I recently joined the Non-Fiction Book Club of Alexandria, Minnesota in reading This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm. This is a beautifully written and very informative book on the history of agriculture in the United States. And it includes stories from the Hammonds, a Nebraska farming family that grows crops and runs cattle. I highly recommend it. I only wish I could have had internet to be able to join the club for their meeting to discuss this work as I’m sure it would have informed this blog…
The writing is a mix of investigative reporting and chronicle of life for Rick and Heidi as well as their daughter Meghan and her husband Kyle, the next generation in this farm family. I learned about moisture levels and pricing, irrigation and Roundup, community and the importance of family. But first? Soybeans. A timely subject matter.
The book begins with the tale of how soybeans became “the most successful crop introduced to the American farm in the last century.” Going from less than a million acres in 1920 to over 85 million acres today, you might be surprised to learn that Henry Ford played the biggest role in this transition. His vision of a decentralized production plant was revolutionary, as was his use of soybeans for everything from lubricants to raw materials for gear shift knobs. If it hadn’t been for the discovery of the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia in 1938, the soybean might have held prominence for decades. Genoways gives a detailed history of how Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill (Monsanto came later) became who they are in large part due to the bean. The government too had much to do with the way things developed. But the farmer’s own work ethic and willingness to buy into the “bigger is better” mentality may have been the biggest factors in their own demise over time as family farms were replaced by giant corporate farms.
The story is not just crops but also cattle. The coverage of the pros and cons of branding is eye-opening but particularly interesting is that on implants. If a producer is NI, no implants, it means that their cattle do not have implanted growth stimulant pellets. These cattle often fetch a slightly higher price at auction. However, these cattle may very well end up being injected with hormones at the feedlot – where they will have a big reaction to them – thus making them just like all the other cattle in the lot which have been raised with hormones all along.
The history of how Centennial Hill became this family’s farm is an interesting one and likely similar to that of many family farms that grew out of the Homestead Act. Thomas Barber (Heidi’s great-great-grandfather) came from Suffolk, England and, through hard work and saving (along with bad environmental luck of those already settled in Nebraska), he was able to secure a piece of land in 1874. Though he ended up losing the farm, it was reacquired later through extraordinary means. As Genoways tells the stories of land ownership changes, he notes, “it is a kind of geography of the gone… all the people and families that disappeared off the land, leaving only their names, like tombstones, as a record of the generations spent there.”
Also interwoven is the story of Meghan’s high school sweetheart who was killed in Iraq, re-iterating the importance of community. And the brief explanations of the family’s opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, shows how quickly that community support can fade.
Rick knew from natural gas lines in his Curtis, Nebraska farm how pipelines ruin the land so when the TransCanada land agent assured the community that he would give them a fair deal, Rick was doubtful. He researched tar sands and the summer of 2010 brought the massive failure of Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline in Marshall, Michigan, making the dangers even more clear. He was angry. And afraid.
Along with TransCanada’s talk of fairness were threats of land seizures if landowners dared resist. In the end, after being threatened twice with eminent domain, Rick signed the easement, regretting it immediately. He felt he could not win against their lawyers. All he had was a gut feeling that what they were doing was illegal. In the end, TransCanada moved the pipeline route. But they refused to give back the easement Rick had signed over to them. And repercussions didn’t end there. The new route was even worse for his family’s farm business and, when they worked to resist the pipeline, their neighbors to the south withdrew from the contract that had allowed the Hammonds to farm the land.
This Blessed Earth gives as in-depth presentation on the development and controls around seed corn, including the geopolitical ramifications. Genoway’s discussion on the development and health hazards of farm chemicals is disturbing, as is the sad state of where we are now agriculturally. There are no easy answers.
There is a thorough discussion of irrigation, including the history of the author’s own family in this arena. The water shortages faced by families like the Hammonds should be of concern for every American, or at least those of us who don’t grow all our own food. The fact that we irrigate much of our farmland is obvious from the crop circles you can see as you fly across America. Each bright green circle represents an irrigation system that pivots around a center point, bringing growth. But many of us do not comprehend the entire system. Aquifer data is scary as we use more and more water for cattle and crops. And little heed seems to be given to those crying, “Conserve!”
Ted notes a 2015 US Geological Survey study that reported on aquifer levels compared to the two decades previous which found alarming decreases of 64% across all wells. Some areas were harder hit than others. Southwestern Kansas, after 70 years of tapping the aquifer, showed water at 25% of the original level and in the southern High Plains of Texas some farmers had no water at all. Without serious conservation efforts, the Hammond family reports, there will not be enough rain to grow crops like we have been.
Again, Genoways delves into a historical review of water usage in agriculture, including the discovery of the Ogallala aquifer. Depending on where a farm is in relation to the aquifer determines availability of water and how fast the source recharges. In places where the water does not recharge, the water is referred to as “fossil water”… like oil, a nonrenewable and finite resource. And while we don’t think of it, just having the water in the aquifer is not the only need. If we want to use it for growing, we need to have a way to bring it to the surface.
The Great Cattle Bust of the mid-twentieth century should have been a sign. But as with most history, it is not always widely shared and, oftener than not, quickly forgotten. Some though, including David Eigenberg of the Upper Big Blue Natural Resource District (NRD), are working to try to educate farmers on the importance of conservation. In Nebraska they use a system of “reasonable use” as opposed to Texas’ method of “rule of capture”. Reasonable use ensures oversight by locally elected boards while rule of capture allows each farmer to use what they can tap from their property – which can be very much based in luck of the draw and often leads to competitive overuse. In 2012, a study comparing an NRD managed field (using soil-moisture monitors) with one managed by a farmer applying water to his own judgment found similar crop yields with the NRD field using only a third of the water used by the farmer.
As climate change effects continue to develop, we could be facing catastrophe. A 2013 study by Don Wilhite (founding director of both the International Drought Mitigation Center and the International Drought Information Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln) foresaw an increase of as much as 9 degrees in Nebraska temperatures in less than a few years. Temps will regularly exceed 100°F by 2060 and the water available will not be capable of supporting demand at those temperatures.
And worse yet, we’ve been fooling ourselves to a degree by pumping up cold water from the aquifer, thus reducing temps and increasing humidity. By masking the effects of climate change, we’ve doomed ourselves to a more sudden wake up once we are past the current mitigation capabilities.
Another key example is the Texas Water Report of May 2015 which showed the drop in water level for their aquifer fell 300 feet since the 1940s but a third of that happened between 2001 & 2011. California too has been known to pump their water until it is gone. The cautionary tales are being ignored in large part.
Even the saying “knee high by the 4th of July” seems dead in this era of chest or even head high by July hybrids… another illusion of technology that blinds us to the coming hardships caused by climate change. As water supplies diminish, farmers continue to think only as far ahead as next season rather than further down the road. And with the enormous debt in land and machinery that farming entails, that can be catastrophic when the bills come due. Especially now. With all the farms that foreclosed in the Farm Crisis of the late 1980s, each farm that dies today carries the weight that four did back then.
How do we fix this? Genoways writes: “To address the problem adequately, we may need to rethink what kind of food we grow where, and how much agriculture is feasible in certain landscapes.” And current trends do not look good. Rick Hammond, in 2014, warned of big trouble if record harvests continued for two more years… and that is exactly what happened. Excess production drives pricing down, As pricing on livestock fell as well, there was no capitalizing on the low grain prices. Farmers are holding tight at present – no new equipment, no new trucks, no visits to town for dinner and a movie. And this not only affects the rural economy but our economy as a whole.
Perhaps the most damning lines in the book ~ and possibly the most sadly ironic for farmers that voted in force for “Trump and his protectionist, antiglobalist policies” ~ are on the last page.
“Now Trump is threatening to cancel manufacturing trade deals with China, and China is responding by threatening to cancel its purchases of American grains. If such a thing were ever to happen, it would make the Farm Crisis seem like a minor economic ripple.” This Blessed Earth, p. 221
Sorry, soybean farmers. The future may be more dire than the next year looks to you right now. And sadly, it’s likely you aren’t looking any farther ahead than that.