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The Fate of Family Farming: Variations on an American Idea Hardcover – March 1, 2004
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"[A] lively and readable book that includes insights into classical mythology, contemporary agrarian literature, case studies of "niche farming," and a penetrating analysis of agribusiness that will deeply disturb the reader, even if there are some hopeful signs of change . . . It would be hard to find anything comparable to his small volume even in an edited anthology on farming."--Virginia Quarterly Review
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Jager left the farm over fifty years ago when he went off to Calvin College, then Harvard, and finally landed at Yale where he taught philosophy for a number of years. He has lived in rural New Hampshire for over thirty years now and has obviously immersed himself in the community, the culture and the history of his adopted state, and has written extensively of all these things.
In "FoFF" Jager first sketches a brief history of four hundred years of farming in America, starting with the first pilgrims who landed on our shores pitifully ill-equipped. Many of these first settlers died, and those who did not owed their survival to the generosity of Native Americans who shared their corn and knowledge of primitive farming methods. Jager then cites two early presidents, Adams and Jefferson, as champions and practitioners of farming. Jefferson described farmers as "the most valuable citizens [and also] the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous ..." Emerson, Thoreau and other nineteenth century writers also weigh in on farming before Jager focuses in on three contemporary agrarian writers from the second half of the twentieth century. Louis Bromfield was an enormously successful writer turned farmer whose experimental Malabar Farm in Ohio became a showcase in the forties and fifties. Victor Davis Hanson, a classics professor and also a California fruit farmer is also heard from, and, in his "Field without Dreams" (1996), writes: "we are now in the penultimate stage of the death of agrarianism, the idea that farmland of roughly like size and nature should be worked by individual families." Finally, the writings of writer-farmer Wendell Berry of Kentucky are examined, particularly his scathing indictment of modern corporate agribusiness in "The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture" (1977). Twenty-five years later Berry pointed out: "In 2002 we have less than half the number of farms in the United States that we had in 1977."
At the heart of "FoFF" however are in-depth profiles of four farms and the families who are currently operating them in New Hampshire. One is a modern "sugarbush", or maple syrup operation, which bears very little resemblance to the small-time sugarbushes that flourished throughout the west Michigan of my childhood. The metal spiles, buckets and boiling tubs of those days have been replaced by miles of plastic tubing, vacuum systems, and reverse osmosis machines, all needed to efficiently process the sap from the more than 40,000 maples on the Bascom farm. Similar esoteric and modern methods are examined at a family-run dairy farm of nearly 200 cows, and still other innovations are explained at an egg and sweet corn farm and, finally, an apple orchard.
The common thread that unites these four family farms, in addition to their specializations, is the odd dance of these fiercely proud and independent people's resistance to and yet cooperation with the giant agribusiness corporations which now control the food industry of the world.
Yes, the "world", because globalization has invaded the world of farming too. U.S. farmers are now in competition with the food growers of China, Chile, New Zealand and other far-flung points of the globe. The greatest irony of this globalization is that less and less of the money spent on food today (which is cheaper than ever) ends up in the farmer's pocket. Modernization equals increased efficiency, which results in higher production creating surpluses which drive down prices, and the farmer is the one who pays.
This vicious cycle is a dilemma which Jager emphasizes throughout his book. While this is a tragic situation, what is even more frightening is Jager's depiction of the rapid and widespread use of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. No long-term studies are available on the ultimate effects of these gene-spliced super seeds on world ecology and the continued safety of our food supply. Corporations like Monsanto, Novartis, DuPont and Dow, which produce, patent and sell these seeds and also certain herbicides, stand to profit enormously, and these companies have lobbied successfully for their products' quick approval by the FDA, the EPA and the Department of Agriculture. Other countries have been much more cautious about GMOs; indeed the European Parliament has even passed legislation requiring GMO labeling.
Jager finally offers some hope for the future of family-run farms in America as he looks at several current agrarian movements such as organic farming, community supported agriculture, farmers' markets and niche farming.
The greatest strength of "FoFF" is the obvious passion of the author's commitment to responsible stewardship of the land. Here finally is an eloquent and knowledgeable voice for family farming who draws not only from extensive research and careful scholarship, but also from personal experience and a deep and unquenchable love of the land. Jager's book should be required reading not just for the agricultural community but for the world community. If America chooses to ignore intelligent agrarian voices like Jager's, it is entirely possible that we will one day become as dependent on foreign sources for our food suppy as we are now for our oil (if we haven't already). Not exactly a happy thought. - Tim Bazzett, author of the REED CITY BOY trilogy