Many in Eastern Iowa are “getting religion” about local and sustainable agriculture. Farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organizations, organic farms, and “buy local” initiatives are all increasing. One section of Gary Holthaus’s new book on agriculture, From the Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know about Agriculture (University Press of Kentucky, $50), is entitled “Farming in America: Who Cares?” This is also an overarching question of the tome. A lot of folks in our area care, but more need to do so. Holthaus explains why from multiple perspectives. How we grow, harvest, market, purchase, and consume our food has profound implications for the fate of our communities, our land, our bodies, and our world.
I’ve invoked religion and spirituality, not only because Holthaus and some of the farmers he interviews speak directly about the spiritual aspects of agriculture, but also because parts of the book are as much sermon as they are argument.
Holthaus is quite adept at explaining the science, crunching the numbers, and explicating the policy. With convincing skill, he tips over sacred cows, demonstrating in precise detail how our government’s farm policy, now integrated with international free trade agreements, is rigged to benefit transnational corporations and global commodities markets at the expense of family farms, food diversity, and healthy agricultural products, despite the homey rhetoric of our politicians to the contrary. In the course of such analyses, the author encourages farmers—and us as a society—to change our priorities, even in hard economic terms. For example, farmers should focus more on profit than production, which are not necessarily related. Agribusiness encourages, even requires, high production, which actually reduces per-acre profits. The lure of farm subsidies is great, but catching that seemingly golden ring requires a massive, monocultural production of commodity crops necessitating huge investments of land, equipment, and chemicals, leading to massive debt—all in an environment where actual production costs exceed market prices. Aside from the environmental degradation of this kind of industrial production, the “get big or get out” mentality literally sucks the life out of our rural communities and puts unhealthful, tasteless, and non-diverse food “products” on our grocery store shelves.
But as we diminish the quality and diversity of agriculture, we also diminish our society and our spirit. Holthaus’s book ends up being inspirational as much as it is informational. The first section of the book emphasizes the need for stories by relating those of farmers from Minnesota and Iowa committed to sustainable practices, the stories of their production techniques and experiments, their connections to the land and to agricultural heritage, their values and commitments to land and community. At the end of the book, Holthaus explicates the values he sees at work within the souls and practices of these small farmers, such as intentionality, tenacity, daring, attentiveness, altruism, and joy. These are stubborn yet imaginative, generous people who are willing to try different methods that honor land and serve the community, often opting out of the “mainstream” agricultural economy to do so. In their actions and in their spirit, Holthaus derives optimism for a future in which we all claim our proper stake in the ways we produce and consume our food, and in which we restore food’s place in building community and culture. Ironically, nearly all of the interviewees do not share his optimism, yet they soldier on—which, of course, is one source of Holthaus’s optimism.
In perhaps his most prophetic moment, Holthaus observes that the global industrial agriculture under which we presently suffer will—and must—collapse of its own weight. When it does so, the good practices and local systems many are now implementing will remain. It may sound like a ridiculous stretch to say so, but by the end of Holthaus’s book you will realize how shopping at the farmer’s market will save civilization. Not a bad reason to care about how your food gets from the farm to the table.