Ver­lyn Klinken­borg

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Ver­lyn Klinken­borg

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

Fruit­ful La­bor:

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

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