Here in northeastern Ohio, not only are we surrounded by acres of rich agricultural land, on which depend a mixture of big and small farms, but in every county there are hidden pockets of little-known historical significance. And in almost-neighboring Richland County, one historical attraction has appeal to pop-culture fans and agrarian thinkers alike: Malabar Farm.
Louis Bromfield, a native of Mansfield who grew up at Malabar Farm, began as a reporter and also wrote many highly acclaimed novels between the World Wars, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Early Autumn: A Story of a Lady” (1926). Some of his novels were made into screenplays, bringing him into Hollywood’s orbit and introducing him to its stars. Many film-lovers may know that legendary screen stars Humphrey Bogart (a friend of Bromfield) and Lauren Bacall were married in the “Big House” at Malabar Farm, one of its major attractions.
What may not be so well-known is that following an interwar decade in France, Bromfield returned with his family to his home farm in 1938, not only to avoid the crushing fear so many of his French neighbors felt at the threat of hostilities, but also to implement his ideas about grass-based, sustainable farming.
From there, Bromfield ushered in a new era for farming and laid the groundwork for later writers such as Wendell Berry, the acclaimed agrarian essayist, novelist, poet, and farmer.
A model farm
In returning to Malabar Farm, Bromfield writes in his classic books “Pleasant Valley” (1945) and “Malabar Farm” (1948), he returned to an area that had been poorly farmed over the years, determined to renew the soil through grass farming, crop rotation, and better stewardship. As he noted in “Pleasant Valley,”
What we needed was a new kind of pioneer, not the sort which cut down the forests and burned off the prairies and raped the land, but pioneers who created new forests and healed and restored the richness of the country God had given us, that richness which, from the moment the first settler landed on the Atlantic coast we had done our best to destroy. I had a foolish idea that I wanted to be one of that new race of pioneers.
He bought a handful of surrounding small farms to use as test fields, hired experienced but open-minded farm managers and hands, and gradually turned Malabar Farm into a showcase of sustainable agriculture, regularly drawing fans of his agrarian writings for his lectures on how to farm according to the Malabar model. His ideas and outspokenness often rubbed people the wrong way, and some of his ideas turned out to be less useful in the long run. (Farmers in this area at least still get riled when they consider how he encouraged the use of multiflora rose, now an invasive and literal thorn in farmers’ sides, as a “living fence” on farms.)
But ultimately, the idea of having a showcase for sustainable agriculture survived his death in 1956 — as well as the years of Cold War-inspired industrial agriculture — and in 1972, the state of Ohio accepted the deed for the farm from the Malabar Farm Foundation. Eventually it turning the land into Malabar Farm State Park in 1976. Louis Bromfield himself was posthumously inducted to the Ohio Agricultural Hall of Fame in the 1980s, and his ideas live on the works of others.
A Berry good day
On a recent visit to Malabar Farm — during the Spring Plowing Days when local farmers bring their teams of draft horses to plow the fields on the working part of the farm — I had the deep pleasure of meeting not only the spirit of Louis Bromfield, but also the flesh-and-blood person of Wendell Berry.
The Malabar Farm Foundation, which carries on the Bromfield legacy through the preservation of the park and the education of visitors, gives an annual Louis Bromfield Society award in recognition of an individual’s or a group’s active support of sustainable agriculture. This year, following the annual farm barbecue, the Foundation bestowed that award on Berry, the author of such seminal essays as “The Pleasures of Eating” and “People, Land, and Community,” which can be found in the collections “What Are People For?: Essays,” “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture” and “The Art of the Commonplace.” (Prior to the barbecue and program, Berry — an unfailingly genteel and gracious man — signed books, talked with people, and allowed photos with a somewhat bemused air.)
Guest speaker David Orr made the connection between Bromfield’s work and Berry’s writing explicit, pointing to their “conversations…about agriculture and how we connect to the land” and how they both view agriculture “as a way of living.” Orr pointed out that while Bromfield’s work deserves a great deal of credit for introducing the conversation, Berry has gone further: his interdisciplinary approach becoming a sort of “fractal” in its ongoing development of themes and perpetual insight.
The Foundation’s president, David Greer, presented the award by reading from the proclamation:
Informed by a deep respect for the role of the farmer in the lives of all people, Wendell Berry writes with insight, conscience, and artistry. He argues for the dignity of rural life and requests more engagement by citizens. His is a voice calling us to revere the organic processes of life, to be responsible for our surroundings, and to remember that the good life is the examined life, the intentional life.
Berry responded briefly, expressing his appreciation for the award, made “especially pleasing” given the encouragement he found in Bromfield’s books as a young man. He remarked on Bromfield’s love of the land, saying “he loved the work and the people who did it well,” and stressed the importance and even the necessity of that love, especially in times of economic difficulty. Speaking of the difficulty of bringing new people into farming and the absolute necessity to get away from industrial agriculture (which “contains more than labeled”), he concluded by saying, “As a nation, we have ahead of us a lot of hard work. We had better try to love it.”
Berry has never shied from posing hard questions in his writing, mainly because he has never stopped asking himself the same things. But his provocative questions and nudging demands seem all the more compelling because he speaks from where he lives: he does love the land and the hard work, much as Bromfield did in his day. More of us are being called to become these new “pioneers,” as Bromfield put it, and we are fortunate to have both men and their works as our models.