Introduction to
Deeply Rooted:
Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness
(Counterpoint, May 2009)


Page 2 of 2

As a person who writes about agriculture, I spend a fair amount of time in places that have grown quiet over the past fifty years. Gibbon, Minnesota. Bluffton, Georgia. Unincorporated Fremont County, Wyoming. My visits there are not fast-paced. Indeed, I pass most of my time sitting: in the passenger seat of a truck, on the wheel well of a tractor, on whatever flat space is free in the cab of a combine. But as my hosts and I make slow revolutions around a field or drive from one pasture to another, what happens is not dull. What happens is we talk. Or, typically, they talk. On most days the conversation lasts for hours.

“They” are farmers and ranchers, though generally not those from the front row of the church, that select few who remain in conventional agriculture. These are the ones who were trimmed off long ago, or at least by the industry’s prescription, should have been. As we sit and talk, the topics are sometimes technical, often political or economic, and always, ultimately, philosophical. And personal. If we start with a discussion of soil microbiology or a comparison of turkey breeds, inevitably we end up in family, history, ecology, faith, beauty, morality, and the fate of the world to come. For them, all those things are linked.

As they see it, agriculture is not an industry on the periphery of modern civilization. It is a fundamental act that determines whether we as a society will live or die. What binds these people is not a particular farming method, but rather the conviction that as humans, the contributions they make are essential. Conventional agriculture doesn’t need people for much more than to run the machines and carry the debt, but these people refuse that lifeless role. To the work, they bring their intellects and their consciences, their histories and their concerns for the future. In quiet ways, in quiet places, they have set about correcting the damage that has come from believing agriculture could actually be reduced to numbers alone. The first step: reclaim their place in the center of the equation.

That Sunday morning in Balfour, after I left the abandoned church but before I got back on the highway, I drove into what was left of the town. Beyond a scattering of houses, I came to a building that was newer but not new, non-descript except that its doors were wide open. Outside were a few cars—cars that had arrived there that morning, not two decades ago. It was the town’s last working church. Technically it was Lutheran, but the congregation was so small that any person was welcome. What mattered was that they were there at all, listening, talking, praying, and even singing.

If the closed-down face of Balfour represents the disappearing human role in agriculture, then this book is about the people in church that Sunday morning. They are the faithful, the ones who believe, despite everything society shows them, that what they are doing is worth it—that it is vital. When their nation tells them this is the way it is, and this is the way it has to be, they do not just fade away. Instead, they talk, and they pray, and they sing at the top of their lungs. To hell with what you’ve decided is convention, they say. We are unconventional farmers.

 

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