Deeply Rooted reads like a novel, heavy with atmosphere and packed with powerful, sometimes quirky characters. It could well be a mystery story in which the sleuth investigates the serial deaths of family farms. Sadly, it isn’t fiction.
The loss of small farms may be directly attributed to a 1964 report from the Committee for Economic Development that proclaimed an ‘excess of resources’ in agriculture and urged migration away from the farm. “Conventional agriculture doesn’t need people for much more than to run the machines and carry the debt,” explains Lisa M. Hamilton. Her purpose for writing Deeply Rooted is to remind us that unconventional agriculture – the small farms and hands-on farmers—still exists despite the mob-boss mentality that would happily crush the non-compliant rebels who insist on familiarity with their farms and their crops.
In Sulphur Springs, Texas, Hamilton finds one of those old-fashioned farmers. Harry Lewis raises milk cows, a herd of around 80 animals of varying ages and breeds. The cows roam in the pasture and, for the most part, live their lives as nature intended. Each cow is milked by hand in a barn that is older than Harry’s grown son. This operation is nothing like the average dairy, where cow-clones live in cubicles and are milked by machines. Harry Lewis calls that a penitentiary.
Some of us think we’ve solved the problem of the incarcerated cow by purchasing organic milk from the mega-mart. After all, it’s a rule that milk labeled ‘organic’ must come from cows that have access to pasture. Having ‘access’, of course, isn’t the same as actually grazing on pasture land. Roaming cows require attention, energy, and care, which eats into Harry’s profits. The penitentiary is making money hand over fist, while Harry Lewis and others like him have to take day jobs to keep their farms afloat.
Like Harry, Virgil Trujillo in New Mexico works for someone else to support his dream of being a cattle rancher. He already owns land and cattle, but giving up his steady income would be a gamble:
“Whatever price is offered when he sells his calves, that’s the price he gets. The ranching business … is like playing a poker game in which the other players control the cards and make your bets for you.” It’s a gamble worth taking for Virgil, who believes that the land is sacred and the people are the soul of the land. His vision “is to trust in the experience of people who have lived on and worked with the land… and invest in the creativity that can come from their knowledge.”
In LaMoure County, North Dakota, on the opposite side of the universe from Virgil Trujillo’s desert, corn grows in perfectly aligned rows, identical stalks blocking out the sun. As with cows, standardized corn is easier to manage, reducing costs to the grower and increasing yields which lead to greater profits. Monster machines prowl the fields to plant and harvest -
“The very nature of these commodity crops is to eliminate people from the rural landscape.”
The Podoll family grows a kitchen garden as well as their commodity crop, all of it organic. In 1974, David Podoll set out to prove that organic methods are pointless, but his research converted him to traditional farming methods instead. “When David decribes the agricultural system he is working to create… he doesn’t use the word organic… [or] sustainable… The word he prefers is enduring…”
Deeply Rooted is a profile of three families struggling to maintain their connection to the land and traditional lifestyle. Hamilton contrasts the spirit-infused farming of these families with the big-business method of mechanization using subtle strokes and powerful images. The heroes in her story are clearly the Harrys and the Virgils and the Davids who stand against the mob bosses with only their moral certainty and a handful of faith. Anyone who eats will find epiphany in Deeply Rooted; whether or not this story has a happy ending remains to be seen.