A Fund to Have Farmers' Backs
In 2011 I went to my father, Wendell Berry, to talk about my worry that though we had a local food movement in full swing we were not seeing a corresponding upswing in the number of farmers or the ability of farmers to afford to farm well. The countryside in the county I am from didn’t look better. In fact, the decay of the little towns and the farmland around them seemed to be speeding up.
I had a lot on my mind that day. We talked about education for farmers and urban people who want to farm and access to capital for those same people. We talked about my perception from meetings and encounters over several years that in the agencies and commissions of official agriculture, the Burley Tobacco Program had been forgotten. In my work on several agricultural boards I heard no one speaking of it as a still-viable kind of program for protecting the livelihoods of small farmers. We agreed that the program, despite the stigma of tobacco, remains viable as a way of protecting the farmer’s interest in any farm commodity.
The result of that conversation is The Berry Center. Our mission is to, with the help of many other people and organizations working on the problems of our industrial agriculture, bring about the cultural change needed to allow farmers to not only survive but to thrive. Our hope is to reestablish our long-broken urban rural connection, thereby insuring the health and prosperity of both the cities and the countryside around them.
For a long while it has been too easy to quickly list our debits, from loss of soil to loss of farmers and the resulting degradation of land and of people. Four years ago I thought that our debits were getting so far ahead of the credits that the balance needed could not be achieved.
I am often reminded by my father that it isn’t going to get bad enough that a person of good intention can’t do the good thing that is right in front of them to do. (This magazine is as good a testament to that as anything we have in our community.) And, that is exactly what is happening. There is much good work and much excitement going on around the establishment of a local food system in and around our two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington.
For too long it has been part of my work in writing and in speeches to focus on the debits. That has had to be done. We aren’t going to come up with the right answers from our work in trying to establish a good, not toxic, land-conserving agriculture if we don’t look honestly at what is really going on in the countryside. The Berry Center has partnered with the Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (KCARD) and Metro Louisville to do just that. Our supply-side study is under way and when matched with the two demand studies that were done in Louisville in 2008 and 2012 we should have a good understanding of Louisville and its foodshed.
It is clearer to me that we have more and more to put on the credit side. Demand is outpacing supply for well-raised local food. More consumers are willing to think beyond price and convenience when making decisions about purchasing food. There seems to be growing understanding that we can “pay now or pay later” and this doesn’t seem to be just an understanding of our own health but the health of our land as well. An understanding that a culture that destroys what it takes to survive can’t last forever. Kentucky’s two major cities have mayors that have publicly talked about the importance of a sustainable supply of food to their cities. A food port, based on the idea that a local food system is a viable economic model, is proposed. Our challenge now is to match up the supply and the demand side.
The urban excitement around local food is not matched by farmers in the countryside. This is a serious debit and an economic one. We have several problems, not the least being that the demand for local food going up in cities has met the rural culture coming down. The economic lives of the people who grow our food and do the work of getting it to our tables must no longer be ignored. I think, back to credits, we know this now. We need more farmers. They need to know how to farm well and to be able to afford to farm well. And, they need to be able to have land to farm on. Land that is not so debt-encumbered that they are instantly in an emergency.
I sit on the board of United Citizens Bank & Trust Company in Henry County, Kentucky. United Citizens is a locally owned bank that declares in its vision statement: “We have no desire to be affiliated in any way with some large conglomerate where customers and employees become numbers and communities are abandoned for the almighty dollar. This Board, by choice, lives in, interacts with and cares for the communities we serve. It chooses to remain locally owned.” [unitedcitizensbank. com/contactabout-us.html] Lineage exists with several directors to the bank’s origins in 1872, including my own.
The Berry Center will launch the John Berry Farmer Collateralization Fund, a targeted loan collateralization account held at Union Citizens. The kickoff event is “An Evening with Mark Bittman” on September 9th. This is the first in a series of events held as part of The Common Wealth Project. This fund will be used as a backstop of credit guarantee for loans to farmers and other related rural businesses. This fund will speed up the approval process and make these agricultural loans more possible.
We will be making good loans, as we always have, but because of tightening regulations on loaning institutions these loans have gotten harder and harder to make. The fund is a pilot project that builds on the good work and principles of the Schumacher Center for New Economics, Slow Money and Kiva Zip, and will help locally owned banks invigorate rural economies. A targeted loan collateralization account of $50,000 could enable the bank to make $500,000 in loans to foster Kentucky’s rural economies.
My uncle, John Berry, has worked all his life on behalf of land conserving communities as a farmer, as a lawyer and as a state senator. He said in a speech given in 1989, “The devastation suffered by rural America is not an accident; it is not the result of changing times or technological development; it is not the result of uncontrollable economic circumstances; it is a crisis by design.”
I think of him and of this quotation daily. If what has happened to our farmers and to our country’s rural landscapes is the result of decisions made in places of power far removed from the places harmed, then different decisions can be made. The John Berry Farmer Collateralization Fund continues his work as a stalwart advocate of Kentucky’s farmers and farming communities.
Good farmers produce food, of course; but they also conserve soil, they conserve water, they conserve wildlife, they conserve open space, they conserve scenery. They too must be conserved, valued, honored. Without a stable farm population we will have no chance of balancing our agricultural debits and credits.
Mary Berry serves as the Executive Director of The Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky. She speaks all over the country as a proponent of agriculture of the middle, in defense of small farmers. She and her husband Steve raise grass-fed beef and large black breed hogs in Trimble County.
Learn more or make an investment
Please contact The Berry Center at 502-845-9200 to learn more about the John Berry Farmer Collateralization Fund or to make an investment. For more information, visit BerryCenter.org