This Blessed Earth: Book Review

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Ted Genoways quotes John Steinbeck as the epigraph for his book on a year in the life of a Nebraska farm: “Now farming became industry …” The year begins in October 2014 and ends in November 2015, harvest to harvest, tracing the crop year through planting and spraying and irrigation, with stops along the way for cattle branding and weaning and mending fences. The farm is a family farm, with the fifth generation handing over the reins to the sixth, and an epilogue welcoming the birth of the first of the next generation.

This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways (W.W. Norton and Company, 2017)

The story of the farm is the story of farming in the United States: the Homestead Act welcoming land-hungry farmers after the Civil War, their struggles to survive natural disasters of grasshoppers and drought and human-created disasters: the Bank Panic of 1893, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.

Over 150 years of farming in Nebraska, the Hammond family story includes developments and controversies that have shaped U.S. agriculture.  Describing the intricacies of growing seed corn for Dupont Pioneer, Genoways gives a history of the development of hybrid corn. He describes how the higher-yielding corn sucked nitrogen out of the soil and led to burgeoning use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and then to today’s pesticide-resistant seeds, which are credited with the development of pesticide-resistant super-weeds. He paints a vivid picture of an irrigation system, its “humped spine and rib-like trusses, girding an array of dangling hoses and sprinkler heads, … like the skeleton of some kind of robot Brontosaurus, poised to waken from its prehistoric slumber.” That leads to a history of the development of center pivot irrigation, and its impact on the Ogallala Aquifer, which threatens the future of grain farming across the Great Plains. Similar storytelling connects this farm’s history with the politics of farming, from 1950s Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson’s advocacy of larger, more industrialized farms to the current international trade crisis.

Hybrid seeds changed the face of agriculture, bringing with them a more industrialized model. The changes brought problems as large as the increased yields: water pollution, corporate control of inputs, increased debt loads, unsustainable burdens on land and water.

The year, and the book, end with hope, as Meghan and Kyle take over management of the farm to a new generation and welcome a new baby.  That hope seems forced: a nice way to end a book, but not a realistic forecast for the future of U.S. farming.

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