If you say you like “farm-to-table,” you better understand exactly what you’re asking for, because your demand for those crops doesn’t necessarily mean money in the pockets of farmers. But there are lessons to learn from the Berry family of Henry County, Kentucky. John M. Berry Jr. built the co-op that allowed tobacco farmers — and their rural communities — to prosper for 60 years. The writings of his brother, Wendell, have become the agricultural bibles of food activists around the world. Now, Wendell’s daughter, Mary, leads the work of the Berry Institute, which just might have the right prescription to restore farming communities in the South.
Story by Jodi Cash | Photographs by Ethan Payne
In the winter of 1907, a man returned to his home in Henry County, Kentucky, with devastating news. After a year of ardent labor over his tobacco crop, he returned from the auction with not a penny for his efforts. What little money the fastidiously grown plant had earned was spent simply on the sale’s commission and transport to and from Louisville, some 40 miles from his home.
At the impressionable age of 6 years old, John Berry Sr. saw his father come home with no money and was forever changed. Though only a small boy, he told himself then that he’d set to work, protecting his father and fellow tobacco farmers from the same hardship. This was a promise he upheld, spending years as a lawyer and farmer whose efforts brought unlikely prosperity to his homeland. His passion caught hold of his sons, John Jr. and Wendell. And still today, this image motivates the work of a formidable family, whose name is synonymous with agrarian ideals and farming philosophy.
Today, the work of the Berry family is being shepherded by that tobacco farmer’s great granddaughter, Mary Berry. She shares the passion that compelled her father, Wendell, to write some of the most widely published, beloved works in American literary history. Beginning with his most well known nonfiction work, “The Unsettling of America,” and extending to over 40 books of poetry, fiction, and essays, Wendell’s writing articulates the need for sustainable farming practices and strong farm communities with more authority than any other American writer. His voice is omnipresent in current discussions about where our food comes from. Now, Mary faces perhaps a more difficult challenge than the men who came before her: She must put their writings into action in a world where rural communities face larger challenges than ever.
Five years ago, Mary Berry launched The Berry Center, a foundation that goes far beyond the call to celebrate, archive, and organize the work of her accomplished family members. By employing the principles studied and advocated by these men, Mary seeks to give farmers in rural Kentucky and the wider country new hope.
Mary Berry has no time for nonsense. With the same unrelenting focus of a farmer pulling weeds from fertile soil, her attention to detail is dogged. She’s comfortable confessing opinions on politics and makes no apologies for her take on the world. She has the kind of intense brilliance that allows her to answer a question so articulately, so poignantly that you’d think she was reciting a well vetted speech. But her answers are not canned, they’re candid, and they draw from a lifetime of philosophizing on the problems of farming.
And she is all of this without severity. Just as soon as she’ll correct any statement that lacks her signature diplomacy, she’ll smile widely and let her piercing, celeste eyes convince you of their wisdom.
As a child, Mary traveled extensively with her father, mother, and brother. Wendell’s work took the family to Europe, New York, and California. But of course, the hills of their homeland kept calling, and ultimately Wendell settled his family back in Henry County. Here, his children learned to love the land as he does — to tend to its fields, to know its people. And the Berry family passion put a strong hold on Mary.
“I never ever wanted to be anywhere but here,” she says. “Ever ... I've seen places that I've thought, ‘Wouldn't it be interesting to live here? Wouldn’t it be nice to live here?’ But I've never wanted to live anywhere else, ever.”
Mary began helping farm at an early age, cutting tobacco with her grandfather, Big John. But in her time working the land, as tobacco farming toppled, she witnessed a drastic change in the farming culture that once defined her community.
In rural Kentucky, tobacco once reigned supreme. The crop was labor-intensive, requiring that farmers tend intimately to each plant, to handle each leaf from seed to dried stem. Until 1920, Kentucky was the largest producer of tobacco and then held a steady second to North Carolina.
Despite the success of the crop and the widespread demand for it, the 1907 story of Mary Berry’s great-grandfather was not uncommon. At that moment, farmers were beholden to the fickle will of the American Tobacco Company, a monopoly owned by Durham’s James B. Duke, which yielded the power to reduce prices paid to farmers on a whim.
And so it went that tobacco farmers frequently remained in debt, haunted by the Jeffersonian dream that someday they too might own the land they worked.
This was the tobacco culture where John M. Berry Sr., affectionately known as Big John, grew up.
He left his father’s farm to fulfill a promise to himself: to defend the tobacco farmers of his community. He became an attorney. With a proficiency in the law and his deep knowledge of farming, he co-founded the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-Op, which was responsible for the tobacco program that shifted economics in favor of the farmers by establishing parity prices. Enacted in 1941 and upheld until 2004, the Burley Tobacco Program achieved a sustainable industry for tobacco farmers in eight southern states — including Kentucky, most notably.
“The program was the only farm program that I know of that served the people it was supposed to serve, and that was small farmers,” says Mary. “It was never a subsidy, it was a price support. It cost the government nothing.”
The brilliance of the program was that it successfully matched supply and demand, preventing farmers from falling victim to overproduction. Within this equilibrium, farmers in the co-op were guaranteed parity prices, which meant a price that compensated them for all of their inputs.
Despite his son Wendell’s lauded literary career, perhaps the most important writings within the family to date are those of John Sr., in his co-authorship of the Burley Tobacco Program.
Big John spent his life defending the program, which remained under vehement criticism because it flew in the face of the free market. But he had friends in high places thanks to his years in the nation’s capitol, and at home, his work was embraced by a grateful community.
The Burley Tobacco Program also removed the impetus for farmers in the region to compete. With parity prices, there was no need. So, rather than battle each other for business, farmers worked communally, neighbors helping neighbors.
Folks would spend hours, days, and weeks together as families and communities, huddled together and stripping tobacco, while they talked about their plants, their children, their plans, and their pasts. They’d break quickly for lunch — a shared stew, which simmered in a pot on the stove. This communal work created shared knowledge and meaningful closeness. You see, when a crop is labor-intensive, people become the most important part of raising it, and the citizens of Henry County, Kentucky, valued that.
But in time, tobacco became what Mary calls “indefensible,” for reasons we all know. A complex mix of deregulation and foreign competition, alongside growing public intolerance for tobacco use, drove a stake in the heart of U.S. tobacco farming. Between 1997 and 2015, the number of U.S. tobacco farms dropped by more than 95 percent — 93,330 to 4,268. And almost overnight, a program that brought stability to small farmers was deregulated and quickly forgotten.
“A program that worked for 60-plus years for farmers had been forgotten in less than 10 years,” Mary says. “I was going to farm meetings [and] it was as if this program never existed.”
And the tobacco-growing communities lost a functioning economy and a purposeful culture.
When we arrived in Henry County, a tornado had torn through only a week or so before. But the storm was not to blame for the collapsed tobacco barns we saw throughout our drive in the rolling bluegrass hills, nor could the twister be blamed for the neglected fields and empty houses. No one could use the weather as a scapegoat for this visible absence of industry. The real disaster responsible for a pervasive state of dilapidation was much more complicated than that.
The end of a vibrant tobacco farming culture left Henry County with a gaping hole.
“The decline was exacerbated; it was so fast,” Mary says. “All of a sudden, tobacco barns were falling down. There's no economic incentive to build them back, but the decline in the landscape, the decline in the community, became so clear, so fast.”
Many of the people who once enjoyed a vocation in farming today work in mills along the Ohio River. Some have jobs in government, schools, or hospitals. Some were left with no jobs at all.
This is what Mary Berry seeks to remedy.
Make no mistake, Mary Berry has no interest in even thinking about restoring tobacco to its former glory. Rather, she wants to bring back the principles that made it possible for tobacco farmers to succeed.
“We cannot go back, we're not talking about going back, but what we are talking about is learning from what worked in the past to inform going forward,” she says.
Mary’s work is steeped in her family’s past in more ways than one. The Berry Center is housed in what was her grandfather’s law office beginning in 1927, an historic building in downtown New Castle. To inform her own practices and the work of the future, important archival work is happening there. Big John was a fervent documentarian. In his career, he kept records of his efforts in law and in farming, as well as proof of the progress and problems around him. His sons followed suit, both continuing to observe the agrarian world where they were immersed. Combined, the efforts of the three offer a keen insight into rural, agrarian life in Kentucky, though much of their work has been lost and scattered in trash bins and forgotten files. But through the Berry Center, their writings are being assembled and organized for pressing work.
Using the writings of her family members and her own vast experiences, Mary is going to pilot a program she hopes will restore what was lost in her hometown.
Applying the principles of the Burley Tobacco Program, Mary Berry hopes to make local cattle agriculture thrive. As it stands, Kentucky has the most beef cattle of any state east of the Mississippi. Still, it’s uncommon for family farms to make a living on cattle alone.
The Local Beef Initiative will begin by taking a group of up to six farmers and placing them in a co-op, similar to the one established by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative. Farmers in the co-op will be required to raise the cows on grass and without antibiotics or hormones, in return for access to parity pricing — achieved by maintaining a relationship with a processor and distributor.
In this scenario, the Berry Center would play the role that the federal government did in the Burley Tobacco Program, putting mechanisms into place, establishing parity pricing, taking the farmers involved out of competition with each other and preventing them from overproducing.
“My hope is that once we get the Local Beef Initiative going that young farmers who are involved will say to their friends, ‘You know, I've done this with the Berry Center ... and I've made some money. You should have a look.’ You could convince farmers that way a lot faster than any of us could convince them just going and knocking on their door.”
At this point, Mary is targeting generational farm kids to partake in the program, seeking their institutional knowledge to help the program get off the ground. This partnership is mutually beneficial. It provides kids with an ingrained love of the land and farming the opportunity to use it, an opportunity that’s lost in a town where farming has become an unsustainable source of income.
“Care of land depends on people who are not in a constant emergency, who know it well and who will take care of it well,” Mary says. “So, to have that, we've got to have an economy that makes it possible for those people to even exist, much less survive.”
It’s certainly important that the farmers involved respect the land and emphasize farming practices that will yield rich soil and resources for generations to come, but she’s not interested in pedaling any doctrine that is subversive in her rural town.
“I'm not trying to convince them that they need to change their minds about what amounts to political differences, really,” she says. “They don't have to be organic or they don't have to be biodynamic, or they don't have to think permaculture's the answer. They just have to come on, raise their cattle on grass and not give them antibiotics and hormones. That's all.”
The Berry Center has already secured the local processor, which is an important part of the idyllic picture in Mary Berry’s mind. Chris Wright and John Edwards opened Trackside Butcher Shoppe in 2015, and they’re on board to process the cattle Mary is promising. “They are the answer to 25 or 30 years of an attempt to have more local processing, because in the ’80s, all our local processors went out of business,” Mary says.
The feelings of an answered prayer are mutual in this business relationship.
“They're so supportive of the local farmer and getting him more profit in his or her pocket or into the marketplace and then also getting that product to a consumer who wants it,” says Trackside Butcher partner Edwards. His partner Wright adds, “They've been behind us 110 percent this whole time.”
Trackside’s involvement was catalyzed by John Logan Brent, a Berry Center board member, local politician, and lifelong friend to Mary. Affectionately, she refers to him as one of her greatest “allies.”
John Logan is generous with his network and using his political career as a platform for the Berry Center’s mission, because he believes in it. He wants to see the initiative succeed, not because he’s counting on votes for countywide reelection, but because he too remembers the way farmers once thrived in his community. And it’s a vision he wants to see restored.
“I think we need tangible examples as bad as anything,” he says. “Mary and I have talked about that a bunch with this beef initiative and trying to set a couple of farmers up for wins, and once you have some good tangible examples, it'll sell itself,” he says.
Mary has also set her sights on launching an Organic Grain Initiative, in which participating farmers will be aided financially and practically to grow organic grains to be sold to a bourbon company. But she’s taking it one step at a time.
It’s tempting to hypothesize what Mary’s work could mean for all farmers in America, but she’s disciplined in her dreaming and focused on what’s immediately in front of her: local work in Kentucky.
“I guess that's why I keep saying it's the local work that needs to be done. The right thing to do that's right in front of you to do is what we've got to do,” Mary says. “We are not interested in shipping beef all over this country. We're just interested in the supply of local beef and the demand that's close to us and matching those up.”
And although there’s no end to the frustrations and dismay that come from surveying the state of the American agricultural economy for Mary, her focus is empowering. “ You just can't battle everything or you feel useless, hopeless. But it's not hopeless; it's not hopeless right here,” she says.
John Logan recognizes that Mary’s fighting a tougher battle than perhaps any of her familial predecessors. She’s working to rebuild a culture that’s disintegrated, and she faces enormous adversaries, rather than a sea of allies.
“When her grandfather accomplished what he did in helping create the tobacco program, all the legislators wanted to help him,” he says. “He had farmers behind him. It was politically cool to do what he was doing at the end of the Depression and during those times. And, of course, her dad did his thing and her uncle did his, but what she's trying to do in some ways is, it's even a tougher battle than anything those three gentlemen went through. So, I really admire her for taking that on.”
With all of the press given to the idea of farm-to-table eating and so-called local food movements, you might think the answer for Kentucky farmers is obvious.
Why can’t they just grow organic vegetables?
Don’t they know how to sell to restaurants?
What about the farmers’ markets? My local farmers seem fine — I buy organic radicchio from them at a premium!
To some degree, the appearance of localized food movements is a mirage. Sure, some small, entrepreneurial farmers make a living taking their crops to market, selling value-added products and building relationships with nearby consumers. And with photos of farmers strewn across the produce sections of local grocers, you might like to believe that the purchase of an out-of-season, organic avocado shipped all the way from California is putting a dollar straight into the pocket of farmers. But you’d be deceived to think so.
Even organic farming has been corporatized.
Decades ago, Steve Smith, now Mary’s husband, was one of the first people in their area to tap into a burgeoning movement of organic, local farming. Tobacco farming wasn’t working out as he’d hoped, and he was in the same crippling debt that subjugates farmers all over the country. He resisted selling out or buying into planting soy or corn in the tobacco’s stead. He looked for a new answer.
In the cold winter nights of 1989, he’d sit by the stove and read. A friend loaned him a book called “The New Organic Grower” by Eliot Coleman, and in this book, he saw an opportunity. In the spring of 1990, he began an organic food guild, something we’d now call a CSA (that stands for community supported agriculture). But even with his new and optimistic venture, Steve was faced with overwhelming questions.
“Where you gonna find customers? Where you gonna find shareholders? I couldn't find any,” Steve says. “Nobody around here would buy a share; they thought it was crazy. ‘You must be crazy and what is this organic shit?’ You know?” Although many of his farming neighbors had their own gardens and no interest in buying what was planted in his, he knew there must be a market. So, he wrote a letter to the Louisville Courier Journal.
At that time, tobacco consumed the news in rural Kentucky. In article after article, the people wondered what might take the place of a crop that had provided a livelihood.
“Everybody said, ‘Why can't you grow food? Why can't you just grow food?’ So I sent a letter to the Louisville Courier Journal saying I'm a tobacco farmer; I'm willing to grow food. Does anybody give a damn? Will anybody put their money where their mouth is? And they printed it,” he says. “They sent out a reporter and a photographer, and they ran a story in the Sunday paper, and, man, when that came out, the phone would not stop ringing, and it rang for years.”
Steve quickly had so many customers that he had to turn orders away. “I loved it, loved it. It was great. I started making money for the first time in my life.” Steve got out of debt and stayed out. He developed a business that thrived until he sold his CSA to a young couple a few years back.
“He changed the conversation we were having around tobacco,” Mary says. “Always, at any kinds of gatherings, you would hear nothing was gonna replace tobacco … nothing could make as much money per acre as tobacco. Well, Steve shared his books of the CSA, the accounting, with the Burley Tobacco Board, and they published the record keeping. And he was making much more per acre, keeping much more per acre, than we were with tobacco, so it really changed the conversation. You no longer could just flat say, ‘Nothing will make as much money.’ So, that was a game changer.”
In the same era when Steve was successfully managing an organic-food CSA, Mary was married to a different Smith (of no relation). She also was making money with her farming ventures, providing for her family and growing a business. Both Smith farms were proving to the community that it was possible. But still, their tactics failed to catch on.
“We didn't influence our neighbors,” Mary says. “Because there's no mechanism in place to work on behalf of the producers. To connect rural places with urban places. To think about things like parity. To think about things like the problem of overproduction.”
Not only was there no mechanism to make the farmers’ work more feasible, competition facing small organic farmers was also building to work against them. At this point, the local and organic food movements had been growing since the 1960s, when frustrated farmers and innovative chefs were looking for alternatives to industrialized farming. Steve and Mary were on the forefront of this movement in Kentucky, but as the movement spread, corporate interests caught wind. Looking to cash in on consumer demands for food from small, sustainable farms, corporate food retailers and large-scale processors lobbied for standards that would make it easier to source crops that had all been raised through similar means.
At the offset, even small farmers had reason to believe that standardizing organic production was in their best interest. This could give them a means of distinguishing their efforts — setting themselves apart for marketing purposes. And it would surely, they thought, make it more necessary for fellow farmers to grow their crops sustainably. But in actuality, these standards opened the door for organic farming to be industrialized and corporatized.
Unlike small farmers who struggled to afford so much as the certification process, large producers (who often bought out smaller organic operations) could not only afford the certification, but also could afford to produce food at greater volumes and pay to ship it throughout the U.S. and wider world.
“It let the food giants in,” Steve says. “They saw the growth in this was incredible. And they wanted a piece of the action — that's what the USDA law was all about, to let them in. And sure enough, they did, and they clobbered us all. They took it over.”
And the corporations did all of this under the guise of good health and environmental interests, taking the farmers’ language and stripping it down to labels that mean next to nothing.
“If you go into any big-box store — Walmart, Kroger, there's an organic section,” Steve says. “Suddenly, this is the local food movement, and none of it's local. The local food movement just found a way to get around farmers and made a run for it. It completely bypassed farmers.”
Even consumers with the best intentions are facilitating this phenomenon. “I think people perceive or think when they're buying the organic products off the shelves that it must be coming from one of those farmers. But there is no local organic production here that's not entrepreneurial,” Mary says. “It's selling at farm markets in cities like Louisville and Lexington, and that's wonderful. But the trouble is that the local food movement started with entrepreneurial farming 40 years ago, and it remains there.”
Of course, with the history of government intervention in agriculture and a new administration that’s poised to value corporate interests and commodity agriculture, Mary Berry holds out no hope for the feds to suddenly become allies.
“I think the economy is the problem, not politics, because politics serves the economy. The left serves the economy. The right serves the economy. And as long as that's true, then there's not gonna be a big change,” she says. “And if there was a big change, what exactly would that be? Do you see what I mean? What policy is gonna build back the culture and the population of people in Henry County who love it and who will take care of it for the next thousand years? That's gonna depend on something else, something more complicated.”
The election of President Donald Trump has prompted Mary, like many other Americans, to take a closer look at what can actually be accomplished in their communities.
“I think having what the left perceived to be an ally in the White House for things like local food, small farming, was not helpful,” Mary says, a self-professed Yellow Dog Democrat.
Now, there is no room for delusions; there is work that must be done.
In this attitude, Mary mirrors her father.
No one guaranteed that we’d have lunch with Wendell. In fact, no one could promise we’d so much as shake his hand. In planning the interviews and trips, I’d ask politely if we might have the chance to get his take on the his daughter’s program, but never got more than a “we’ll see” in response.
It was to our cheerful surprise that Mary spoke of lunch with her father just after we’d arrived at the Berry Center. Still, though, she managed our expectations carefully. Her father is, after all, a man who’s more than earned the right to undisrupted days and declining overzealous reporters if he so pleases. But when Mary drove us to Rick’s Farm Center Restaurant under the tempered possibility that he’d be there, we were hopeful.
When we got to Rick’s, Mary and John Logan were warmly greeted by working men, crowded around folding tables, eating various meat-and-threes. But Wendell was not to be found. Still, we were satisfied with our own sectioned plates, laden with country cooking and eaten in good company. If Wendell couldn’t make it, that would be fine. It’d simply be icing on the cake, we told ourselves.
Just at the moment when we’d given up hope of meeting the man, there was the ding of a shopkeeper’s bell and a small commotion in Rick’s. He’d arrived.
After making his way through a small crowd of fellow customers, who were more often lifelong friends than starstruck fans, Wendell greeted his daughter with affection and profuse apologies: He was dreadfully sorry for his tardiness. He’d spent the morning working on his farm with his grandson, Marshall, and lost track of time.
If Wendell assumed we knew who he was, he never let on. He greeted us with the same toothy smile that lights his daughter’s face and took an instant interest in what we were doing all the way up in Kentucky. But also like his daughter, Wendell is quick to get down to business. He’d arrived to lunch already impassioned from a morning of lecturing his grandson.
“We're living here in a colonial economy. All of rural America is a colony,” Wendell tells us. “Everything they take, they take at the lowest possible price. Sometimes below the cost of production. And they give nothing back.”
But despite dire circumstances in the community he’s dedicated his life to, Wendell believes his daughter’s programs could make a difference. Because rather than just waxing poetic on the value of good land stewardship, the Local Beef Initiative offers the kind of incentive that matters to farmers who are barely making ends meet.
“We have economy in our favor and then we can teach ’em some of those other sorts of things that go along,” Wendell says. “We don't have to sell the producers we're working with on the healthfulness of the meat or the environmental benefits of grazing. We don't have to sell ’em on that to start out with. We'll sell them on it's best for them and their pocketbooks.”
Wendell attributes his positive outlook, in part, to the work being done by the Berry Center, but he makes a clear distinction: his feeling should not be called “optimism.”
“Optimism is a program. It says everything is gonna turn out swell, so you don't have to try,” Wendell says. “Pessimism is a program. It says, everything is going to hell, there's nothing we can do about it, so you don't have to try. Hope is a different matter — knowing what's worth hoping for is a different matter. … Hope relies on thought and work, on powers maybe greater than we have. And if you know what the right thing to do is, you do it whether you have any hope or not.”
Mary’s own home with Steve is a picture of what could be. Together in a farmhouse that’s more than a century old, she and her husband of just over three years talk about possibilities for the farmers they love. Outside, their border collie trudges through the mud, hunting and playing. Their cattle graze and their plants grow, enriched by practices that maintain the land’s magical fertility. Together, they will live in the community that they hope to salvage, regardless of what the Berry Center makes possible. They’re dug in. They’re rooted.
The Local Beef Initiative is in its infancy, but it boasts the kind of promise for a change that could spread. It could bring neighbors and families together again, all working toward a sustainable lifestyle, sharing knowledge and caring for the land. The impact could bring about a revolution in a food system that is otherwise poised to destroy us — either through our diets or the degradation of the environment.
It is small, but it is practical, and it just might work.