Editor’s Desk: The tale of two farming systems

This week we published two very different stories: one considers the struggles of a fifth-generation Nebraska farm family, and the other scrutinizes a supply chain that brings palm oil into our personal-care products. Very different stories, indeed.

But the more I thought about Ted Genoways’ searing documentary portrait of the Hammond family — in “Bringing in the Beans,” which appears in the September issue of Harper’s — I felt a queasy sense that it wasn’t so different from the palm oil industry Jocelyn Zuckerman describes in “The Makeover,” which we produced in partnership with Vogue.

Both describe the challenges farmers face in dealing with a long line of relationships that, ultimately, seal their fate. In the case of the Hammonds, they must make smart choices on particular soybean varieties so they can time their harvest to the commodity markets. In this way, their fate is as much in the hands of global markets and investment decisions as the weather. (In this short essay on FERN’s website, Genoways explains why he focused on this family for his just-published book, This Blessed Earth, from which the Harper’s piece was excerpted.)

In a similar way, the fate of forests and farmers in Malaysia and Indonesia are in the hands of distant agro-industrial giants, and, in this instance, the personal-care companies that buy from them. That’s why it was encouraging that Zuckerman found a new relationship being forged by some consumer product companies with those farmers, one that promotes more sustainable farming, after years of environmentally destructive practices by oil-palm plantations.

To give readers a better sense of these distant realities, we supported talented photographers to illustrate the stories. Mary Anne Andrei shot the images in Nebraska, and Elliott Woods added a short video about the Hammonds. For the palm oil story, George Steinmetz produced a series of stunning aerial images of ravaged rainforests, vast plantations, and industrial processing plants.

We hope you enjoy these deep dives into the food system. And we hope you will deepen your commitment to us and help us meet our fundraising goals so we can keep pace with all that’s happening in food and agriculture right now. Our mid-year plea came up short. You can join us in closing the gap by donating now at any level. Or if you want to make a more significant gift, you might consider joining us for a special event in NYC, tasting 1982 Bordeaux wines – considered the vintage of the century – in a dinner prepared by Chef David Waltuck. Early bird pricing for this intimate and unique event runs through this week.

Best regards,

Sam Fromartz
Food & Environment Reporting Network

Photo of Meghan Hammond by Mary Anne Andrei
Photo of palm-oil deforestation by George Steinmetz