National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.Edward Hicks: The Cornell Farm, 1848

“I owe very little to books,” wrote William Cobbett in 1818. At the time, he was living on Long Island in political exile from his native England, and he was referring to practical books about how to farm and garden. The sentiment sounds a little strange coming from him, for he was a great maker of books of the kind he owed very little to—books like Cottage Economy, A Treatise on Cobbett’s Corn, The American Gardener, The English Gardener, The Woodlands, A Year’s Residence in the United States of America, and, in its own way, Rural Rides.

As a farmer and writer about farming, Cobbett was both an innovator and a radical nostalgist, a forward-looking plantsman with an almost Roman sense of the relationship between the farmer as cultivator and the farmer as citizen. In his often obstreperous way, he wrote endlessly about the link between farming and politics, farming and monetary policy, farming and society itself. He was an unrelenting critic of the effect of capital and its manipulation on farmers and farm laborers, and his criticism is still instructive. Agriculturally, we live now on the planet of Cobbett’s nightmares.

The United States, Cobbett wrote, “is really and truly a country of farmers. Here, Governors, Legislators, Presidents, all are farmers.” Yet what Cobbett complained of in England—that farming had become a form of investment, purely a matter of profit and return—was barely understood in America at the time. In his illuminating new study, The American Farmer in the Eighteenth Century: A Social and Cultural History, Richard Lyman Bushman quotes a letter from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington in 1793, commenting on a query from Arthur Young in England. “I had never before thought of calculating what were the profits of a capital invested in Virginia agriculture,” Jefferson wrote.

An entirely different farming model prevailed in this nascent country, where land was abundant and labor scarce. The ideal was the “self-provisioning” farm, a family living upon a piece of land and working first to survive, then “to amass resources for the next generation.” As Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur put it in 1782, in one of his widely read “Letters from an American Farmer,” every American farmer was a kind of “universal fabricator like Crusoe,” struggling to develop what Bushman calls “a core household economy to satisfy most of the family’s wants.” Yet “almost no one,” he explains, “was self sufficient. Farmers had to enter into exchanges to live.” Instead of self-sufficiency, the goal was “to keep in balance with the world,” to avoid debt by producing what you needed at home. Farming wasn’t a vocation. It was “an activity, like gardening, that could be combined with other work.” And that other work—building coffins or boats, for instance, like Joshua Hempstead of New London, Connecticut—was as much a part of the system of exchange as the buying and selling of sheep or wheat.

The model of the self-provisioning farm eventually died, though it persisted, Bushman notes, right up to World War II and was the basis of the Homestead Act of 1862, which “adopted the small farm as the predominant plan for disposing of the national domain.” Yet you can still hear the idea echoing not only in the realm of small, diversified market farms, which have begun to proliferate (again) in the past decade or two, but also among conventional farmers trying to voice their relevance in the national economy.

Take Meghan Hammond, the outspoken Nebraska farmer who appears in This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways. She and her family go about farming in much the same way as their neighbors, raising corn and soybeans and running some cattle. They use conventional methods, which involve, as one writer puts it, killing “everything but the crop.” And like their neighbors, they’re trapped, financially and contractually. Late in the book—late enough that the reader has a feel for her frustration—Hammond offers an impromptu survey of the terribly wrong road that American agriculture has taken in the past century, a road paved by the US Department of Agriculture and well described by Genoways. She ends by asking him, “Are you ready to go raise your own food?”

This sounds like a trenchant question until you realize that Hammond isn’t really raising our food, or even her own. For the most part, she and her family are growing industrial commodities—corn and soybeans—and their work is carefully monitored by corporations like Monsanto and Pioneer, who sell them the chemicals and lease them the seeds they use and whose approach to farmers violating the letter of their contracts is harshly punitive. Like nearly all conventional farms, hers supplies almost none of its own resources and is tightly bound by debt and government subsidies (and the controls that come with them), and by the volatility of commodity prices.

Genoways begins his book by showing us Kyle Galloway, Meghan’s fiancé, doing some modern self-provisioning: welding the floor of a grain bin from salvaged steel so he can store his own soybeans (instead of paying to store them at the grain elevator) as a hedge against fluctuations in the soybean market. The farmscape Genoways portrays is the land of the unfree trying desperately to retain the illusion of their freedom, an illusion made all the more illusory in the era of Trump, whose proposed tariffs will surely hurt farmers.

Industrial agriculture—shaped by the USDA, by chemical and seed companies, by the vagaries of domestic and export markets—relies on a picture of the family farmer to soften its image. It wants it both ways. It wants to celebrate its technical innovations, like genetically modified crops, computer-driven tractors, and satellite-monitored fields. And yet it also wants to foster our national nostalgia for farming and the men and women who do it. The contradiction is intolerable, especially to farmers.

Genoways tries to make the reader feel the contradiction too, and he gets it right, for by the time you finish reading This Blessed Earth, you feel hopeless and agitated. Meghan and Kyle marry and will go on farming. They will remain unwilling apologists for an agricultural system that has driven farmers off the depleted soil, drawn down the aquifers, and killed the small towns of Nebraska—a system, Hammond says, in which “everything has been built around a certain way of doing things.” They’ll oppose the Keystone XL pipeline—dead under Obama, revived under Trump—which threatens their land, their livelihood, and their friendships. They’ll work as hard as possible because how hard they work is the only thing they can control, and because labor is the only thing they have to offer. An article of faith in their world, writes Genoways, is “that the greatest success belongs to the family that works the hardest.” Like so many articles of faith, this is simply not true.

No one is going to read This Blessed Earth and come away thinking, “Gosh, I’d like to be a farmer.” Farmers, as Cobbett pointed out, don’t tend to come from books, and especially not from books as grimly accurate as this one. And yet it’s no longer true that farmers have to be raised, like turnips, from the soil itself, inheriting the methods by which they were raised. Most of the young farmers so visible in places like the Hudson Valley come from what you might call nontraditional farming backgrounds. They didn’t grow up on farms: they chose to become farmers. Moreover, they’ve chosen how to farm, and they do so usually in ways that flout the USDA’s mantra of growth at any cost.

If farming has become, for many young farmers, an elective vocation, it raises an important question: Who do you need to be in order to farm? Could good farming be a matter of character? In my young Iowa life, surrounded by farming aunts and uncles and cousins, I often heard them talk about the state of their neighbors’ fields. But only once do I remember the question of character coming up, when one of my cousins said of another cousin, “He always has trouble getting things done on time.” It was simply assumed that farming would turn you into a farmer, whether you had it in you or not.

There are plenty of books about farming these days, and a few of them are even intended for farmers, not consumers. Most of them, of course, are actually about food. But to me, it doesn’t really feel like a farming book unless it’s about labor—what farmers do and how they do it—and about the topography, cultural and literal, of the farm itself. And there’s something else too. A good farming book—a book about the work of farming—shows a kind of narrative reluctance, an unwillingness to tell stories as if the main thing that matters is the way they end. Think of it as a Jeffersonian indifference to profit or the bottom line—a nonnarrative approach. What matters instead is the quality of observation, the details. From these things a sense of character will emerge. This isn’t just a conceit on my part. There are good models for this kind of writing, like Stanley Crawford’s Majordomo and A Garlic Testament. But perhaps the best example I’ve ever found is a new book by Mike Madison called Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy, and Practice of a Family Farm.

Madison and his wife, Diane, farm twenty-one acres along Putah Creek in the Sacramento Valley, a few miles west of Davis, California. They raise mostly citrus, stone fruits, flowers, and olives, which they’ve been selling at the Davis Farmers’ Market for some thirty years. All that time, it seems, Madison has been thinking about three questions: Where am I? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? He has written two books that try to answer these questions, Fruitful Labor and, on a somewhat broader geographic scale, Walking the Flatlands: The Rural Landscape of the Lower Sacramento Valley (2004). Together, they form “the simple and sincere account of his own life” that Thoreau required of every writer—or was it every farmer?—except that Madison’s account is not so simple. It is detailed, analytic, imbued with a warm rationality, and it constitutes a thoughtful farmer’s answer to Thoreau, on economic matters at least. It also has a densely layered sense of perspective.

Here, for instance, is a sentence from the chapter called “Crops” about the area where Madison farms: “The region has a fairly stable and orderly society, and the rule of law predominates most of the time.” This sentence struck me when I first read it, and only later did I realize why. It sounds like something from Cobbett’s The Emigrant’s Guide (1829) or John Lorain’s Hints to Emigrants (1819) or John Woods’s Two Years’ Residence in the Settlement on the English Prairie in the Illinois Country, United States (1821). It is the sound of a farmer considering the nature of the region and whether it would be wise to settle there. We take it for granted that an orderly society and general obedience to the rule of law are prerequisites for farming, which requires stable land tenure and continued access to markets and credit.

But why should we take these things for granted? After all, farming in early America required not only opening the land but also creating the political and economic stability needed for farming to continue. This wasn’t done by someone else on behalf of farmers. It was done by farmers. To notice these things, as Madison does, is to accept responsibility for them, to acknowledge a historic continuity.

“Where am I?” turns out to be a profound question, especially given the location of Madison’s farm. A few miles east is what is arguably the most important agricultural research university in the world, UC Davis, a place where even now scientists are working on patentable, genetically modified soil bacteria. Over the hills to the west is the Napa Valley, an agricultural enclave that has become a byword for nonagricultural excess. On the flatland where Madison lives, the Sacramento Valley makes its transition from highly industrialized agriculture on an enormous scale to the small market farms that thread their way north through the Capay Valley. Because of California’s peculiar history, this is a place where “self-provisioning” farms never prevailed, where “farming was strictly a cash enterprise, right from the outset.” It’s also a place where a farmer like Madison can imagine what’s been lost—what might have been—if Japanese farmers in his district hadn’t been interned during World War II or Congress hadn’t passed the Alien Land Law in 1913, “which prohibited most Asians from owning land.”

Kenneth Jarecke/Contact Press ImagesMike Korth on his corn and soybean farm, Randolph, Nebraska, September 2007

Inevitably, Madison’s reflections bring to mind Bushman’s description of the tragic contradiction at the heart of American agriculture. “The family farmer,” Bushman writes, “was both the embodiment of the American dream and the leading actor in the displacement of the native peoples.” This is a thought that has never loomed large at the Farm Bureau.

Instead of taking us through his work, season by season, crop by crop—the narrative approach—Madison explores his farm and its methods analytically, from many overlapping angles. The result is profoundly interesting. He looks at the way he spreads his labor during the year, “so that I always have work to do”—and by work, he means “pleasant, interesting, autonomous, meaningful work carried out under the open sky.” He tries to calculate the rates of energy production and consumption on the farm, including measurements of human and animal labor—a calculation, as he says, with lots of “fuzzy edges.” He attempts a rough estimate “of the biomass of larger herbivores” on the farm, which includes approximately seventy squirrels, eight hundred pocket gophers, and a thousand voles. He assembles a catalog of the twenty-five “Government Agencies Regulating Farm Activities” in his district. He creates a long list of “Tools and Machines in Use on the Farm,” which ends with “500 other miscellaneous small tools.” He concludes that on his farm, “counting only the active equipment, there is about eight hundred pounds of steel per acre farmed.” He pauses to consider the intrinsic value of a single bent nail, reminding us that iron in that form, “with the oxygen driven from it…is exceptional on our planet, and goes against the grain of planetary chemistry.”

The point of all these lists and calculations is to help measure Madison’s efforts to keep his farm in balance with the world. “It is instructive,” he writes, “to draw a line around the perimeter of a farm and then to measure the movement of materials (or energy) across that line, onto and off the farm.” By this standard, conventional farms—heavily reliant on petroleum-based chemicals, fossil fuels, and leased seeds—are sinkholes of consumption. Madison’s goal is to make the farm operation as self-provisioning as possible, so that the farm supplies as many of its own requirements—energy and fertility, for example—as it can. This, of course, is one of the basic measures of sustainability. So is the “psychological well-being of the farm family,” a standard you’ll want to keep in mind while reading This Blessed Earth.

In America—thanks to its abundance of land—there have always been two kinds of farmers: movers and improvers. Movers were the ones who farmed out the fertility in a patch of ground and then moved along to the next patch. This is more or less how America was settled. Improvers were the ones who did everything they could to preserve and increase the fertility of their soil. The intensity of the debate over these methods reached its peak in the early nineteenth century.* In the long run, the improvers faded from the discussion, especially after World War II and the introduction of chemical fertilizers. The movers continue to move, but in a different manner these days. When farmers ran out of new land, they simply mined their way downward through the fertility of eroding layers of farmland until they reached the place we are now.

Farmland, instead of being a carbon sink, has been forced to surrender its carbon. Iowa’s once-black soils are now “a washed-out tan color from loss of organic matter.” All that lost fertility is replaced annually by injections of anhydrous ammonia, which is toxic to soil organisms and slowly acidifies the soil. You could argue that modern agriculture has brought about the most wholesale ecocide on the planet by killing the astonishingly rich microbial life of the soil. It’s worth drawing up another analytical model of the kind Mike Madison employs. Ask, simply, where soil is being replenished with organic matter—cover crops and manure, for instance—and where it is not. What you end up with is a perfect map of the division between conventional, large-scale, industrial agriculture and small-market farms. A map like that would also provide a stark reminder of how colossal the scale of conventional farming really is when compared to small, artisanal farming, something that’s easily forgotten when you’re shopping at the farmers’ market.

Madison believes that “farming is not a perversion of nature, but a natural development in our planet’s evolution.” There is a lot of optimism lurking in that thought. Anyone who can write “I expect to still be farming at age 80” is an optimist at heart, no matter how cautionary or skeptical he often sounds. In fact, I would say that Fruitful Labor may be the most optimistic book it is possible to write that also contains this sentence: “We are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.”

The optimism shows, too, in Madison’s candor. He says of himself and his wife, with no apology, that “our business plan, insofar as we have one, is of a sort that might be found in 18th-century Italy or Spain.” He describes his own failed projects—crops or methods that didn’t work out—with equanimity, alluding in a telling phrase to “the infidelity of one’s enthusiasms.” Keeping the farm in balance with the world is especially hard when the world is so out of balance: “In an unjust society,” he writes, “there is no such thing as a just price.” Reading Madison, you begin to wonder about the psychological cost of America’s agricultural history when this was still a country of farmers. “Possibly only one person in a dozen, or one in twenty,” he writes, “is temperamentally suited to farming. Which is why when half the population is farming, most will do a poor job of it, and be unhappy in the process.”

Madison’s fundamental argument about the deep ecology of farming is one that another Madison—James Madison—would have agreed with. In May 1818, while Cobbett was still living on Long Island, the former president—an improving farmer—gave a speech to the Agricultural Society in Albemarle, Virginia. He said something that has become almost unsayable in the world we inhabit now—unsayable at least by the sitting president and his environmental and agricultural appointees. “We can scarcely be warranted,” Madison said, “in supposing that all the productive powers of [Earth’s] surface can be made subservient to the use of man, in exclusion of all the plants and animals not entering into his stock of subsistence.” It is truly painful to leap ahead two hundred years and realize that one of Mike Madison’s reasons for continuing to farm is this: “In an increasingly unstable world it is important to keep the farm as a refuge for family and friends in times of economic collapse and social disarray.”

  1. *

    See Steven Stoll’s Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (Hill and Wang, 2002). ↩