Farming against the Grain

[imgbelt img=hamilton320.jpg]Saving seed, controlling grazing, pasturing cattle — a few rare farmers buck the bigness business of today’s farming.

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A message from the Rural Assembly

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.

[imgcontainer left] [img:hamilton320.jpg] [source]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.

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A message from the Rural Assembly

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