The Mad Farmer: Wendell Berry’s Agrarian Poetic (Part 2)

(Editor’s Note: This is 2 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’. We must heed his voice and relearn the GOD-given modes for practical living of self-reliance, wise stewardship, and communal context. As the Apostle Paul said to the Christian community in Thessalonica so long ago: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” -1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)

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“The Mad Farmer Revolution” poeticizes what a “revolution” of farming would be, which is Berry’s way to rewrite the wrongs of industrial agriculture. As the bonds of the local community unraveled with the industrialization of agriculture farm towns across America simply boarded up and became ghost towns.

the mad farmer plows

There is power in a single plow (click image for source, montage: J Fowler)

The Mad Farmer character seeks to tie the disparaged community back together with the bond that brought them together in the first place: growing food to survive. The Mad Farmer ties the cornerstones of the community together through the act of plowing:

“He plowed the churchyard, the
minister’s wife, three graveyards
and a golf course. In a parking lot
he planted a forest of little pines…
He led
a field of corn to creep up
and tassel like an Indian tribe
on the courthouse lawn.”

Berry firmly believes that the loss of land to corporations and powerful conglomerates cemented the separation of men from the land and moved them into specialized roles utilizing technology and a reliance on machines for food and living instead of themselves and the community. The movement from community reliance to a reliance on corporations is evident in the size and power of major agricultural corporations. Twelve companies control 95% of American poultry production. Companies like Conagra and Cargill, which is the second largest private company in America, control vast amounts of the food supply which are then given to companies like Pepsi and Kraft for production and placement in supermarkets.

According to USDA statistics quoted in Frederick Kirschenmann’s “The Current State of Agriculture: Does It Have a Future?” Sixty one percent of America’s “total national agricultural product is now being produced by just 163,000” of America’s two million farms and “63 percent of that production is tied to a market or input firm by means of contractual relationship.” The agricultural production of the 1.3 million farmers who sell their food directly to the market accounts for just 9 percent of total national agricultural production.

Corporate America agri-business has fed us a revisionist history of food that tells us it’s okay and natural that our garlic comes from China, our pears come from Argentina, and our sheep come from New Zealand instead of from the people who live next door. The Mad Farmer seeks to replace the power of mechanical agribusiness conglomerates of America with farming in the local community. The Mad Farmer “sowed and reaped till all/the countryside was filled/with farmers and their brides sowing/and reaping.”