Earth Matters: Farmers striving for conservation

The clouds of divisiveness, injustice and ecological degradation can often envelop us in gloom.

So it is reassuring when the bright sunshine of unity, justice and environmental preservation manage to overshadow the frequent bad news. Such sunlight was recently shed upon me by two conservation-minded farmers, Wendell Berry of Port Royal, Ken­tucky and Jim Biddle of Williamsburg, right here in Blair County.

Berry is not some obscure farmer from Kentucky, but the author of “The Unsettling of America,” the critically acclaimed reflection on the struggles of traditional farming in the United States. I came to learn of Berry shortly after his best-selling book was published in 1977, and my interest in his writing was renewed when I recently had the chance to see a documentary on his life and works.

Now 83, Berry lives on a farm very near the place he was born and raised. Both his writing and the life he has lived espouses not just that appreciation of natural world but how nature, farming and society are intertwined.

Berry has written many profound things in the last 40 years, not just about farming but about life: “If we do not live where we work and when we work, we are wasting our lives and our work, too.”

As to farming, he believes we are preoccupied with profitability, no matter what the social or environmental cost: “The true measure of agriculture is not the sophistication of its equipment the size of its income or even the statistics of its productivity but the good health of the land.”

Though modest sized family-run farms continue to decrease in number across the country, Berry’s notions have not fallen on deaf ears in places like Blair County. We need look no further than the Blair County Conserva­tion District’s annual Outstand­ing Conservation Farmer Awardees to prove the point.

This year’s winner was Biddle, who was recognized at the district’s recent banquet. Jim grew up on the family farm (established in 1797) and now oversees the operation with his son and daughter-in-law. Though the farm goes back more than two centuries, Jim embraced modern conservation practices before they were fashionable or required.

He has participated in many trials and has held training events on his farm to promote conservation practices.

“Most importantly,” Conserva­tion District executive director Donna Fisher noted, “Jim is eager to share his knowledge and promote conservation.”

Fisher also noted Biddle’s spirit of innovation, citing his work on cover crop diversification. That work, in particular, has been widely written about in farm journals and was the focus of several YouTube videos. Jim jokes about his father thinking some of his ideas were a bit radical, but all these years later, they just look like good ideas.

Enormous monoculture farms utilizing expensive equipment and highly dependent on massive inputs of toxic chemicals may be the norm in much of America. But Biddle and a great many other family farmers here in central Pennsylvania prove there is still a place for conservation-minded farmers and modest-sized operations.

As Biddle himself has said, “We do what we do because it’s the right thing to do.”

Somewhere on his farm in Northern Kentucky, Wendell Berry is smiling.

John Frederick ( writes about environmental issues every other Wednesday. Readers are encouraged to search the internet for more on both farmers highlighted in today’s column.