Farming against the Grain

Saving seed, controlling grazing, pasturing cattle -- a few rare farmers buck the bigness business of today's farming.

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Book review

Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness

By Lisa M. Hamilton

304 pp., Counterpoint (2009), $16.50

Lisa Hamilton’s book Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness explores three unconventional farms struggling daily against corporate agribusiness and a national farm policy that for too long has denied their importance.

Hamilton has been writing about farmers for more than ten years and is still taken aback by some of what she sees. That’s not too surprising, because in the nearly ageless pursuit of farming, ten years is just a drop in the bucket.

For a farmer like Harry Lewis, it’s all about drops in a bucket, lots of them. Harry is a dairy farmer. Like most small dairy farmers Harry is fighting an uphill battle. But Harry is unconventionally different from the stereotypical Wisconsin dairy farmer of northern European descent, because Harry is an African American dairy farmer from Sulphur Springs, Texas.

Lisa visited Harry and saw first hand what most farmers accept as normal — something far different from the idealized livestock farms most American food consumers picture. For one thing cows make more than milk and meat; they make manure, lots of it.

Lisa M. Hamilton
Dairy farmer Harry Lewis and son, of Sulphur Springs, Texas

Even a more conventional farmer like me, who’s put the drops in the bucket by hand one squeeze at a time, sees the “toxic waste” view of manure as slightly unrealistic. Cow (and horse, and pig) manure I’ve dealt with is the same natural by-product that Harry’s cows put out. It’s just processed green grass, grain, water, digestive enzymes, and naturally occurring bacteria that make fields a little greener when applied to them. In Harry’s mind, the difference between his farm and conventional confinement dairies milking hundreds, if not thousands, of cows is a single two syllable word: Pas-ture.

To Harry, the words pasture and God are inseparable. And manure really doesn’t seem so bad if the cows are eating grass.

After getting to know Harry and sampling fresh cold milk in his manure stained milking parlor, Lisa begins to separate real agriculture from the corporate conceived image.

It’s just a short leap of the mind and a hop of a few hundred miles from Sulphur Springs to Abiquiu, New Mexico, where Lisa meets Virgil Trujillo. Virgil longs to be a rancher, but since he only rents his pasture, he calls himself a “stockman.” Originally granted land under the Mexican and Spanish land grant system, Virgil’s family lost its claim when the United States government set it and hundreds of others aside. Virgil rents land he feels he owns, from the US Forest Service. The government tells him that having his cattle there is a privilege, to which Virgil swears uncharacteristically, “Bullshit.”

Because he lives with it daily, Virgil knows that the government manure can be much more toxic than anything he sees from his cows.

Lisa M. Hamilton
Virgil Trujillo, stockman, of Abiquiu, New Mexico

Virgil laments that rural communities in much of northern New Mexico have been stuck in a single stage of grief. That started when they lost their land grants following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

Most rangeland leaseholders like Virgil need other sources of income besides their cattle. To supplement his income Virgil took a job as rangeland manager at Ghost Ranch. That’s the name of a tract of grant land the Forest Service now controls. Virgil hasn’t endeared himself to all his neighbors because he makes them apply Holistic Resource Management (HRM) to their rangeland. HRM is meant to prevent damage from over grazing by making the herds of beef cows follow bison-like grazing patterns. Virgil didn’t begin the practice but he is a willing enforcer.

Lisa notes that the number of people who still practice agriculture in the area around Abiquiu declines each year. People just started leaving after their ties to the land were broken. Those who remain are finding it harder to balance a 40 hour work week against the need to look after crops and livestock.

Still, not everyone quits. She recounts a story from Virgil about giving a tour of Ghost Ranch to two environmental activists whose goal was to end all grazing on public lands. One of them told Virgil that he should just sell out, take the money and give himself a vacation from the land.

Virgil replied that he loved a good fight more than any vacation.

Lisa M. Hamilton
The Podoll family, seed-saving farmers of North Dakota
Fighting to stay on the land is nothing new… for dairymen, for ranchers, or for farmers like the Podoll family in LaMoure, North Dakota. From the beginning of her visit with them, Lisa saw the effect of commodity crops and uniformity on farms in the northern prairies. The fewer the decisions farmers have to make about choosing crops, she says, the fewer farmers there are to make them. Since 1950 the farms around LaMoure have doubled in size, and the local population has been cut in half. That has a familiar ring to it, because the same is true in my home of rural Northwest Missouri.

David Podoll told Lisa that as farms have grown bigger, farmers no longer have to touch the soil they farm. With today’s modern equipment and satellite technology, they don’t even have to guide their machines through the fields. David thinks the biggest mistake of our time has been taking control of agriculture away from hoe-wielding women and giving it to diesel-engine-powered men. David just wants to grow food. “Deep in my heart,” he says, “I guess I’m just a gardener.”

So that’s what he does.

The Podolls are nearly unique in that they not only grow and save their own seeds, they even develop new ones, new food crops. That’s unusual in this time of patented seeds and corporations like Monsanto. The Podolls belief in a version of the farm system based on moral currency and food is not commonly shared by many of their neighbors who have enlarged their farms to produce commodity crops.

It isolates them from some, but earns the respect of others.

In order to have stronger plants the Podoll brothers, David and Dan, grow seed tomatoes in the remains of last years crop. Their logic is that plants that survive in the presence of last year’s crop diseases will be stronger and produce better seed.

Dan and David grow their unconventional farming operation in much the same way, amid competition from bigger conventional farms. They emerge each year in the spring, a little stronger, just like the crops they grow.

Today’s unconventional farmers are resourceful. They rely heavily on family. At times, they may seem like activists. They may band together with marketing co-ops and offer encouragement to one another. Sometimes they just have to go it alone.

In her book Deeply Rooted Lisa Hamilton tells a story that matches my own experience. This farm savvy reader may have told some parts differently, but Lisa does her job truthfully. In the end it’s about food, not just what food is, but where it should come from. Everyone eats, but most people today don’t know what it is to break a fresh egg, still warm from the hen, into a skillet. They don’t know the savory flavor of a sun ripened heirloom tomato or the creamy richness of fresh whole milk.

But Lisa does.

 

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