Journalist and photographer Lisa Hamilton has chronicled the lives of farmers across America, Europe and Asia for more than a decade. Her new book, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, profiles the work of three extraordinary people -- a stalwart dairyman in Texas, a 10th generation rancher in New Mexico, and a family of pioneering seed farmers in North Dakota -- who have found their own ways of fighting back against an industry that no longer has their interests at heart.
I spoke with Hamilton from her home in Northern California about celebrating “unconventional” farmers, the new organic garden at the White House, and the importance of small talk.
MNN: How did you become interested in farming and agriculture?
Hamilton: I first started studying agriculture at Evergreen College in Washington state. There were people in my class studying ecological agriculture – they’re essentially going to college to be farmers. That was an entirely new idea to me, having grown up in suburban Boston. I started studying journalism and community development with a focus in sustainable agriculture, which meant I spent most of my time trying to meet as many farmers as I could -- from organic CSA farmers who were my age, to longtime wheat, dairy, and even turf farmers. Years later, I am still hooked.
When did you first decide to write this particular book, and why now?
This book was a long time in the making. Ultimately, I realized that I have a different perspective from a lot of people in the food movement because my introduction was through farming, not through cooking and eating.
I felt like the farming side of the story was not being told enough. There are a lot of great farmer writers, but for the most part they tell their own stories. This book was an opportunity to share multiple narratives and weave them together to tell the larger story about what is happening with industrial agriculture. It was important to me that the focus of the book be people and their stories rather than food issues. Too few of us [consumers] know their deeper stories and the decisions they make every day in their fields, which impact our lives.
Of all the farmers you have built relationships with over the last decade, why did you chose to profile these three farmers for the book?
When I started out with the idea for the book, a lot of people immediately came to mind. There are so many farmers who are compelling and funny and innovative -- still these three rose to the top. As a writer, these are the characters I could not get out of my mind. Honestly, you could not create them or their situations. They are so smart, and sometimes a little bit crazy, and funny and brave and visionary.
Harry [a dairy farmer in Sulphur Springs, Texas], for example, was just such an obvious pick. He is a special farmer because his innovations don’t seem like innovations. To the untrained eye, he basically just does what people think a farmer does -- he has green pasture and milks about 50 dairy cows twice a day. What is so rebellious about that? But the shear act of his sticking with it through all of the changes that have happened around him. To me that is visionary.
Were there any farmers you were not able to include in the book, but wish you could have?
I am so tempted to write a sequel! I focused on what I call “unconventional farmers,” which means people maintaining their independence and making a point of emphasizing human beings within the agricultural system. But when you pick three characters for a book, they need to show a certain range and be distinct from one another. For example I wanted to have a rancher, but not more than one, or then the book would be about ranchers. Ultimately, the point is that there are so many farmers and ranchers out there doing amazing things. This what we talk about when we talk about losing family farms.
Still, we are entering a new phase of food awareness where we have finally recognized that farmers are not this abstract concept. Instead, we are starting to connect with the individuals -- to their stories, and the solutions for the future that they are coming up with. From my perspective, that is how we can really tap into a sustainable food system.
That’s true, but on the other hand, some farmers – like Joel Salatin and “Farmer John” Peterson, have vaulted to near celebrity status in the last couple of years. Do you think there is any danger in that?
I think it depends. If we develop the same kind of relationship with them that we have with Cameron Diaz or Brangelina, then that is a problem. Some people watch Michael Pollan on Oprah for Earth Day and serve arugula at their dinner party and think that is enough. I was recently on vacation in Northern California, and almost every restaurant I went to had some mention about serving local foods -- but very few of them actually had their hearts in it.
Still, I don’t think we can do enough celebrating of farmers. My hope is that this book leads readers to say, “I wonder if there are farmers like that around me.” I think some people assume that farmers’ lives are very different from theirs, and that stops them from reaching out. Whenever I got to the farmers’ market, I start by asking the farmer how the weather I have been experiencing is treating them. Something interesting almost always comes from that one simple question.
Shifting back to your book, photography is an important aspect of your work, but your book does not include any photographs, aside from the cover. Why did you make that decision?
A lot of my friends lobbied for photos, but I realized that pictures have a way of supplanting the images you create in your mind. For example, I just read the book All the Pretty Horses. It is so beautiful, and the way the author writes about the landscape is so evocative. Then my husband reminded me that there was a movie of the book that starred Matt Damon. I never saw it, but I remember hearing that it was not very good. The characters in the book are so strong and smart, but all of a sudden, I could not get the image of Matt Damon playing a bad character out of my head.
With my book, I wanted readers to create their own images, instead of having them served up to them. For people who want to see photographs of the three farms, however, my website includes a slideshow of pictures I took in the three locations.
The sustainable food world has been buzzing lately about the organic garden at the White House as a long overdue presidential nod to sustainable agriculture. Have you had a chance to speak with any farmers’ about their reactions to the new administration and what it might mean for them?
It is an interesting question. I haven’t spoken with any farmers specifically about the Obama administration, but I think it is interesting that you start off with the garden. There is an important distinction that often gets forgotten, which is that gardening is not farming. I love gardens and have one of my own, but backyard and urban gardens, no matter how many we have, are not going to feed a country with such significant urban populations. So while it is critical to get people involved with their food directly, and remind them of the practical experience it takes to grow food, agricultural policy is much more important in terms of feeding ourselves.
Truthfully, I have been disappointed in Obama’s unflinching support of biotechnology. There could not be a better emblem of the disempowerment of farmers than biotech, and to have a president that supports that is evidence that we have a long way to go. And while I know he comes from Illinois, where you cannot get elected without supporting ethanol, he seems almost blindly devoted to it. The differences between the Obama and Bush administrations, however, are still significant. There is a lot more potential for change now.
Alice Waters wrote that the farmers in your book “embody the future of American agriculture.” What do you hope that future looks like?
We are coming up against a variety of conditions and situations [like climate change] that will force us to rethink agriculture, and my hope is that we will return to a more human scale that recognizes the real limits of land and resources.
We have created a system of agriculture that allows the population to grow exponentially, but now we have to feed ourselves. It often seems like the only way to do that is to continue on as we have. Even now, with the growth of organic and local food, we still have not changed the market itself. We still go to the store and expect whatever we need to be there. But the truth is, that way of doing things has a very short life span. I think we need to take farmers out of the marginalized, servile position they have been put in and let them lead us again.
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