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What An Author Learned Chronicling A Year In The Life Of A Midwest Farm Family

Courtesy Mary Anne Andrei
A grain cart collects corn harvested from one of the Hammond family's fields.

Every year on the farm has its challenges. There are weeds, insects and random hailstorms. Unpredictable global markets can make or break a profitable crop. Recent years, though, have been especially troubling for the Hammond farm in York County in eastern Nebraska.

Rick Hammond raises corn, soybeans and cattle with his wife, Heidi, on land that has been in her family since the 1870s. Their daughter, Meghan, recently joined the farm with her husband Kyle Galloway – the sixth generation of the family to farm the land.

The farm economy for the last four years has been in a slump that many compare to the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. Times are tense and profits are hard to come by.

Rick Hammond farms corn and soybeans and raises cattle on a family farm in eastern Nebraska.
Credit Courtesy Mary Anne Andrei
Rick Hammond farms corn and soybeans and raises cattle on a family farm in eastern Nebraska.

That’s the conflict that author Ted Genoways entered when he set out to chronicle life on a modern family farm. He wrote about the Hammond family for Harper’s, the Food and Environment Reporting Network and in a new book, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm. The book follows the Hammond family farm over the course of a year, detailing daily obstacles like a critical breakdown during soybean harvest and spring planting interrupted by rain.

For Genoways, the Hammond family is also a showcase for the struggles and successes faced by farmers today. Genoways writes about how the Hammond family is influenced by some of the big trends affecting modern agriculture across the globe.

For instance, farm debt is set to reach the highest level since the ‘80s Farm Crisis. The USDA projects total farm debt could reach nearly $390 billion in 2017. For a farmer like Rick Hammond with personal memories of the 1980s, debt is a constant consideration.

“No matter how good it looks on a family farm, there’s still a lot of stress,” Hammond told Genoways. “And when you build a farm and ground is very expensive, why, you get into long-term debt. So then there’s always that monkey on your back that ‘Oh, I’ve got to produce. I’ve got to make this work.’”

According to Genoways, the history of farmers consumed by debt still marks the landscape surrounding the Hammond farm with a kind of “ghost geography,” a leftover of the Farm Crisis that forced so many farmers to sell their land, or lose it in bankruptcy.

“I’m always struck listening to the Hammonds talk about their ground. They almost always refer to it by the name of whoever they acquired it from,” Genoways says. “That always seems to be informing their decisions. They don’t want somebody else with a different last name referring to their ground as ‘the
Old Hammond place.’”

At a time when it can be hard to find steady profits in agriculture, the Hammond family has tried alternatives they hoped would allow them to establish a more lucrative niche. For a time, they planted organic white corn and raised grass-fed cattle, but it never worked financially.

Meghan Hammond is one of Rick and Heidi Hammond's four children, the first to come back to the farm.
Credit Courtesy Mary Anne Andrei
Meghan Hammond is one of Rick and Heidi Hammond's four children, the first to come back to the farm.

These days, they raise the same conventional varieties of corn and soybeans as their neighbors and try to play the global markets to their financial advantage. Genoways says it’s a sign that even when a farmer may sympathize with the ideas behind organic agriculture or likeminded segments of the farm industry, whether or not they use those farming methods often comes down to more than personal ethics.

“I think a lot of people are under the impression that they can change the food system by what they buy at the grocery store and it’s really not that simple,” Genoways says. “It’s got to be about regulation. It’s got to be about incentives that are built into the system. For that to happen requires much broader changes than can happen through consumer habits.”

Farm work may seem isolated: a solitary tractor trundling through a corn field, or a truck rolling down an empty gravel road. But the decisions made by consumers, policymakers and food advocates, Genoways says, really do have an impact on the families trying to make their living on the land.

More from Harvest Public Media’s interview with author Ted Genoways:

HPM: There’s so much technology on the farm - in the seeds, in the tractors. I kind of got the sense that Rick Hammond sometimes has a love/hate relationship with that technology. Is that the case? And does his daughter have a different perspective on that?

GENOWAYS: Maybe every generation regardless of what field you’re in regards the advance of technology as something that is full of promise but also intimidating. You look at somebody like Rick (Hammond) who started with a four-row planter and doing everything by eye and now is there with these huge multi-row planters that are programmed in advance with GPS and the exact seed density is determined by that program. The technology has changed exponentially.

I think there’s a recognition that there’s a huge learning curve there, but there’s also a great advantage in terms of managing resources and making sure you’re only using precious resources like water and seed where you need to. And of course that helps manage your input costs. So, as much as there may be some reluctance about the technology, I think there’s also a recognition that if you’re not keeping up with it while your competition is then you’re putting yourself at risk.

Kyle Galloway steers a combine through rows of soybeans.
Credit Courtesy Mary Anne Andrei
Kyle Galloway steers a combine through rows of soybeans.

HPM: This one farm ends up serving as a really good backdrop for a lot of issues going on in agriculture. For instance, this tension between the mission to feed the growing world population, which a lot of farmers take very seriously, and at the same time the fact that there is this global oversupply of grain right now and that’s what’s holding down the prices that they earn for their crops. What are some ways you saw that playing out on the Hammond farm?

GENOWAYS: Probably the most dramatic way that I saw it was one particular evening early on in the soybean harvest when there was a lot of discussion between Rick and Kyle about whether to continue harvesting that evening or call it quits for the night.

Kyle had called around and found an elevator that was willing to stay open and take their beans at that day’s prices instead of just waiting until morning when the prices would be lower. What struck me about that moment was that Kyle was not just watching what the price at closing had been on the Chicago Board of Trade but was also looking at the futures based on what was happening on the trading floor in China. And it was influencing decisions being made on a quarter-section of ground in York County, Nebraska.

HPM: After spending all this time with Rick Hammond and his family, what did you learn about what it means to be a good farmer?

GENOWAYS: Well, I think that good farmers are the people who really care about the land in all of its facets.

The thing I admire most about Rick is that he’s not just someone who cares about the land in how many bushels per acre it’s producing. He knows the history of the place both in terms of his wife’s family and the history that preceded that. Rick has a great interest in the Native American history that went before and even the deep geological history. And the sense, I think, that you’re a steward of something that’s really ancient. That puts a lot of pressure on you not to just pump out the aquifer in a year when there’s a drought, or overplant when prices are high. You have to be always keeping one eye on the future. And now that he doesn’t just have the next generation, but a grandchild on the land, you can see the tangible outcome of that. That he has, in fact, preserved a place that generations to come can live and farm.

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