ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Review: "Deeply Rooted" by Lisa Hamilton


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

White House Garden Almost Jeffersonian, if Not for Sheep

Looks like the White House veggie garden is a go, confirming all the talk so far. Look forward to the official announcement. There's a long history to this -- Jefferson had a garden at the White House and grazed sheep on the front lawn in 1807.

According to the Jefferson Encyclopedia:

From James D. Barry he receivedthe animal that leaps most vividly from the letters and diaries of the time: a four-horned Shetland ram who for five years provoked his owner to both eulogy and malediction. Four days after receiving this "round and beautiful animal," Jefferson wrote to his ten-year-old granddaughter: "I am now possessed of individuals of four of the most remarkable varieties of the race of the sheep. . . . I mean to pay great attention to them, pro bono publico." He commissioned his Irish coachman to begin purchasing ewes and the Shetland ram was immediately put to the task of reproducing his own kind.

By the spring there were almost forty presidential sheep grazing on the square in front of the White House. If it had been the year 2000, there would also have been a flock of lawsuits. Several unsuspecting pedestrians tried to take a short cut across the square, met the Shetland ram, and were vanquished in their encounter. One William Keough wrote Jefferson that "in Passing through the President's Square [I] was attacked and severely wounded and bruised by your excellency's ram-of which [I] lay ill for five or six weeks." Another of the ram's unfortunate victims, as we learn from the diary of Jefferson's friend Anna Maria Thornton, was "a fine little boy killed by the Ram that the president has."

Obviously, that type of animal husbandry would best be avoided now, though a ram might do wonders for dealing with AIG.

Is Organic and Local "so 2008"?

By Lisa M. Hamilton

Organic and Local is so 2008—or at least that’s the case that journalist and “The End of Food” author Paul Roberts makes in Mother Jones this month. The gist of his argument: because the food system’s problems are so deep, the food movement needs to mature beyond its one-dimensional, at times robotic devotion to Organic and Local and instead adopt a broader range of solutions.

He offers the example of Fred Fleming, a noted Washington wheat farmer whose masterful no-till system has greatly reduced erosion from his land. Fleming remains outside the foodie circle because his system depends on using herbicide, but Roberts argues that he is just the sort of farmer we should be embracing.  Roberts does make an important point: agriculture faces many more issues than whether or not farmers use pesticides; to boot, all of those issues are currently being compounded by climate change.

Wes Jackson of the Land Institute recently made a related point underscoring the threat we face from soil erosion. He argues that the most damaging climate-change-related weather events we’re seeing are not hurricanes hitting the Eastern seaboard, but heavy rainfall and floods in the Midwest. In Jackson’s view, even the destruction wreaked by Katrina did not compare to the long-term loss we suffer from having millions of tons of farmland topsoil washed away in floods, as happened last March and April. I can imagine Roberts chiming in to say that if using some Roundup would hold that soil in place, the tradeoff would be worthwhile. It’s hard to disagree with that. 

But after hearing Roberts make his case live at Organicology in February, I would argue that he’s too near-sighted with his remedy. Rather than embrace farmers’ lesser-of-many-evils practices within the existing system, we need to overhaul the system itself. As it is, farmers are expected to be purely economic beings that fit into the free market alongside mortgage securities; the true solution instead lies in seeing them as the ecological caretakers we so desperately need them to be.

Think of it roughly like the National Parks: Years ago, we as a nation recognized the need for large areas of land to be taken out of the real estate market for the express purpose of maintaining them according to a different set of priorities; we saw that wild lands served the public good, and that not protecting them was to our detriment. Well, now we’ve reached the same situation with our working lands, as the constant pressure of the market system has led them to a threatened existence.

I’m not suggesting we buy up farmland and make it government property, but rather that we recognize farmers and ranchers as a kind of public servant. To begin with, replace the Farm Bill’s provisions for subsidies and incentives for commodity production with a true support system of financing, education, and farmer-centered research and market development; that could enable growers to switch their focus from bank notices to caring for their lands long-term. In time, probably most would gravitate to ecological methods such as the organic no-till farming system that Rodale has been developing for the past decade. 

Some, though, might choose herbicide-dependent no-till as the suture that would hold their land in place. In that lies the greatest challenge of supporting farmers: trusting that given the proper tools, they know and will do what’s best for the land. I believe that trust is where Roberts’ argument was leading, even if it didn’t quite reach that conclusion in the MoJo article. If so, it’s a step in the right direction.

Northern California-based writer/photographer Lisa M. Hamilton focuses on food and agriculture. Her book "Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness" (Counterpoint) comes out in May. 

Organic Animals Must Graze, USDA Rules

Resolving a longstanding dispute, the USDA published a proposed pasture regulation that sets new grazing requirements for organic livestock and bans confined feedlots from the industry.

Dairy farmers had been pushing for this rule for at least three years, though variations had been proposed since at least 2000. According to the USDA's document on the regulation, published in the Federal Register, more than 85,000 people sent in letters in support of a stricter pasture requirement (pdf).

Advocates say the USDA actually got the new pasture regulation right. In a press release from the National Organic Coalition, Kathie Arnold, a New York State organic dairy farmer, said: “This draft rule provides specific language needed for enforcement of one of the central tenets of organically produced livestock—that organic livestock spend a considerable part of their lives in their natural pasture habitat and receive a significant portion of their food from fresh, green, growing pasture.”

Previously, the USDA required organic livestock to have "access to pasture," a term that was so loosely interpreted that  several prominent organic CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) arose in the industry, housing thousands of cows with little or no grazing on pasture. The pasture loophole undermined the purpose and intent of organic livestock agriculture.

Now, "Dry lots and feedlots are prohibited," the proposed regulation says.

Animals must graze throughout the growing season, which in some regions may be for the entire year. The bare minimum nationally would be 120 days. In the document, the USDA explains:

In the United States, growing seasons range from 121 days to 365 days, depending on location. By using the growing season as the minimum time period for grazing, the regulations ensure that ruminants raised in areas with longer grazing periods are not denied the opportunity to graze for more than the minimum of 120 days.

In addition 30% of a cow's nutritional needs must be met by pasture, which means they must be eating fresh grass.

If this rule is adopted, as expected, after the 60 day comment period, it will undo the disturbing rise of organic CAFOs and require that organic livestock graze on pasture, as consumers and farmers overwhelmingly expect.

In short, the regulation looks like a big win for organic integrity.

- Samuel Fromartz

The After-Shock of Contaminated Spinach

If you're interested in what happened after contaminated spinach sickened people across the country two years ago, hop over to this must read by my friend Barry Estabrook at Gourmet magazine.

I've covered aspects of the spinach crisis before, but Barry goes further and looks into the environmental aftershock that has occurred from farmers seeking to put a protective shield around their fields, with no evidence that they're addressing the root cause of the problem.

In the name of food safety, they have scraped 30-foot-wide borders ofbare dirt around the edges of fields, set up poison-bait stations for ground squirrels and mice, installed eight-foot-high fences to exclude deer and other wildlife, ripped vegetation from creeks and ditches, and drained ponds and lakes or treated them with chemicals that kill every living thing in them. Creeks flowing into the Salinas River run brown with silty water polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. Piles of bleached, bonelike tree trunks and roots have replaced wooded groves.

“The science isn’t there to prove that deer are a factor, but farmers are being required to moonscape the habitat around their fields in the name of food safety,” says Bob Martin, general manager of Rio Farms, a 6,000-acre operation. “That’s amputating a person’s leg because they have a hangnail.”

I'd heard about these draconian measures from wildlife and small farm groups and knew it was ripe for a deeper look. Luckily, Barry did too. His article makes you think twice about what "food safety" really means, when it's regulated with a bulldozer.  Here's another observation:

Of the 12 recorded E. coli outbreaks attributed to California leafy greens since 1999, 10 have been traced to mechanically harvested greens bagged in large production facilities. The source of two outbreaks has yet to be determined. None have been linked to small farms selling to local markets.

After the jump are Barry's tips for avoiding pathogens:

Think Outside the Bag

· Cooking is the only way to kill bacteria in greens for certain, but there are some less drastic steps you can take to protect yourself.

· You’ve heard it a thousand times: Buy local; buy small. Packaged produce in the supermarket can be more than two weeks old. Produce from a CSA or farmers market packed in ordinary, unsealed plastic bags is most likely picked a day or two before you buy it.

· Buy whole heads or bunches of intact plants; precut edges provide a particularly easy point of entry for bacteria.

· Washing won’t get all the bugs out of contaminated bagged greens, but it can remove some surface bacteria.

· If you do buy prewashed, factory-bagged produce, look at the “use before” date. If it’s getting close, avoid the product. The longer it has been in the bag, the more opportunities for pathogens to grow.

· Never, ever eat uncooked greens from bags whose expiration date has passed, no matter how fresh they appear.

A Chicken in Every Yard

Image source: Bright Green Blog

Now, I know urban farming is the rage (hey I'm one of those urban farmers, I mean gardeners), but if you ever thought about raising chickens out back, check out this post on the Illicit urban chicken movement over at Bright Green Blog.

There's a wealth of info there, tied to a report from the Worldwatch Institute, as well as links to other "how to" sites.

I don't want to raise chickens here in D.C. Tending plots in two community gardens, and keeping the basil going in the backyard, is more than enough. And nevermind the cat. But if you like your eggs fresh, this post's for you.

Fertilizer Cartel Driving Up Food Prices?

An interesting post by IATP's Think Forward blog points to a law suit filed in Minnesotacharging a global fertilizer cartel is driving up prices.

So farmers are paying more for fertilzer, or planting less (in developing countries) because they can't afford the stuff. Either way, it contributes to higher food prices. Here's what happened:

A small Minnesota-based company, Minn-Chem Inc., charges that seven companies in the United States, Canada, Russia and Belarus conspired to fix global prices for the fertilizer potash.

Potash includes mineral and chemical salts that contain potassium, and is widely used around the world as a fertilizer to increase crop yields. Over half of the world’s global capacity is located in just two regions: Canada and the former Soviet Union (Russia and Belarus).

So maybe there is an OPEC for fertilizers, but energy prices are a big factor too, since natural gas is used to make synthetic fertilizer. Put that together - with higher fuel prices in the whole food chain - and you get a pop in food prices that will likely last.

Nevermind the way biofuels are also eating away at supply and pushing food higher -- an increasingly controversial issue among multinationals.

Farm Aid, Farmers and Fires

FARM_AID-2008_LOGOWe don’t have vast thousand-acre farms in New England, but of the farms that we do have, 85 percent are family-owned. New England is home to vibrant farmers markets. There's  an active localvore community. And our small farms grow everything from tomatoes, sweet corn, apples and cranberries, to a budding viniculture segment.

So it was gratifying that Farm Aid, which is actually based here in Massachusetts,  held its first concert in New England in its 23-year history this weekend. I was a guest blogger for the folks at Farm Aid, offering my impressions of the event here and here.

Willie Nelson_006But on Saturday, right about the time Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders was rocking the sold-out crowd of 20,000 concert-goers, a farm tragedy was unfolding nearby. Thick clouds of black smoke enveloped the farm stand, offices and kitchen of one the area’s most vital farms – Verrill Farms - and it took local firemen nearly four hours to extinguish the blaze, leaving only the building’s blackened ribs.

Steve Verrill and his family have been on their land in Concord since 1918. The farm was started by Steve’s father. Verrill himself was a dairy farmer for years, but traded that in for vegetable farming when the dairy industry got downright unprofitable. He was one of the first local farmers to connect directly with Boston’s best chefs, and his produce is regularly listed on menus by name. His name. I hear he’s even got a hefty waiting list of chefs with produce-envy.

The Verrill family likes a party. They hold a strawberry festival, an asparagus festival, a blueberry pancake breakfast and pie eating contest; a tomato and corn festival and half-a-dozen more events every year. Thanks to them, this farm is where thousands of children and their parents very likely connected with their food for the first time, and have continued to doing so for generations. And that tomato contest I judged last month? Steve was the one that got the state to include heirlooms as a category. Before that, there wasn’t one.

I feel confident Verrill will rebuild and thrive. His impact on people in the region is huge, and his customers understand that it is crucial that Verrill and his farm survive. He’s fortunate, despite the fire.

While I applaud Farm Aid’s longevity and efforts to raise awareness of the critical role farmers play in our country, I can’t help but feel discouraged that there have been 23 years of Farm Aid concerts and fundraising, and yet things are still dire for so many of our nation’s farms. Still, at least one in-tune group is fighting the fires -- as well as the floods and failures of our farmers.
Clare Leschin-Hoar

Image: Willie Nelson at Farm Aid, photo by Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve Inc. 2008

Moved To Help Flooded Farmers?

If the pictures, stories and videos coming out of Iowa and other battered states move you to action, here's one place to check out - Farm Aid's Family Farm Disaster Fund.

Farm Aid's web site says it is helping family farmers through this disaster by:

  • Providing emergency funds for families to allow them to buy food and cover family living expenses.
  • Supporting emergency hotlines.
  • Providing legal and financial counseling to farmers in danger of losing their farms.

To be sure, many organizations are at work -- but Farm Aid has a particular focus.