Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry

My wife and I recently attended a screening of the movie Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.  The central premise of the film is the conflict between profit and value.  We found this to be very instructive, and it made us reflect upon the landscape industry.

Born in 1934 in Henry County Kentucky, Wendell Berry became an internationally acclaimed poet and author, studying and teaching from Stanford to New York to Italy and France. In 1964 he returned home to teach at the University of Kentucky.  The next year he and his wife moved their two children to a farm back in Henry County, where he resumed the agrarian way of life he grew up with.  At that time, agriculture was extremely diversified, with many farmers growing various grains and vegetables, along with poultry and a few pigs, cows, and sheep.  In Henry County, tobacco was the main cash crop, but soon after the Berrys returned to this way of life, the industrialization of agriculture started gaining momentum.

This industrialization was personified by Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz.  Butz’s mantra was the need for farmers to make a profit, and his method was through growth, mechanization and the increased use of chemicals.  This was contrary to everything Wendell Berry believed in, and he became an activist; writing and speaking against the industrialization of agriculture. 

In 1975 there was a formal public debate between Earl Butz and Wendell Berry.  Butz had all the facts and figures, and he made an ironclad case.  Berry admitted up front that he had absolutely no data to contradict Butz, but that it was the wrong conversation to have.  Farmers are people, and people live lives, and lives must have value.  Bigger machines and larger lines of credit will create profit, but they won’t add value to a life.

With time, Earl Butz got his way, agriculture lost value, and today rural America is a wasteland.  Once vibrant communities are boarded up, drug overdoses run rampant, and people’s lives are so unhinged that they prefer conspiracy theories to evidence.  This is what happens when lives don’t have value.  The movie features interviews with various farmers, describing how their lives have changed, how much debt they have, and their lack of faith in any kind of future. 

But it also features one guy who decided to go back to farming the way he enjoyed, growing a diversity of organic crops, along with a few different animals; and marketing directly to individuals through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).  This guy didn’t have a plan when he planted his first crop, he just knew that doing what the experts told him to do wasn’t getting him anywhere, and never would.  One day he decided to do the right thing, to do it well, and to live a life with value.  It worked.

It seems that the landscape industry should take a good look in the mirror in terms of this contrast between profit and value.  There is no question that companies can make a profit in this business, but how much of that profit occurs doing things of value? 

Right now, landscapers are in spring cleanup mode -- the process of using power devices to remove every possible scrap of organic matter from a landscape, hauling it off in a truck to be processed by more machinery, and replacing it all with mulch -- other organic matter that has itself been machine processed and transported multiple times. 

Every step in this process is destructive of the blue/green jewel of a planet that we call home.  Every step make the earth less habitable.  The fact that an industry that calls itself “green” does this stuff would make one think that the world has all the fossil fuels it will ever need, and that there is no downside to burning them.  It would make one think that the plant residue that was already in that landscape served no function, that the millions of invertebrates living in that plant residue don’t serve vital ecological functions -- functions that we cannot exist without.

Exactly what is the value of a spring cleanup?  Landscapers rely on them to get the cash flow going and jumpstart the season.  So there is value to the contractor, but is that all we are after? Is that all a landscaper means by value?  A sustainable landscape company must examine every single aspect of its operation through the lense of value to the environment.  Of course each process adds profit, or no one would be doing it.  But how does it add value to the environment?  Take apart every step in the operation, and examine it through this lense.  Then come up with a way to make a buck off of things that have value for the environment, and learn to do them well.  It won’t be easy; but only then can a company, or an industry, be transformed.

 - Ken Williams Horticulturist