« Return to this article

Know the West

For farmers, small is beautiful


Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness
Lisa M. Hamilton
309 pages, hardcover: $25.
Counterpoint, 2009.

Few of the authors behind the recent glut of information on — and the impassioned opinions about — our modern food system have done the obvious: Spend time with farmers. But in her new book, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, writer Lisa Hamilton does just that, introducing the reader to three small farmers who have successfully resisted obliteration: a dairyman in Texas, a rancher in New Mexico and a family of organic farmers in North Dakota. Her wry, well-written profiles are interwoven with explanations of the forces that have made such family operations so rare today.

Hamilton describes how the introduction of cheap fossil fuels changed farming by dispensing with the need for so much human labor. (Food subsequently became cheaper, reducing the small farmer’s bottom line.) She muses about why traditional collective bargaining has never been an option for farmers. (They can’t go on strike: Cows have to be milked and crops harvested.) And she explains how industrial agriculture became self-perpetuating. (Large operations flood the market with their products, driving down prices, upping demand and requiring even greater production.) In the process of telling the story of these three small farmers, Hamilton provides a solid pocket history of modern agriculture.   

Her protagonists have managed to buck the trend only through some creative maneuvering. The dairyman’s small operation is profitable because he belongs to an organic milk cooperative that provides a predictable income –– a kind of  "collective bargaining" that does work for farmers. New Mexico rancher Virgil Trujillo — whose ranching roots go back 10 generations — makes his living working on a dude ranch even as he follows a model of communal ranching based on an 18th century Spanish land grant. The North Dakota family has gone back to the old ways: They save money on food by growing all the food they eat, and escape the tyranny of corporate seed patenting by breeding their own plant varieties. 

Hamilton depicts a world where farmers can be sued for saving their own seed, where dairies have ballooned to 10,000 cows, where a rancher gets only about 90 cents from a $7 steak. Yet she leaves the reader feeling hopeful. The small farmers she comes to know are "the faithful, the ones who believe, despite everything society shows them, that what they are doing is worth it — that it is vital." It would behoove the rest of us, Hamilton implies, to remember that.