I live in Henry County, Kentucky, about 35 miles northeast of Louisville. I have farmed here with my husband, Chuck Smith, for almost 30 years. I think my parents are still surprised that I’m here, but Henry County is the only place I’ve ever lived for any extended length of time and, maybe more importantly, the only place I’ve ever wanted to live. My father’s family has lived and farmed here for over 200 years.
I come from a family of storytellers and I believe I know some stories that go back to the beginning of my family’s time here. My father, Wendell Berry, was born in 1934; I was born in 1958. Daddy saw the end of farming with horses and the beginning of the industrialization of agriculture.
I have seen the end of the agricultural community that involved the sharing, or trading, of work and the understanding of shared experience that made a community. I grew up working on some of the same farms my father worked on and with many of the same people he worked with. Some of those people were friends and some were family, but all were a part of what Daddy calls “the membership.” In part, he means by that people who honor the same things and know it.
My membership had a rocky beginning. I was not a willing participant in any kind of farm work, especially as a teenager. I think I was good enough help once I got started but getting me out the door couldn’t have been pleasant. I remember saying when faced with vegetables to pick, hay to get up or tobacco to house, “I didn’t choose to live like this.” To be fair to my young self, the work was hard, sometimes very hard. The days were hot and long. But I can say now that much of what I learned that really matters to me I learned in those days
When neighbors traded work in those days, the farm on which the work was taking place provided the noon meals, and, oh, what meals they were. They are absolutely clear in my mind as I sit here 30 some years later. The meals that I remember most vividly were at Owen and Loyce Flood’s farm about five miles from where I sit now.
I remember them in particular because Owen and Loyce were great friends of four generations of my family. We set tobacco, cut tobacco, killed hogs and worked in hay on their farm. The talk in the field was full of stories and jokes. I think the older people knew when the young ones were flagging and then talk would turn to dinner. What would we have? I can remember coming into Loyce’s kitchen and seeing platters of fried chicken, biscuits, creamed corn or limas or peas, beautiful tomatoes picked that morning, dressed eggs, pickled beets, marinated cucumbers, cobblers and sweating glasses of iced tea. Loyce worked in the field and cooked for us. I had to grow up and do it myself before I understood what a feat that was.
After we washed and sat down to the table the talk would slow down a bit but as we began to get full it would pick up again. Much of that talk, it seems to me now, was for the benefit of the young people. Often that meant my brother Den and me. We were teased, encouraged, loved and taught around that table. I think I knew then how wonderful those times were. Mostly, I’m sure because my parents made sure I knew.
What I didn’t know then was how exceptional that food was. I grew up surrounded by good cooks — my mother, Tanya Berry, chief among them. I took good food for granted and longed for the junk food I wasn’t allowed. I do know now how good that food was and even though I have shelves of cookbooks, those recipes are the ones I go back to again and again.
With the exception of some staples I think everything we ate came from Owen and Loyce’s farm. In the summer, the vegetables and fruits were fresh; in the winter, canned or frozen. The farms I remember well had chickens for meat and eggs, a cow for milk, a couple of hogs, beef cattle and an orchard. In light of the economic times we are living in it is instructive to think of those self-sufficient, competent people. And to remember again that the situation we’re in now has not been inevitable. We are here, in part, because of choices made in big places have worked against rural places and rural people.
We have dealt with food safety issues and have had to think about what homeland security might really mean. We know that our oil-based economy is not going to work forever and that maybe our food needs to be closer to us. I hope that there is a better understanding of what the countryside, and the men and women who farm it, mean to us. I grew up in a family that valued what it meant to be a good farmer absolutely. I never heard talk of someone being “just a farmer.” Maybe an understanding of what a good farmer’s knowledge means to us is reaching a critical mass. The wonderful thing about this awakening is that it returns to us the pleasure of eating.
And pleasure brings me back to those meals of my youth. I expect I would have been surprised then to know that I would think of those long workdays with nothing but pleasure. The older I get, the more I look around for what is left of what I hoped for. Sometimes I’ve had to look hard and sometimes I’ve been close to despair. But for those of us who care about the young, hope is our duty and I know that there are current signs of hope. Every farmers’ market and CSA is a reason to hope. Grocery stores stocking local food is a reason to hope. Chefs and restaurant owners looking for farmer partners is reason to hope. I believe in Louisville, Kentucky, during the growing season, there is not much that you can’t find locally. If you can’t find it locally maybe you don’t need it.
What I believe we all need are times around a dinner table with people we love eating wonderful food. Cooking the food ourselves, finding the farmers close to us and supporting them, bringing people we love together to eat it and telling stories around it are all ways of saying what matters to you, who matters to you. You will be a part of my father’s “membership.”