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Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness

Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness

by Lisa M. Hamilton

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A century of industrialization has left our food system riddled with problems, yet for solutions we look away from the land — to nutritionists and government agencies, scientists and chefs. In a groundbreaking departure, Deeply Rooted finds answers by looking to the people who actually grow our food.
Hamilton makes this vital inquiry through the


A century of industrialization has left our food system riddled with problems, yet for solutions we look away from the land — to nutritionists and government agencies, scientists and chefs. In a groundbreaking departure, Deeply Rooted finds answers by looking to the people who actually grow our food.
Hamilton makes this vital inquiry through the stories of three unconventional farmers: Harry Lewis, an African-American dairyman in Texas who plays David to the Goliath of agribusiness corporations; Virgil Trujillo, a tenth-generation rancher in New Mexico struggling to restore agriculture as a pillar of his community; and the Podolls, a modern pioneer family in North Dakota breeding new varieties of plants to face the future’s double threat: global warming and biotech food.
Together, these remarkable characters and their surprising stories make the case that in order to correct what has gone wrong with the food system, we must first bring farmers back to the table.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Journalist and photographer Hamilton presents a multicultural snapshot of the American sustainable agriculture movement, profiling a Texas dairyman, a New Mexican rancher and a North Dakotan farmer, all who have converted from conventional to sustainable agriculture for economic and personal reasons. Harry Lewis, born to a family of former slaves who began farming in a Texas "freedom colony," switched to organic farming to avoid price-gouging by agribusiness but also to support his core philosophical tenets. Virgil Trujillo, whose Native Americans ancestors were the first settlers of Abiquiu, N.Mex., practices holistic resource management at a dude ranch/retreat center. David Podoll "set out to prove organic agriculture wrong," but instead was converted; he and his brother now buck the North Dakotan trend of farm consolidation and corn, soybean and wheat monoculture by focusing on the family garden and breeding plants for diversity, beauty and strength. The book vividly shows how these stubborn individualists rooted in the soil struggle are forging a path away from monolithic agribusiness to sustainable agriculture for its promise of spiritual integrity, community and food security. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Hamilton fashions intimate portraits of three alternative, small-scale farming strategies. A sensitive, well-versed observer of the American agricultural scene, the author doesn't come to these vignettes with an agenda; she lets the farmers set the tone and state the purpose of their acts and beliefs. She does this with a subtle knack for getting under the skins of both her subjects and the land they husband, conveying a natural sense of the farmers' stewardship while painting visceral images of the landscapes on which they work. "All the stories were different," she writes, "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." They eschew the bigger-is-better philosophy of capitalization for reasons of ethics and practicality: They refuse to burden the land with petrochemicals not only because it is inimical to biorhythms and sustainability, but because it is financially ruinous. Hamilton spends time on a dairy farm in East Texas, a ranch/retreat cattle operation in New Mexico and a grain spread in North Dakota. Each one slowly reveals its history and its evolving moral compass. Convictions on how to relate to the land are commonsensical and passionate, high on independence, continuity, purpose, love of place and community. Frugality steers them clear of indebtedness. Hamilton doesn't strive to make readers love these folks-indeed, they are sometimes pariahs in the communities they wish to foster, because they don't practice business as usual. She simply ushers us into their everyday existence, offering glimpses of new possibilities in agricultural production and where eachmay well lead. A concentrated, evocative look at agricultural methods that place a premium on health and ecology.

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Counterpoint Press
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5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Deeply Rooted

unconventional farmers in the age of agribusiness
By Lisa M. Hamilton


Copyright © 2009 Lisa M. Hamilton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59376-180-6

Chapter One

The first time I ever met the dairy farmer Harry Lewis, he talked for two hours straight-over the telephone.

The second time I met Harry Lewis, I stopped him in a hallway at an all-day conference. The proceedings had just broken for lunch, and as he talked the food line formed before us and then grew, snaking into another room. Two hundred people shuffled by. When finally Harry was done talking, he and I each walked right up to the buffet, helped ourselves to what was left, and took seats warmed by people who had already come and gone from the meal.

The third time I met Harry Lewis (and this I could not believe): five hours straight. For five hours we sat on the porch of his house in Sulphur Springs, Texas, side by side in wicker chairs, facing the yard and the pasture beyond. It was ninety-one degrees and the man didn't sweat, didn't drink, didn't unlace his heavy, black boots, didn't even stand up. He just talked. Had I not stopped him I swear he would have gone long past sundown.

The first time I met Harry's wife, Billye, it was the first thing she said. "Everyone in Hopkins County knows about Harry Leon. Everybody knows you don't talk to him unless you have some time."

Apparently he takes after his late father. It's said that by the end of his life, Harry Senior didn't even stop for periods-he'd just string his words from the porch to the barn to the pasture, his whole day one endless sentence. As Billye was telling me this, a local repairman arrived to deliver a part for their truck. She passed the statement on for confirmation-You know Harry likes to talk, right? The man nodded vigorously but still only nodded, as if merely talking about Harry's talking would draw him irrevocably out of his day and into infinite conversation.

That said, this must also be said: Harry is not a droning windbag, the kind with whom conversation feels like slow-moving punishment. If you're on a schedule or need to be somewhere else, the loquaciousness can be maddening. But if you have time to sit back in a wicker chair and just listen, his trip is worth taking.

Partly that's because when Harry talks, it is not just speaking, it is speech. The ideas come spontaneously, but he works strategically: He anchors the big concepts with catch phrases and asks questions that he then answers himself. He spaces his words out for just the right emphasis. He slows his voice to ar- tic-u-late words like pas-ture and man-ip-u-late. When that's not enough, he adds extra syllables, making pro-fi-t or p-rou-d.

The result can be so compelling that I want to rise to my feet and yell Amen! Other times he just starts rolling on a topic, seemingly with no idea where he's taking it, and his words get mixed up and his logic gets shaky and the ideas pour out of his mouth, out of control. It's like watching a person run down a hill: his steps propel themselves and he must just trust that they'll keep coming, one after the other, until the ground levels out and the pace slows down and finally all those words make sense again. You ask Harry a question about the organic milk cooperative he is part of, and he'll begin to talk about it, then segue into how Organic has been hijacked by corporations, how those corporations are enabled by corrupt politicians, then into nepotism, populism, the erosion of the Democratic Party since the 1960s, fundamentalist Christians' manipulation of the working man, God's supremacy, Mount Saint Helens, Muhammad All, terrorism, Hillary Clinton, Jerry Falwell, Thomas Jefferson, and the mayor of Sulphur Springs, and as you listen your head spins and you've no clue what his point is. You might try to steer him back to the original question, but you can't get a word in.

Then, suddenly, you arrive with him at the 359th degree. You realize that this rambling promenade has brought you right back to where you started, except now you're looking at it from a whole new angle. From speaking of the mayor of Sulphur Springs, he goes to the democracy of his organic milk cooperative, and how being an active member in that democracy allows him finally, after years in the cutthroat dairy industry, to farm the simple way he does in peace. Whether or not he knew how he was going to get there, he knew where he was going all along.

And then he's off again.

As Harry's mouth sculpts the important words, his face does acrobatics to match. To raise his eyebrows as high as possible, he will stretch out his eyelids to their limit, nearly closing his eyes. Then he'll tip his head back and look out from the slit at the bottom. (This look he reserves mainly for when talking about corrupt politicians.) Or he will drop the shoulder that's nearest you, lean in confidentially, then squeeze shut the eye on your side and turn his head just enough to look at you with his other eye. When thinking of a point, he will stick a forefinger in his eye and scrunch his entire face up around it, as if taking in delivery of new information through his fingertip.

Best of the acrobatics is when he laughs. It begins with his smile, a wide banner of pink gums and long, shiny, perfect denture teeth. He then closes his eyes tight and makes a laughing sound to match the moment-anything from a snicker to a hoo-haw to a breathless, on-the-verge-of-tears, sort of wheezing sound. Sometimes he laughs so hard that he throws his body forward and folds in half, chest laid on top of thighs, arms tucked up in between, and he rocks back and forth, folding and opening, until he runs out of steam. If you laugh with him, he laughs even harder.

All this laughing and deep thought and suspicion of politicians has carved lines in Harry's face. Technically they are wrinkles, but they come across more as the resting position of some very active skin. Really, by all rights he should be wrinkled like a raisin, being sixty-one years old and at the far end of some very hard living, yet he does not look like an old man. He is tall and thin, and strong. In the morning he might limp a little bit with stiffness, but during the rest of the day his walk could be called a swagger. When he grips with his hands, veins pop up through the smooth skin of his arms. His hair is shorn short and nearly always under a hat, so unnoticeable that its gray color will surprise you when he lifts his cap to wipe his brow.

Also, Harry is black. Or African-American, whichever you prefer. He uses both. On one hand it is an integral part of his story, an element that has shaped his experience of life and farming from the start. He resisted the draft for Vietnam because he felt that the United States had not yet fully made him a citizen. ("Your war? You fight it," he remembered saying. "Show me freedom first.") Around the same time he had what he refers to as a "black power period," and was briefly a Black Panther. He remembers meeting the KKK in his town.

On the other hand, race is not his primary identity. He is first a proud Texan, a proud dairyman, a proud native of Hopkins County, and the current head of the Lewis family. Put simply, he wants to be known as a person, not as a black person. He says he's not very popular with some other African-Americans in his community, because they don't like his philosophy. "I say stop pointin fingers and get to work changin things. Back in the Sixties we used to carry signs sayin WE SHALL OVERCOME. Well, I'm not interested in what we shall do. I'm interested in where I am."

The value Harry holds highest, the one that overrides everything else, is that of fairness and equality-in the most literal, fundamental application of the words. Every person gets a life, and every person should have the same fair chance to make that life as good and right as he or she can. Harry is tired of elitist politicians who pronounce themselves important, tired of celebrities and the people who worship them, and sick to death of preachers who claim that we need them to save us. As he sees it, the only true hierarchy is between God and man. "After that," he says, "we all even-steven."

That conviction is what first signaled to me that what Harry had to say was worth listening to. I had a freelance job interviewing and writing short profiles of several dozen members of his organic dairy cooperative. Each one was passionate about being a small farmer in the age of agribusiness, and all were devoted to maintaining a sense of craft in their work despite the industry's pressure to make their farms more like factories. When I called Harry for an interview he spoke about the same ideas as the others, but he linked them to a story bigger than his own, and to a moral code that extended far beyond farming. I asked him who he was, and he replied with the history of dairy farming in Hopkins County, Texas, the history of his own family going back four generations, praise for his wife, for his granddaughter, a treatise on home economics, corporate greed, free enterprise, populism, and a short story about biscuits that demonstrated the power food has to connect people. At the end of our conversation he told me something he had learned from his father, a dairyman before him. The words still ring in my ears. "I learned from him that you worked not to be rich," he said, "but to be free." That's who Harry is.

* * *

The Lewis farm in Sulphur Springs, Texas, is not in the Texas you might imagine. This is not the land of longhorns and lonesome, dusty trails; of oilmen who drive Cadillacs and press the gas with alligator-skin boots. Harry will proudly tell you that this is Texas, but it is East Texas-more South than Southwest. While Dallas/ Fort Worth is the closest metropolis, eighty miles away, Texarkana is only eighty-five going the opposite direction on the freeway. Shreveport, Louisiana, is just a little farther on back roads. This is the Texas of slow-smoked barbecue, all-you-can-eat catfish, and get-up-and- clap-your-hands gospel music.

All of which means that, when I arrive at the farm one Monday morning in June, I am greeted not by a great desert quiet but by a riot of birds. Scissor- tailed flycatchers loop down out of the trees, their long, showy feathers trailing behind. A striped killdeer pecks through the mud. Barn swallows dart and ping and turn on a dime in the air, so many of them I cannot follow one for longer than a few seconds before it's lost in the crowd. In the branches of the big walnut tree that hangs over the barn, there are dozens more that I can only hear: eastern phoebes, cardinals, a mockingbird mimicking a red-shouldered hawk.

I stand watching them a while, then realize something is wrong: There are only birds here. The barnyard is empty of cows, the barn is empty of people. At eight o'clock on Monday morning, even the slowest-moving farm would be in its first stirrings. A dairy farm, though? I would expect activity since the sun rose two hours ago-since before the sun rose. Eight is normally time for a dairy farmer's coffee break.

Then again, Harry Lewis is known for doing things his own way. What's more, he is known for being absolutely sure of that way. He doesn't need others to follow him, but he'll be damned if he'll follow them. Mention his name to people in the Texas dairy business and you're likely to get a strong response-some positive, some not so positive. Over time I've learned that in order to see his eccentricity as the gift that it is, a person has to be patient. So I watch the birds some more. I go back to the milk barn and look in the door, listening for a radio or something. Instead, silence. Birds. I start to wonder what's wrong-I mean, you can't just not milk. Then I hear a screen door slap shut at the house, and across the lawn walks Harry's son, Wynton. He says good morning. He has just woken up. Nothing is wrong.

Wynton is over six feet tall and has one of those invincible-looking bodies people possess only at age twenty-three, when they are as strong as they will ever be. This morning he has thrown on a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and zipped his coveralls only up to his waist, leaving the arms and collar hanging down behind. His dark hair is clipped close to his skull, and over it he wears a black doo-rag. When I first met Wynton I was sure he was a badass, but it turns out he's just shy. As he opens up, he's even quite sweet. When I ask him where the cows are, he says with a chuckle that he was wondering the same thing. He gets on the hulking orange tractor and fires up the motor, then motions for me to come up and sit on the giant wheel well.

Wynton's house, within a stone's throw of the barn, was his late grandfather's house, or at least the one rebuilt on site after a fire some years ago. Harry used to live there, moved years ago to a house built by his late brother on the next property over. The farm driveway is basically the gravelly dead end of the county road. It enters from the west, goes in front of the barn, then the house, then turns to dirt and heads out to the pasture that surrounds the buildings. Tractor rumbling, Wynton and I head down the dirt and into the grass, our eight-inch wheels leaving deep tracks in the soft ground.

The pasture is wide, flat, and round, covered in grass and various other pasture plants. The borders are thick with tall, leafy trees that keep you from seeing very far in any direction. In places strips of trees have even slipped inside the pasture, and this morning that is where Wynton figures the cows are. We approach from the left, slowed by the wet ground but also in no hurry. When the engine's noise reaches the trees, cows appear from out of thin air: moving out of the dark shade, standing up in the tall grass. Even before we get there the first ones walk past us, toward the barn. In retrospect, I believe Wynton was being demure by saying he wondered where they were. I'd bet the cows are in those strips every morning. The process, as it turns out, is less a matter of finding them than of giving them a wake-up call.

Wynton drives the perimeter of the pasture, looping up and down the edges of various strips of trees. As he goes the cows appear and walk. Or they don't, and instead keep lounging or chewing in the shade until the forked arms of the tractor come near enough to roust them into joining the procession back to the barn. At times Wynton gets off the tractor and approaches a cow on foot, hollering if necessary. Is there a secret to it? "No. Once you get them moving, they'll go."

He goes, and they go, and alongside them hundreds of other creatures go in all directions. Out here there are ten times as many birds as there were back at the barn, all swooping and chirping in the morning air. Yellow butterflies flutter around the pink pompom flowers of mimosa trees. Despite the heat the rains have kept the grass lush and green, especially in the shady areas. From my seat the scene is a pastoral fantasy, though I realize that for those directly involved this morning chore is as routine and unremarkable as brushing one's teeth. The cows seem neither happy nor unhappy with it, and the same goes for Wynton. To him, it's just Monday morning at work.

After rousting a few stragglers out of the shade and doing a silent head count, he starts back toward the barn. The cows in front have slowed down, even stopped to graze, and in the rear they are spread out enough that a few can start to slink away. Wynton corrals and hustles them, as much as it is possible to hustle something while on a tractor in mushy grass. He bounces the forklift behind one heifer, swerves behind another that's drifting too far out of line. It's a slow procession, but a procession nonetheless.

Watching from atop the wheel well, I have a good view of the herd. They are various mixtures of various breeds, which means they are golden brown, or black, or white with black spots, or brown with white spots. The biggest ones are no taller than Wynton's shoulders, but mostly their heads come to between his waist and chest. As Harry explains to me later, smaller cows can take the Texas heat. He tells me proudly they are breeding their own cows, and in fact already have two that are native to this very farm. The hulking Holsteins that populate most American dairy farms will stop and lie down as the temperatures rise, but these cows just keep eating. "You can hear them at night," Harry says, mimicking their munching motion with his own mouth.

Looking down at them it occurs to me this is unlike any dairy herd I've seen. At most other dairies in the United States cows are organized into groups by age and kept separate for the sake of efficiency. Here the herd of about eighty animals is milk cows as well as calves, who try to suckle en route to the barn. There are young heifers and heifers ready to be bred, even growing male calves with their sacks starting to fill out and hang behind them. The only thing missing from the family portrait is a bull. This I can understand-dairy farming is all about managing reproduction, and a fourteen-hundred-pound alpha male would not respect the necessary schedule. But I can't understand the calves. The whole point of a dairy farm is to get milk from the mothers; having the calves in with them would be a loss. Over the rumbling engine I ask Wynton, and he gives a simple answer back over his shoulder: "Mamas do a better job raising them than we do."


Excerpted from Deeply Rooted by Lisa M. Hamilton Copyright © 2009 by Lisa M. Hamilton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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