“This Blessed Earth” by Ted Genoways. 2017. W. W. Norton & Company. $18.50. 240 pages
Journalist Ted Genoways is an award-winning author who has received prestigious fellowships from both the NEA and Guggenheim Foundation. Ted lives in Nebraska, where he grew up on his father’s farm. He is also author of This Blessed Earth, a real life tale of a year in the life of a Nebraska family farm.
Family farms have changed with successive generations, with diversification of many raw food enterprises shrinking into less variety and more dependence on industrial grain and livestock—raw materials refined by corporate-owned factories where grains and oilseeds are processed into exports, ethanol, feed, protein, and fat.
It hasn’t been long since corn and cattle were synonymous on family farms—one hand washing the other into a beefy end product. Not much of that has changed in the minds of farmers like Rick Hammond, his daughter Meghan, and her fiancé Kyle Galloway, but the processes taking place on farms today merely resemble a past when farm work truly covered the bases all the way from field to table.
Farm work today is an Indy 500 affair, a mechanized race to the finish line of planting and harvest. Genoways brings that home when he quotes Meghan, to the amusement of her father, that unharvested crops in waterlogged, rain soaked fields are like dollar bills waiting to be gathered. Haste is of the essence.
Family farmers are teachers to the next generation. Rick continues the lesson. “And they could just blow away,” he added.
This Blessed Earth instructs its readers in gyrations of markets and production, where farmers like Hammond must have a death grip on success or be thrown out of the game. When ends don’t meet in regular farming, new ways of doing an old job surface are adopted. Like organic agriculture, which Hammond tried and rejected before moving to seed corn production, growing seed other farmers. Working on behalf of one of the world’s largest seed corporations, seed offered a profit. But when the seed company reduced its seed production due to market response, Hammond wad left to pivot into something else.
Sometimes a farmer’s best hope lies in the failure of his colleagues. In this land of diminishing returns, the only option other than corn is soybeans, where one farmer’s bad luck in Brazil can be an American farmer’s good fortune, or vice versa.
And there’s always frailty of human life. A tractor overturns, causing a chest-crushing injury, cancer strikes, or a patriarch who was always too busy for estate planning suddenly departs as his greatest legacy becomes an uncertain future for his heirs.
To reasonable people, worrying about the future, longevity, rain, markets, and profits—or lack of them—should be enough. But Rick Hammond and farmers like him must also worry about those who yearn for his land and how it might serve them. When Rick fought the proposed Oglala-aquifer-crossing Keystone XL pipeline by opposing it, a landlord neighbor who took the opposite tack, favoring the project, revoked the lease on 320 acres of land Rick counted on to make a living and pay his bills.
Neighbors don’t always share the same beliefs, even in rural farm country where common sense follows seemingly straight lines, like dusty section line rural roads. The problem family farmers face is that risk lurks at every intersection where beliefs, culture, and politics can collide.
Now, even before the Keystone XL alternate route was approved this week, another Keystone pipeline has leaked 210,000 barrels of crude oil into a ditch in South Dakota. It’s seemingly a confirmation of the worst fears of opponents who said the company and its pipelines are unreliable and dangerous.
Rick Hammond’s opposition seems justified. Like so many other hard choices farmers make, we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Instead of being caught between a proverbial rock and a hard place, farmers like Hammond find themselves trapped by eminent domain and corporate self-interest in collusion with government.
Son of a corn farmer, author Genoways doesn’t make the same mistakes many writers make when talking about agriculture, like calling a disc a plow or not knowing the difference between chaff and pollen. That’s because some who write about agriculture lack any basic knowledge until the day they first set foot on a farm. Though he’s no longer part of daily farming, Ted is rooted in agriculture. But his knowledge and interest may lead him too deep into the day-to-day existence of a farmer. Will city readers appreciate that or get lost in those tall Nebraska cornfields? He also delves deeply into governments alternate tampering with and support of grain, livestock, and dairy, and all the farm laws enacted to solve problems with underpriced over produced farm commodities.
Again, will city readers truly grasp the important history lessons of parity pricing, conservation’s dust bowl collapse and resurrection, or bottoming land prices amid farm recessions, with nary a buyer in sight? Or will they pass it off as a puzzling mishmash of misbegotten farm lobbied legislation?
All that and more is there for the taking in This Blessed Earth. It’s up to the reader. And like so many of the hard lessons farming generations have learned, it can be painful.
But it’s worth the try.