July 2009

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness by Lisa Hamilton

Many Americans have been going through some soul searching in the past few years about the current state of agriculture in this country. From decades of enjoying cheap food with little concern over its origins, we have now become transfixed by video of sick cows in feedlots, reports of poorly inspected imports and the ever increasing piles of evidence concerning agribusiness and the use of chemicals. Frontline personally scared the crap out of me with a special last month on the pollution flowing into the Chesapeake Bay from chicken farms in the area. Trust me, it wasn't pretty.

Journalist Lisa Hamilton has been reporting on farmers for more than a decade and in her new book Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness she goes right to the source to discover just what it means to independently farm in the 21st century. Hamilton spent time with three different farmers in three parts of the country: a dairyman in East Texas, a rancher in New Mexico and plant farmers (wheat, etc.) in North Dakota. In each case she discovered basic answers to what it means to farm combined with remarkably low-tech and high-tech solutions to competing in the modern world. Her discoveries are quite remarkable in what they reveal about the definition of American farmer today and how obvious the answers are to the questions that plague us about what we should eat and perhaps, more fundamentally, how we should live.

In Texas, Hamilton met Harry Lewis, an African American with dairy cows on land that has been in his family for generations. The story of Lewis and how African Americans came to farm such a large swath of land near Louisiana makes for fascinating social history. Combined with how some thrived there while others have left sets up for Lewis's many opinions on what makes a farm a success and what made him want to farm. "When I was young, I didn't want to farm because I didn't want to be confined. You know when the baseball game's goin', you in the milk barn. Of if you wanna do somethin' during the day then you have to do the milkin' earlier, and then you have to get up earlier. What I failed to realize at that age: anything you do is confining, but everything you do don't offer you a sense of freedom. And farming, as we were farming, allowed that."

Lewis belongs to a farming cooperative best known to consumers by the name on their labels, "Organic Valley." He firmly believes in having his cows roam freely and feed on pasture only returning to the barn to milk in a system of give and take that has sustained his family for decades. But as simple as his plan is, he's no fool and membership in the co-up is critical to his fiscal survival. Readers will likely be shocked to learn how the price of milk is fixed and immense control big business wields over dairy farmers. Organic Valley is a way to chip at that control. Although as Hamilton writes, it's not always easy for any large group to come to a consensus.

In New Mexico, Virgil Trujillo is a tenth generation rancher whose family dates their ownership of the land back hundreds of years - prior to the Mexican-American War. In her discussions with him, Hamilton learns about cattle ranching on a less massive scale, the long and tortuous history of Mexican Americans, and the continued conflict many of them have with the U.S. government over land rights which were guaranteed but later violated. Trujillo sees great value in the arid region and its possibilities for cattle. He also has been witness to the rural decline in Rio Arriba County which has seen its people become more removed from the land as they worked for larger ranch operations and sold their own smaller herds for economic reasons.

Just as Lewis celebrates the importance of cows feeding off pasture, Trujillo sees on an even larger scale that the problems of his town, Abiquiu, date to when the people lost their land and no longer could see its value. "Abiquenos never thought of themselves as destitute or anything resembling poor, even in the Depression years," he asserts. Trujillo is convinced that if they could return to small ranching, and implement new progressive land management techniques he has studied and utilized, then they would heal themselves and their community.

Hamilton's biggest surprise comes perhaps in North Dakota with the Podoll brothers. Originally skeptical of organic farming techniques they became converts as they studied both its environmental efficiency and sustainability. David Podoll however does not consider what he does so much organic as "enduring." [Podoll] would like to build a kind of farming that will last beyond the next season, beyond the next House Ag Committee appointments - beyond his own lifetime." This is not a broad view that agribusiness needs as it exists to make a maximum amount of profit in the short term, but for family farmers it is a crucial vision and the Podolls, as stunning as it might be for their friends and neighbors, are determined to make that view a reality.

Their continued efforts at expanding the definitions of their farm: from growing wheat alternatives that require less water to harvesting organic seeds for sale, companies across the country show the adaptability that is required to maintain successful independence. Interestingly though, farming the right way - the most sustainable way - is more a moral issue for David Podoll than anything else. "We know deep down what's right and what's wrong, but to judge between the two we have to stop and think about it. I've got to stop and think about them. And when I do, I realize how much in our society is just based entirely on a money economy, with no thought for a moral and ethical response to what we're doing."

This intention to find the ethical response to our country's agriculture crisis is the crux of Hamilton's insightful work - she has found three farmers in three different parts of the countries who independently came to the same conclusion. We can not continue to live as we have in the past and through a combination of old ways and new, these American farmers offer us a path to the future. They are finding ways to change their worlds and as Hamilton so effectively shows, if we are lucky they will all succeed brilliantly in their efforts.

There was a lot of hard work put into this book and it shows - when it comes to 21st century living, Hamilton is truly an author to watch.

 

Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness by Lisa Hamilton
Counterpoint
ISBN: 1593761805
312 pages

 

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