Unconventional Farmers: An Introduction

I’m pleased to be guest-blogging in conjunction with the release of my new book, Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. The book tells three stories, of an African-American dairy farmer in East Texas, a tenth-generation rancher in New Mexico, and a sort of modern pioneer family in North Dakota. In their own ways, they are all “unconventional,” meaning they defy the tyrannical system of conventional agriculture. What they are doing is nothing less than redefining what it means to be an American farmer.

I explain the growing movement of unconventional farmers in the book’s introduction:

What binds these people is not a particular farming method, but rather the conviction that as humans, the contributions they make are essential. Conventional agriculture doesn’t need people for much more than to run the machines and carry the debt, but these people refuse that lifeless role. To the work, they bring their intellects and their consciences, their histories and their concerns for the future. In quiet ways, in quiet places, they have set about correcting the damage that has come from believing agriculture could actually be reduced to numbers alone. The first step: reclaim their place in the center of the equation.

Over the past century humans have been gradually pruned out of the practice of agriculture, but only recently have we begun scrutinizing the food system that that has wrought. The characters in this book demonstrate that at the core of any sustainable, alternative food system lie the things that only individual farmers can bring: intimate relationships to place, working knowledge of particular pieces of land, not to mention emotion, wisdom, and values beyond mere dollar signs. In short, what they bring to agriculture is their humanity, and that is irreplaceable.

For the next two weeks I’ll be posting stories about unconventional farmers (from the book and beyond), who are using that humanity to address some of the major environmental issues challenging our food system, including climate change, depleted fresh water and energy resources, and declining biodiversity. Follow along and you’ll find stories of dickcissels, river otters, a herd of cows enlisted to help fight global warming, and more.

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