by Lisa Hamilton
306 pages, Counterpoint Press, 2009
Lisa Hamilton’s detail-packed descriptions of her visits to traditional farms reveal the science of “alternative” agricultural practices and build a resounding case for them.
Deeply Rooted chronicles three farm-stays. In east Texas, a father-son team milks free-range cows, the last farmers to keep alive a withering tradition that was once the region’s lifeblood. In New Mexico, a native rancher twists together a variety of strategies to remain an independent cattleman and reignites a connection to the land shattered by land grants. And in North Dakota, in a “Corn is King” town, two brothers set out to disprove organic farming but end up adopting it, reinterpreting the role of modern-day farmers to defy “normal” by growing vegetables for their family and saving their own seeds, generation after generation.
Hamilton pens vivid, almost poetic portraits of ranches and farms that are as engaging as her depictions of the characters living there. The farmers and the families that love and support them burst with local color, humor, and creative energy. Each has created a lifeboat for preserving traditional practices, despite often overwhelming odds.
“We have mathematized food production,” laments Hamilton. “Agriculture doesn’t really need people.” Farming – with a capital “F” – is now a crush of yields, commodities beholden to quarterly reports. Modern agriculture’s footprint is of enormous scale: “Get big or get out” is official Washington policy, Hamilton reports. Classic American foodstuffs – milk, beef, and corn – have morphed into unrecognizable operations that are unquestioned but highly vulnerable.
Each philosopher-farmer in Hamilton’s book is valiant, creative, brave, and dedicated beyond measure. Each is determined to replenish the attention, care, and knowledge lost in farming-by-numbers. However, they remain marginalized from a larger discussion about land stewarding, and, it appears, from each other. If each of these heroes is an island, we’ll need many more like them to revive healthy agriculture.