Wendell Berry: Good Henry Co. farmland should not be sacrificed to bourbon tourism

·5 min read

This piece was adapted from a statement Wendell Berry made to the Henry County Planning and Zoning Commission earlier this month.

I am aware of the belief that when a great and wealthy corporate power, with its expensive agents and lawyers, comes to so humble a place as Henry County, we mere citizens have no choice. Those who say that we have no choice are too young, or their memories are too short. During the last 50 years I have taken part in opposition to at least six large projects, backed by plenty of money and power, and all of them were rejected. The example best suited to the present occasion would be the Louisville International Jetport, proposed in the early 1970s. In that instance as in the others, the opposition had no support from any public institution. In every case, it was the opposition of the local people that made the difference.

Like the Angel’s Envy project, the projected airport promised local taxes. Like Angel’s Envy, the Jefferson County Air Board offered its project as the answer to local needs and greeds. An agent of the Air Board suggested to our farmers that for any land taken they would be paid more than twice its fair market value. But our farmers refused the bait. You could say that, more than any other group, the farmers defeated the airport.

In 1972, we were among the few who spoke of the necessity of conserving farmland. In 2022, still only a few are speaking of that necessity. But from 2001 to 2016, Kentucky lost 260,000 acres to “development.” It has been predicted that between now and 2040 the United States will lose more than 18 million acres. And now the people of Henry County are asked to give up 1200 acres of good farmland — which would be needed now, if we were feeding the nearby cities, as we should be. It will certainly be needed in the future. And we are asked to sacrifice this land to the interest of tourism and whiskey, which are not needed, but are luxuries dependent on a wasteful and threatened affluence.

Wendell Berry, at his home in Port Royal in Henry County, on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.
Wendell Berry, at his home in Port Royal in Henry County, on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.
Joseph and Abbie Monroe, owners of Valley Spirit Farm in Henry County are fighting plans by Angel’s Envy to turn the cattle farm next door into a 25-warehouse bourbon tourism campus.
Joseph and Abbie Monroe, owners of Valley Spirit Farm in Henry County are fighting plans by Angel’s Envy to turn the cattle farm next door into a 25-warehouse bourbon tourism campus.

We are asked, moreover, to abandon this farmland and the care of it to the absentee proprietorship of a large corporation dedicated to increasing the wealth of its already wealthy investors in distant places. We are asked also to prefer a too-large, absentee, nonessential enterprise to the homegrown, thriving small farm of the Monroe family and all that it means and promises for the longterm good health of our land and our economy. The Monroes, and other young farmers like them who are here now and those who will come later, are not needed just for their taxes. We need them as farmers, as land stewards, as neighbors, as community members, as friends, as co-workers and allies. We need their example.

Angel’s Envy’s lawyers in their application to the Commission have made plain enough their client’s estimate of the worth of the Monroe farm and of farming. They begin by assuring the Commission of Angel’s Envy’s concern to preserve “the rural character of the area.” If in truth this corporation is so eager to preserve the area’s rural character, then what is the reason to locate a large industrial operation in an agricultural zone? The reason they give is that Angel’s Envy is even more tenderly concerned for the character of industrial zones. The application says that “the possibility of [damage from] fungal growth to nearby structures, makes the planned use of bourbon production and aging less appropriate in typical industrial parks or areas with dense industrial development; and the planned use is better suited to agricultural areas . . .” In other words, Angel’s Envy would rather damage farmland than an industrial development. These advocates thus confess both the harmfulness of the distillery fungus known as “black mold” and their wish to divert the harm from industry to farmland and farmers.

When the applicants seek to assure the Commission of the harmlessness of Angel’s Envy and its project, they describe all the necessary facilities, existing or planned, as “appropriate,” “adequate,” and “safe.” Though these adjectives necessarily depend on the use of proven standards or informed judgment, they are supported in this application by nothing at all. And so in their application, in their own words, these people give us ample reason to ask how far they are to be trusted.

For any large business coming into our community, and especially for one wanting a precedent-setting, 1,200-acre industrial zone right in the middle of one of our finest agricultural landscapes, our primary question is: What sort of neighbor is it going to be?

At this proceeding, before it has obtained the permission and the welcome it desires, it represents itself, of course, as the best of neighbors, intending our good as it intends its own. But Angel’s Envy is proposing to assume an immense responsibility, not only to preserve the “rural character” within its boundary, but even more to prevent a variety of damages and costs, outside the boundary, to the land, landowners, the public interest, and the domestic tranquility of our county.

And so we are right to ask what it proposes to do now to assure us that during its residence among us it will remain a faithful and proper steward of our trust and of the several good farms that we once knew by family names.

Are some of its top executives, for love of “rural character,” going to settle with their families in New Castle or Campbellsburg or Port Royal to be truly our neighbors and add their household budgets to our local economy? Perhaps we should not expect so.

What we should expect, and very reasonably require, is that Angel’s Envy, if it is permitted to settle in Henry County, should lend to county government, for the term of its residence here, a number of corporate shares sufficient to give our representatives an actual sayso about how our people and our countryside are to be treated. Angel’s Envy will respond by saying that such a thing has seldom been done in Kentucky before. To that, the answer is another question: Why not?

Wendell Berry is an author and farmer in Henry County.