A Book Review of "This Blessed Earth" by Ted Genoways

May 7th, 2020

By Nick Atherton

“On the farm… is failure’s best hiding place— smack in the middle of runaway success.” A Nebraska native and scion of an eminent farming family, Ted Genoways has an acute sense of modern American farm life. His 2017 book This Blessed Earth hones his inherited experiences against a year of dispatches from Centennial Hill Farm, a family farm now on its 7th generation of continuous operation. Its current stewards, and the book’s stalwart local heroes, are the Hammond family: Megan, Rick, and their grown children. Genoways’ narrative weaves together stories of people, economy, technology, and ecology. The result is a poignant tapestry depicting equal parts hard-won success, human fallibility, and unforgiving natural and economic forces.

The success of back-to-the-land jeremiads such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and Mark Bittman’s Food Matters (2008) helped to return the American family farmer to the zeitgeist and ushered in a new era of concern about industrial agriculture's effects on human and ecological health. Both of those books decried the spread of conventional agriculture while minimizing discussion of its many practical necessities, favoring instead profiles in pesticide-free courage. In contrast, much of This Blessed Earth seems to have been written in conversation with Pollan and his peers in the popular intelligentsia. Genoways deftly juxtaposes the personal and the technical to craft an image of modern industrial farming as a kind of high-stakes game of pachinko: equal parts skill and luck. Writing about the intricacies of raising cattle, Genoways notes that “Megan and Rick… know well that much of the new food movement is built on a nostalgia for a bygone era of family farms… [Corporations] have often assumed the identities of the very farmers they are trying to elbow aside”. Later, he describes how Cold War-era federal policies increased public-sector and corporate control over American farming, resulting in a generation of farmers whose income depends less on their harvests’ value in open trade than on a complex and often perverse suite of subsidies and insurance payouts. A large percentage of This Blessed Earth is devoted to simply describing the decisions and tradeoffs that bombard a working farmer on a minute-by-minute basis: what to plant, when to plant, how to spend a free hour. This literary attention paid to agonizing over problems effectively recreates some of the experience of the farmer herself.

Elsewhere, Genoways’ gaze lingers on the personal stories of the Hammonds and their extended family, and he pursues stories about local Marines killed in action or photographs of Hammonds who worked the same fields a century ago. While Genoways’ commitment to his subjects does avoid maudlin territory, his bias as a Nebraska native is apparent in where he focuses his critical eye. At one point, he describes a declining farm community as “barely more than a wide spot in the road anymore”, but often fails to elaborate beyond mere musings. A more analytical exploration of rural decline might pair such trenchant observations with his well-developed history of place to ask truly uncomfortable, but arguably necessary questions. One such question might be: why do people such as the Hammonds continue to farm this unforgiving landscape, even after acknowledging that their business is built on unsustainable economic and ecological practices? At one point, Rick jokes that children are one of the main crops on his farm, and throughout the book invokes his desire to leave behind a landed inheritance as the primary motivation for continuing his backbreaking labor. If future generations cease to plant that particular crop, are the sacrifices he and his ancestors made – to say nothing of the changes they have wrought to the land—still worth it?

In shying away from such questions, Genoways also avoids discussing the general future of American family farming. The book is largely silent about the alternatives available to land-rich farmers such as the Hammonds. With the Ogallala Aquifer in apparent decline, will they or their descendants simply become landlords of increasingly rare water, as are some lucky beneficiaries of the Colorado River Compact? Will they ever break out of the corn-soybean-cattle trifecta that dictates huge swathes of their daily life? While many family farmers I’ve known are dependent on difficult crops (organic tomatoes and strawberries are notoriously fragile, but prized at market when healthy), I’ve never observed a similar feeling of indebtedness to a suite of products— and given the pervasive nature of agribusinesses wielding patents and attorneys, these crops are clearly products, not organisms. It makes me wonder if there is a hope for diversity in cultivation, or if continued simplification and codependence with agribusiness and government are the ways of the future. If so, Pollan’s warnings were indeed prescient.

Nick Atherton is a Master of Public Policy student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. You can contact him at ather039@umn.edu with any comments or questions.