Wendell Berry sponsors an alt-ag program at St. Catharine College in Kentucky

St. Catharine College is a small liberal arts school set amid the tobacco farms, hay fields and rolling knobs outside Springfield, Ky. The college traces its roots to 1823 when the first Dominican sisters arrived in the center the state to educate young women. Over the years, their school grew from a girl’s academy and junior college to its current incarnation as a four-year co-educational liberal arts school. The Dominican sisters also changed, joining with other congregations in 2009 to become the Dominican Sisters of Peace. What never changed are the four pillars upon which the sisters based their educational philosophy: prayer, study, community and ministry.

Several dozen miles away, the great poet, essayist and fiction writer Wendell Berry felt equally rooted to this Kentucky landscape. While pursuing a prolific writing career, Berry never stopped farming the land of his ancestors. He wrote extensively about land use, farm policy and conservation. In one of life’s great serendipities, the 81-year-old writer and St. Catharine’s have teamed up to pass on a farming legacy to future generations built on Berry’s abiding affection for the land.

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St. Catharine’s is now the home the Berry Farming and Ecological Agrarianism Program, the only one of its kind in the nation dedicated to passing on Berry’s farming ethic. I had the opportunity to speak twice to the bright and eager students at St. Catharine’s on my book The Art of Pausing, and each time the pride and excitement with which both students and faculty spoke about the Berry Program were overwhelming.

“It’s probably the most unlikely place that the Berry Farming Program could have ended up,” says Sister Claire McGowan, an environmental activist and member of the Dominican Sisters of Peace. “We’re so small, so rural. We’re not famous, but those are the characteristics the Berry family appreciates and promotes.”

In addition to teaching, the sisters have operated a working farm on their own 550-acre stretch of land since the 1800s. That impressed Berry’s daughter, Mary.

“When I went to St. Catharine’s, their first question to me was not about my father’s reputation and how it might serve their desire to raise funds for whatever,” Mary Berry said. “The first question at St. Catharine’s to me was how does your work fit with the four pillars of our Dominican life?”

Berry, whose writings often explore the connection between the natural world and the human spirit, proved a good fit for the sisters too. Berry described the solace he derives from nature in one of his most famous poems, “The Peace of Wild Things:”

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things …

“Wendell Berry is a deeply soulful man,” McGowan says. “He lives his life out of deep spiritual convictions and always has. He has a simplicity and a love for everything that’s wild, everything that’s natural, and at the same time for people, particularly simple people who are trying to build a relationship with the natural world.”

The Berry farming program offers a unique interdisciplinary approach to agriculture, combining field work with philosophy and studies in agricultural science and agribusiness with classes on literature, history and culture.

 “So often in our thinking we often have silos,” says the program’s coordinator, Leah Bayens. “Agricultural economics [is] one area. Agricultural production is another area. Community leadership, that’s another silo. So when Wendell says things like, ‘You can’t take the culture out of agriculture,’ ultimately what I think he means is you can’t take the heart out of agriculture, you can’t minimize it into an equation or minimize it into one particular scientific study.”

As a rule, Berry eschews speaking to the press. But when the Berry Farming Program began, he agreed to discuss the project at St. Catharine’s with TV journalist Bill Moyers. He told Moyers the future of farming hinges on a spiritual kinship with the land. “I believe the world and our life in it are conditional gifts.  You have to take good care of it. You have to love it,” Berry said.

Bayens says, “That kind of reframing of agricultural production and the human place in that system is radical. What it does is make an ethical and spiritual relationship to land stewardship the center point, not something on the periphery.”

It’s a belief Berry expanded on when he was invited to deliver the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012 for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which awarded him a medal for his lifetime of work.

“Wendell has written that the care of the earth is our most ancient, most worthy and most pleasing responsibility,” Bayens says. “To have a sense of affection for one another and non-living beings, that’s what we’re trying to instill as a goal for our students.”

Instruction on soil stewardship is a major part of the Berry program, as are classes like the one in eco-spirituality, taught by religion studies professor, Matt Branstetter.

“Wendell is also a poet, so he’s really great at bringing out the spirituality of what would otherwise seem like very simple, mundane tasks, but looked upon with the right attitude, they’re kind of living mysticism,” Branstetter said.

 “I consider myself a person who takes the gospels seriously,” Berry told Moyers. “A lot of my writing, when it hasn’t been in defense of precious things, it’s been giving thanks for precious things.”

Mary Berry says she hopes the program will help curb the trend over the past century toward ever-bigger industrial farms.

“I can’t think of much that’s right about farming in America right now. If anything was working very well we’d have more people farming. But we have three quarters of one percent of the population farming now,” she says.

The Berrys hope to encourage young farmers to grow products for local markets on mid-sized parcels of land that don’t depend heavily on chemical fertilizers and herbicides.

 “I heard Daddy say recently that big agriculture, industrial agriculture is in its death throes. It’s brain dead and it’s just thrashing around now. I think he’s right,” Mary Berry says.

In a part of the country where farm income once largely depended on a single crop—tobacco—Berry program students are researching ways farmers can diversify and still practice soil conservation. On a 15-acre research farm near the college, the students are participating in a government-sponsored program that grows a type of hemp used in making clothing fiber.

“I want the students to realize that soil is part of the whole. It’s an eco-system,” says Shawn Lucas, who teaches soil science. “I mean the soil is not just dirt, it’s minerals, organic materials, living roots, living micro-organisms, and the more diversity you can get into that system the healthier it’s going to be.”

The farming program has grown from just one student in 2013 to 25 now. The students come from urban and farm areas and from as far off as India and Nepal.

Student Sie Tioye plans to return eventually to his family’s grain farm in Burkina Faso, in West Africa. “I think the most attractive thing about the farming program is that it teaches you how to make a productive farming system using very basic techniques. I think that’s something that’s very practical for my country,” he says.

Rachel Mendoza, another of the students, is interested in urban farming. “I was raised with a very sustainable lifestyle as far as growing our own food and I was very interested in how I could do this in an urban setting. I’m particularly attracted to meeting the needs of under-served people in our urban communities,” she says.

Before enrolling in the program, many of the students had never read Berry’s poems, stories and essays on farming, but they can now quote chapter and verse.

 “I always love this one quote [of Berry’s]:‘What I stand for is what I stand on,” says student Winnie Cheuvront. “We all walk on this earth. Why are we not taking care of it? And that’s something he tries to convey in his writings, so that we all can get a passion for the earth and for what we do in everyday life.”

 “He writes in a way that you’re sitting on the front porch at the farm with him,” adds student Shelby Floyd. “He stresses the fact that it is humans that this earth is feeding. It is our responsibility to take care of it. We have to take care of our mother that is the ultimate source of life.”

Mary Berry says she’s thrilled that many of the students want to return to the communities where they were raised to farm. She half-jokingly says the Berry Farming Program offers degrees in “homecoming.”

“It doesn’t mean people have to go to the place that they were born,” she says. “The concept of homecoming, I think, is simply to take root someplace and care about a place, not just for a short amount of time, but forever.”

It’s a point her father often makes. “The important thing is to learn everything you can about a place, then make common cause with that place, set a good example,” he told Moyers.

Mary Berry says the family wants to recreate the kind of supportive agricultural community that its members benefited from through generations of farming.

“We were surrounded by neighbors and friends and family who had known the farm we bought, so they understood, they knew the mistakes we might make. They’d seen them made. They could advise us.  They could give us what no college program could give us,” she said.

 The St. Catharine’s program, she says, is the next best thing for passing on “what we just had handed to us.”

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