in fact, this realization that set my father off, as he says, to write The Unsettling of America.”
“If we agree that food is a cultural product then we have to think about what has happened to the rural culture. The demand for well-raised local products going up has met the rural culture coming down. There are fewer and fewer of us who can recognize what is happening. It seems to me that our work is to get hold of what is left of the old culture of thrift, husbandry, and neighborliness and to strengthen it. To put an economy around good farming that values it.”
There is no single way for achieving a healthy farm culture. Each rural area is different. Its landscape is different. Its people are different. But Sterling College and the The Berry Center offer an approach—a rich training in the arts, philosophy, literature, and sciences that gives value and direction for a life well led, wedded to the practical skills that connect us to a particular landscape and that grow from a particular place. Together they help foster “a communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration.”
Thank you to our speakers Leah Penniman and Ed Whitfield for an exceptional 38th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures program. For those who missed it, stay tuned in the coming weeks for an announcement with video footage from the event. The talks will be transcribed, edited, and posted on our website to read for free. They will also be published as eBooks on Kobo and Kindle as well as physical pamphlets. Each pamphlet is 5 Berkshares or 5 dollars.