Letter from Wendell Berry

Below is an excerpt of a letter by Wendell Berry that was the catalyst for the Tilth movement in the Pacific Northwest. Wendell wrote the letter to Gigi Coe and Bob Stilger following his return home from speaking at the “Agriculture for a Small Planet” symposium at Expo 74 in Spokane. Heeding Wendell’s call for “another kind of agricultural symposium,” Gigi Coe joined with Mark Musick, Woody and Becky Deryckx, and Michael Pilarski to establish Tilth as the host organization for the Northwest Conference on Alternative Agriculture, held in Ellensburg, Washington, in November, 1974.

Port Royal, KY

July 4, 1974

Dear Gigi and Bob,

I sure did have a fine time out there, and felt, when I left, that I was leaving friends. As I sort of told Bob the other night, I felt pretty grumpy about leaving home. I thought it would be a joyless duty, and that the people running the symposium would be boring official types who would make me wish I had never left home. So I was surprised to find the two of you so bright and good, and I hope you’ll forgive my wrong assumptions.

Now I want to tell you some notions that I never would have had if you had been what I expected you to be.

First, I’m impressed with what might be the importance of your being placed where you are now. The experience and the contacts that you’ll have when Expo is over ought to give you a peculiar usefulness to the environmental movement.

Second, the overwhelming message that came out of the symposium is that the agricultural establishment is going to go right on trusting “American ingenuity” and reciting specialists’ statistics until the case against it is proven by its failure—which will be the failure of much else that is more worthy. People like Leon Nelson are not going to listen to people like Wilson and me—they are not even going to be able to understand what we are saying—simply because they don’t have to. They are well paid, stuffed with the self-importance of the well paid, and set apart in their lives from both their critics and their victims. Leon hasn’t used a John Deere implement, much less depended on one, since he became a John Deere executive.

Third, your symposium, as well as a lot of other meetings I’ve been to in other parts of the country, proves the existence of a thoughtful and even knowledgeable constituency for a better kind of agriculture. And this constituency is as yet powerless because it has no programs. It has no coherent vision of what is possible. It is without the arguments and proofs—the language—that will make it coherent. Our sessions amply demonstrated the hesitance and the great difficulty people have in speaking of any kind of agricultural alternative. Leon Nelson can speak—as he did to me—of a 600 HP tractor operated by remote control, and his voice has an absolute assurance. To me, that sort of vision is a dangerous absurdity. But it does not seem absurd, much less dangerous, because it is produced by a vision that has dominated popular thinking for a generation. What seems absurd is anything less than the biggest tractor conceivable. There are situations in which a horse-and-hoe technology is the most practicable, but even I who have thought about it for years, find it difficult to defend—at least in a language that other people will listen to.

Fourth, the crisis is not in land use. It’s in the lives and the minds of land users. That’s why I don’t believe it can be helped very much by any kind of official policy. Good land use is going to come about either by hard necessity or by some kind of teaching. I have in mind what Gigi told me about her work in a birth control clinic. That effort has gone against the grain, just as any sort of agricultural reform will have to. And there are a lot of women whose lives have been changed because other women have helped them think of another possibility. As long as the other possibility is a better one, thoughts will be close to deeds.

And so I’m asking you, from where you are, can you see any possibility of another kind of agricultural symposium—not, this time, that would represent a broad spectrum of opinion, but rather one that would try to bring together the various branches of agricultural dissidence and heresy? Supposed you could get together representatives of farm workers unions, NFO and any other such groups, family farmers, urban consumer cooperatives, small farm co-ops, organic farming and gardening co-ops and organizations, the publications of dissident agriculture, and the conservation organizations, wilderness societies, etc. Could such a meeting be made to happen? And if it could happen, don’t you think it would be directly useful? I’m not sure what unanimity might be made, but I am sure that it would be the start of something or other that would be useful. For instance, one of the most urgent needs now is a forum in which urban environmentalists can begin to learn something about farming.

Would one or the other of you let me know what thoughts you have in response to this?

Your friend,