Sustainable Ag: Rooted & Rebooted

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I once served on a land grant college committee that was trying to figure out ways to develop a marketing manual for farmers involved in alternative production practices such as organic vegetables or grass-fed livestock. Being the only journalist on the committee, I suggested that the publication take the form of a series of stories describing how different farmers had tackled alternative marketing endeavors and what they had learned from the experiences.

A no-nonsense university extension educator sitting on the committee responded as if I had just recommended we all put on hemp shirts and dance around the room waving prairie flowers: “I don’t want to read a bunch of stories. I want practical information.”

Lisa Hamilton’s new book, Deeply Rooted, would probably be that extensionist’s worst nightmare: at first blush it’s simply a trio of stories describing some of the colorful characters in the sustainable agriculture movement. Hamilton provides detailed character sketches of a grass-based dairy farmer from Texas, a New Mexico beef producer and a family of farmer/gardeners in southeast North Dakota. There are times when these pieces, which are divided neatly into three sections, are pure page-turning entertainment.

When Hamilton describes in the introductory piece how Harry Lewis left the farm, got involved with drugs in the city and eventually returned to the land to become a leader among his fellow African-American farmers, it’s clear the reader is in the presence of a larger-than-life figure. Hamilton reports that the first time she had a conversation with the charismatic farmer, he talked for two hours straight. It turns out he had more to say:

“The third time I met Harry Lewis (and this I could not believe): five hours straight. For five hours we sat on the porch of his house in Sulphur Springs, Texas, side by side in wicker chairs, facing the yard and the pasture beyond. It was ninety-one degrees and the man didn’t sweat, didn’t drink, didn’t unlace his heavy, black boots, didn’t even stand up. He just talked. Had I not stopped him I swear he would have gone long past sundown.”

Even as I was thoroughly enjoying Hamilton’s profile of Lewis, I had that same guilty feeling I get when I eat only ice cream for supper. Is there any bigger story to be told here beyond the entertaining experiences of one innovative dairy farmer? That practical, “extension educator” voice was nagging me for something more.
Not to worry—the book ultimately delivers on the promise hinted at in its subtitle, Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by providing a big picture view of how the ag industrial complex motivates (and infuriates) these personalities.

For example, soon after introducing Lewis, the author launches into one of the most succinct, clear descriptions I’ve read on how we ended up with all these mega-dairies in places where water, forage and all the other resources supposedly needed to raise milk cows are so short.

This proves to be a well-balanced pattern throughout the book: a description of a colorful personality interlaced with the agricultural/political/economic worlds these people live in. Hamilton as a writer shines when she describes someone like New Mexico cattleman Virgil Trujillo and how his mixed Spanish-Native American ancestry influences his stewardship ethic, or North Dakota farmer David Podoll’s obsession with observation and record keeping. She rounds out these portraits nicely with almost sublime descriptions of the landscapes these people make their living in. Hamilton describes how North Dakota corn is so uniform that it can provide a glimpse of the land’s almost imperceptible undulations:

“…altogether they record each vague motion like a heart monitor, like a picket fence.”

Such descriptions remind the reader of what keeps these agrarians plugging away despite it all: a love of the land.

Hamilton isn’t just a writer; she’s also a reporter. Her journalistic skills shine when delving into farm policy and the basics of food economics or plant genetics and the demise of farmer-controlled breeding. She also knows how to do the gumshoe “street” reporting that provides a glimpse of perhaps one of the biggest barriers to being innovative in farm country (especially if the innovator is outspoken, aggressive and maybe a little obnoxious): the larger community’s unwillingness, or inability, to change. Hamilton peppers her writing with short asides gleaned from, for example, an out-of-work meat worker, a local parade, coffee shop talk, and a custom grain harvester bellied up to the bar.

This field reporting provides insights into the lack of hope that permeates rural communities ruled by the corn-bean-feedlot machine. At times it can come off a bit heavy-handed, as when she observes that, “Probably there are happy people, strong families, and pride of ownership in Clovis, as in any town, but from my vantage point I can’t see it.”

But for the most part the author is empathetic to the people who are being crushed by a system the stars of the book are fighting so passionately.

And that’s important, because the book recognizes that the Harry Lewis’s of the world can only lead the charge so long. Charisma, stubbornness and an inhuman capacity for hard work will only take one so far. Will the Podoll family’s revolutionary ideas about plant breeding have a life beyond their corner of  LaMoure County?

The “unconventional farmers” featured here recognize the importance of connecting to a wider community. Harry Lewis does this through his membership in Organic Valley Co-op, and Virgil Trujillo is involved with the Quivira Coalition, which is attempting to bring ranchers and environmentalists together. It’s not surprising that David, Dan and Theresa Podoll are involved in Seed Savers Exchange and the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society.

But toward the end of her book, Hamilton describes the kind of community-building that is often neglected in an attempt to change the world. Theresa Podoll, who has done her share of attending national conferences, has helped launch a small farmers’ market in the local community of LaMoure. She does it although selling her own family’s garden produce at the market doesn’t pencil out.

But in a sense, it’s a cost of doing business, the kind of business that reminds people it is not natural to be surrounded by some of the richest soil in the world, all the while being reliant on tomatoes from Florida and bread from Colorado. It’s not as sexy as destroying racial stereotypes, developing a new strain of disease-resistant wheat or rotating cattle on the wide-open range, but ultimately, it’s where all real innovations must begin and end: at home.

You can’t get much more practical than that.

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