Ted Genoways is a writer who covers agriculture and rural communities, among other topics. Much of his work has focused on Nebraska, where he lives. Genoways’ book, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm, chronicles a Nebraska family’s struggles to sustain their fifth-generation row crop and cattle farm.
This Blessed Earth was recently selected for the “One Book One Nebraska,” a reading program sponsored by the Nebraska Center for the Book. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts announced Monday that he would not sign the proclamation to accompany the program. “The book that they are proposing was written by a political activist that really seemed to be out of touch,” Ricketts told the Omaha World Monday, further stating the book “was not going to be something that was going to unify Nebraska.” Ricketts does admit to that he has not read Genoways’ book.
The “One Book One Nebraska” website says the program is designed to show Nebraskans “how books and reading connect people across time and place.” The program has existed since 2005. Previous selections include works by Willa Cather, Ted Kooser, Wright Morris, and Bob Greene.
The Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates interviewed Genoways about his book, his relationship with Governor Ricketts and his thoughts about the governor’s actions. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bryce Oates: This is quite a circumstance you’re involved with here regarding Governor Ricketts and your book. Do you have a relationship with the governor? Do you know each other?
Ted Genoways: No, not at all. I’ve covered rural issues and agricultural issues in Nebraska for many years, but I don’t directly cover politics in the state. The closest has been while covering a couple of things coming through the Legislature that relate to things I’m writing about more broadly. But no, I’ve never met the governor, never had any kind of exchange with him at all. That’s certainly interesting in the first place, that he, or someone on his staff, has such a decided view-point on who I am and the kind of work I’m doing.
Oates: I’m familiar with your book. I didn’t think it was that political, though politics are certainly part of covering agriculture and rural communities. From my perspective, you kept the politics to a minimum. You were trying to tell the story of life on the farm during the modern era, it seemed to me.
Genoways: That’s what has been surprising to me. This book grew out of an observation that was really a critique of the left. It was feeling that there were a lot of people who were publishing books and articles that were engaged in a type of punditry about how we should reform our food system. That was often well-meaning but not especially well-informed by a kind of farm-level understanding of the systems that currently exist.
I remember, for example, talking to one farmer who I’ve never written about who raised chickens and was attempting to get organic certification for the operation. The organic inspector come out and told the farmer, “Well, all of your henhouses are made with treated lumber. They can’t be made with treated lumber if you’re going to get organic certification.” And so the farmer said that his chickens are only up in the henhouses at night and that he used treated lumber because it lasts. The inspector told him, “Fine, but you don’t get the organic certification.”
Now, I’m sure that whoever wrote the policy on that was well-intentioned. That to meet the standard of organic, we want everything that the chicken comes into contact with to be organic or chemical-free, but they hadn’t really thought through all of the things that might mean for the farmers, the one who is actually raising the chickens. That was the motive behind my book. The motive was to ask if we can try to have a conversation with people who are on the farms with people who should be the farmers’ natural allies. It’s the people who want to eat better, the people who want to make things more sustainable on the farm, those are the people that should be the natural allies of family farmers.
There’s nobody who’s more concerned about making sure that the business and the piece of ground is sustainable than the families that have lived on it for generations. That’s the thing that’s so perplexing. The last thing the book was meant to be is some sort of political diatribe. What I was hoping for, and what I think the governor would find if he would just read the book, is that this is an attempt to try and foster conversation, to bring people together around shared concerns and shared goals. To start to figure if we can figure out a way to contribute the knowledge we all have and try to find some solutions.
Oates: I’m sure this is getting into speculation a bit because I’m guessing you don’t know why, but do you think the governor made this decision about your book because of your other reporting? What do you think is informing this position?
Genoways: The governor was in a radio interview yesterday, the second time he took up the issue in the day, but his explanation was that he had seen or been shown things from my social media. He thought those things were critical of national leadership. That suggests it doesn’t have anything to do with the book, or any of the articles, or even the opinion pieces I’ve had published over more than a decade covering these kinds of issues. But instead, this is about how someone in the governor’s office feels about the things I had shared on Facebook and Twitter.
I find that troubling on a number of fronts. There’s been a bit of a rash of this in Nebraska. There’ve been several recent incidents where university professors and other people who work in state-funded agencies have been contacted by the staffs of public officials and are questioned about things they might have posted, specifically on Facebook. That’s a deeply troubling trend. I would hope that our elected officials have better things to do than monitoring the social media presence of people who don’t even really work directly for the government but who are in state agencies. To me that suggests a growing sensitivity, a growing concern, that public opinion may be turning. That instead of responding to the concerns that people are raising in rural areas, and with a rural population that is experiencing extreme pressures right now, some leaders are choosing to tamp down what they perceive to be opposition.
To me, a farmer who says, “I need property tax relief because the property valuations don’t actually match what the property will produce,” that’s not somebody making a statement of politics. That is a person who is turning to an elected official and saying, “I’m facing a crisis situation and we elected you to help us when a crisis like this is happening.” For that to be described as “activism” or “being divisive,” that is irresponsible. The goal should be serving the people of the state and not trying to dictate to them what issues they can and cannot speak on.
Oates: What are the issues you’re hearing that need to be addressed in rural Nebraska? What do you think the governor should be doing instead of monitoring supposed critics’ social media feeds?
Genoways: I think the biggest thing right now for farmers in Nebraska – and probably in any other state where agriculture is reliant on commodity grains – is just the effects of the utter disruption of standing trade deals that have occurred in the last two years under this administration. I don’t see anything radical about me sharing the concerns of family farmers when you consider that some of the most conservative organizations in the state of Nebraska, the Cattlemen, the Farm Bureau, the Soybean Association, they’ve all been raising concerns about national leadership and about what sparking trade wars and scrapping trade deals has meant at the farm level.
I concluded the book a couple of years ago by saying that farm incomes were down 50%. That there were already instances here in Nebraska of banks contacting large landholders and asking them to divest and diversify because they were concerned that there was too much investment in farmland. What would happen if those valuations had suddenly plummeted? Here we are two years later, with those circumstances as the setting, and we cancel the deals that the beef industry was counting on in Asia. We’re going to disrupt our relationship with Mexico and see what that does with corn exports. We’re going to start a trade war with China despite the fact that they’re our largest export market for soybeans. I can tell you that with a family like the one I followed for the book here in Nebraska, the ones that are in that corn and soybean rotation, that are raising cattle, when you disrupt every part of their family business it creates tremendous uncertainty. That creates tension and stress and worry. The thing that I saw, not just from that family but from farmers in general, is that they are extremely concerned right now about their ability to get from this generation to the next. There’s already so much change in terms of technology and change on the industry level, it’s already a difficult transition that is in front of everyone. To introduce tremendous economic uncertainty right in the midst of that, it has people worried.
If there’s anything that should happening right now, it’s that Governor Ricketts should be on a listening tour listening to family farmers and encouraging them to speak out about what’s happening on their farms. He should be listening about what he should be doing to help them, listening for what message he should be carrying to national leadership so that they understand what’s at risk. I don’t think it’s enough to say to farmers “I know that you’ll stick with us and ride out this trade war.” That’s easy to say if it’s not your legacy and your birthright that’s at stake.
Oates: This is the same administration that also nearly bungled the farm bill, which at the end of the day went through Congress with a very high margin of bipartisan votes in each chamber. That was a very status quo farm bill, and given the incredible uncertainty you’re pointing out, that the Trump administration almost screwed up.
Genoways: I don’t think that any objective observer could say that this administration has been showing a deep concern for farm families and for rural communities. Is that criticizing national leadership? I guess.
Oates: But you said it. The traditional conservative agriculture groups, the commodity groups and the Farm Bureau, everybody knows that these groups are closely aligned with the Republican Party leadership, and even these groups are being very critical of the Trump administration. The conventional agriculture press is doing the same thing, meaning being critical of the Trump administration.
Genoways: Absolutely. I don’t think that the actual objection is based around what I’m saying being out-of-the-mainstream or being “divisive” in some way. I think the real concern is that the story I’ve told here is representative of shared concerns that people on both sides of the aisle, and that large farmers and small farmers alike are feeling at a moment when there’s seems to be such unnecessary chaos in the agriculture sector.