The popular image of the American farmer has moved a bit past Norman Rockwell, but not by much. We still envision a weathered man in a seed corn cap, gazing optimistically at a thunderhead from his open tractor while tilling a field of verdant corn.
It’s an old image, but one driven even deeper into our psyches during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, amid fervent headlines that the small farm “way of life” should not be cast aside in the face of large farms’ efficiencies, of technological breakthroughs, of corporate ownership.
Yet that way of farming did disintegrate for the most part. As the crisis passed, so did the headlines.
Today, if we encounter farmers at all, it’s likely the folks at the farmers market with their beets and cabbages. We rarely see the agribusinessmen who work the fields from the cabs of huge tractors, studying computer screens with readouts of plant spacing and soil moisture.
Somewhere between the vegetable acreages and the vast tracts are farms like Rick Hammond’s place. In 2014, Ted Genoways — an award-winning journalist who grew up in Nebraska — began a year with Hammond on his fifth-generation homestead. Hammond is aiming to make it an even half-dozen, hoping his daughter Meghan and her partner, Kyle Galloway, in their 20s, can take over.
The odds aren’t good. “Failure is everywhere on the farm,” Genoways writes of the many ways in which fate strikes: death, injury, drought, too much rain, international market projections, overproduction, hail, equipment breakdowns, family rifts.
This, we know. What comes as a surprise is how technology has become not just an option, but crucial. It drives irrigation systems, soil analysis, planting strategies, chemical use.
“The precision is stunning,” Genoways writes, “and the knowledge demanded of farmers, most of whom consult with agronomists, but ultimately decide what to plant on their own, seems impossible to fathom — but also impossible to escape.”
Hammond has kept up, but is falling behind. Progress comes with a price tag. The economies of scale are real. As he says, the biggest pitfall you face as a farmer is your own optimism.
Genoways lucked into finding subjects who are extraordinarily frank, who let him into their personal lives with a clear trust, but perhaps also with a sense that trusting him is among their few hopes. As Meghan, making the case for small farmers, tersely asks: “Are you ready to go raise your own food?”
This book is bigger than the Hammonds. They are a thread through which Genoways recounts generations of agricultural history. Earl Butz, the Russian grain deal, Cargill, Monsanto, the Homestead Act, the Keystone pipeline, climate change — they all are put in context with their impact on farming, which then has an impact on the price of our potato chips.
Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine many who’ll read this book without a personal link to farming to draw them in. But “The Blessed Earth” is a history book, an economics text, even a soap opera of sorts.
If we eat, we should know.
Kim Ode is a feature writer at the Star Tribune. On Twitter: @Odewrites
This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm
By: Ted Genoways.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 226 pages, $26.95.