For brothers David and Dan Podoll, one of the solutions to the economic stresses of operating their North Dakota farm turned out to be heirloom seeds. The brothers’ farm has been in their family since 1953, with wheat and turkeys providing their main revenue stream. But their ability to continue farming in southeastern North Dakota had been hit by shifts in both economics and weather, and conventional approaches were no longer succeeding, at least on the small scale the Podolls practice.
They’re one of three farm families located in three different parts of the United States, profiled by Lisa M. Hamilton in her engaging book Deeply Rooted, Unconventional Farmers In The Age Of Agribusiness (Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA, 2009). The common threads are devotion to the land and innovative approaches to maintaining it, usually in the face of resistance from those too steeped in what passes for tradition to see how tradition is failing.
“Revenue from three acres of seeds roughly equals that from the farm’s three hundred acres in grains,” Hamilton notes, and the heirloom seeds that the Podolls are producing are cultivated to flourish in less-than-ideal conditions. They include a medium-sized watermelon they named “Dakota Rose,” alongside Dakota Tears onions, Dakota Black popcorn, and Uncle David’s Dakota Dessert squash.
But the enemy of the heirloom seed and the Podolls’ approach to farming is the incredibly profitable world of corporate science. Monsanto (now a division of German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG), a leading developer of GMO technology, sells patented single-use seeds, the purchase and use of which obligates the farmer to a draconian set of rules and restrictions.
“Between 1997 and 2007,” Hamilton writes, “Monsanto … brought 112 cases against a total of 372 farmers for violations of its patents.” As of 2007, Monsanto had “won” some $21 million in damages. Or, as Dan Podoll notes, “‘When farmers lose the right to save seed, they can no longer care for plant populations from year to year and adapt them to their land.’”
Hamilton spins an excellent narrative. Her word-portraits bring those she profiles to vivid life, warts and all, with a colorful prose style that conveys a great deal of information in as objective a manner as the subject allows. Which, let’s face it, doesn’t allow a lot. The climate has changed, and corporate farming continues to be proven destructive: constraining emotional reactions is not easy.
The climate in southeastern North Dakota has grown wetter. Dan had been recording daily weather details since 1973, but recently stopped keeping those records: “‘We know what happened. At a certain point there was no need to track climate change anymore, because it was here.’” A devastating hailstorm in July 2007 also confirmed it.
David went organic in 1974, first in an effort to prove the organic tenets unnecessary and wrong, thereafter because he became convinced how right it was. His greatest obstacle has been resistance from others. “‘Every time you listened to the farm news on the TV or the radio, or looked at the paper, there was some assault on organic farming, just sheer ridicule,’ he said.”
He’s been vindicated as attitudes have changed, at least among consumers, and organic food has now penetrated the markets. The agribusiness industry, meanwhile, solidified its disdain. That disdain ignores the fact that natural resources are not limitless. Hamilton explains: “conventional agriculture works like any other capitalist system: it succeeds only if it grows. As such, it depends on what Wendell Berry has called ‘the doctrine of limitlessness,’ the delusion that the resources necessary for that growth are infinite.”
Says David: “‘We know deep down what’s right and what’s wrong, but to judge between the two we have to stop and think about it. Instead, most people just accept things. Well, I don’t just accept things. I’ve got to stop and think about them. And when I do, I realize how much in our society is just based entirely on a money economy, with no thought for a moral or ethical response to what we’re doing.’”
For the Podolls, “the farm’s first priority is to feed the five people living on it. In this corner of North Dakota, that is radical.” If they pursued the growth their neighbors pursue, they’d have no time for the garden. As David put it, “‘It seems so illogical to grow a bulk commodity, send it out, then go to the grocery store and buy everything we need to eat.’”
Hamilton also offers a vivid profile of a small dairy farm in east Texas. Harry Lewis, a 61-year-old organic milk farmer in Sulphur Springs (halfway between Dallas and Texarkana) works his 42-cow farm with his 23-year-old son, Wynton, milking the herd twice daily.
For Harry, pasture is a critical component. But modern dairy farm operations now can consist of “multi-thousand-cow herds, for which the only thing they have resembling a pasture is a lawn in front of the company’s office.”
Harry offers the author a cup of milk, fresh from the tank. “To be honest, I don’t even like milk,” she confesses. But: “Lifting the cup to my mouth I see that the liquid is not pure white but slightly yellow, with butterfat. It’s chilly on my lips … It tastes like melted-ice-cream-flavored milk. I drink it all in two swallows.
“‘Wow!’ I blurt out. I don’t ask for one, but I want another cup.” She draws a compelling contrast between the messy, malodorous work of dairy farming and the bliss of the final product.
Although Harry’s story is a saga of subsistence farming, his devotion to the land – both as an actuality and an ideal – energizes the portrait and offers a quiet moral: such devotion offers its own reward.
This area of the southwest is hot and arid, ideal conditions for large-scale industrial dairy farming. It’s an area where the average herd numbers 2,750. Southern California, once a wonderland of family farms, boomed into a consolidation of corporate entities, which sparked a cycle of falling milk prices, requiring greater production, resulting in falling milk prices, ad infinitum. But it didn’t wipe out the family farm. You’re more likely to see smaller scale dairies in Wisconsin or the northeast. Although the high desert of the southwest offers a perfect environment for the mega-dairy, some small producers based in California eased east, eventually reaching New Mexico and Texas.
The underlying tensions of the dairy industry come through when Harry’s milk cooperative holds its annual meeting. As of 2007 it boasts a membership of a thousand farmers, of which 200 are in attendance. The meeting begins with a banquet at the co-op’s headquarters in LaFarge, Wisconsin. The organization is calls itself Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, or CROPP, which may be best known for its Organic Valley brand of dairy products.
Each farmer had a story to tell. “All the stories were different,” writes Hamilton, “but they had a common thread: these people were dead-set on saving their farms, and knew that in order to do so they had to escape the conventional market.
“The greatest benefit of the system they’ve created is … stability. In the conventional system, farmers have no idea what they’ll be paid from month to month.” With the CROPP system, the farmers “collectively set their own prices in the beginning of the year, according to what they need to make a decent living.” Any end-of-year profit is divided among them as a bonus.
Even with the economics against them, farmers with Harry’s undimmed spirit thrive on optimism. “Harry is hopeful that the combination of organics and CROPP system might finally bring back the small dairies in Hopkins County.”
The book’s third portrait takes us to Abiquiu, New Mexico. “From the air, the land of northern New Mexico looks skeletal, like brown skin shrunken down, over the bones of the earth.” And there is so little water that “the soil here is reduced to survival mode, hugging itself against the ground just to hold on.” It’s best known as Georgia O’Keeffe country because the artist lived here for forty years into the 1980s.
We begin at the Rio Arriba County Fair, as it ends with an auction held by members of the local 4H and Future Farmers of America. These are kids selling the livestock they raised, getting their first tastes of cattle-based commerce. We meet 47-year-old Virgil Trujillo, who has lived in Abiquiu most of his life, and has roots going back ten generations.
He was there to watch his daughter, Chavela, ride her horse to second place in the morning’s barrel-racing event, but he remains, talking to friends, taking in the auction. “From afar,” writes Hamilton, “you’d think he was just like the rest of the men. … He has cattle like so many of them have cattle. He knows more or less everyone here, is even related to a good number of them. What sets him apart is his willingness to break with convention in order to pursue his calling: the land. … Virgil comes up with ideas nobody has heard of and asks questions nobody want to answer.”
In the course of a peripatetic early life, Virgil learned auto mechanics, carpentry, construction. But he always wanted to be a rancher, and moved back to Abiquiu to care for his grandfather, Benjamin, who was 93 and going blind after a half-century as a sheep farmer.
Benjamin’s stories instilled a deep sense of community and purpose, all centered around land.
Virgil has a herd of 80 cows that he raises on land leased from others. He’d like to buy a ranch, but the prices are prohibitive. Meanwhile, he trades in real estate that people inherit but can’t afford to keep, hoping to parlay those acquisitions into enough money to realize his dream.
As Hamilton observes,“It’s a common story among people in agriculture, that the life they watched their parents and grandparents live is simply unavailable to them.” Half of all farmers and ranchers have other, full-time jobs. The work is undervalued – “Work the same number of hours ‘making’ insurance policies or software and the labor is rewarded much better.”
Or, putting it more bluntly, “The person who grows wheat for Wonder Bread receives less than three cents of the dollar; the one who grows corn for Cheerios gets about a penny and a half. The rest goes to processing, packaging, marketing, distribution, wholesaling, and retailing.”
After the Mexican-American War of 1848, when New Mexico became part of the U.S., the land that had been casually held in Spanish hands became federal property or fell under the ownership of Anglos who may have never lived there. Where ejidos, common land, formerly had been shared by area residents, the U.S. government now assumed ownership. Virgil has to pay a fee to the U.S. Forest Service to graze cattle on land his forefathers once held. “‘The reason that not a shot was fired when the Southwest lands were ceded to the Americans is that they promised and guaranteed us all these rights that we already had,’” he says.
The Abiquiu ejido escaped that fate until 1928, when the residents voted to relinquish their status as a pueblo and become a village in New Mexico. The ejido nearly went into default when, in the early 1940s, a payment went missing. But the residents formed a cooperative to govern the land, with membership dues to pay the taxes.
Virgil is a board member, and serves as range manager of the ejido. At the meeting described in the book, 48 of the 73 members are in attendance. It’s contentious from the get-go, with complaints about water rights, inheritance irregularities, and more, for six hours.
Virgil is the only one there with an economic stake in the ejido – he grazes some of his cattle there. He has watched as other ranchers are forced to turn sharecropper when out-of-town (read: eastern) investors buy livestock and land. This new economy changes the perception of food production. But Virgil has a recovery plan that’s based on the land. He wants to see more native grazing plants planted. He wants the co-op board to buy cattle that eventually could go to grant members who want to get back into that business. At the very least, he’d like people to visit the land, ride horses on it, find a sense of belonging. “‘It’s our home,’ he said, his voice straining. ‘You have to take care of your home, because if you don’t pretty soon it’s just a place.’”
It doesn’t sit well with participants at the meeting, where “people saw Virgil’s initiative as self-serving: invest in the land at the grant’s expense so that his herd … could get even bigger.” He is voted out of his seat on the board. But he won’t be daunted by this seeming defeat.
Like the use of the land itself, the lives of the people working it – the ones who feel a kinship with the soil – are cyclical. And the changes that people effect begin with seeds, literal like the Podoll brothers’ heirloom seeds or figurative like Virgil’s recovery plan for the Abiquiu ejido.
Hamilton’s book will inspire you to look at again at your neighborhood, at your own backyard, to discover the changes that you can effect. A strain of hardy wheat, sold as FBC (Farm Breeder Club)-Dylan, was discovered when a single plant in a forty-acre field of five million showed no signs of the head scab disease. FBC-Dylan requires the stewardship of the farmers who plant, to ensure that the healthiest plants continue to be propagated. And there’s no Monsanto-esque contract to sign when you purchase it; instead, you read, “Seeds are our past, present, and future. May we always possess the wisdom and knowledge to use them properly.”
(B.A. Nilsson, 4/23/19)