In 'This Blessed Earth,' Nostalgia For Farming Overlooks Real World Issues Journalist Ted Genoways spent a year on a small farm in rural Nebraska, and he says American nostalgia for the family farm overlooks the pressures farmers face and the realities of food production.
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In 'This Blessed Earth,' The Outdated Romance Of The Family Farm

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In 'This Blessed Earth,' The Outdated Romance Of The Family Farm

In 'This Blessed Earth,' The Outdated Romance Of The Family Farm

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Farming has been in the Hammond's family for six generations. Rick Hammond has harvested soybeans, corn and cattle in Nebraska for 40 years. In "This Blessed Earth" by Ted Genoways, Rick and his family confront climate change, family tensions and a recently revived pipeline project that jeopardizes their land. Ted Genoways' new book "This Blessed Earth" documents a year in modern farm life in Nebraska. And he joins me now from WCBE in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome to the program.

TED GENOWAYS: Thanks so much for having me on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me a little bit about Nebraska's land and what it means to its residents, the farmers?

GENOWAYS: Yeah. So Nebraska is in many ways a typical Great Plains state. Because the Missouri River cuts through along the eastern edge of the state, that's where all of the population originally settled. And so you have major industrial centers in south Sioux City and in Omaha. And then you have the capital educational center of Lincoln. But when you travel west of Lincoln, there's almost no one there. The small farming communities have gotten smaller and smaller in the last 50 years. And you can drive for hours essentially seeing only flatlands that are planted to corn and to soybeans and occasionally dotted with hog barns and feedlots for cattle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Speaking to that disappearing landscape, I'd like you to read a page from your book, page 69.

GENOWAYS: (Reading) To understand, first remember - Nebraska is a place. It sits square as an anvil in the center of our maps. And yet somehow, everyone manages to forget it exists. Maybe that's because Nebraska is also a land of ghosts, of small towns dwindling to the point where in another generation they might simply cease to exist.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why are they disappearing? Where are they going?

GENOWAYS: The biggest thing that's happened in the last 50 years is a lot of mechanization that has been aimed at trying to save labor for farmers. At the same time, farm operations have gotten bigger. You can do more with this high-tech equipment and do it with fewer people. What that means when you have fewer people on the farm is that you have less need for all the things that you need when you have a community. You don't need as many doctors and nurses. You don't need as many schoolteachers. And we're now reaching a point where the farmers who have remained on the land are quite isolated and often face long trips just to get to any place where there might be a school or there might be some sort of cultural activity. And it leaves them relatively separated from the national conversation, even as the politics of the country and of the world directly bear on their lives.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does that impact them and their views on the rest of the country?

GENOWAYS: I think one of the things that has certainly happened is that when you lose your population, when the towns start to die, you lose your local newspaper. For the towns that were large enough, you lose your local radio station. So now the way that the news arrives to farming communities is through AM radio, which is often conservative talk radio. And it arrives via television and the Internet. And that means that those local issues get less coverage, and they make it into the national conversation less. But it also means that all of the polarization of our current political moment has made it all the way down to these tiny communities.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And how is that played out?

GENOWAYS: Well, one of the great conundrums of where we've arrived at this particular moment is that farm communities across the middle of the country voted for Donald Trump at a rate of about 3 to 1, carried about 75 percent of the farm vote. And yet he was running on a platform that he would end the trade agreements that farmers are wholly dependent upon. And now as he has come in and canceled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has talked about wanting to renegotiate NAFTA, it introduces tremendous amounts of uncertainty.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think the future is of some of these communities? You're talking about them dwindling, about increasing isolation. But they are at the center of a massive industry to which we are all so indebted and tied to.

GENOWAYS: Well, I think the future of the communities themselves is that they're going to continue to shrink. And I think that many of them will disappear. The movement with the technology is aimed toward fewer and fewer farm workers. But I also think that we're not very far away from a point where the large interests in agribusiness will be pushing for an Ag system that has no farmers. And so as we've already been more and more divorced from the food system, I think our connection to our food and our sense of how that routes us in place and connects us to the planet has been radically reshaped and not for the better.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ted Genoways is the author of "This Blessed Earth: A Year In The Life Of An American Family Farm." Thank you very much.

GENOWAYS: Thanks so much for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CIVIL WARS SONG, "FOCUS (ROSIE'S THEME)"

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