Genoways lucked into finding subjects who are extraordinarily frank, who let him into their personal lives with a clear trust, but perhaps also with a sense that trusting him is among their few hopes. As Meghan, making the case for small farmers, tersely asks: 'Are you ready to go raise your own food?' This book is bigger than the Hammonds. They are a thread through which Genoways recounts generations of agricultural history. Earl Butz, the Russian grain deal, Cargill, Monsanto, the Homestead Act, the Keystone pipeline, climate change — they all are put in context with their impact on farming, which then has an impact on the price of our potato chips. Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine many who’ll read this book without a personal link to farming to draw them in. But The Blessed Earth is a history book, an economics text, even a soap opera of sorts. If we eat, we should know.
...a cleareyed and unsentimental look at how farming has become relentlessly optimized by automation, markets and politics ... Hammond, with his cowboy hat and thousand-yard stare, can feel like an archetype, but Meghan, his daughter, is a more raw personality. Funny and salty, she’s fully aware that farming is a gamble in which the house always wins, but she is still eager to embrace the incredibly complex skills of the modern farmer ... When Genoways moves away from the subject of the Hammonds, he writes with authority on plant breeding, water rights and, in a particularly interesting example, Henry Ford’s early evangelizing for soy as an ingredient for car parts, an initiative that led Fortune to write, 'There is a bushel of soya beans in every Ford car.' Sometimes, though, we end up in the weeds. A long section about irrigation, for example, overwhelms with technical details and historical arcana.
In his compelling narrative, journalist Genoways gives the reader a kitchen-table view of the vagaries, complexities and frustrations of modern farming, beginning with the 2014 harvest, when the Hammonds were 'wrestling with how to run the farm in the future' ... Insightful and empathetic, Genoways interweaves the family’s personal stories, with the factors impacting their decision making: fluctuating markets; trade deals, the rise of agribusiness and mega farms that affect profit margins; the development and widespread use of genetically modified crops, herbicides and pesticides weighed against potential long-term environmental damage; and the stress heavy irrigation places on water sources, such as the aquifer that supplies groundwater for Nebraska and eight other states from South Dakota to Texas.
A Nebraska native, Genoways tells the story with genuine honesty and historical awareness, explaining how the 'American farm underwent a period of unmatched innovation in the early twentieth century' with the introduction of gas-powered tractors and harvesting combines. But big corporations have now taken over, forcing cross-pollination 'to produce robust seed corn' and promoting pesticide-heavy crops, which are more resistant and have higher yields. Genoways delivers a close-up look at what farmers face today and their efforts to accomplish their goals.
Although much of this history has been told before, Genoways’s account is unique for his dogged research and for his mastery in showing how these events have impacted farmers, their families, and the land. As the narrative moves to present day, the Hammonds’ fate collides with climate change, the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and the diplomancy of the Bush and Obama adminstrations. By following a single family through time, the book captures the complex reality of farmers in America today both in terms of the future of the industry and of their everyday lives. It is an unvarnished portrait striking for both its depth and humanity.
Genoways is a Nebraskan but did not grow up on a farm. He is a master at portraying the unique qualities of this Midwestern state but a novice about the intricacies of earning a living as a family farmer ... The narrative is more or less chronological, following the seasons, but the author occasionally diverges to explore the characters of his protagonists and of farmers in general. For example, Rick can be generous to a fault with fellow farmers yet simultaneously competitive about crop growth—in this zero-sum game, every neighbor who sells higher might mean Rick selling slightly lower. Meghan’s back story is especially fascinating, as the author chronicles why she intended to leave farming but ended up pulled back in to the profession. Genoways memorably captures the difficult lives nonindustrial farmers lead in order to feed the world.