If organic farmer Mary Berry can meld the work of her father, grandfather and uncle in her native Kentucky, she may boost small farm income and local food production at the same time.
Berry, who runs The Berry Center in Newcastle, Kentucky, shared her vision of providing a fair income for farmers when she gave the keynote address to the 14th Annual Iowa Organic Conference in Iowa City, Monday.
Enhancing income for small farms is no small task. But those who inspired her to start the Center aren’t small men. Her father, Wendell Berry, is a farmer, novelist, poet and author of The Unsettling of America, a 1977 book that laid out an agrarian ideal for an urbanized nation. Berry is one of the nation’s most eloquent critics of the industrial efficiency of modern agriculture, which he sees as destructive of both the environment and a human culture rooted to a place and the fragile soil that sustains us.
The other two inspirations for Mary Berry’s work aren’t as well known as her father, but they had a strong influence on agriculture. John M. Berry, Jr. is a former Kentucky legislator. Her grandfather, John M. Berry, Sr. was a small town lawyer who helped form the Burley Tobacco Cooperative Association, which led to a New Deal tobacco program that lasted from 1938 until a federal buyout in 2005.
The program relied on production quotas and a marketing pool that gave farmers a parity price for tobacco without federal subsidies. The program finally fell to pressure from tobacco companies who cited competition from cheaper foreign tobacco and from a public that no longer wanted government support for an unhealthy crop.
On a cold Monday at the University of Iowa Memorial Union, Berry held up the program as a model, but not for growing tobacco as a cash crop. “I’m talking about the producers’ program itself,” she said.
The tobacco program protected farmers from overproduction, at no net cost to the government, she said. Berry would like to do something similar, “this time with an economy based on food and forests.”
A study in her home state shows there is five times the demand for locally-produced food compared to the supply, Berry said.
“In short, the excitement about locally raised food in the cities is not matched in the countryside,” Berry said. She cited a recent New York Times article that said many producers of locally-raised fruits and vegetables aren’t making a decent living.
“We have a bipolar food system — on the one hand small and entrepreneurial and on the other hand, huge and industrial with nothing in the middle,” she said. The Berry Center is working on study to determine “what will it take for local farmers to be willing to produce for a local market,” she said.
In a brief interview after her talk, Berry said that any new program would likely need some form of quota system, and that it would probably be run by cities, not at the federal or state level.
If local production still lags demand, organic food production seems to have grown more.
National organic production has increased from a $3.6 billion industry in 1997 to one of $32 billion in 2012 and Iowa now has about 100,000 acres under organic production, making the state the nation’s fifth largest producer of organic foods, said Lyn Brodersen, an administrator with Iowa State University Extension, told the conference.
“It’s amazing to see the growing commitment throughout the state to organic agriculture,” she said.
Iowa is one of only three states in the nation conducting research that compares water quality from organic farming with conventional crop farming, Brodersen said. One finding is that organic production has half as much annual nitrate leaching losses.
Another sign of organic farming’s acceptance is the long list of conference sponsors in addition to Iowa State University: the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, New Pioneer Food Co-op, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Organic Valley and Practical Farmers of Iowa.