Book Review: Sustainable-Farming Book Lobs Ideas, not Stones

In One Size Fits None, a farmer’s daughter paints an informed and convincing portrait of our existing agricultural system and what might be done to make it more sustainable.

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One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture
By Stephanie Anderson
University of Nebraska Press, 2019

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Just when many of us were feeling satisfied, maybe even a little smug, about our personal efforts toward salvaging a sustainable Planet Earth, somebody comes along to humble us. That’s how I reacted upon reading Stephanie Anderson’s One Size Fits None: A Farm Girls Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture. 

I thought I was rather admirable, in the not-ruining-the-planet department. For instance, I don’t grow a water-hogging lawn in my yard. Instead, I have a backyard garden. Make that two. In one my husband and I grow actual food, like tomatoes, beans, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers, without too many “inputs” like herbicide or fertilizer. In the other garden, roto-tilled in that thin strip between the street and the sidewalk, we’ve planted wildflowers to attract pollinators, and milkweed to attract butterflies and Little Bluestem grasses to attract bison and…. Wait, what? What exactly is the point of prairie restoration in my in-town backyard where buffalo decidedly do not roam? Excellent question. 

I am an example of the sort of people who want to do the right environmental thing but mostly do a lot of bumbling about. There are a lot of us. Like people who drive electric cars without acknowledging that, depending on where they live,  about two-thirds of the electricity powering their vehicle comes from fossil fuel. Or people who balk at the cost of organic foods but don’t fully consider what goes in to the higher price. Or people who fear GMOs but don’t realize that the seed from every year’s corn crop—which becomes animal feed which becomes steak which becomes dinner and just about every processed food product we eat—is modified each and every year. 

It takes an agriculture reporter turned creative writer like Stephanie Anderson to do the legwork of reporting and research to explain how the world of industrial agriculture works. She does so clearly and convincingly, on every page of this book. But she’s not just throwing flames at big ag or careless consumers. She positions herself in the center of the bullseye, as she considers her own family ranch and what she’s come to understand as unsustainable management practices taking place there. 

Anderson was raised on a spread in western South Dakota, and writes with love about her family and her early days learning to do the things most of us equate with self-sufficiency. She could drive the tractor, help with planting and harvest, move livestock around, be a good hand. But today, she’s come to believe that her father’s approach to land management is plain wrong. She asserts that what has come to be called “conventional practice” are really industrial practices, that is to say, damaging to the land and to human health. “If we continue to farm industrially, then we’ll ruin our planet” (p. ix) she says succinctly.  

Anderson affirms that her relationship with her father is still good, even though she disagrees with just about everything he believes about agriculture. By describing her personal and professional background, she’s letting readers know there’s been a cost for her advocacy. “Now I see that I was part of a powerful agribusiness system glorifying the ‘progress’ of conventional agriculture, a model in which the farm is treated as a factory, industrial farming packaged to look like family farming” (xi). 

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Anderson organizes her argument by presenting her reader with several types of farms, and farmers. In “Part One, Conventional,” we visit a large-scale fruit and vegetable farm in Florida, which operates its own commercial produce packinghouse. It uses many sustainable practices and is still considered a “family farm” despite its size. Yet Anderson contends it has succumbed to the pressure of “get big or get out,” which has turned the family into mere producers who rarely touch the actual soil. But as this produce farmer argues, you have to be large scale to provide the cheap food American consumers want. 

In “Part Two: Holistic Regenerative,” we spend time at a bison ranch not far from the Anderson’s property. The focus here is on how many animals graze how large of a pasture and for what length of time. Anderson’s argument is that hoofed animals grazing on grasses and leaving their particularly fresh fertilizer in their wake is good for the land, if done intensively but briefly. Anderson also uses this section to argue against Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and to show that many animals wind up in one, even if only briefly when being finished for slaughter.    

In “Part Three: Organic Regenerative,” we visit a farm in Vero Beach, Florida, where a surfer-farmer grows organic fruits, vegetables, even edible flowers, for individuals and upscale restaurants. Anderson uses this section in part to complicate how many of us understand the organic labeling we encounter at grocery stores. We also meet an urban produce farmer in New Mexico who learned his trade through a program that teaches people to farm organically, even with no prior experience. His produce reaches all income strata of his community, not just the wealthy. 

“Part Four: Diversified Organic,” presents the fullest achievement of the regenerative agricultural practice Anderson advocates. We visit a North Dakota farm that produces cash grain crops and livestock in a manner Anderson believes would work well on her own family’s property, if only her father didn’t feel it was too late for him to start over. But this farmer’s mission and practice is to “bring back soils, or bring the levels of carbon, organic matter and microbial soil life to what they once were” (p. 188). 

That is the goal she argues—overcoming conventional farming practices that have amped up into industrial scale, harmful practices, that destroy soil rather regenerate it. The book’s final chapter, “The Message to Conventional Farmers” helps farmers see themselves in the boots of those we’ve met, and understand the ways all farmers might be able to at least move toward some of the practices she sets forth in the book, one step at a time.  

In the final pages, we see the author’s brother on his own corner of the family’s South Dakota ranch, running a small herd of grass-fed cattle using the rotational grazing model she describes in the book. He’s also planting cover crops to help rebuild and rebalance the soil in his fields. She is happy to see young farmers like him making these changes. As she is aware, “Too often people resent the harmful consequences of conventional agriculture so much that they write these farmers off as part of the problem instead of the solution,” (263). But she finds hope by turning to people doing the actual work of farming, to find the way.  

Here in Iowa, where I live, I only need look a few miles beyond my ridiculously disconnected backyard prairie strip to see a corn and soybean monoculture punctuated by hog confinements and a few small diary operations. Unfarmable and rugged limestone bluffs line much of the landscape here along the Mississippi River, which means there is a bit more diversity in land use than in much of Iowa. But in this book, I see my friends who operate small farming operations and struggle to keep up with government programs and roller-coaster rules about putting land in conservation acreage, rotating fields, planting for pollinators, and so forth. They would gladly do the right thing to maintain the health of the land, if only there was some consistency and support for those efforts. 

Anderson’s research and writing has led me to more questions than I knew I had, and fewer answers than I thought I had. I suspect that might be the point. 

Julianne Couch is the author of The Small Town Midwest: Resilience and Hope in the Twentieth Century. She writes and attracts pollinators and ruminators at home in Bellevue, Iowa. 

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