The Mad Farmer: Wendell Berry’s Agrarian Poetic (Part 4)

Contrarian Agrarians: visionaries seeking paths of restoration.

Contrarian Agrarians: visionaries seeking paths of restoration. (montage: J Fowler)

(Editor’s Note: This is 4 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’. In this post we are reminded that we are to cultivate an agricultural and communal vision that marries the wisdom from the past with a view towards the distant future. If the result is unorthodox and against the popular opinion of the day- than so be it- we are contrarian as a means to enact a restoration of what has been broken. -JF)
_____________________________________________________________

The chapter “Margins” in The Unsettling of America provides examples of the Amish, organic farmers, and participants in “unorthodox agriculture” that are continuing to provide community and good living through the means of agriculture. Fortunately, since Berry wrote those words, the ability to participate in unorthodox agriculture has grown considerably. I live in the New York City area, and in the past few years the New York Times has provided such examples of unorthodox agriculture as Community Supported Agriculture, Green markets and farmers markets, street corner dealings for raw milk that look like drug exchanges, the raising of hens in Manhattan apartments, the local eating trend that places money and responsibility back into the community instead of into the coffers of agribusiness and conglomerates, the rise of organic produce, and the growing of herbs on window sills and patio decks. There is still a long journey ahead of us though, and the Mad Farmer insists we enter into these margins even if it means we are going against the perceived wisdom of our age. In “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” Berry opens the poem with these lines:

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it.

The prevailing advice in Berry’s day came from the Secretary of Agriculture: “Get big or get out.” Berry argues the opposite. He argues for a grassroots, community driven, agrarian minded approach to agriculture that in spite of the best “advice” will work precisely because it worked until we started to change it about 100 years ago. Agrarians are strong and unequivocal that this is not anti-technology, anti-progress, or nostalgic in any way. What the mad farmer wants is the ability to progress culturally, agriculturally, and technologically in ways that do not destroy the economies of nature, energy, and the human spirit for the sake of wealth and greed. And if we have to become unorthodox, strange, or peculiar, then so be it.