A Letter to Mr. Wendell Berry

Letter to Mr. Wendell Berry
January 31, 2010
Dear Mr. Berry:

I had trouble sleeping tonight. It could be on account of the big moon outside or that my mind keeps coming back to Mr. Dean Pierson. He was a dairy farmer in Copake, NY. A few days ago he shot all 51 of his milkers then took his own life right there with them in the barn. Corporate control of our food system is literally breaking the backs of farmers. Maybe he had deep emotional troubles. But I wonder if things might have turned out differently for Mr. Pierson if he had been getting a fair price for his milk. Here in the northeast, farmers have been getting paid around a $1 per gallon for their milk for a while now. The price of equipment and cows is way down on account of everyone getting out at the same time. The situation is bleak.

My name is Lindsay Harris. Since I was a very little girl, I knew I wanted to farm with animals. I got my chance just over 3 years ago. Now I own a tiny dairy farm in Northern Vermont. I milk six Jersey and Guernsey cows. I hope to be milking 12 or so by next year. All the milk is sold un pasteurized, directly to my neighbors. I also raise beef, pork, eggs and big garden. I also teach classes on how to make cheese, butter, yogurt etc.

Since I’ve been farming, I’m learning many things. The difference in the quality of food I can grow vs. something I can get at the supermarket is remarkable. I’m learning that people don’t pay enough for their food or more importantly, don’t value their food enough. I’m learning how this low food value encourages endless housing developments and strip malls and highways to be built on farmland. And how animals, the environment and family farmers are disposable.

And that “food safety” is no longer a farmer’s ethical obligation, but an instrument of government and corporate control that is wielded against the small farmer. It is an issue to be “dealt with” though processing, chemicals, regulation, media spin and litigation. And I learned that corporate marketing of food has created and encouraged the vast disconnect between people and their food. And that government regulation has forced small farms to compete with giants and their subsidies for a tiny market share – effectively regulating us out of business.

I’ve read some of your wonderful stories and books, Mr. Berry. I’m sure you know much about these issues. And I’m sure you know there is some good news too. The fact that I can get $10 per gallon and sell six cows’ worth of my raw, grass-fed milk is amazing!

A few years ago, when I started farming, I was hand-milking one cow. It was illegal in Vermont to sell more than 6 gallons of raw milk per day or to advertise. I was approached by a local family farm advocacy organization called Rural Vermont. They have been fighting for economic justice for family farms for the past 25 years. They came to me and to many other diary farmers to find out what they could do to help us make a living. I got involved in the fight to allow farms to sell more raw milk, and we won! Now we can sell up to 40 gallons per day and advertise. Because of this law, I was able to start a new dairy farm as so many are going under.

Now I serve on the board of Rural Vermont. Recently, much of our work has focused on reforming regulatory barriers. In addition to the new raw milk law, we’ve also won the allowance of on-farm slaughter of poultry and larger stock and prevented NAIS from gaining traction in Vermont. We continue to work on allowing more composting, appropriate taxing of working land and identifying and removing barriers between farmers and consumers. We also educate and connect local farmers, processors and consumers.

We are beginning a campaign called Free Enterprise Farming, where we hope to bring about a tiered regulatory structure. This would mean small farms who sell direct to consumers would not be subject to the same rules as say, Kraft foods. For example, I would have the right to sell my homestead cheeses and farm-cured bacon to my neighbor (which I’m not allowed to do now). Rural Vermont is in the spotlight nationally because of its successes in these types of reforms.

There is much interest in and momentum behind what we are trying to do. We feel we are on the cusp of a new era where main-stream America values food and small farms again.

I’ll get to the point, Mr. Berry. I am writing to ask you a big favor. Your writing has profoundly influenced and inspired many of us around here. Would you do us the great honor of speaking at our 25th annual meeting this coming summer? I think the impact of your voice at our meeting would go a long way towards lifting our spirits and inspiring our mission!

It’s too late for Mr. Pierson. But we still have a chance to restore dignity to the wholesome act of working the land and tending stock. Please help us Mr. Berry!

Respectfully yours,

Lindsay Harris

Hinesburg, Vermont

From the Family Cow Farmstead Blog