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New Book: The Fate of Family Farming


June 11, 2004, Issue #353
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

TO RECEIVE: Send name and address

By Ronald Jager. 244 pp. University Press of New England.

DOMINIQUE BROWNING, NEW YORK TIMES: I love food. I know nothing about

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

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

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, one 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.''

This book is enormously useful. It is difficult to get through the morning
paper without reading about genetically modified foods, or E. coli or
cholesterol; Jager is efficient and entertaining while giving us the context
for the news.

It is spring, and we arrive at a maple farm owned by the same family since
1929. In 1939, the farm produced 600 buckets of maple syrup. Today, the farm
is boiling sap from 40,000 taps and the buckets are relics in antique shops.
We learn, among other things, about the strange and complicated tree
hydraulics that send sap down, up and sideways. For those of us still
harvesting at the supermarket, it is useful to know that the fanciest syrup
is the lightest color, made from sap less than a day out of the tree.

For generations, the Bascoms have had to contend with bacteria and pests;
they now contend too with ''a packager you never heard of'' who will buy ''a
million small syrup jugs . . . fill them with Canadian maple syrup, and
deliver them to Sam's Club.'' Bruce Bascom has his own buyers --- in
Oklahoma, Florida, Spain and Japan. This is the good side of the global
market. The flip side: China now has more apple trees than the United
States, and the Chinese ''own the world's apple juice concentrate

Forget cows on the dairy farm Jager takes us to; the family is worth a
study. The original farmer adopted a young relative, who grew up to run the
farm; his girlfriend in Switzerland joined him and they married; their two
sons have taken up farming the same land; they married and built houses
within sight of the farm; their wives are farming too, as well as raising

''Four generations are actively involved on this farm; they all live within
a radius of one mile, and today I spot one or more from each generation in a
single glance,'' Jager says. There is no more than a hint of wistfulness to
enlighten us as to the family farmer's role in the health of America's
marriages, though I suspect, from the strenuous working conditions, that the
institution has taken a beating among farmers as democratically as it has
among the rest of us.

By the time we have visited the chicken and egg farmer, and the apple
farmer, as I suppose I must now call him (but really, this is farming?
''More like . . . gambling,'' an apple picker says), we understand how you
get metal to settle at the bottom of a cow's stomach (''feed her the
magnet'') and how the metal could have gotten there in the first place; and
that broodiness in hens is hormonal --- aha! Just as I thought! --- and must
be prevented, as it makes them unproductive, of course. Jager is charming on
the disparaging nature of our language when it comes to chickens; he muses
about henpecked and eggheads and old biddies.

The Fate of Family Farming is sweetly moving; you really do end up
understanding why it matters. Jager concludes with reasons to be optimistic,
among them the news that women appear to be entering farming in surprising
numbers. New Hampshire leads the nation, with 17% of its farms headed by
women. But I wish Jager had focused on one of those new enterprises; for all
I know, the women are growing zinnias.

As for the link between the farmer and the nature of today's democracy,
Jager's provocative book sacrifices rigor for romance. We never see his
family farmers moving in a larger community; we never hear them talk about
politics or the movies. We don't see how the characteristics that make them
good farmers also make them good citizens. Finally, Jager's survey of
agribusiness seems biased (why not mention the potential benefits to
genetically modified crops, like a rice that is a better source of vitamin

The paradox of the family farm is that its survival is linked, one way or
another, to global markets, government subsidies, national retail chains,
high-tech breeding, corporate-scale distribution and complex transportation
systems. And no one has to be a farmer anymore; historically, whenever
people have had a choice, they've streamed not from cities to farms but in
the opposite direction.

As Jager makes clear, people who get their hands into the soil do so because
they love it. I read just the other day that the scion of a well-known
California wine family, Jim Fetzer, is selling his
multimillion-dollar gated estate. Why? He's spending most of his time
working on an organic-vineyard-and-resort. I can see it now: Aromatherapy
Merlot. That's one way to keep 'em down on the farm.

Dominique Browning is the editor in chief of House & Garden and the author
of Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener.