Practical Food for a Practical Future: A Review of Michael M. Bell’s “Farming For Us All.”

by Liam Hysjulien

Last year Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry—two eminent figures within the environmental and sustainable agricultural movement—wrote that “our present ways of agriculture are not sustainable, and so our food supply is not sustainable.” If these authors’ predictions are even remotely correct, the future of food systems in this country is dire. In its current state, the usage of Big Ag practices—heavy reliance on petroleum-based machines, usage of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), accruement of large debt, and the declining median-age of farmers—puts our food systems in a dangerous position. It is easy, when talking to people about a possible future food crisis, to sound overly dramatic about the situation. Still, the weight of current evidence—the continuous erosion of topsoil (a resource as valuable and scarce as potable water), the declining incomes of small farms, and the ever-increasing global population—makes it hard to ignore the warning signs. With a growing awareness towards food production in this country, it seems as if many people are no longer ascribing to a dated Green Revolution adage:  Whatever you want to eat will be available always.

In Michael M. Bell’s book “Farming For Us All”, themes of big agriculture, loss of land, and costs of farming are not merely explored, but seamlessly woven into a story of dedication, community, and the love of farming and the land. Bell orients his book around a series of interviews of members of the sustainable farming organization, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). In using the stories and responses of the PFI members, Bell explores how changes in farming practices have moved agriculture away from the romantic (often by people who don’t farm themselves) image of pastoral, green landscapes into a new frontier of monitoring price commodities, heavy machinery, and aggressive undercutting of your neighbor’s acres. It is through the usage of personal narratives that Bell arrives at the crux of his argument: the importance and uniqueness of sustainable farming lies in its dedication towards community and dialogue. The reality of contemporary farming is that community relationships have largely been replaced by the avaricious nature of “treadmill of production” farming.  It is within Bell’s book that we see how members of the PFI use the organization as a means of engaging in dialogues with others and strengthening a sense of self.   Instead of strictly seeing farming within economic terms, PFI members have a more holistic approach towards the idea and practice of farming. For these farmers, being a member of PFI is a process of opening oneself up to feedback, advice and self-reflection. It is through this process that new practices emerge, entrenched ideas become challenged, and cultural ties become forged. It is this need for community that seems to resonate so strongly with our—to use the Weberian term—Protestant Work Ethic. If we are, as some political polls would lead you to believe, moving towards a Libertarian temperament in this country, farming would seem to epitomize those values.  Even so, there is something woefully misleading in idolizing the isolated, rugged individual. We, as a nation, are more than a collection of fearful and jealous capitalists. No money, or land, or crops can fully compete with the need for fellowship, for community, for the importance of dialogue with each other.

It is in this way that Bell sees farming as being a practice that we all can understand. As we seem to be transitioning into a new era of farming, it will become increasingly likely that sustainable farming, community supported agriculture (CSA), and buying direct from the farmer, will become more prevalent.  Unless all predictions are incorrect, the sun seems to be setting on the industrial farming model.  While the future of food and farming in America is impossible to fully predict, it seems that our understanding of food will continue to grow.  In the future, people won’t wander aimlessly through the grocery aisles, being blissfully unaware of where this food came from, how it was grown, and the person who grew it.

Michael Bell’s book offers us insight into both the world and future of sustainable farming. We see how sustainable farming has helped farmers traverse the difficult path from industrial farming into new identities, relationships and perspectives.  Hopefully the seemingly endless year of 2009 will turn out to have helped usher in a new era of reflection in this country.  Instead of valuing individuals who cut tracts of derivatives into complex, meaningless formulas, our support will shift towards the individuals who engage in tangibles—the cutting of wheat, feeding of cattle, the rising of the sun, the feeding of people, the tending of the earth, the growing of knowledge, identities and food. There is a naiveté in this thinking, but sometimes that’s what all of us need.

To learn more about the Practical Farmers of Iowa, visit their website at: http://www.practicalfarmers.org/


Liam Hysjulien is a graduate student in sociology at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.  His areas of study are Food Systems Theory, food sustainability, food policies, and urban agricultural projects.

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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2 Responses to Practical Food for a Practical Future: A Review of Michael M. Bell’s “Farming For Us All.”

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