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The Fate of Family Farming: Variations on an American Idea

The Fate of Family Farming: Variations on an American Idea

Author:Ronald Jager
Release Date:2004
Publisher:University of New England Press

By Scott Carlson | Posted 7/14/2004

Flipping through The Fate of Family Farming, one might think itís a book with an identity crisis. It packs a survey of agriculture in early America, literary criticism of agrarian writers, narrative journalism focusing on modern farm families, and a discussion of the economics of globalized, corporatized farming. But Ronald Jagerís book gels beautifully around the central theme mentioned in the title: Whither the family farm?

Perhaps the recent marketability of slow foods and Whole Foods has made the folly of big, industrialized agriculture topical at the moment. Richard Manningís polemical book Against the Grain appeared this spring, one of a number of books about big-vs.-small agriculture this year, and a recent issue of Utne magazine features a package on agriculture, with (typical for Utne) wistful and hopeful articles by the likes of Barbara Kingsolver.

Jager, a former professor of philosophy at Yale, isnít frequently hopefulóthe hard fact is that, on the whole, family farming is dying. But as one who grew up on a farm in Michigan and now owns a hobby farm in New Hampshire, he maintains a romance for old farming methods, rusted old tools, and old farmers themselves, a love that comes out poetically on every page of his book.

He focuses on farming in New England, and how economic, technological, and biological pressures have crushed many farmers, forcing them to give up and sell out. In the middle of the book, he profiles four Northeastern farms selling four products: maple, milk, eggs, and apples. Jager details the personalities and hard work of these modern farmers and connects them to a grand history of agrarian values. His chapter on New England apple farmers, for example, is gilded with allusions to apples in classical literature: Plutarch, King Arthur, Aphrodite, Homer, and, of course, Genesis.

Wrapped around these profiles, Jager presents arguments about where agriculture has been in the United States and where it is going. He effectively conveys the complexity of the problemóhow technology, corporate consolidation, and market forces create a web that has captured most farmersóand offers no easy answers. For example, technology makes it easier to produce more food, but that drives down the price of food, which affects farmersí bottom line. How does one solve that?

But we must find a solution, Jager says. He shows that, after a rough start, farming formed the foundation of the nation and influenced the philosophies of American thinkers like Jefferson, Emerson, and Thoreau. In the 20th century, agrarian writers such as Wendell Berry and Louis Bromfield embraced small farming as quintessentially human and moral, and wrote passionately about the importance of farmers, even as American farms began shutting down and selling out. Now Jagerís book joins theirs, a book as rational as it is romantic. (Scott Carlson)

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