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'The Fate of Family Farming': Agriculture and democracy

(Tuesday, June 8, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Dominique Browning op-ed, NY Times, 06/07/04:
I LOVE food. I know nothing about farming. That most Americans would put these two sentences together shows how divorced we now are from our rural heritage. We might know a good tomato when we see one -- but we have very little idea where it comes from. What's worse is that our children may not even recognize a good tomato -- or like it. Too much juice, too much flavor, too many spots. Today, food is cheap (prices have been dropping since 1947), fresh (in its newly expanded definition, fresh only means it doesn't come out of a can -- though it might have come out of the ground in New Zealand weeks earlier) and abundant (thanks to the ever more powerful agribusiness). But it isn't necessarily good, or good for us.

To further complicate matters, as Ronald Jager relates in ''The Fate of Family Farming,'' we are in the midst of a national malaise, which he traces not only to our alienation from the land but to our collective irresponsibility in sustaining a culture that has made it impossible to have a significant population of farmers thriving among us. For a book that doesn't venture more than a couple of hundred miles from the writer's home in New Hampshire, ''The Fate of Family Farming'' covers a lot of ground. This is an ambitious work with a moral imperative. Jager lets the agrarian writer Louis Bromfield state it: the farmer is ''the fundamental citizen of any community, state or nation.''

In drawing larger lessons about farming and democracy, Jager, a former professor of philosophy at Yale, makes a sweep through the history and literature of American farming. He carefully prepares the ground for his pressing conviction that there is a connection between a healthy agriculture and a healthy democratic society. He introduces the reader to the powerful contemporary agrarians Wendell Barry and Victor Davis Hanson. But he also makes his case for the moral importance of the agricultural life by going back through centuries of writings by Cicero, Cato, Jefferson, Adams, Crevecoeur, Emerson and Thoreau. What's good for the farmer, in Jager's view, is and always has been good for the country: conditions that breed resilience, independence, skepticism, strength, endurance, patience, responsibility, faith and not a little crankiness.

These days you have to make a distinction between the real farmers and the factory owners. Factory food is homogenized, tasteless and comes from animals raised in sickeningly brutal conditions. Today, 1 percent of farmers account for more than half of all farm income; that's how big those factories are. Ninety per cent of all farmers earn less than $20,000; that's how small those family farms are. And what's a real farm? ''Any place that raises for market a thousand dollars' worth of produce,'' Jager says. In other words, farms can produce anything from angora goats and bison to eggs, yams and zinnias. Niche farming is one of the hottest trends in the agricultural world. But you have to wonder if it's being subsidized by baby boomers' inheritances or investment banker cash-outs.

Just as you must work the difficult New England soil Jager writes about, you have to plow through some dry, rocky patches in his book to arrive at fertile ground, but it is worth the effort, especially if you find yourself harboring fantasies of chucking city life and retreating to a home with goats, chickens and pigs. This'll sober you up, though I don't think that is the intended effect. The most vibrant part of the book is the section in which we visit four New Hampshire family farms. There's nothing like touring farm country with a writer who has the soul of a farmer (indeed, Jager grew up on a family farm in Michigan). I've always thought there were mountain people and ocean people -- and the twain do not vacation together -- but now I understand there are pasture people and woods people. Woods people are ensorcelled by the mysteries that live among noble giants. Pasture people drive along New England roads peering melancholically into the acres of woods threaded with tumbledown stone walls. For Jager, farms are ''scenic islands of green encircled by wave upon wave of predatory forests.''