This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm by Mike Madison and two other books on farming
The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History by Richard Lyman Bushman.
Yale University Press,
376 pp., $40.00
This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways. Norton, 226 pp., $26.95
The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm by Mike Madison. Chelsea Green, 164 pp., $18.00 (paper)
Walking the Flatlands: The Rural Landscape of the Lower Sacramento Valley by Mike Madison. Great Valley/Heyday, 157 pp. (2004)
“I owe very little to books,” wrote William
Cobbett in 1818. At the time, he was living on Long Island in political exile from his native England, and he was referring to practical books about how to farm and garden. The sentiment sounds a little strange coming from him, for he was a great maker of books of the kind he owed very little to— books like Cottage Economy, A Treatise on Cobbett’s Corn, The American Gardener, The English Gardener, The Woodlands, A Year’s Residence in the United States of America, and, in its own way, Rural Rides.
As a farmer and writer about farming, Cobbett was both an innovator and a radical nostalgist, a forward-looking plantsman with an almost Roman sense of the relationship between the farmer as cultivator and the farmer as citizen. In his often obstreperous way, he wrote endlessly about the link between farming and politics, farming and monetary policy, farming and society itself. He was an unrelenting critic of the effect of capital and its manipulation on farmers and farm laborers, and his criticism is still instructive. Agriculturally, we live now on the planet of Cobbett’s nightmares.
The United States, Cobbett wrote, “is really and truly a country of farmers. Here, Governors, Legislators, Presidents, all are farmers.” Yet what Cobbett complained of in England— that farming had become a form of investment, purely a matter of profit and return—was barely understood in America at the time. In his illuminating new study, The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History, Richard Lyman Bushman quotes a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington in 1793, commenting on a query from Arthur Young in England. “I had never before thought of calculating what were the profits of a capital invested in Virginia agriculture,” Jefferson wrote.
An entirely different farming model prevailed in this nascent country, where land was abundant and labor scarce. The ideal was the “self-provisioning”
farm, a family living upon a piece of land and working first to survive, then “to amass resources for the next generation.” As Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur put it in 1782, in one of his widely read “Letters from an American Farmer,” every American farmer was a kind of “universal fabricator like Crusoe,” struggling to develop what Bushman calls “a core household economy to satisfy most of the family’s wants.” Yet “almost no one,” he explains, “was self sufficient. Farmers had to enter into exchanges to live.” Instead of selfsufficiency, the goal was “to keep in balance with the world,” to avoid debt by producing what you needed at home. Farming wasn’t a vocation. It was “an activity, like gardening, that could be combined with other work.” And that other work—building coffins or boats, for instance, like Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut—was as much a part of the system of exchange as the buying and selling of sheep or wheat.
The model of the self-provisioning farm eventually died, though it persisted, Bushman notes, right up to World War II and was the basis of the Homestead Act of 1862, which “adopted the small farm as the predominant plan for disposing of the national domain.” Yet you can still hear the idea echoing not only in the realm of small, diversified market farms, which have begun to proliferate (again) in the past decade or two, but also among conventional farmers trying to voice their relevance in the national economy.
Take Meghan Hammond, the outspoken Nebraska farmer who appears in This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways. She and her family go about farming in much the same way as their neighbors, raising corn and soybeans and running some cattle. They use conventional methods, which involve, as one writer puts it, killing “everything but the crop.” And like their neighbors, they’re trapped, financially and contractually. Late in the book— late enough that the reader has a feel
for her frustration—Hammond offers an impromptu survey of the terribly wrong road that American agriculture has taken in the past century, a road paved by the US Department of Agriculture and well described by Genoways. She ends by asking him, “Are you ready to go raise your own food?”
This sounds like a trenchant question until you realize that Hammond isn’t really raising our food, or even her own. For the most part, she and her family are growing industrial commodities—corn and soybeans—and their work is carefully monitored by corporations like Monsanto and Pioneer, who sell them the chemicals and lease them the seeds they use and whose approach to farmers violating the letter of their contracts is harshly punitive. Like nearly all conventional farms, hers supplies almost none of its own resources and is tightly bound by debt and government subsidies (and the controls that come with them), and by the volatility of commodity prices.
Genoways begins his book by showing us Kyle Galloway, Meghan’s fiancé, doing some modern self-provisioning: welding the floor of a grain bin from salvaged steel so he can store his own soybeans (instead of paying to store them at the grain elevator) as a hedge against fluctuations in the soybean market. The farmscape Genoways portrays is the land of the unfree trying desperately to retain the illusion of their freedom, an illusion made all the more illusory in the era of Trump, whose proposed tariffs will surely hurt farmers.
Industrial agriculture—shaped by the USDA, by chemical and seed companies, by the vagaries of domestic and export markets—relies on a picture of the family farmer to soften its image. It wants it both ways. It wants to celebrate its technical innovations, like genetically modified crops, computer-driven tractors, and satellite-monitored fields. And yet it also wants to foster our national nostalgia for farming and the men and women who do it. The contradiction is intolerable, especially to farmers. Genoways tries to make the reader feel the contradiction too, and he gets it right, for by the time you finish reading This Blessed Earth, you feel hopeless and agitated. Meghan and Kyle marry and will go on farming. They will remain unwilling apologists for an agricultural system that has driven farmers off the depleted soil, drawn down the aquifers, and killed the small towns of Nebraska—a system, Hammond says, in which “everything has been built around a certain way of doing things.” They’ll oppose the Keystone XL pipeline—dead under Obama, revived under Trump— which threatens their land, their livelihood, and their friendships. They’ll work as hard as possible because how hard they work is the only thing they can control, and because labor is the only thing they have to offer. An article of faith in their world, writes Genoways, is “that the greatest success belongs to the family that works the hardest.” Like so many articles of faith, this is simply not true.
No one is going to read This Blessed Earth and come away thinking, “Gosh, I’d like to be a farmer.” Farmers, as Cobbett pointed out, don’t tend to come from books, and especially not from books as grimly accurate as this one. And yet it’s no longer true that farmers have to be raised, like turnips, from the soil itself, inheriting the methods by which they were raised. Most of the young farmers so visible in places like the Hudson Valley come from what you might call nontraditional farming backgrounds. They didn’t grow up on farms: they chose to become farmers. Moreover, they’ve chosen how to farm, and they do so usually in ways that flout the USDA’s mantra of growth at any cost.
If farming has become, for many young farmers, an elective vocation, it raises an important question: Who do you need to be in order to farm? Could good farming be a matter of character? In my young Iowa life, surrounded by farming aunts and uncles and cousins, I often heard them talk about the state of their neighbors’ fields. But only once do I remember the question of character coming up, when one of my cousins said of another cousin, “He always has trouble getting things done on time.” It was simply assumed that farming would turn you into a farmer, whether you had it in you or not.
There are plenty of books about farming these days, and a few of them are even intended for farmers, not consumers. Most of them, of course, are actually about food. But to me, it doesn’t really feel like a farming book unless it’s about labor—what farmers do and how they do it—and about the topography, cultural and literal, of the farm itself. And there’s something else too. A good farming book—a book about
Edward Hicks: The Cornell Farm, 1848