Conversations with the Land

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Many good arguments can be made for supporting a type of agriculture less reliant on energy, technology and Wall Street, and more on soil, communities and people: it’s better for the environment, produces good food and keeps more Main Street businesses open, to name a few. But after reading Jim Van Der Pol’s just-published collection of essays, Conversations with the Land, another benefit of sustainable farming occurred to me: it allows for the kind of observation, contemplation and human relationship building that makes for good reading.

After all, if Van Der Pol’s family wasn’t raising a diverse mix of crops on their western Minnesota farm, the author wouldn’t find himself on a small tractor mowing hay, working over in his mind his relationship to a family of foxes, the land and the community:

“There is a sense in which the field is a commons for me and my family and livestock and the fox and her cubs, as well as the birds and insects that fly up from the cutter bar and everything else that calls the field home. To think of it as such, whether or not it is or could be, seems to me to be a way of encouraging kindly use of it by all of us. And kindly use is a result good enough that I tend to think that applying the philosophy of the commons is a good idea.”

But farming that generates deep introspection only doesn’t pay the bills, and that’s what makes Van Der Pol’s book entertaining and grounding. He and his wife LeeAnn moved back to the home place in western Minnesota’s Chippewa County in 1977 after Jim attended the University of Minnesota. Over the years, the Van Der Pols have become leaders in the development of pasture-based livestock production. Just as importantly, they’ve figured out how to get paid for it. Pastures A’ Plenty Farm is a sophisticated direct-to-consumer meat business that supports Jim and Lee Ann, along with their son Josh’s family — a true rarity in today’s agriculture.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that over the past two decades I’ve interacted with the Van Der Pols numerous times through interviews and informal conversations. In addition, Jim has served on the Land Stewardship Project’s board of directors. During that time, I’ve become quite familiar with his essays, some of which have appeared in local newspapers and the Land Stewardship Letter. More recently, Van Der Pol has written regularly for Graze magazine, among other publications.

Van Der Pol’s writing is characterized by an acerbic sense of humor, a little cynicism and vivid descriptions — all fueled by the sharp-eyed observation skills of someone who’s spent almost his entire life on the land. But can years of writing “columns” produce a book that hangs together as a cohesive piece — or will it read like just a “best of” collection of essays, with little in common with each other than the author? In this case, Conversations with the Land works as a book, thanks to the fact that a common thread runs throughout: love of the land and love of the people who make a living on the land, as well as a sense that something isn’t quite right and we all have a role—farmer and non-farmer alike, in correcting that.

The front part of the book is full of character sketches of the “people” end of the equation, and makes for perhaps the most entertaining reading, as when Van Der Pol describes all the old, sometimes quite colorful, farmers he learned the trade from, or the various people who served key supporting roles in the ag community, such as truckers. In reference to the latter, a description of a boyhood trip he took to the South Saint Paul stockyards with a livestock hauler named Joe is a gem of an essay that puts the reader right in the truck as it “roared down toward Concord Street and the yards, the load of cattle pushing us toward the river.”

That piece at once shows off Van Der Pol’s ability to set up a scene, and then with an economy of words transform a fairly routine haulage of animals to the Twin Cities into a glimpse at a time when South Saint Paul was an important destination for small- and medium-sized family farmers who were raising livestock.

In a nice example of coming full circle, a later essay describes spending time in the late 1990s with a family of Hmong butchers who had started a business in South Saint Paul. At that time, Van Der Pol was “ground down” by farming and not sure where the future lay. But after hearing of the hardships this family from Laos had gone through, it helped put Van Der Pol’s life in perspective: “It was this experience as much as any careful thought or financial analysis that started the process of turning this farm around.”

Van Der Pol crafts his essays in a way that make us not only care about people who used to live in his community, but see why it’s so important to create such communities yet again, and in fact go one better and try to make them sustainable this time. As he writes in his introduction, “From my awakening anger it was but a short step to the determination to do something about it.” That anger is simmering beneath the surface in almost all of these essays.

In the last couple of sections of the book — “Enabling scoundrels,” “How we might farm” and “How we might live”— the anger finally boils over, as Van Der Pol rails against Wall Street, politicians, people who confuse “knowledge” with “wisdom” while viewing the land as simply “parks and recreation,” and finally, corporations that foist the “cost” of doing business (pollution, health problems, a trashed economy) onto the public.

This could read like just another diatribe from an angry agrarian. But it isn’t, because Van Der Pol has taken that key step from being mad to “doing something about it.” One of the thing’s he’s done is to get involved with the local foods movement, an opportunity, in his opinion, for farmers and non-farmers alike to take control of their lives.

And Van Der Pol is also aware that change will not occur overnight — it’s a game of inches. That’s why it’s fitting that he ends the book with an essay called “Archer,” in which he describes how just a small puff of air in the direction of someone shooting an arrow can produce significant changes before that arrow hits its mark a thousand feet away.

This idea of the “one degree deflection” can take many forms in real life: buying beef directly from a farmer, choosing to use the services of a local business, hosting a few beginning farmers for a few hours, climbing off the tractor to fly a kite with a grandchild.

Or sitting down to read a book formed by the land and its people.

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