Kentucky poet and farmer Wendell Berry advocated for a 50-Year farm bill at the 13th annual Healthy Food, Local Farms Conference this past weekend.

Farm bills are usually passed by Congress every five years. But Berry says a longer-term 50-year farm bill would be more beneficial to the environment.

Right now, 80 percent of farmable acreage is planted with annual crops, like vegetables. These crops require vast amounts of water and fertilizer and contribute to soil erosion, while the remaining 20 percent of acreage is planted with perennial crops of forages and grains.

“This, by the standard of any healthy ecosystem, is absurdly disproportionate,” Berry said. “Annual plants are nature’s emergency medical service, seeded in wounds and scars to hold the land, until the perennial cover is reestablished.”

Berry says by this rule, our present agriculture is in a state of emergency, and a 50-year farm bill would reverse the present ratio of perennial to annual crops.

“A 50 Year Farm Bill” was first proposed by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas in June 2009, and written about in a New York Times op-ed column by Berry and Wes Jackson in January.

Berry says the bill would address urgent problems of soil erosion, soil and water pollution, the loss of biodiversity, and the destruction of farming communities and cultures.

This year’s conference theme was “No Water, No Food,” and Berry  also discussed how water pollution and water use could be reduced by replacing thirsty annual crops with perennial pastures that are less reliant on water and herbicides.

This transition back to perennial pastures would allow for farm animals to return from the factories, back into the fields.

“Besides being an immense kindness, this movement would be a return to ecological health,” Berry said. “It would transfer vast tonnages of so-called animal waste from the water courses, where it is a pollutant, to our actual food-producing acreage where it is an indispensable fertilizer.”

Berry said a 50-Year farm bill would make ecological sense a priority—rather than fiscal and political sense—and allow agriculture in America to become more sustainable.

“We have to begin by recognizing the fundamental incompatibility between industrial systems and natural systems, machines and creatures,” Berry said. “You can’t run a landscape, anymore than you can run your life, indefinitely, as a state of emergency. To live your life, to live in your place, you have got to bring about a settlement that does not involve you continuously in worry, loss and grief.”

After reading his essay in favor of a 50-year farm bill, Berry concluded with a humorous reading of his short story “Down in the Valley Where the Green Grass Grows.”

About 200 people attended the day-long conference Saturday at Kentucky Country Day School. Besides Berry, keynote speakers included farmer activist Lynne Henning, National Geographic environmental editor Dennis Dimick, and Nancy Stoner from the EPA.