In 'This Blessed Earth,' The Outdated Romance Of The Family Farm

Oct 8, 2017
Originally published on October 10, 2017 9:12 am

Lincoln is just 40 miles into Nebraska and yet there's almost no one between that city and the state's far western border.

That's how journalist and author Ted Genoways sees it. He spent a year studying a family farm in sparsely-populated York County, an hour outside Lincoln, and writes about it in his new book, This Blessed Earth.

"Nebraska is a land of ghosts of small towns dwindling to the point where in another generation they might simply cease to exist," he says. "You can drive for hours essentially seeing only flatlands planted with corn and soybeans, occasionally dotted with with hog barns and feed lots for cattle."

Mechanization and consolidation have produced larger farms manned by fewer people, leaving less demand in places like York for the services that keep small towns alive: schools and doctors' offices and restaurants.

That doesn't sit well with a nation founded on the idea of the yeoman farmer, and it prompts nostalgic call for a return to a simpler time.

Not from Meghan Hammond. "The people who say, 'This is all brand-new development and it's easily reversed'," she told Genoways, "don't know what ... they're talking about."

Hammond's parents are the fifth generation to farm their land, and she knows they've benefited from a century of industrialization, making farms that yield more product with less effort and danger — both physical and financial.

Hybrid seeds, irrigation systems, and precision equipment have been developed to mitigate catastrophic losses from adverse weather. The Hammonds employ all those tools in York County, and also rely on chemicals to ward off weeds and disease from their corn, soybeans, and cattle.

And yet the family isn't hostile to environmentalists or organic food advocates. They've fought the Keystone XL pipeline and tried to produce more organic row crops as well as grass-fed beef. It's just that, as Genoways describes, activists' ideals don't always align perfectly with farmers' realities.

"We think of farming as being this kind of bucolic activity where the farmers are out in their fields, sort of away from the cares of the world — able to commune with nature, with their crops, with the livestock, and to set the worries of the world aside," Genoways explains. "The reality is that many of the largest issues facing us today pass directly through the farm country."

Like world trade.

"Farmers today are keenly aware of what's happening in global commodities markets and what's happening with trade policies," Genoways says. "I think in many ways farmers are more directly impacted by global issues today than almost any other single profession."

But for as much as Nebraska farmers feel connected to world markets, they feel domestically overlooked and disconnected.

"We're now reaching a point where the farmers who have remained on the land are quite isolated and often face long trips just to get to anyplace where there might be a school or there might be some sort of cultural activity," Genoways says.

He points out that towns no longer host a local paper or radio station focusing on local issues "so now the way that the news arrives to farming communities is through AM radio, which is often talk radio all day long and is very often conservative talk radio."

That's one explanation Genoways sees for Donald Trump taking the vast majority of the farm vote in 2016 even though he ran on a platform hostile to trade agreements: "We are in the odd situation that the people who most supported a candidate were supporting him at the same time that he was staunchly opposing things that are are necessary for the current agricultural system to continue."

Genoways doesn't see a quick fix for the emptying of America's farmland and the alienation of the farmer.

"We're close to having systems that plant automatically, that irrigate automatically, that harvest automatically, with no human beings involved in the process at all — maybe a crew to bring equipment to the edge of the field and set it up but that's it," he says.

It could be that soon the Hammonds will no longer directly interact with the Nebraska land their family has farmed for five generations.

"That technology," he says, "is a lot closer than I think people realize."

This story was adapted for the web by Ed McNulty.

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Farming has been in the Hammond's family for six generations. Rick Hammond has harvested soybeans, corn and cattle in Nebraska for 40 years. In "This Blessed Earth" by Ted Genoways, Rick and his family confront climate change, family tensions and a recently revived pipeline project that jeopardizes their land. Ted Genoways' new book "This Blessed Earth" documents a year in modern farm life in Nebraska. And he joins me now from WCBE in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome to the program.

TED GENOWAYS: Thanks so much for having me on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me a little bit about Nebraska's land and what it means to its residents, the farmers?

GENOWAYS: Yeah. So Nebraska is in many ways a typical Great Plains state. Because the Missouri River cuts through along the eastern edge of the state, that's where all of the population originally settled. And so you have major industrial centers in south Sioux City and in Omaha. And then you have the capital educational center of Lincoln. But when you travel west of Lincoln, there's almost no one there. The small farming communities have gotten smaller and smaller in the last 50 years. And you can drive for hours essentially seeing only flatlands that are planted to corn and to soybeans and occasionally dotted with hog barns and feedlots for cattle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking to that disappearing landscape, I'd like you to read a page from your book, page 69.

GENOWAYS: (Reading) To understand, first remember - Nebraska is a place. It sits square as an anvil in the center of our maps. And yet somehow, everyone manages to forget it exists. Maybe that's because Nebraska is also a land of ghosts, of small towns dwindling to the point where in another generation they might simply cease to exist.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why are they disappearing? Where are they going?

GENOWAYS: The biggest thing that's happened in the last 50 years is a lot of mechanization that has been aimed at trying to save labor for farmers. At the same time, farm operations have gotten bigger. You can do more with this high-tech equipment and do it with fewer people. What that means when you have fewer people on the farm is that you have less need for all the things that you need when you have a community. You don't need as many doctors and nurses. You don't need as many schoolteachers. And we're now reaching a point where the farmers who have remained on the land are quite isolated and often face long trips just to get to any place where there might be a school or there might be some sort of cultural activity. And it leaves them relatively separated from the national conversation, even as the politics of the country and of the world directly bear on their lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does that impact them and their views on the rest of the country?

GENOWAYS: I think one of the things that has certainly happened is that when you lose your population, when the towns start to die, you lose your local newspaper. For the towns that were large enough, you lose your local radio station. So now the way that the news arrives to farming communities is through AM radio, which is often conservative talk radio. And it arrives via television and the Internet. And that means that those local issues get less coverage, and they make it into the national conversation less. But it also means that all of the polarization of our current political moment has made it all the way down to these tiny communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how is that played out?

GENOWAYS: Well, one of the great conundrums of where we've arrived at this particular moment is that farm communities across the middle of the country voted for Donald Trump at a rate of about 3 to 1, carried about 75 percent of the farm vote. And yet he was running on a platform that he would end the trade agreements that farmers are wholly dependent upon. And now as he has come in and canceled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has talked about wanting to renegotiate NAFTA, it introduces tremendous amounts of uncertainty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think the future is of some of these communities? You're talking about them dwindling, about increasing isolation. But they are at the center of a massive industry to which we are all so indebted and tied to.

GENOWAYS: Well, I think the future of the communities themselves is that they're going to continue to shrink. And I think that many of them will disappear. The movement with the technology is aimed toward fewer and fewer farm workers. But I also think that we're not very far away from a point where the large interests in agribusiness will be pushing for an Ag system that has no farmers. And so as we've already been more and more divorced from the food system, I think our connection to our food and our sense of how that routes us in place and connects us to the planet has been radically reshaped and not for the better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ted Genoways is the author of "This Blessed Earth: A Year In The Life Of An American Family Farm." Thank you very much.

GENOWAYS: Thanks so much for having me on.