The food revolution’s missing piece

FERN’s latest story, published with Harper’s Magazine, is an excerpt from Ted Genoways’ new book, This Blessed Earth, an intimate account of a year with the Hammonds, a Nebraska farm family. Here, Genoways argues that the difficult realities faced by farmers like the Hammonds need to be part of the conversation about food-system reform.

 

At the start of the new century, an unexpected consumer movement emerged. After decades of enthusiasm for canned food, frozen food, fast food, microwaveable food—really any food that made cooking swifter or easier or utterly unnecessary—American diners started rejecting prepackaged meals from a factory, or warmed for hours under a heat lamp. The reasons for this shift are complex (and the shift itself uneven), but they arise from a gnawing fear that a surfeit of TV dinners, drive-through burgers, and canned Spam is bad for the environment, for food workers, for our health as eaters, and perhaps even for the nation’s soul. Inspired by Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (as well as the countless books and movies paddling in their wake), a generation of enlightened eaters has grown suspicious of a secretive food industry that relies on chemicals for increased row crop production, antibiotics and feed additives for meat production, and heavy processing with artificial sweeteners and preservatives for packaged food from the snack aisle to the frozen section.

This new food awareness has taken many forms: the Slow Food movement, the eat-local movement, the organic movement, the Fair Trade movement, and the food-justice movement, to name just a few. It also has brought insider terms like “high fructose corn syrup,” “lean, finely textured beef,” and “genetically modified organism” not only into the common lexicon but into the center of public debates about how our food is raised, how government supports and regulates its production, and how agri-culture was transformed into agri-business while most of the country wasn’t watching. This sudden sea change in consumer habits put the forces of Big Food on alert that Americans were looking for something more wholesome, more sustainable, and more environmentally and socially responsible—something, ultimately, that they could put on the dinner table without feeling guilty that they were destroying the planet and shredding the fabric of farming communities.

But a few years ago, I began to wonder: Is all of this really helping family farmers? How do they feel about a food movement that lionizes ideologically-driven operations like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farms, the pastoral curmudgeon made famous in Omnivore’s Dilemma, and vilifies generations-old operations in the middle of the country, where many farmers have no choice but to raise commodity grains—principally corn and soybeans—just to keep their families afloat? At the same time that many such farmers were feeling forced to prove their heightened commitment to land stewardship and animal welfare and building sustainable agricultural models that support communities and health, corporate food producers were rushing to rebrand and remake their image. Smithfield Foods acquired Farmland. Tyson took over Hillshire Farm. Hormel bought out Farmer John. Now, the products from some of the largest and most industrialized food producers in the world are packaged with logos featuring red Dutch gambrel barns, white farmhouses, and smiling farm families decked out in denim shirts and overalls, holding grandchildren and hand tools for hoeing rows. “It’s the most egregious case of identity theft in American history,” John Hansen, state president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, told me.

 

With all this in mind, I set about looking for a farm family that would allow me to do something simple but intrusive: follow their operation from one year to the next, as they went through the cycle most Americans have forgotten—harvest, calving, planting, breeding, corn de-tasseling, livestock sale, and harvest again. That’s when I met Rick Hammond. Rick grew up on a small ranch in western Nebraska, and for 40 years he has raised cattle and crops on his wife’s fifth-generation homestead in York County, Nebraska, with the hope of passing it on to their four children. But as the handoff has grown nearer, their small family farm—and their entire way of life—has increasingly come under siege.

When I first got to know Rick, he and his daughter Meghan had become leading voices of opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. That project, intended to carry heavy crude pumped from the Alberta tar sands in Canada nearly 2,000 miles to Port Arthur and Houston on the Texas Gulf Coast, was slated to cut through major portions of their family cropland. Meghan and Rick argued that it would not only slash their production but also posed an existential threat to the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground reservoir of fresh water that most midwestern farmers depend on to irrigate crops and water their cattle. Rick was so determined to stop the project that he agreed to let the anti-pipeline nonprofit Bold Nebraska build a solar-powered barn on land he rented from his in-laws. If he was going to give up farmland, he said, he’d rather lose it to a solar project than to tar sands.

I admired the fierce and outspoken stance that the Hammonds struck—but it also put them at remarkable risk. A neighbor who supported the pipeline abruptly terminated a long-standing tenant contract, which meant that Rick would no longer be able to rent that land for soybean production. At the same time, after nearly a decade of record-high corn and soybean prices, the bottom dropped out of the markets, making it ever harder for small farmers to shoulder their loans—forcing more and more to sell out and dragging down land values. So, headed into the harvest of 2014, Rick and his family needed everything to go right. Without that money coming in from the rented land, Rick knew that he couldn’t afford to buy new machinery for the year, or replace his center-pivot irrigation system. He needed to have a full year of paying down loans, not incurring new debts. He needed a year in which crops came in early and healthy, prices rebounded, equipment held out. And if he was forced to take out more loans, he needed interest rates to stay low. I told Rick and Meghan, as well as Meghan’s fiancé, Kyle Galloway, that this would be an ideal year to show readers just how much pressure the average farm family is now under. I asked if my wife, the photographer Mary Anne Andrei, and I could be with them for every major event on the farm for the coming 12 months. To my surprise, they agreed.

Rick Hammond hopes to pass his operation—and his farm legacy—on to his four children.

It was hard on everyone, but I came to understand the difficulty of farm life in a way that I never could have from a distance. That first fall, the harvest of 2014, everything seemed to conspire against the Hammonds. Storms moved into Nebraska in September and dumped wave after wave of rain, delaying the harvest. Prices kept falling while the Hammonds waited for the fields to dry. Some fields had worse-than-expected hail damage. Others had the first-ever infestations of stem borer, a larva that weakens soybean plants and makes them virtually impossible to harvest. The mood turned tense and occasionally contentious, but everyone gave everything they had to getting through each day’s challenges.

This never-quit attitude was on display on one evening as harvest was finally getting fully underway. The sun was sinking low as Kyle made the final passes across a field in the combine. If he could get the field done before dark, the family could move the combine to another field before morning. At first, I thought Kyle was just hoping to get a jump on the next day’s work. But as he discussed it with Rick, I soon realized: the decision was about risk and reward. The final rows to be harvested were planted around the concrete pad of their neighbor’s center-pivot irrigation system. With the reduced visibility at dusk, there was a chance of damaging the pivot or the combine—at a potential cost of tens of thousands of dollars. But if they waited until morning, they would lose money for sure.

Kyle Galloway stands in a neighbor’s field of ready soybeans, just before beginning the harvest.

Kyle and Rick had both been checking soybean prices on their phones. Trading was projected to open lower in the morning than it was at closing on the Chicago Board of Trade that evening, but Kyle had found a local co-op that was willing to stay open and take their last load of soybeans at the day’s final price. After a lot of back and forth, he convinced Rick that it was worth the risk to keep working that night, rather than taking a sure loss if they delivered a load at a lower price in the morning. And then, just as Rick had feared, Kyle hit the pad of the pivot, breaking the cutting mechanism on the front of the combine. After a few tense moments of assessing the damage, everyone flew into action, with Kyle fixing the problem by flashlight with nothing more than a blowtorch, a wrench, and a little brute force.

That moment, which serves as the climax of my story in the new issue of Harper’s, was something that Rick and Kyle now shrug off as nothing more than a typical day on the farm. But to me, it revealed the unbelievable skill set required of the modern farmer. Just to survive, you have to be able to predict the commodities market as well as any stock broker in one moment, but in next you might have to be able to repair a half-million-dollar piece of equipment with the expertise of a licensed mechanic (which, it just so happens, Kyle is). Managing that divide while also contending with encroaching pipelines, groundwater depletion, climate change, and shifting trade policies is a nearly impossible task, and yet families like the Hammonds confront that reality every day, with everything that generations before them built perpetually at stake.

If readers take away nothing else, I hope they will see that if we truly want a revolution in American agriculture, away from industrial methods and toward more organic and sustainable farming, then families like the Hammonds have to be heard and brought into the conversation. We must be allies in their fight to preserve their legacy and the life they love.  

 Photo of Meghan Hammond. Produced with FERN, this story first appeared at Harper’s Magazine. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.