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Book Review: Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness by Lisa M. Hamilton

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We used to know where our food came from. We grew it ourselves – in gardens, on small farms, grazed our meat across the prairies. Or, we traded for it – exchanged services for eggs, sewing for milk, metal-working for meat. Directly or by a degree of removal, we were connected to the land. Then came the railroads, refrigeration, trucks, ships, and planes. We migrated to the cities. Conglomerates purchased the land; scientists engineered the crops and livestock, and dinner came from plastic, cardboard, and Styrofoam pods. In the twenty-first century, despite the growing trend of “locovore”-ism, and the voices calling for a return to “free-range” animal husbandry and “grass-fed” beef, few Americans have ever seen dinner in its natural habitat. Few have any concept of the labor and cost involved in producing the vast quantity of cheap food that sustains our ever expanding nation and waistlines.

I have spent most of my life at the uncertain confluence of suburbia and agriculture, seeing daily the conflict of comprehension between a populace demanding cheap, plentiful food that is also environmentally sustainable and humanely produced and the farmers and ranchers who struggle to maintain land and livelihood in the face of property-bubbles, erratic weather, and shifting economic pressures. One of my clients, a third generation beef rancher hoping to hold the land that has been in his family since the mid-1800’s, once commented to me, “it’s hard to raise beef cattle on $350,000 an acre land.” For those who straddle the divide between city and country, the rift at times seems irreparable. City and country exist on separate planes.

From this perspective, I was interested to read Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, by Lisa M. Hamilton. Was this going to be yet another pop-culture treatise on the evils of modern agriculture by an eco-hippie urbanite who had never struggled to scour the dirt from the lines of her hands? Or, would it rather be a boring academic exposition crammed with dry statistics? Instead, I was delighted to find a poignant, insightful, balanced book that I had trouble putting down.

Good literature, fiction or non, captures character and place, immersing us in the lives of the subjects, making their stories ours. In Deeply Rooted, Hamilton accomplishes this from the outset.

That Sunday morning in Balfour, after I left the abandoned church but before I got back on the highway, I drove into what was left of the town. Beyond a scattering of houses, I came to a building that was newer but not new, non-descript except that its doors were wide open…It was the town’s last working church. Technically it was Lutheran, but the congregation was so small that any person was welcome…

If the closed-down face of Balfour represents the disappearing human role in agriculture, then this book is about the people in church that Sunday morning. They are the faithful, the ones who believe, despite everything society shows them, that what they are doing is worth it – that it is vital. When their nation tells them this is the way it is, and this is the way it has to be, they do not just fade away. Instead, they talk, and they pray, and they sing at the top of their lungs. To hell with what you’ve decided is convention, they say. We are unconventional farmers.

Hamilton divides Deeply Rooted into three sections, each section profiling one of these “unconventional farmers.” Profile seems an inadequate term for what Hamilton does. There are no superficial interviews here; Lisa Hamilton plunges into the lives of her subjects – listening; riding in tractors and on horses; gathering round the table; attending meetings, fairs, and high school sporting events. She interviews family and friends; she investigates the other, “conventional,” farmers in each area. She delves into the history and cultural ties of each unique region, and seats each farmer firmly within that context. She brings the reader into the land and into the heart of the challenges, rewards, and failings of each system. She knows these people and their homes. Yet, Hamilton is a journalist, an observer. Though she obviously becomes “deeply rooted” in the lives of her subjects, she does not fail to observe the details, the strengths, and the flaws.

Deeply Rooted follows three families: Harry Lewis, an African-American dairyman who runs a small, organic, mixed-breed herd in Texas; Virgil Trujillo, the “Ranchlands Manager” of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico who dreams of returning the traditional grazing of beef cattle to the ranges of the Piedra Lumbre as a way to restore life to his community; and David and Dan Podoll, brothers who farm organically, shunning bioengineered crops and pesticides in the middle of the vast commercial commodity cropland of North Dakota. If there is one defining characteristic that unites this diverse group of men, it is an obstinate belief that they are doing what is best for the land, for their families, and for the communities that often shun them for their defiance of accepted techniques.

If American drama has at its heart, the underdog, stubborn, idealist hero, then this is drama at its best. Hamilton weaves history, culture, and emotional ties into this exploration of the grassroots development (or more accurately, revival) of sustainable agriculture. Even the most devoted, Prada-wearing urbanite would be hard-pressed to remain unmoved by the sagas unveiled in Hamilton’s evocative prose. Deeply Rooted may be journalistic in format, but it is a literary work at heart. If literary fiction can be said to be “character-driven” and anchored by place, then Lisa M. Hamilton has mastered the literary form for non-fiction. Listen:

As far as I can see before me, there are Holstein cows. I could throw a wet napkin at the nearest one, and the lots beside it extend a third of a mile down the road heading east. Connected to the backsides of those lots are more lots, and behind them even more, stretching north. Imagine yourself on a boat at sea, where the windswept blue carpet extends to the horizon. Now replace each white-cap with a black-and-gray spotted cow, and all the water between with dirt. If there’s a sunset in your imagination, replace it with a gray smear in the sky. Welcome to TULS.

Now contrast that description of a commercial dairy-heifer ranch with Harry Lewis’ farm.

But Harry is sure of this moment. He is sure of this farm and what he’s doing here. He says his farm is always open to anyone who wants to see how they run things or just sit on the porch and talk. He knows the farm is old-fashioned and a bit run-down, knows there is an old Dodge pickup parked in the meadow and goats playing king of the mountain on a heap of scrap metal rusting in the pasture. He knows people will see a soupy sea of mud where Wynton has scraped the slurry from the barn, especially after the rains this past month. He knows that in addition to seeing the happy cows on green pasture they expect, they will also see things they might not like. Yet, when I asked to visit, he said yes without a moment’s hesitation.

“Imagine,” he says “if people saw where their milk normally comes from. Imagine if people visited a big, concrete dairy. You know what I call that kind of dairy? I call it a penitentiary. When you’re not free to move, then you’re incarcerated. Those cows are in a penitentiary.” His face twists in disgust.”

…I look at the barn again. It’s still old and cramped, with more than its share of flies. The white walls are still messy. And yet, I realize, what milking barn is attractive? What cows do not shit? What dairy farmer has clean coveralls at the end of the day? No dairy is all just pretty cows on green pasture. It’s a messy business. The true measure of right and wrong here is not one of manure or mud, but rather of the details. The calmness of the cows and the people. The pace of work and the attention it allows…

Hamilton has, by her own standard, nailed the “true measure of right and wrong.” Deeply Rooted is rooted in the details. Unexpectedly, this journalistic profile of a way of life alien to most Americans is a compulsive page-turner that looks not only into the source of our food, but into what makes us human. The only thing I could have asked for, that the book didn’t provide, was some sort of epilogue, a summing-up, something to tie together these three stories. But, maybe that’s the point. Hamilton gives us the information, presents the problems, and leaves it to us to realize that the mess we have created – and regardless of one’s feelings about conventional vs. small scale farming, agriculture is in a mess – has no easy answers.

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