Monday, October 14, 2019

This Blessed Earth by Ted Genoways

This Blessed Earth: A Year In The Life Of An American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
Published September 2017 by Norton, W. W. and Company, Inc.
Source: my ecopy courtesy of my local library

Publisher's Summary:
Is there still a place for the farm in today’s America?The family farm lies at the heart of our national identity, and yet its future is in peril. Rick Hammond grew up on a farm, and for forty years he has raised cattle and crops on his wife’s fifth-generation homestead in Nebraska, in hopes of passing it on to their four children. But as the handoff nears, their small family farm—and their entire way of life—are under siege. Beyond the threat posed by rising corporate ownership of land and livestock, the Hammonds are confronted by encroaching pipelines, groundwater depletion, climate change, the fickle demands of the marketplace, and shifting trade policies.Following the Hammonds from harvest to harvest, Ted Genoways explores the rapidly changing world of small, traditional farming operations. He creates a vivid and nuanced portrait of a radically new landscape and one family’s fight to preserve their legacy and the life they love.

My Thoughts:
I have lived in Nebraska all of my life and while I have always appreciated that farming is a tough, necessary job, I’m afraid that I’ve been quick to deny being a part of a farming state. “I live in a city,” I insist, as though there were something wrong with being part of a farming community, as complicit in that idea as those who live in much more urban environs. It’s snobbish and I know better. And if I didn’t before this book, I do now.

This book was not only the One Book, One Nebraska selection this year, it was also the Omaha Reads choice (as well as the Iowa statewide read for 2019). Clearly a darling amongst Nebraskans, right? Not our governor, who backed out of a proclamation and ceremony when it was selected for the statewide read. Of course, you know what that did, right? Not only did local bookstores sell out of this book, so did Amazon.

I always struggle with writing reviews on nonfiction books, especially books where I’ve learned as much as I did in this book. Yes, I want to tell you about the book but I also want to share what I’ve learned. If I’m doing that, how much do I share before I’m not so much writing a book review as a lesson on the subject at hand? I made three pages of notes of the things I highlighted but clearly I can’t share them all with you (you can thank me later). On the other hand, it’s hard to explain why a book is as good as this book is without that background.
Genoways has created a terrific mix of the very personal side of the business of farming with the historical and broader aspects of the industry. I never felt that one piece of the book was being lost to the other; the history, the role government and big business play in the lives of family farmers, knowing how water or the lack thereof impacts farming - all of that is readily tied into the story of the Hammond family as they fight to hang on to land that has been in the family for six generations now.

The Hammonds farm is not far from where my husband grew up; I could readily picture what the Hammonds’ land looks like which, of course, made it that much easier for me to relate to this book. I know what that land looks like, I know people in that neck of the woods. But you don’t have to be familiar with the land to be able to picture it; Genoways paints a vivid picture of the land and you will feel like you know the Hammonds after you have spent the year with them. They are every bit as hardworking as you would expect them to be. They are also smart people. They have to be – every day there are hundreds of decisions that have to be made. What type of seeds (and I’m talking what kind of soybeans or corn, not just which one) should be planted this year? When should they be planted? Does the irrigation system need to be run and, if so, for how long in each field? How long should the grain being stored be held to get the best price? And if you’re planting for one of the seed companies, you’ve got another set of issues to deal with, not the least of which is the extreme secrecy surrounding the seeds. Then there’s the weather, something you can’t predict that could wipe you out in a matter of minutes. Oh yeah, and the government, which may add new regulations, change up subsidies, or slap on embargoes or tariffs depending on who’s in office or who’s in charge of the Department of Agriculture.

I’ve long wondered what keeps families on the farm. Long hours, hard labor, dangerous chemicals, and a constantly shifting market for your goods would be enough to chase most of us away from any endeavor. But, for the Hammonds, and, I suspect, for most of the other farmers who stick it out, it’s not only all they know but it’s their family’s legacy.

Now, about what I learned:

  • “The rise of the soybean in the United States is attributable to, more than any other person, Henry Ford.” Yep, Ford was making a lot of money selling equipment to farmers but, due to a glut of grain, prices were so low farmers weren’t buying new equipment. Ford subsidized research into other uses for grains, particularly soybeans and financially incentivized farmers to grow soybeans. Ford believed the research and assistance to farmers should remain out of the hands of the government. Given what happened soon after, he may have been right.
  • After World War II, giant chemical manufacturers (who had secured defense contracts to produce ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia to make bomb and other munitions) “argued to the USDA that those chemicals could be used as fertilizers. The use of herbicides and pesticides rapidly increased. One of the products most used was Roundup, but Roundup was hard on the crops as well. Agribusinesses began developing genetically modified seeds that are now labelled as “Roundup Ready.” All of that research was costly and the companies who developed it want to make sure it doesn’t fall into their competitors’ hands (or into the hands of foreign governments). Distribution and planting of those seeds is highly guarded; even the farmers don’t know exactly what seeds they are planting.

  • Two Secretaries of Agriculture implemented policies that turned food into a weapon. Eisenhower’s secretary, Ezra Taft Benson, called small farmers “irresponsible feeders at the public trough” and vowed to return to a system where the biggest producers made the biggest profits. He used the overproduction to reduce global prices then used the excess as foreign aid. Nixon’s and Ford’s secretary, Earl Butz, also urged overproduction as a means to “undercut and control commodities markets to the disadvantage of our Cold War enemies.” He urged farmers to “acquire as much land as they could afford and to plant “fencerow to fencerow.”” This required dramatic change to the way farms were run and, critics argued, caused the farm economy to rely too much on agribusiness and less on family farmers.
  • In 1979 Jimmy Carter implemented a grain embargo against the Soviet Union after they invaded Afghanistan. Prices of grains plummeted. “As commodities prices fell, it became apparent: instead of making the world dependent on our grain supplies, we had grown reliant on their demand. “ This on the footsteps of Butz’ policies meant that farmers were carrying heavy overhead and servicing high-interest loans and the result was the Farm Crisis. Anyone else go to a Farm Aid concert to help raise money to help the farmers?
Truly, I could have rattled off ten more things that I found fascinating about farming and that’s a something that I never could have imagined myself saying. It just goes to show you the power of great nonfiction!

1 comment:

  1. I no longer live in Nebraska, but am fascinated by this book that so many of my Lincolnite friends have read and recommended. I wonder if my Oregon book group would enjoy it as well as you did.