Between the current blossoming of interest in food and our busy, stressful lifestyles, it’s easy to be nostalgic for the romance of the farm – on which the majority of us have never even lived. Waking up to pastoral scenes painted in watercolor by the morning dawn, harvesting fresh greens and crisp cucumbers right before that evening’s dinner…it sounds like perfection. But this idyllic farm is a far stretch from the everyday reality the average farmer in the American heartland experiences. In Ted Genoways’ brilliant work of literary journalism, This Blessed Earth, he portrays what a day in the life actually looks like, as he follows a farming family in Nebraska for a year.
I started reading This Blessed Earth expecting a tale of what life on a farm in middle America actually looks like, but I was pleasantly surprised by the history lessons so artfully woven in. Genoways achieved a beautiful balance of historical background, current events, and the personal stories of a hard-working family. He continuously demonstrated – through historic examples and personal accounts – the inherent challenges of farming. High farming input prices combined with the low selling prices of crops like corn and soybeans (major crops grown by many farmers in our nation) translate into many farmers struggling to stay afloat. As Rick (one of the main characters followed throughout the book) points out, “They say farmers are the world’s biggest optimists. You have to be optimistic in this business, just to keep going – or at least have an awful short memory.” To do a job where the weather is your boss and food prices are so volatile, it takes an optimistic – and I would argue brave – individual indeed.
Genoways often makes readers pause and reconsider preconceptions about farming they may have brought to the table. As in much of life, few issues in farming are pure black-and-white. Life on a modern American farm is hard work on many levels, and as outsiders it can be all too easy to pass judgement. One instance that really reminded me of the multi-faceted challenges farmers face was Meghan’s (another main character) response to a comment by Genoways. He remarked on people simply asking why we can’t all go back to raising organics. I won’t give away Meghan’s answer, but I think that her comments serve to remind us that behind issues we may oversimplify, there are historical and cultural precedents that culminated in our current systems.
Genoways’ This Blessed Earth deserves the accolades it received, with Civil Eats naming it one of their favorite food and farming books of 2017 and the Smithsonian declaring it one of the ten best history books of 2017. So pick up a copy and see how accurate the picture of the farm in your mind (or heart) actually is.