(Editor’s Note: This is 1 of 5 in a series of posts where our friend Thomas Turner (of EverydayLiturgy.com) explores the prophetic voice of Wendell Berry through his poetic character ‘The Mad Farmer’. Berry‘s Mad Farmer serves not as a sentimental ideal of a fictitious agrarian utopia but as a John the Baptist figure- calling us out to the plowed field to be re-baptized in the context of community, land, and place. We heed the Mad Farmer and the voice of Mr. Berry to our benefit. We ignore them to our peril. Whether we are farmers or not, culture and agriculture shape and support us all- and we cannot leave their course to be guided by unquestioned folly. -JF)
The Mad Farmer is a reoccurring character in Berry’s poems. The Mad Farmer serves as Berry’s poetic response to the changing cultural and agricultural times he conveys in his expose of modern agriculture, The Unsettling of America.
Since World War II America has made astonishing changes to the way food is planted, grown, harvested, and consumed by its citizens. The industrialization of agriculture, starting as a convenient way for companies and the government to convert chemical and industrial supplies left over from the war effort, has become the de facto means of food production within our country. An undercurrent of peaceable revolution has rippled across this country following the wake of industrial agriculture, and the sentiments of this revolution are expressed poetically in Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer poems.
By 1968, Billard cites that American farmers were already spreading 40 million tons of chemical fertilizers, or 260 pounds for each acre under cultivation. These figures, along with the disturbing demographical fact that “in 1910 our farm population accounted for a third of the U.S. Total. By 1969 it was a mere twentieth,” convey the sociological phenomena that lead Berry to make the following point:
“The concentration of the farmland into larger and larger holdings and fewer and fewer hands— with the consequent increase of overhead, debt, and dependence on machines— is thus a matter of complex significance, and its agricultural significance cannot be disentangled from its cultural significance. It forces a profound revolution of the farmer’s mind: once his investment in land and machines is large enough, he must forsake the values of husbandry and assume those of finance and technology. Thenceforth his thinking is not determined by agricultural responsibility, but by financial accountability and the capacities of his machines. Where his money comes from becomes less important to him than where it is going. He is caught up in the drift of energy and interest away from the land. Production begins to override maintenance. The economy of money has infiltrated and subverted the economies of nature, energy, and the human spirit. The man himself has become a consumptive machine.”
Thus the Mad Farmer character in Berry’s poetry performs the actions of a revolutionary farmer as outlined in Berry’s philosophical works. The Mad Farmer is a prototype and archetype at the same time: because he holds to the old ways of nature, energy, and the human spirit in a world where money is the only economy and machine the only means of consumption, while at the same time pushing us toward a brave new world of sustainability.