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Rural Blog: Farmers must work together to prosper, says daughter of famed Ky author Wendall Berry

The high turnout in rural areas for Donald Trump in 2016 reflects not just the growing rural-urban cultural divide, but also the fading of a culture in which farming communities cooperate for their betterment, Mary Berry and Debbie Barker write for Civil Eats. Berry’s father and Barker’s friend, Kentucky author-farmer Wendell Berry, called attention to the phenomenon in 1978 in The Unsettling of America:

“We see the hideousness and the destructive-ness of … the kind of mind that can accept and even applaud the ‘obsolescence’ of the small farm and not hesitate over the possible political and cultural effects; that can recommend … tillage of huge monocultures … massive use of chemicals … and not worry at all about the deterioration or loss of soil. For cultural patterns of responsible cooperation we have substituted this moral ignorance, which is the etiquette of agricultural ‘progress’.”

Mary Berry

Mary Berry and Barker say dismantling small-farm economies and communities in favor of large-scale farming is part of the reason for the high suicide rate and opioid addiction among farmers. To build better local food and farm economies, landscapes, and cultures, they recommend that smaller farmers band together the way tobacco growers once did. In eight Southern states, the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association helped keep income stable and equitable in rural communities from the mid-1930s until the federal tobacco program of production quotas and price supports ended in 2004.

“The program—led by John Berry Sr. and later John Berry Jr. (father and brother of Wendell Berry)—organized regional cooperatives and established essential tenets of production control and parity pricing, which meant that farmers received enough money to cover the price of production and provide an equitable, fair profit. It allows for pricing to be adjusted based on farm input costs, which can go up or down from year to year,” Berry and Barker write. “The government provided powerful backing for the farmer co-ops, which had struggled mightily against the tobacco industry cartel. Federal and state governments worked with and on the behalf of farmers of all sizes to provide long-term stability.”

Mary Berry and Barker founded The Berry Center in 2011 in an attempt to recapture the alliances among farmers, processors, distributors and retailers that once helped rural America prosper. “A healthy American democracy requires rural communities with vibrant local economies and environmental stewardship, and farming is at the heart of this vision,” they write. “And we won’t become a nation that treats each other and the land well as long as we are willing to accept an economy that allows people and land to be sacrificed for quick profit.”

Berry will speak at the Oct. 18 Al Smith Awards Dinner of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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