Wendell Berry’s mind is preoccupied with four dead sheep. I join the 80-year-old food movement sage for a drink and a visit in the kitchen of his neat white house on the top of the hill in Henry County. The talk meanders, picks up steam, and tapers off until the hum of the refrigerator fills the air, but the conversation always circles back to those missing animals.

Berry has four fewer sheep, but there were only two carcasses. The others disappeared without a trace. It’s coyotes, according to a trapper who knows the beasts and how to get rid of them. Berry has never heard of coyotes doing such a thing — not the stealing of sheep, for which they have an established reputation, but for doing such a clean job of it. No telltale chunks of hide or dried blood. I can tell that the mystery rattles around in his thoughts even as we trade stories of hunters being hunted, my home state of Montana, and women who tell dirty jokes.

Berry’s mind is one of the most famous and respected in environmentalism. The farming poet has been writing since the ’60s, and has more than 50 books to his name. His timeless tomes show a deep love of nature and rich understanding of the power of community. Described as the “modern-day Thoreau,” Berry holds up the simple, good things in the world while decrying the forces of greed and globalization that sully them. The man knows how to pack a punch in just a few words: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.’’

A Berry sentence — “eating is an agricultural act” — set Michael Pollan off in his own storied explorations. The National Humanities Medal winner has influenced everyone from baby boomer farmers to presidents to our 23-year-old intern who, upon hearing about my trip, exclaimed, “Wendell Berry is my Leonardo DiCaprio!”

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But Berry is not your typical green celebrity. While he’s attended mountaintop-removal coal mine protests and EPA hearings throughout the years, he’s more comfortable behind a pen than a podium. It’s a move that’s both wise and pragmatic: Berry has a farm to run, after all, and there are simply too many battles for one man to fight.

In a quote that could double as farm and life advice, Berry told Mark Bittman: “When you are new at sheep-raising and your ewe has a lamb, your impulse is to stay there and help it nurse and see to it and all. After a while you know that the best thing you can do is walk out of the barn.”

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A few days after my one-on-one with Berry, I attended the Healthy Foods, Local Farms conference in Louisville, where I met people who had traveled long distances to borrow his ear and see him deliver the keynote. One excitable man with a grey ponytail took Greyhounds for days all the way from Phoenix. As I talked to Henry County farmers and a variety of folks who fight for a better food system in red states, I learned it’s hard to overestimate how Berry’s influence helped shape several generations of people.

Communities large and small

There’s Missouri rancher Terry Spence, who has been raising cattle for 64 years — and battling tooth-and-nail against factory hog farming for the last 20 of them. Spence had been a quiet man who mostly stuck to his farm. But as loopholes for CAFOs snuck into legislation and the lagoons of swine manure began to leak, he found his voice and his cause.

Bonnie Cecil loved bringing her first-grade class into nature and onto farms whenever possible. When she won the prestigious Milken Educator Award in 1994, she used the money to buy a small farm in Henry County for field trips and summer camps. The Berrys checked in on her after storms and taught her how to raise sheep. When her favorite ewe had to be put down, Wendell sent her away from the barn. “Bonnie, I told you this was going to break your heart,” he said.

The cowboy-hat-wearing Will Harris doesn’t look like your typical environmentalist. He’s the sort of Southern charmer you find yourself punching playfully in the shoulder after knowing for a mere hour. But the burly cattle rancher had a change of heart after seeing the way his calves were packed tight and shipped to the Midwest to meet sorry deaths. And so Harris uprooted his entire beef operation in Georgia and remade it as one that favors crop and animal diversity — and built his own humane slaughtering facilities to boot.

Carden Willis’ life has been changed at least twice by Berry’s advice — and in one case, by ignoring it. He wrote two novels by the age most of us are just old enough to buy a legal drink. He saw Berry speak and wrote for advice on how to get published. Berry’s reply: “Don’t try to make it as a writer. That’s no way to support a family.” Willis dropped the books, but he also dabbled in agriculture and wrote again to see if Berry had the same advice for hopeful farmers. Berry did. It was a wise response: The cost of land, the hard work involved, and the unreliable pay make farming a difficult profession to succeed in, let alone raise a family. But this time Willis didn’t take Berry’s advice, and he now runs a CSA from his small farm in Henry County. The farm is named after a Berry novel, A Place on Earth. Willis doesn’t have time to write anymore, but he runs a successful farm with his wife and two small boys. One of his CSA subscribers? Berry himself.

Tireless organizer Aloma Dew has been putting on the Healthy Foods, Local Farms conference — often singlehandedly — since 1999. Her husband Lee talks as slow as she moves fast. In the car, he turns with twinkling eyes and a slight smile to observe his audience’s reaction when the threads of his story finally tie into a sharp joke. The pair are retired history professors who joined the Sierra Club to work on water issues.

Local change

A lot has happened in Louisville in those 15 years. There are now more than 30 farmers markets in the area. Sarah Fritschner is a passionate farm-to-table coordinator who acts as the middleman between local farmers and distributors. A mid-size organic farm drew thousands at its fall harvest festival the weekend I was in town. At one restaurant, portraits of local farmers hang on the wall above plates filled with their own produce.

Speakers at the conference expressed disbelief at how far the food scene has come. There is a lot to celebrate, and even the cautious Berry said the experiences, knowledge, and connections of the conference-goers would be “unimaginable 15 years ago.”

He noted that the food movement is a journey, not a destination, and that “if we want to keep going on a journey we think is worthwhile, one of the things that is incumbent on us is to remember and keep in mind the things that are good.”

Back at the farm, we remember the things that are good, too. As Berry pours my bourbon and water, the mood shifts. When his wife Tanya joins us, I come to the delightful realization that Wendell Berry is a bit of a scamp. “I like her to think that I take her for granted,” he says with his back to the door she just walked in.

“That kid is too intelligent to be that good,” he says of a local toddler. After each joke, Berry looks from face to face until he lights upon someone else sharing in his glee. Since Tanya and Bonnie Cecil have had decades of his hijinks, he usually lands on my smiling mug. When he sees me giggling, he throws his head back and laughs even harder. My grin widens, and the soul of the real food movement gives a good-natured wink.

As we munch on peanut butter crackers, I marvel at the ways in which I’m different from this man (besides, you know, one of us being a national treasure). Berry refuses to own a computer. He stated his reasons why in an essay in 1987 — the year I was born. He can’t understand why I would live in a city when I could be on my family’s land. I’m young, female, and spend more time than I’d like to admit on the internet. When I go to take a sip of my drink, he asks how old I am. I tell him and both he and Cecil jump. “I could have said you were 17,” he says in either a compliment to my skin-care regime or an insult to my maturity. “Oh, everyone under a certain age looks that old,” Tanya explains. And I suppose if I’m being honest, everyone over a certain age looks 80 to me, too.

Despite our gaps, we find common ground in our enjoyment of good bourbon (Woodford Reserve), rural upbringings, and impish tendencies. We’re also tied together by our love of farming communities and our worry about where rural America is headed.

Bigger fears

As Berry noted in his keynote, “There is a difference between agriculture on the whole in this country and the food movement. The food movement is much more successful.” Our topsoil is still eroding much faster than it can build and washing down to choke the Gulf. In the last eight years, more than a million acres of virgin prairie and grassland were plowed over for corn and soy. From 2007 to 2012, we lost nearly 100,000 farms.

Subdivisions pop up on rich farmland in Berry’s Henry County. I saw cookie cutter houses on the edge of bluegrass fields in horse country near Lexington. The abandoned effects of the last housing boom glitter on the mountainside across the river from our ranch in Montana, too.

The tension between being hopeful about the food movement and being realistic about its limitations extended to the conference as well. The mood seesawed from the exuberant to a weary recounting of losses — often from the same speaker.

Harris, the Southern charmer, said with thunder in his voice that the only thing standing in the way of more local slaughterhouses was hard work and the willingness to see it through. His operation grew from less than $500,000 a year in profits to more than $30 million. But he later noted that for years the farm operated at a loss, and at times he thought that he was going to lose it all. He ended his talk with, “Be careful out there, folks.”

A lively farmer panel swung back and forth. A young farmer in the crowd asked about raising chickens for her local co-op. The successful organic farmer on the panel argued to the effect of “if you build it, they will come.” An older and more harried panelist told her she’d be right to be cautious.

Berry told the crowd that industrial agriculture, with its reliance on fossil fuels and lack of concern for the future, was a dying system. “It has failed and it doesn’t know it. It’s brain-dead and it’s thrashing around and doing a lot of damage in its death throes,” he said. So we can all go home and wait for its last gasps, right? He then added: “And it may last a long time and do a lot of damage.” Oh.

And then there’s the issue of feeling isolated and alienated in red states. When you’re at a conference with like-minded folks, you can forget that not everyone sees our current system as problematic. “Crazy” was a word that kept coming up among sustainable farmers and local food advocates I talked to, as in “my town thinks I’m crazy” or “my parents called me crazy.”

A little faith

How do advocates deal with communities that don’t share their beliefs? Berry’s Christian faith is a big part of his life and work. He believes God created a good and lovable world (including the “biting and dangerous beasts” ), and we fail in our exploitation and corruption of it.

And many of the folks I talked to shared his philosophy of being careful stewards and connecting a deeper mystery to their work.

“Outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread,” Berry wrote in an essay on the survival of creation. Aloma Dew considers eating good, sustainable food more of a communion than the Welch’s grape juice and white bread at Sunday service.

Bonnie Cecil attends the same church as the Willises and Berrys, and described her second life as a small farmer in Henry County as “dropping from the sky into heaven.”

Faith and churches can strengthen local food communities and advocates. When the Unitarian Church had a big conference in Louisville, an organizer pushed for sustainable fare on the menu. Now the caterer is building a local food option for future events.

But the same institution that can provide meaning and support can be a source of pain, too. When Terry Spence organized against a factory farm that promised jobs, he felt a chill from his congregation. People his family had prayed beside for 32 years started ignoring them at services. They finally left that church for a more supportive one.

When environmentalists can feel isolated from their communities, congregations, and even their own families, the food movement can provide support and encouragement. Quite a few people, including Spence, have been coming to the Healthy Foods, Local Farms conference for years.

Berry told the conference that when the industrial food system finally reckons with its limitations and breathes its last breath, there needs to be a knowledgeable community pushing the way forward. “That’s why this little nucleus of people is so important,” he said.

In Kentucky, I witnessed how a little group of like-minded folks can cross paths and build community that will last generations. The story of Carden Willis’ farm and family sprung from an interaction with Berry, but the people of Healthy Foods, Local Farms helped make it real. Before going against Berry’s advice and getting his own place, Carden Willis ran a CSA. He found the stint because the previous head farmer John Grant had gone off and married a retired teacher turned sheep farmer, Bonnie Cecil. Carden soon met and fell in love with a farm volunteer, Courtney. When they went to look for a place of their own, Grant and Cecil told them about a small farm bordering their land. The bank wouldn’t give the Willises a big enough loan to get the place, so Grant and Cecil went in on the down payment. The Willises filled the place with chickens, organic vegetables, a hyper German shepherd, and two rascally kids, Clark and Campbell.

Farm Together Now author Daniel Tucker mentioned his Louisville roots at his speech at the conference. While Tucker spoke, guess who tottered across the stage, finger in nose, to the delight of the crowd? No, Wendell isn’t that much of a jokester: It was Carden Willis’ son, Clark. And who was the influential teacher Tucker credited with teaching him how to read? Why, Bonnie Cecil, of course.

Courtney and Campbell Willis.

Courtney and Campbell Willis. Darby Minow Smith

Later at the keynote, Berry spoke for a bit before pushing away his notes with some force. “That’s enough. I’ve made a lot of speeches in my time and I’ve really grown tired of hearing them,” he said.

For the next half an hour, he read a short story about a frugal Kentucky family. It had all the classic trappings of a Berry tale: The value of working the land and a loving, nosey community. He spoke of being a good neighbor and avoiding greed. “Some people work hard for what they have,” Berry said, “and other people are glad to take it from them easily.”

The last line of the story was the father reacting to his son’s flashy car: “Sweetheart, I told you. And you’re going to learn. Don’t let the sons of bitches get ahold of your money.”

Berry walked off stage and the crowd that had come so far gave a standing ovation. The conference drew to a close.

And at the farm, our visit comes to its inevitable end, too. Dusk falls and Berry’s day isn’t done. He laces up his work boots, bids us good evening, and walks out of the kitchen. He heads into the falling night to see to his flock, and to worry about the coyotes.