For farmers, summer is probably the worst time to recommend a book. Working in the fields, they barely have time to eat, let alone read. But for people who kick back in the summer, this is the best time.
And if, like me, you're curious about farmers' lives, I can think of no better place to start than with Lisa Hamilton's Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness (Counterpoint). I know the author; her work has appeared on this blog, which is why it would have been awkward to write about her book had it not been so engaging.
Hamilton's been writing about farming for a decade now, traveling throughout this country and overseas. Her work has appeared in magazines like Orion, Gastronomica and Harper's as well as more specialized venues. She's not a farmer, but an astute observer who seems to have an asset so lacking these days – the patience to sit still, observe and listen and then put it all down on the page beautifully. She's also a photographer (here's a slideshow related to the book), which may account for the rich portraits in this book.
But if you had to ask me what the book was about, I wouldn't say it's about farming. What the book really is about is the relationship that farmers have with the land, their families and the communities in which they live.
While so many books focus on growers who populate farmers' markets near big cities, Hamilton wisely spends time with folks deep in the shrinking rural pockets of this country -- those whom we don't get to see that often.
The three narratives in the book center on an organic dairy farmer in Texas, a livestock rancher in New Mexico and a grain and seed farmer in North Dakota. Like most farmers, all are outspoken and independent but being "unconventional" adds another layer of complexity. What hooked me was her uncanny ability to capture these farmers' struggles hoeing a different – and more challenging -- path. She writes in the introduction:
These were the ones trimmed off long ago, or at least by the industry's prescription, should have been. As we sit and talk, the topics are sometimes technical, often political or economic, and always, ultimately, philosophical. And personal. If we start with a discussion of soil microbiology or a comparison of turkey breeds, inevitably we end up in family, history, ecology, faith, beauty, morality, and the fate of the world to come. For them, all these things are linked.
Harry Lewis, a black farmer, is one of the handful of remaining dairy farmers in Sulphur Springs, Texas. His family's local roots go back to the post-Civil War era, when former slaves migrated to the area. To stay viable, he's largely eschewed all the investments and fixes thrust to him except for one – to go organic. He follows this path because it works for the scale of his farm and is in line with the way he was already farming.
When Hamilton notices young calves still with their mothers, Lewis explains: "The mothers take care of the calves better than we can. I mean, we could bottle-feed them, but that's more labor on our part."
"From the beginning," Hamilton writes, "the Lewis farm has run on the mathematics of frugality — that's what has kept this business afloat for more than fifty years. As much as possible it runs on what's available for free: grass, rain, family members."
Lewis could have sold out like other neighbors, but feels the pull of the land and a way of life. As a young man, he left for the city only to return – his relationship with this ground too strong to easily sever.
The second profile focuses on a New Mexico rancher, Virgil Trujillo, who truth be told is a rancher without a ranch. He is trying to maintain a place for cattle on land that has gotten increasingly pricy and divorced from its near four-century role as grazing land.
Trujillo's certainly a maverick in Abiquiu, one of seven families still working a 16,708 acre-parcel that the King of Spain granted to the settlers in the area in 1754. He's a descendent of the original deed holders but is having a tough time of it.
While he dreams of expanding the ranch and working on it full time, he depends on a salaried job at a religious retreat. You can't help but feel that no matter how committed, no matter how strong his tie to this place, he's swimming against history. He may be the last in a long line of ranchers, or perhaps against the odds will live his dream.
The last profile is the most optimistic, focusing on the Podoll family in La Moure, North Dakota. David Podoll set out in the 1974 to prove organic agriculture wrong, but in the process he became convinced it was right. He now grows organic grains on the farm – wheat, tricale, millet -- as well as organic vegetable seeds, selected at the kitchen table according to what tastes best.
He prefers to get close to the soil, to smell it, too see it. He bemoans “brute-force agriculture” where farmers rely on numbers with nary a thought to the soil – or to the changing climate, which has already altered the dynamics of his farm.
“Farmers today with the big machinery go from one half-section to another without ever getting out of the cab, without ever smelling or feeling the soil, or even getting it on their boots,” he says.
For these kind of farmers in a deep and permanent relationship with the land, such distance is impossible. As Podoll tells Hamilton, what he’s doing isn’t about “organic” or “sustainable” farming, it’s about farming that endures. Really, it's about relationships that endure -- relationships that ultimately feed us all.
- Samuel Fromartz