Consider the size of the agriculture industry in the United States. We buy so much food that we throw away nearly 100 billion pounds of edible food every year, so it stands to reason we produce a hell of a lot, even given our penchant for imported goods, both trashy and gourmet.
Even if you are not the sort who milks your own goat, personally knows some farmers or keeps a running tally of how much asparagus is grown annually in California (approximately 50,000 tons), the sheer enormity of what people consume each day (not to mention the increasing enormity of those of us doing the eating) is indication enough that food is a gigantic business.
Therefore, we can deduce, even against the monochromatic face of agribusiness, there are thousands and thousands of small, independent, innovative, hard-headed, charismatic, off-beat—unconventional, even—farmers who are doing things their own way. How could one ever, as Lisa M Hamilton did for her book, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, choose only three to write about?
The short answer is that three is a manageable number. It’s a number that allows Hamilton, a more than capable writer, to create intimate and prolonged studies of the farmers she features while still holding to an industry-standard 312 pages. Her choices—a dairy farmer in Texas, a cattleman in New Mexico and a clan of organic neo-hicks in North Dakota—are ethnically diverse (African American; Hispanic, more specifically, Genízaro; and, uh, people from North Dakota) but depressingly less varied in terms of food groups. When two out of three “unconventional farmers” are obsessed with cows, there’s a semantic—if not a logical—problem.
Certainly there is a world of difference between dairy farming and raising beef cattle, but that two thirds of Hamilton’s farmers rarely handle seed feels limited, to say the least. It may be correctly reflective of agribusiness, but what’s unconventional (or deeply rooted) about that? Fortunately, bovine favoritism is the most disappointing aspect of Deeply Rooted.
Arguably more offensive is Hamilton’s insistence that her portrait of Virgil Trujillo, a 10th-generation Abiquiu cattleman, be presented in the philosophical framework of the Billy Crystal movie City Slickers.
Really? City Slickers? Couldn’t Hamilton have used The Man Who Fell to Earth or Powwow Highway or Walker, Texas Ranger’s “Last of a Breed” or any of the other more genuinely philosophical productions filmed in New Mexico?
No, because City Slickers has a slapstick cattle drive, was filmed in Abiquiu and accidentally portrays a castrated male steer giving birth. Thanks.
The book makes it clear Trujillo was chosen as a subject because he has ideas about what the village of Abiquiu should be doing with its common property. Abiquiu is one of the very few Spanish land grants that has retained its ejido—16,000 and some acres intended to be used for the common livelihood of the village through grazing, hunting, forestry and farming. Today, the ejido is in the hands of a little more than 70 people and is used more for recreation than as a sustainable resource. It’s a compelling situation, especially for northern New Mexicans, but Trujillo’s dreams fall flat against the book’s other situations: the very real battle with the current dairy farming crisis and the race to inure important crops to global warming.
That said, Trujillo and Hamilton’s other subjects are all engaging characters and their portraits are well-crafted enough to put a very human face on small farming in America. Hamilton’s fine-tuned balance of personal narrative, regional history and the specter of big industry make for an insightful investigation into the challenges of contemporary farming.
Even though Hamilton narrows her focus to the extent that Deeply Rooted doesn’t capture the breadth that it might have otherwise, she still conveys the raw truth that a positive food future lies in the hands of irascible individuals rather than corporations and captains of industry.