Drilling corn on a fine April day from an open tractor dragging a Kinsey eight-row planter, one must pay careful attention while planting out the terraces and making the turns at the ends of the fields without taking out the fences. There are opportunities as well, however—opportunities to smell the richness of the earth, to watch a cooper’s hawk hovering above the tractor wheel waiting for a field rat to pop out, to see the coyote on the other side of the fence getting on with his hunting, the cubs in the den on the south-facing hill hungry. For all of his intensive participation in the technology of contemporary agriculture (the $120,000 articulated tractors, the $80,000 combines, the $20,000 discs), in the network of feed and seed dealers, of propane and fuel dealers, of bankers and elevator managers and grain brokers, of PIKs and futures trading, of grain embargoes and set-asides and Sodbuster programs administered by the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), the farmer still remains connected to the soil in ways the vast majority of Americans, city-dwellers now, may find hard to understand or appreciate. Richard Rhodes’s fine book will do much to foster such an understanding and appreciation. Unsentimental and clear-eyed, Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer is an ethnographic account of a year in the lives of a Missouri farm family, the product of Rhodes’s spending a year with the family. (He changes their names and the names of the communities to protect their privacy, however, anyone familiar with that area of central Missouri north of Warrensburg and east of Kansas City could probably direct the reader to the farms in question.) Accurate in most of the technical aspects of the farming life he portrays (he errs in referring to the wheat Tom Bauer plants as “soft winter wheat,” when the proper designation is “hard” winter wheat), Rhodes presents an effective and balanced portrayal of a “corn, hogs, and soybean” operation characteristic of much of America’s agricultural heartland. Even when the details of the particular crops and livestock produced differ from those of other areas, the interdependence of farmer, banker, broker, agricultural businesses, and governmental agencies remains the same. The contemporary yeoman farmer, while regarding himself (or herself) as independent in the day-to-day decisions of agricultural stewardship and management, is part of an enormous network of businesses and regulators that works to bring food to the tables of the nation and the world. It is a wonder that it works so well.
It does not, however, work without challenges. In bringing the reader into the lives of Tom and Sally Bauer and their three children—Wayne, Brett, and Sammi—Rhodes describes a German Catholic family, farmers for generations since the mid- nineteenth century emigration of Franz Bauer from Germany to Missouri and back into the mists of history in Germany before then. Anyone who grew up in the American Midwest, whether of German descent or not, knows families such as the Bauers: the Beiers, the Schultzes, the Franks, and on and on. These are some of the men and women who have helped to bring American agriculture to the pinnacle of productive success it occupies today, despite the challenges each farmer must face every year. Rhodes’s genius is that he is able to depict these challenges within the context of day-to-day life on a successful farming operation. Bauer’s operation comprises more than twelve hundred acres of land, most of which he farms on shares for others, but some of which he owns himself. The weather is one constant challenge. At every point in the cycle of preparing the ground, planting, growing, and harvesting, the farmer is dependent upon the presence or absence of rain and sunshine, of heat and cold. Not enough rain during the growing cycle and the corn, the soybeans, the wheat, the grain sorghums, or other crops will not develop and mature to profitable production levels. Too much rain—or rain at the wrong time, say at harvest—and the mature crop may rot in the fields. Thus, the farmer is keenly attuned not only to daily, weekly, and monthly weather but also to the larger cycles of wet and dry that are characteristic of America’s breadbasket.
Rhodes opens his book with a direct example of the struggle a farmer has with the weather to harvest his crops. Combining soybeans in the dark on a cold January night in a neighbor’s field is an experience few people would care to duplicate, but that is what Tom Bauer and some of his neighbors are doing in chapter 1. A neighbor was unable to get his beans harvested because of a very wet fall, so Tom and several of the other neighbors have brought their combines over to run as long as the ground is frozen solid enough to support these enormous grain factories on wheels. When the top few...
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