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In 'This Blessed Earth,' The Outdated Romance Of The Family Farm

A road several miles north of Neligh, Neb.
Nati Harnik
A road several miles north of Neligh, Neb.

Lincoln is just 40 miles into Nebraska and yet there's almost no one between that city and the state's far western border.

That's how journalist and author Ted Genoways sees it. He spent a year studying a family farm in sparsely-populated York County, an hour outside Lincoln, and writes about it in his new book, This Blessed Earth.

"Nebraska is a land of ghosts of small towns dwindling to the point where in another generation they might simply cease to exist," he says. "You can drive for hours essentially seeing only flatlands planted with corn and soybeans, occasionally dotted with with hog barns and feed lots for cattle."

Mechanization and consolidation have produced larger farms manned by fewer people, leaving less demand in places like York for the services that keep small towns alive: schools and doctors' offices and restaurants.

That doesn't sit well with a nation founded on the idea of the yeoman farmer, and it prompts nostalgic call for a return to a simpler time.

Not from Meghan Hammond. "The people who say, 'This is all brand-new development and it's easily reversed'," she told Genoways, "don't know what ... they're talking about."

Hammond's parents are the fifth generation to farm their land, and she knows they've benefited from a century of industrialization, making farms that yield more product with less effort and danger — both physical and financial.

Hybrid seeds, irrigation systems, and precision equipment have been developed to mitigate catastrophic losses from adverse weather. The Hammonds employ all those tools in York County, and also rely on chemicals to ward off weeds and disease from their corn, soybeans, and cattle.

And yet the family isn't hostile to environmentalists or organic food advocates. They've fought the Keystone XL pipeline and tried to produce more organic row crops as well as grass-fed beef. It's just that, as Genoways describes, activists' ideals don't always align perfectly with farmers' realities.

"We think of farming as being this kind of bucolic activity where the farmers are out in their fields, sort of away from the cares of the world — able to commune with nature, with their crops, with the livestock, and to set the worries of the world aside," Genoways explains. "The reality is that many of the largest issues facing us today pass directly through the farm country."

Like world trade.

"Farmers today are keenly aware of what's happening in global commodities markets and what's happening with trade policies," Genoways says. "I think in many ways farmers are more directly impacted by global issues today than almost any other single profession."

But for as much as Nebraska farmers feel connected to world markets, they feel domestically overlooked and disconnected.

"We're now reaching a point where the farmers who have remained on the land are quite isolated and often face long trips just to get to anyplace where there might be a school or there might be some sort of cultural activity," Genoways says.

He points out that towns no longer host a local paper or radio station focusing on local issues "so now the way that the news arrives to farming communities is through AM radio, which is often talk radio all day long and is very often conservative talk radio."

That's one explanation Genoways sees for Donald Trump taking the vast majority of the farm vote in 2016 even though he ran on a platform hostile to trade agreements: "We are in the odd situation that the people who most supported a candidate were supporting him at the same time that he was staunchly opposing things that are are necessary for the current agricultural system to continue."

Genoways doesn't see a quick fix for the emptying of America's farmland and the alienation of the farmer.

"We're close to having systems that plant automatically, that irrigate automatically, that harvest automatically, with no human beings involved in the process at all — maybe a crew to bring equipment to the edge of the field and set it up but that's it," he says.

It could be that soon the Hammonds will no longer directly interact with the Nebraska land their family has farmed for five generations.

"That technology," he says, "is a lot closer than I think people realize."

This story was adapted for the web by Ed McNulty.

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro
Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.