Thirty-six years ago, Wendell Berry published The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture—exposing the cultural and ecological ravages of industrial agriculture and calling for a revival of small, diversified family farming. This past April, the Berry Center, established in 2011 to perpetuate the Berry family legacy, held its first conference, with the theme of “What Will It Take to Resettle America?”
Executive director of the center, Mary Berry—the daughter of Wendell and his wife, Tanya—presided at the conference, held in Louisville, Kentucky. Attendance was limited to 300, and advance tickets sold quickly to people from throughout the U.S. and beyond. More than 25 speakers made up the program, including Berry himself, Bill Moyers, Bill McKibben, Wes Jackson, Fred Kirschenmann, Vandana Shiva and, by prerecorded video, Charles, Prince of Wales. They focused on what is required to “resettle America” and other places with sustainable farming, and explored land-use and farm-and-food policies, full accounting for the costs of food production and distribution, finance and investment for local food systems and interdisciplinary degree programs in small farming and related subjects at academic institutions.
To underscore the Berry Center’s own commitment to interdisciplinary agrarian education, the final day of the conference took place at St. Catharine College, which dates back to 1823 with a school established by the Kentucky Sisters of St. Dominic in the small community of St. Catharine, about 50 miles southeast of Louisville. Here, in partnership with the college, which was founded in 1931, the Berry Center has created the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism program, which inaugurates its BS and BA programs this fall. Other institutions vied for this partnership, but the Berrys were drawn to St. Catharine largely by the Dominican Sisters’ continuing history of farming and dedication to the community.
The farm at St. Catharine College is the oldest Dominican Sisters farm in the U.S. It was initially devoted to vegetables, flax and sheep, but while today’s sisters still grow vegetables, their main product has been beef since the 1960s—providing for Dominican Sisters throughout Kentucky and the U.S. The farm has grown to 800 acres, and encompasses not only vegetable fields and livestock pastures but also woodland and other wildlife habitats. The conference ended with a walk around the farm as Farm Manager Steve Smith, a lifelong Kentucky farmer, and Leah Bayens, assistant professor of English and coordinator of the agrarian curriculum, spoke about implementing the program.
Ending the conference at the farm complemented the beginning of the conference, which was a choral celebration of selected Berry poems by the Voces Novae ensemble in Louisville’s Cathedral of the Assumption. The concert made audible the beauty and power of art, and the farm illuminated the greater beauty and power of the earth, for it—Berry reminds us in his writings—nourishes all living things, and we are bound to reciprocate, with love and affection.