Gary Holthaus's journey from the farms of the Upper Midwest to the nation's kitchens is roundabout. But ag issues are urgent, writes David Mudd; let's pick up the pace.
From the Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know about Agriculture
By Gary Holthaus
363 pp., University Press of Kentucky, February 2009
Let’s throw caution to the wind now that spring’s almost here and do something they say we shouldn’t: Let”s judge a book by its cover. Speciﬁcally, let’s judge whether Alaskan author and poet Gary Holthaus does what he says he’s going to do in From the Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know About Agriculture.
First published by the University Press of Kentucky in 2006, the book’s out in paperback now, and at 363 pages, it’s certainly stout enough to provide a great deal of information. But it doesn’t make good use of all that space.
Holthaus is devoted to story-telling, which quickly becomes a problem. He offers stories about himself, about farmers, stories farmers tell, stories told by Native Americans and by J.R.R. Tolkein, and even stories about the mechanics of gathering the stories he presents.
Story-telling is a worthy skill in a writer of books. But the urge can get out of hand and become seriously off-putting in nonﬁction. In From Farm to Table, we must hike through five chapters before getting to what we really “need to know.” For example, will the U.S. be able to go on feeding itself as ever-rising energy costs erase the rationales for mega-farming and long-distance transport of agricultural products? That’s a compelling question, even for people who don’t give a ﬁg about farming.
But before getting to it, Holthaus wants to introduce you to a bevy of farmers he has met in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Fine enough; farmers can be very interesting. I’ve interviewed a few for articles over the years, and some I could listen to all day long. But I’ve never had editors who would allow me to handle interviews as Holthaus does. What appear to be verbatim exchanges between Holthaus and his subjects go on for pages — complete with the inanities, fruitless tangents and uninteresting asides that actual reporting and editing are meant to spare readers. I mean no disrespect to Holthaus or his subjects, but to include every jot and tittle of their extended, disjointed conversations undermines his book title’s implied urgency.
In short, too many stories take the book far aﬁeld of its promise. Finally, in the latter chapters, Holthaus comes around. He provides a relatively succinct view of America’s agriculture system, its triumphs and its increasingly scary vulnerabilities.
There are interviews with ag experts who warn about the problematical centralization of production. These experts describe factory-style farming’s huge appetite for dwindling resources and the transformation of farm animal fertility — for centuries, a boon for small farms — into nasty environmental problems in the forms of manure and urine.
Holthaus explores the ruinous effects of the international free trade agreements and crop subsidy programs that have crippled small-farm economies and cultures in the U.S. and elsewhere. He also makes a convincing case that big agriculture as practiced here in the U.S. since just after World War II is not sustainable: he stresses its staggering dependence on ﬁnite petroleum as both fuel and fertilizer, and he argues that –counter to what some experts contend–a less-centralized, more solar-dependent farming culture can feed us all.
Yet Holthaus isn’t plowing any new ground here. These points have already been made in recent years, and more readably to my mind, by several writers and researchers, among them, Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, Bill McKibben, and Vandana Shiva. (Interestingly, each of these people serves on the board of advisors to Culture of the Land, a Series in the New Agrarianism, the entity that helped fund and shape Holthaus’s book.)
If you want to learn about the state of agriculture in America, where it’s headed and the direction it should be taking (and I believe you should want to know), I recommend these authors. Holthaus is an amiable guide once he gets his bearings, but his road from the farm to the table is still a rambling one, full of switchbacks, long detours and speed traps. I like a Sunday drive as much as anyone, but this one left me a fan of the Interstate.