Deeply Rooted

January 6th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness

Lisa Hamilton, author

Counterpoint Press, 2009. $15.95

Reviewed by Christopher Thompson

Based on their catalog, Counterpoint Press, an indie, West Coast publisher, specializes in serious books of literary, intellectual, import, leaning into the sort of thorny issues that may well preoccupy us all in the decades to come, including issues regarding agriculture and the environment. They have a couple of subsidiary imprints that focus on artistic and cultural topics as well, but Lisa Hamilton’s Deeply Rooted comes to us from the main press. Ms. Hamilton is an accomplished author and photographer whose work has appeared in Harper’s, National Geographic Traveler, Culture, The Nation, and Gastronomica. She focuses primarily on agriculture, both in her art and her journalism.

Deeply Rooted profiles three farms, one of which is a dairy farm, and therefore of greatest interest to Cheese Enthusiast readers. Our intent was to focus this review on that profile, skimming the rest, but we wound up reading the whole book, engrossed in all three tales…Ms. Hamilton manages to catch you up in her story lines with a gift for detail and a narrative frankness that is both refreshing and in some ways challenging. There are no clichés in Deeply Rooted, and there are plenty of small surprises in Hamilton’s nuanced observations. Ms. Hamilton has an easy, captivating style, just tense enough to make you want to turn the page, but without melodrama, although each of her stories exists against a backdrop of loss and struggle. The result is that you just keep reading.

The three farms Hamilton profiles are: a small, pasture-based dairy farm in Sulphur Springs, Texas; a free-range cattle ranch in Abiquiu (abecue, like barbecue), New Mexico; and an organic wheat farm in La Moure, North Dakota. For each farm she profiles the farm family, provides a history of the farm and of land ownership in general in the area, the current culture of the farm community, and the pressing economic and other issues facing the farmer and community today, the lattermost of which are often pretty dire. In short, these are stories of small family farms surviving in an agribusiness world: how they do it (which is where the “unconventional” in the title comes in), at what cost, and at what benefit. What emerges from these three stories is that it takes tenacity and a certain quasi-religious fervor to want to farm right because doing things right is, well…right. The good news is that each of these farms and farm families has managed to find other like-minded folks nearby, with whom they have been able to organize a community, sometimes via a sort of new-agey collective, and sometimes in more familiar settings, such as a cooperative.

Each profile starts off with a journalistic flourish, tastes of which follow:
The first time I ever met the dairy farmer Harry Lewis, he talked for two hours straight—over the telephone. This opener introduces us to the somewhat obstinate and obsessive character of Harry Lewis, whose personality seems central to the persistence of his pasture-based dairy farm. We see his tenacity emerging from a kind of cantankerous self-assuredness, which results in his sticking to practices that produce great milk. Reading Hamilton’s interviews with Lewis, it is hard not to think of the legendary tyrannical chefs whose obsessions yield great food in a fine restaurant…it’s all about what’s on the plate, or in the milk can. In this profile we also get a mini-history of dairy farming in the Southwest. (Who knew that much of what is now greater Los Angeles was once dairy farms?) We learn of how the Southwestern dairies migrated farther from the city to cheaper and more open land and to drier climates, wherein it was easier to manage huge herds of unpastured cows without worrying about mud and sudden rivers of wayward manure slurry. If you don’t use pasture, you don’t need rain to water the grass, right? We also learn about herd-size economics and how herd size is an indicator of farming style and the likelihood of actual organic, pasture-based dairy farming. Hamilton takes us right to the economic tradeoffs farmers must choose as they try to do things right while also make enough money to weather bad markets and still send their kids to college. Those choices show up in milk quality, and she and Harry, in their conversations, show us how.

At five o’clock on Saturday evening, sun is still baking the dusty grounds of the Rio Arriba County Fair begins Hamilton’s profile of a New Mexico cattle ranch, in which we learn a lot about the land, its history, the local ranching culture, and the families whose children show their prize animals at the fair. We come to know Virgil Trujillo, a descendant of an interesting subculture of Spanish settlers from the days before New Mexico was part of the United States. In his family history is the cultural and economic history of the region, and in his ranching practices we see more of the difficult tradeoffs but also the rewards, hard work, and philosophy that sustains a thinking man in this difficult business. Your reviewer knew little about cattle ranching before reading this, but Hamilton in this section, as in the others, clearly and smoothly presents the profession with rich insights into its demands and the lore and expertise of it all. We also see that these organic farmers might best be thought of as using one organ more than many of their fellows: their brains. The application of common sense is everywhere in the “radical” ideas of all three of these farmers. For example, Virgil took the unusual step of switching his animals from winter to spring calving because it not only was more in tune with their natural cycles, which made them all healthier (read…cheaper to raise), it also minimized predation…also a money saver. Anyone who has heard Joel Salatin speak can probably hear an echo here. A lot of what he does that is natural and organic also simply saves money. Virgil manages to be that sort of guy, in the midst of a very close ranching community wherein doing things differently can look like an insult to others. Being unconventional in a farm community, we see, has a social aspect to it.

For most drivers on the interstate, the prairie is no more than a giant ellipsis in the middle of North America. This image takes us into the northern plains, where the extended Podoll family runs a wheat farm that also manages to be nearly self-sustaining via large kitchen gardens, chickens, a few hogs and soon (we are told) a milk cow. We learn of David Podoll’s choice to grow titicale wheat instead of the much more common dwarf varieties, so that he can use titicale’s larger green-to-grain ratio to plow the green back into the soil instead of using chemical fertilizers. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that a plant that can generate its own soil is in the long run a pretty good idea, but when you’ve been handed more conventional ideas, it does take a certain amount of self-assurance to buck the trends. What we see in the Podolls is that this small community—the extended family—serves as its own town council for discussing new ideas and for communal support when a trend is being bucked. Most of their neighbors, who are also their friends, buy most of their food at the local supermarket, but it makes little sense to the Podolls not to let nature make food for the family—better and cheaper—right outside the kitchen door. One finishes this section of the book hoping the neighbors catch on, especially after reading about what the Podolls manage to put on the table for dinner.

Deeply Rooted serves not just as the book’s title but also as a kind of controlling metaphor. Deep roots allow plants to take best advantage of the soil and moisture, and to thereby better survive droughts. The deep roots of history, heritage and wise farming practices support and unite these three disparate farm families as well. Lisa Hamilton gives us not just snapshots, but compelling portraits of people, times, and places worthy of her best photography (which is very good): thought-provoking, surprising, and elegantly composed. Deeply Rooted would make a great winter read for anyone living on the land or otherwise in the grasp of its profound significance and bounty.

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