Book Review: A Nation of Farmers

A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton. New Society Publishers, 2009

“We face the very real possibility that we and our children may be poorer and hungrier and less healthy than we are…We simply have no choice but to basically alter our food system, to end its dependency on fossil fuel and to bring food security to the table as a central issue of our times.”

In this broad, sprawling book, Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton throw down a challenge. Meeting the crisis of the unsustainable industrial-model of agriculture in America, they declare, requires nothing less than the creation of 100 million new farmers. Before discussing the nuts and bolts of How to get there, they take the reader on a lengthy, but rewarding, journey through issues that include agricultural history, injustice in the food system, urban and rural poverty and the politics of land reform.

Lest one think that this daunting list makes for a dreary reading experience, A Nation of Farmers instead brings a hopeful message, delivered with warmth, wit and bracing practicality. The authors are well qualified to make this exploration. Astyk, a working farmer, writes extensively about homestead management and the effects of climate change and peak oil. Newton operates a web-based information exchange and support network for fledgling food producers.

Food self-provisioning is “the most ordinary of human activities,” what our great-grandmothers and –fathers took for granted as something everyone could and should do. Today, however, the industrial agricultural system and our highly urbanized lifestyles have estranged many of us from knowing how to – or even wanting to --grow fresh, nutritious foods.

A first step to reclaiming our agrarian heritage involves a shift in thinking about what a farm is. The authors convincingly document how the current model --large agribusinesses cultivating acres of the same crop with petroleum-based fertilizers --is doomed both ecologically and economically. A new model begins with greatly increased numbers of food growers using the backyard garden as the “proving ground” for local, small-scale food production for families and extended neighborhoods. Intensively planted garden plots, supplemented with small-scale animal husbandry and expanded fruit tree cultivation, can lead to greater food sufficiency. The U.S. Victory Garden movement of World War II provides an inspiring example for this new agrarian revolution. As part of the Home Front effort, 20 million American families produced food in their own gardens. By 1945 an astonishing 45 per cent of all vegetables eaten in the country were cultivated this way. Today, Astyk and Newton point out, a similar mobilization is needed.

Ramping up the recruitment and training of new farmers is crucial. As the authors point out, the average age of the American farmer is 50 years. But how to achieve this? The book brings an inclusive approach to this question, beginning with the acknowledgement of Native American and African American contributions to our collective agrarian legacy. Additionally, the authors write, we need to carefully consider the value of the mostly-Latino workforce that grows and harvests our food today: “What we deem as our ‘immigration problem’ would look very different if we realized that the great wealth of agricultural knowledge and skill in our nation is in the bodies of those we think of as primarily illegal.”

Education and land-use policy change, too, are urgently needed. The explosive growth of community-supported agriculture, community gardens, and Farm-to-School meal programs in recent years underlines the appeal of these alternatives to potentially millions of Americans, most of them living in cities. The new models contribute skills, social stability, and income-generating benefits that can’t be outsourced.

Who will enjoy and benefit from this book? As a volume with a little bit of everything – interviews with leading environmentalists, a cooking primer and recipes, activism and organizing tips, a comprehensive resource list – A Nation of Farmers qualifies as a general reference on food sustainability. More importantly, its breezy tone also will appeal to younger readers and, in fact, is recommended for high school curriculum. The authors understand and champion the use of new communications technologies that shape youths’ realities– video, social networks, and popular culture, including music (pointing out, for example, that scores of the songs that ignited and sustained the Civil Rights movement were rich with lyrics about abundant land and nourishment.)

Engaging the emerging generation of potential young farmers means promoting the desirability of farming as a career choice and a social norm. “We need to make it clear that all the cool kids care about food. Peer pressure is good (this time.) Come up with a slogan. Do something funny. We can’t afford to be boring.”

With its accessible style and buoyant message, A Nation of Farmers provides a welcome addition to the growing canon of books leading the transition to a sustainable future.