Cover image for Farming for Us All: Practical Agriculture and the Cultivation of Sustainability By Michael Mayerfeld Bell

Farming for Us All

Practical Agriculture and the Cultivation of Sustainability

Michael Mayerfeld Bell


$116.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02386-1

$40.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02387-8

312 pages
6.125" × 9.25"
26 b&w illustrations

Rural Studies

Farming for Us All

Practical Agriculture and the Cultivation of Sustainability

Michael Mayerfeld Bell

“Mike Bell’s new book immerses the reader at once into the science of rural sociology, the practical art of farming, and the uncertainties of rural life—a delightful and informative read for farmer, university professional, or anyone interested in the sociology of rural communities. Bell’s scholarly method, ‘dialogue with practical implications,’ combines academic rigor with personal and heart warming anecdotes, providing the reader with a comprehensive understanding of farming and rural life and how to move toward sustainability.”


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Winner of a 2005 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

It is easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed by all the threats facing modern agriculture—threats to the environment, to the health and safety of our food, to the economic and cultural viability of farmers and rural communities. Hundreds of thousands of farmers leave their farms every year as the juggernaut of "big agriculture" plows across our rural landscape. But there are viable alternatives to big agriculture, as many farmers and others involved in agriculture, including consumers, are discovering. In Farming for Us All Michael Mayerfeld Bell offers crucial insight into the future of a viable sustainable agriculture movement in the United States.

Based on interviews and years of close interaction with over 60 Iowa farm families, Bell answers two critical questions concerning sustainable agriculture: why some farmers are becoming sustainable farmers and why, as yet, most are not. The first part of the book describes how the structure of agriculture—that nexus of markets, regulations, subsidies, and technology—has created a situation in which farmers are paid to undermine their own economic and social security, as well as the security of the land. The second part explores why, nevertheless, most Iowa farmers carry on with these destructive practices. Farming is a pressured endeavor, and farmers find themselves relying on recipes of knowledge to get them through the latest crisis, with little opportunity to explore some other way—even if they think what they know how to do isn’t likely to work very well for them. You have to go with what you know.

And yet some farmers resist the tide of big agriculture. In the third part of the book, Bell examines Iowa’s largest sustainable agriculture group, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), and finds a new model of social relations at work. Members of PFI seek to create an agriculture that engages others—farmers, university researchers, government officials, and consumers alike—in a common conversation about what agriculture might look like, but without insisting that a common conversation requires a common vision. Instead, PFI members come to relish their differences as sources of learning and new ideas. Through dialogue, these PFI members seek to crossbreed knowledge, to create pragmatic knowledge that gets the crops to grow in ways that sustain families, communities, societies, economies, and environments. Herein lies the heart of the cultivation of practical agriculture, an agriculture that roots action in dialogue and dialogue in action, and thereby sustains them both. In an increasingly fractured and untrusting world, this is a cultivation worthy of all our interests.

Farming for Us All gives us the opportunity to explore the possibilities for social, environmental, and economic change that practical, dialogic agriculture presents. It therefore represents an important step forward in our search for a viable sustainable agriculture in the United States.

“Mike Bell’s new book immerses the reader at once into the science of rural sociology, the practical art of farming, and the uncertainties of rural life—a delightful and informative read for farmer, university professional, or anyone interested in the sociology of rural communities. Bell’s scholarly method, ‘dialogue with practical implications,’ combines academic rigor with personal and heart warming anecdotes, providing the reader with a comprehensive understanding of farming and rural life and how to move toward sustainability.”
“Michael Bell recognizes and describes wonderfully the continuing dialogue that is going on between people and the land. He truly captures the meaning of practical, sustainable agriculture both in its daily work and in its dreams of what it could be in the future.”
Farming for Us All challenges our accepted national dedication to power farming and the notion that bigger is better. By putting a human face on the work, culture, and meaning of sustainable agriculture, Michael Bell performs an important service for a movement sometimes seen as preachy and self-righteous by mainstream farmers.”
“Bell makes an important contribution to the literature on modern agriculture in the United States. His approach combines qualitative research on farm families with a phenomenological theoretical framework. The result is a compelling and personal narrative picture of how a group of Iowa farmers have changed their cultivation practices from ‘Big Ag’ to smaller-scale, more environmentally friendly practices.”
Farming for Us All is a very well-written book that speaks to many of the salient issues in the sociology of food and agriculture. It deserves placement as a seminal text in Sociology of Agriculture courses in Rural Sociology.”
Farming for Us All is an important book, full of living voices and ideas that we all can learn from. Sustainable agriculture remains an open question without a single answer. It requires much more of the kind of candid and often difficult dialogue that is represented in these pages.”
“The book is situated squarely in one of the fundamental, complex tensions of our agricultural ideals of agrarian life and the realities of economic power. Farming for Us All is a fair, if passionately supportive assessment of the state of sustainable agriculture in the Heartland today. Whether or not it is relevant to their own work is something agricultural historians can judge for themselves.”
“Why do some farmers practice a sustainable agriculture and others do not, even when they come from similar backgrounds, farm in the same area, and plant the same crops? Farming for Us All is a fascinating and instructive contribution to answering that question. This well-written and well-documented book is the best approach to the question that I have seen. Bell greatly adds to our understanding of the question itself and makes a powerful case for his approach and conclusions. This is a seminal work in the field of sustainable agriculture.”

Michael Mayerfeld Bell is Associate Professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of several books including the award-winning Childerley: Nature and Morality in a Country Village (1994) and The Face of Connecticut: People, Geology, and the Land (1984).



1. Cultivating Sustainability


Part I The Uncertain Landscape of Industrial Agriculture

2. Economy and Security

3. Community and Environment

4. Home and Family


Part II The Culture of Cultivation

5. Farming the Self

6. Farming Knowledge


Part III The Sustainable Landscape of Practical Agriculture

7. Rolling a New Cob

8. Farming with Practice

9. New Farms, New Selves


10. Sustaining Cultivation




1 Cultivating Sustainability

“Do you want your neighbor or your neighbor’s farm?”

Dick Thompson is in his machine shed, microphone in hand, striding across the front of an impromptu auditorium of folding chairs occupied by some one hundred farmers, university people, and others among the agriculturally curious. With the portable speaker slung over his shoulder Dick can move around a lot, and he does, asking for questions and answering questions, asking for answers and questioning answers: a talk-show host in blue overalls. He favors Liberty overalls, as it happens, and it says so in blue letters across the front of the bib. He is also wearing his trademark red shirt (sleeves rolled up) with black wing-tips on his feet, gold-rimmed glasses on his blue-eyed ruddy face, and a blue cap on his silver-white hair that reads “PFI: Practical Farmers of Iowa.” It’s the annual PFI field day on the Thompson farm. Dick is explaining how it is that he, Sharon, their son Rex, and their daughter-in-law Lisa can make a good living for two families in an environmentally friendly way on just three hundred acres, while most of the rest of Iowa’s farmers are busily gobbling up their neighbors’ land, and thus their communities, in order to reach the magical goal of A Thousand Acres—to quote the title of Jane Smiley’s dark novel of Iowa agriculture. And every year a lot of people come to the Thompson farm, and to other PFI farms, to find out just how they manage it.

“Your neighbor or your neighbor’s farm?” Dick repeats. “You’ve got to ask yourself that.”

He lets the point settle in, and the crowd thinks over the seemingly inexorable advance of agricultural industrialization and modernization across the American rural landscape that each year drives out another half percent or so of farms. Most farmers in Iowa rely on their corn and soybean crops, and 60 percent of the state is covered by these two plants alone, some 22 million out of the state’s total of 36 million acres. Prices vary, but in a good year a grain farmer can expect to make maybe $30 to $40 an acre in profit—but only after the government chips in $30 to $40 in subsidies. When the federal government is feeling particularly generous, as it has been since 1999, roughly doubling subsidies over previous levels, that figure can rise to $60 to $70 an acre. Increasingly, what makes for a “good year” is not the climate in Iowa but the climate in Washington, D.C.

Which means several things. It means that without government subsidies, the average Iowa farm, as currently managed, would be broke. It means that if you’re an Iowa farmer and you want to attain a mid-level income from your farming, say $40,000 to $60,000, which are roughly the median figures for U.S. households of more than one person, you need something very close to Jane Smiley’s thousand acres of farmland—and the industrial farming machinery and industrial farming approach that make it possible to wrest crops out of so much ground. It also means that there will be tremendous pressure to increase your farm size by whatever means possible, because Iowa, as of 2002, had 32.7 million acres of farmland and about 92,500 farms. That’s 354 acres apiece, leaving the average Iowa farmer 646 acres, or almost two neighbors’ farms, short. In fact, something like two or three thousand acres apiece would be better, say many, because some years you’re lucky to make $10 an acre, even with government subsidies. That’s eight neighbors’ farms short—and, consequently, eight former neighbors. Under conditions like these, it’s hard to pay much attention to the disappearing soil, the disappearing wildlife, and the disappearing community life that the Big Farm, Big Tractor, and Big Chemical way sends down the creek.

The Thompsons, however, get by with even fewer than 354 acres, and for not one but two families. By having a small farm, the Thompsons are able to manage each acre with exceptional care, minimizing reliance on the surefire chemistry of Monsanto and Dupont and thus minimizing cost and environmental damage as well. It’s not an organic farm, but they have used pesticides only once in the past twenty years. They use no antibiotics or hormones in their pigs and cattle, they do not plant genetically engineered crop varieties, and yet they have some of the highest crop yields and lowest soil erosion rates in their county. They also have a solid, though not lavish, farm income—without government subsidies, having long ago sworn to refuse them, an act of defiance that many find particularly confounding.

And they have plenty of that well-known source of the farmer’s pride: “green paint”—Iowa rural slang for farm equipment, from the distinctive color of Iowa’s most popular brand, John Deere. It’s the Thompsons’ favorite brand, too. They have three John Deere tractors, all complete with air-conditioned cabs. They also have some farm equipment that most people don’t have, like a rotary hoe for controlling weeds without chemicals, a Buffalo planter for “ridge tilling” (one of the techniques the Thompsons and some others use for limiting chemicals and conserving soil), and a tiny combine that does only four rows of crop at a time but allows the Thompsons to monitor their fields better. In fact, all the Thompsons’ machinery is “four-row equipment,” well below the eight-, twelve-, sixteen-, thirty-two-, and sometimes even sixty-four-row equipment to be found on most other Iowa grain farms. The Thompsons are constantly running their own experiments on their farm, and the four-row equipment is a big help. Call it “precision farming,” but of a much different type from the computerized, satellite-linked, global-positioning-system farming that turns the tractor (and perhaps the farmer) into something of a robot, which is what the term “precision farming” usually means in farming circles. Not that the Thompsons are anti–high-tech. Far from it. For example, a couple of years ago they experimented with planting in the dark using an infrared viewing helmet, to see if weed seeds stirred up in planting were less likely to germinate without the stimulus of light. (They weren’t, on the whole.) Posters on the results of their years of experiments are on display all around the machine shed, as is most of their equipment—including the Buffalo planter, which during the years of their night-planting experiments they draped in old carpet, a technique they cooked up to keep even the moonlight out of the furrow. Some of it may be unusual equipment and the Thompsons may do unusual things with it. But they clearly can afford to buy it, and that is culturally very persuasive among farmers. Moreover, they buy only in cash and carry no debt load on their farm, another radical departure from conventional practices on Iowa farms.

Dick continues. “The problem is, we’re raising commodities out here, not crops. But commodities don’t make communities. It takes people to make communities.”

For anyone who has grown up in rural Iowa and watched one local institution after another shut down and crumble away over the years, this hits particularly close to home. As prosperous and tidy as the horizon-to-horizon grain fields may look, the Main Streets of many Iowa small towns resemble long-abandoned movie sets. It is not unusual to find half the shop fronts dustily vacant or grimly boarded up. Empty stores, empty schools, empty churches, empty hospitals: the economic situation is no worse in Watts or the South Bronx. Out in the countryside, away from the exurban aura of Iowa’s few major cities, abandoned houses and farmsteads stare at the passing motorist like skulls bleaching in the sunlight, their paint peeling down to the bare bone of the wood and their glassless windows vacant as empty eye sockets. (And this is despite the constant work of pulling rural buildings down, cleaning up the evidence of decline.) Writing during the farm crisis of the 1980s, author Osha Gray Davidson called it the “rural ghetto,” and things have not gotten much better since. “Abandoned Iowa” one could also call it, a jarring image to hold in one’s mind alongside that of the $200,000 combines and $100,000 tractors working the elegant lines of nearly weed-free crops—too jarring for many, and so they drive right on by, keeping their focus elsewhere on the passing landscape.

It was in 1985, during the middle of the 1980s farm crisis, that a group of Iowa farmers and farm advocates found that they could no longer close their mind’s eye to the decline, the abandonment, and the environmental degradation, and started Practical Farmers of Iowa, with Dick Thompson as the first president. Convinced that it must be possible to farm in economically and environmentally sound ways on small farms that support community life, PFI’s founders dedicated the group to sharing information among farmers about how it could be done and encouraging farmers to conduct and disseminate the results of their own on-farm research. University researchers at the time were paying next to no attention to anything other than the industrial model of farming, and very little relevant research about other approaches was available. So PFI organized field trials that would be statistically valid, using randomized and replicated plots that could be subjected to tests of significance and other statistical techniques. The local land grant university, Iowa State, shortly afterward took interest in PFI’s embrace of a “scientific” approach and agreed to form a highly unusual partnership with the organization, giving it a university office and giving its few staff members (who numbered only one at the time) the status of university employees, although PFI provides the funds for their salaries. By the early 2000s, the group had grown to some seven hundred member households, about half of whom farm. And now a couple of dozen faculty and researchers at Iowa State regularly work with PFI farmers, and many of them are members of the group.

A lot has been learned since 1985. What has come to be called “sustainable agriculture” has become a major focus of interest not just for farmers but now also for researchers, policy makers, and consumers—and not just in Iowa but across the world. There are hundreds if not thousands of sustainable agriculture organizations today, some governmental, some nongovernmental, and some, like PFI, a bit of both. (Iowa State University, which is an institutional partner of PFI, is a state-supported institution.) In Iowa, advocates of sustainable agriculture have been particularly excited by new farming techniques like ridge tilling, rotational intensive grazing, deep-bedded hoop houses for hogs, and holistic management, as well as older techniques like crop rotation, flame cultivation, pasture-farrowing, and direct marketing—jargon to those outside what must now be recognized as the sustainable agriculture movement but a social, economic, and environmental lifeline for those inside it.

A lot has been learned and many are involved, but it would be safe to say that sustainable agriculture remains only a minor player in the global agricultural system. The vast bulk of research at places like Iowa State University still follows the industrial mentality. A lot of basic research on sustainable agriculture has yet to be even begun.

Still, Dick says to the audience, perhaps with a whisker of overconfidence, “Some of us know what to do. The question is, will we do it?” Dick has a way of challenging his listeners that most rise to, and today’s audience is no exception.

“So why won’t we do it?” a middle-aged farmer in the group calls out.

Dick breaks into a big smile. He’s been waiting for this question. But he holds his own views back a bit. “Well, what do you think?” Dick returns. “What are some of the reasons?”

“Communication!” calls out one voice.

“Education. It’s what’s in the farm magazines. Or rather what isn’t in them!” calls out another.

“Ya, ya. That’s part of it,” Dick encourages. “But there’s more to it. Keep going. Keep going.”

“Cultivation, I guess,” another farmer responds after a moment, meaning mechanical hoeing, one of the main ways to control weeds without chemicals. “Farmers today don’t like to cultivate. It takes too long. And they don’t like livestock either. That takes too much time, too.”

“That’s part of it, too,” Dick affirms. “We’re getting closer.”

A hand goes up in the front row. “The problem is, the average farmer today wants to have twelve months’ income with two months’ work. A month of planting and a month of harvesting.”

This is something of an exaggeration, but the words strike a chord with an audience that is well aware of the commonly held first-one-to-Florida ideal of farming. And it is true that sustainable farming methods often require substituting more labor time and more management time per acre in place of big capital outlays for big technology and the big land base needed to pay for it. That’s all right, say most sustainable farmers, because labor and management skills are our strengths, so we don’t need big capital, big technology, and big land. But it does run counter to the industrial image of what progressive farming is about to invest so much time and effort per acre doing things like cultivating, when an herbicide laid down with the seed might take care of the weeds from the start.

As for raising livestock, this is one of the main means sustainable farmers have for making a go of it without grasping for the neighbor’s land. Livestock provide a farm with nonchemical fertilizer (manure, that is), a way to make money from hay during the crop rotations needed to break pest cycles without chemical pesticides (you can feed the hay to your livestock), and “value-added” products like meat and milk that bring a little more home than “two-dollar corn” (corn selling in the range of $2.00 to $2.99 a bushel, the price farmers have seen most of the last ten years) or even “one-dollar corn” (corn selling in the range of $1.00 to $1.99, a shockingly low level that has started showing up regularly in the last few years). Until recently, a good deal more than half of all Iowa farms raised some form of livestock. But many farmers have been moving into growing grain alone, in part because livestock markets have been highly volatile of late, in part because livestock tie you to the farm year-round, and in part because of the rise of contract livestock production, which has increased the scale of many operations and limited access to markets for the remaining smaller ones. The trick in the sustainable approach is to recognize that livestock can be more than simple cash cows—that livestock can be managed so as to enhance the profitability and environmental friendliness of the whole farm operation, even if they do take more labor and management time. Besides, if there are more farms around, it will be that much easier to find a neighbor to do the feeding when the family does go off to Florida for winter vacations.

“You’re getting close,” says Dick to the audience. “Getting real close.”

He looks over the crowd in the machine shed, and the crowd looks back. The time has come to put it all together.

“Greed and ease. That’s it,” Dick breathes into the microphone, and a lot of heads give a slow nod of recognition and agreement at this critique of the materialist ambitions of industrial agriculture. Knowing glances are exchanged. “The other way’s easier.”

“But is it?” asks the farmer who had earlier pointed to the problem of what is and is not in the farm magazines. The mood in the shed is crackling now, and Dick doesn’t need to ask for input. Hands are going up everywhere and a couple of people are standing. “I mean, you do it, and you seem to live well. And your neighbors must see that. So what do they think? Do they ever ask you how you do it?”

Even Dick pauses at this one, and the whole shed pauses with him. “I call that a social problem,” he begins. “I guess that’s just the way most guys are. I hardly ever listened to my father, at least when he was alive.” Dick in fact now farms quite a bit like his father did, using a variation on the five-year crop rotation his father developed in the thirties and forties and hardly ever using farm chemicals. “You don’t listen to those close to you, it seems. Maybe it takes a farmer in the next county doing something to show you.”

Dick straightens up a bit and flashes his wide smile. He takes the portable microphone up to his mouth with both hands, and adds the kicker. “But the main issue for all of us is this: Do I really want to know? And if I do know, do I want to do anything about it?”

Or, to put Dick’s question more generally, why don’t more farmers change? The current situation for most farmers in Iowa, as elsewhere in the United States, is one of uncertainty propped up with yet more uncertainty—of fierce struggle on a playing field tilted steeply by the structure of regulations and government subsidies, as secure as the next national election. And down that steep incline tumbles a continual detritus of former farmers, boarded-up farm towns, and the soil itself, kicked up and washed away by the scuffle of the play. Except that it’s not a game: We’re talking about real lives, those of farmers and us who eat, for what happens to farmers has implications for everyone, and for the life of the land that must sustain us.

But is the situation really so desperate? There is a statistic that, if you live in Iowa, you are bound to encounter eventually: “One Iowa farmer feeds 220 people.” It’s the kind of number that finds its way into the keynote address at the annual dinner of the local county chapter of the Iowa Corn Producers Association, and into the tourist brochures you can pick up in rest stops along Iowa’s sections of Interstate 80 and Interstate 35. One could quibble with how such a figure is tabulated. Iowa’s agriculture concentrates almost entirely on two things, meat and the feed grains used to produce it, and couldn’t be said to completely round out the total diet of very many people at all. But it’s not the kind of statistic that anyone, aside from statisticians, needs to question closely. We all know what it is trying to say: what a blessing the industrialization of agriculture supposedly has been. Never have so few fed so many, opening up economic space for the wide range of nonagricultural livelihoods that most of us now pursue and the benefits that those livelihoods bring.

A couple of other statistics (ones that are considerably more valid) make much the same point. The time is not so long distant when all but a few percent of the world’s human population gained at least a significant portion of their living from farming. Today in the industrialized countries the figure is reversed. In the United States, only 2.5 percent of the labor force is employed in farming. Similar figures apply throughout most of Europe as well as to some countries of the Far East, such as Japan and Taiwan. If people weren’t free to work in something other than farming, we could not easily have schools, computers, hospitals, the arts, ready-to-wear clothes, and more—delights and comforts and enrichments that few who enjoy them would gladly give up. This is undeniable, most agree, and indeed ranks as one of the touchstones of our cultural identity as modern people.

But those in the sustainable agriculture movement contend that the blessing of industrial agriculture has been decidedly mixed, pointing to the environmental problems, questions about food safety and consumer trust, issues of economic justice, community decline, and the threat to rural culture of the ever-increasing scale of farms and farm equipment. For the most part, advocates of sustainable agriculture cannot be described as antitechnology, though. Their argument is not with tractors and computers. Almost all sustainable farmers own at least one of the former and most have bought or are seriously considering buying at least one of the latter. Nor are most sustainable agriculture advocates anti-schools, anti-hospitals, or anti–ready-to-wear clothes. A few home school their children, many are interested in traditional forms of medicine, and virtually all of them admire hand-knitted sweaters and other homemade clothes. But they are not calling for closing the local schools, hospitals, and stores—just the opposite, in fact.

The argument behind sustainable agriculture is not that we need to return everyone to the land. Rather, it is that the technological, economic, and political structures that consolidate farms eventually reach a point where they do more harm than good. It may be that only a few today need farm, but do they farm for us all? Do they farm for the health and well-being of consumers, rural communities, urban communities, even farmers themselves, as well as consumers and communities and farmers in other countries? Do they farm for the health and well-being of the environment? Sustainable agriculture advocates answer: on the whole, no.

Moreover, say these advocates, there are environmentally and economically sound alternatives that can slow the tide of farm loss, maybe even reverse it somewhat, without threatening either our labor supply or our food security. After all, if only a few percent of working adults are farmers now, agriculture hardly represents a significant reserve pool of workers for other sectors of the economy anymore. And an approach to productive farming that encourages greater stewardship of the environment’s productive potential should increase food security, not decrease it. Such an approach is technically possible, say the advocates of sustainable agriculture. The real issue is how it can be socially possible.

Which is the question I address in this book, with the help of my colleagues Sue Jarnagin, Greg Peter, and Donna Bauer. For ten years, from 1994 to 2003, I investigated the social soils of agricultural sustainability through a study of one sustainable agriculture organization—PFI, Practical Farmers of Iowa—and its human landscape. Sue, Greg, Donna, and I conducted interviews, attended meetings, rode tractors, pitched hay, helped fix broken equipment, ate, washed up, played volleyball, drank beer, chased children, and just plain “visited,” in the Midwestern sense, with several dozen PFI farm households, several dozen of their neighbors, and several dozen more of the group’s nonfarming associates in the university and elsewhere. We did so in the hope that we might thereby gain an understanding of the culture of sustainable agriculture and of the cultivation of the sustainable agriculture movement—culture and cultivation in the social sense. For agriculture has always been more than a matter of agronomics alone.

And we also did so because we believe that sustainable agriculture is a social cultivation of great significance—to rural life, to urban life, to the environment, and, as will emerge later, to fundamental issues of knowledge and democracy.

Under some conceptions of social science, such an admission is at best a major tactical blunder and at worst clear evidence of biased scholarship. But I write this book with the thought that social scientists do not have to ignore or squelch their own values in order to conduct meaningful research. Indeed, the reality is that social scientists cannot ignore or squelch their own values—cannot both in the sense of being unable to and in the sense of its being inappropriate to. The most value-free social science may well turn out to be the most value-less. Rather than being a problem for social research, values are the whole reason for social research. Of course, social research that is value-laden is likely not to be valu-able. But the problem of research that is value-laden is not the presence of values in it. Rather, it is that the values are unacknowledged and their implications for the research are not carefully considered. What is needed is for social researchers to be aware of their values and to communicate them to others, so that both researcher and reader can take them into account in formulating and evaluating a study and its arguments.

The acknowledgment of values is also crucial if researchers are to avoid the tendency to ignore uncomfortable evidence and arguments that may contradict their own. Consideration of alternative interpretations that others have pointed out, or might well point out, is the hallmark of rigorous scholarship. Being up front with oneself and with others about one’s values should help ensure that one’s research does take alternative interpretations into consideration, offers reasons for disagreement, and provides others with access to that reasoning and the evidence upon which it is based. It’s a matter of responsible scholarship—that is, scholarship that encourages further response to its own interpretations through its consideration, reasoned engagement, and openness.

So let it be said now: This book is a study, rigorous and responsible, I trust, of something that I believe in. My hope is that my own personal commitments to sustainable agriculture, and those of my colleagues, Sue, Greg, and Donna, have sharpened my critical sensitivities in the way that one can be most critical of those one holds most dear, and not merely dulled my sensitivities in the way that one can easily overlook the faults of close friends and family. That will be the reader’s own responsibility to judge.

So why don’t more farmers change? If we are to understand how a more sustainable agriculture might be socially possible, we must answer this question, the question that underlay the conversation in Dick Thompson’s machine shed that fall day. Or, to turn the question around, why do some change—why do some farmers switch to sustainable agriculture? This is an equally central issue to sustainable agriculture’s social possibility.

Answering this question both ways around is what I’ll be spending the rest of the book doing. But let me spend a few pages now giving an overview for the reader on the run. Inevitably, compressing the argument of an entire book into a few pages makes for somewhat thick and perhaps tedious reading, especially for those less familiar with the goals and manners of academic sociology. Readers who find themselves getting bogged down in the rest of this chapter are hereby cordially invited to skip ahead to Chapter 2, to hear immediately from the farmers themselves. Don’t worry about missing anything. You’ll still get the whole argument, but in less abstracted—and less abstract—form.

But before anyone skips ahead, let me try my hand at summarizing the book’s argument in one sentence, to better orient all readers to my purposes. PFI helps make sustainable agriculture socially possible by guiding and encouraging farmers in being better at talking with others—in engaging in open, critical dialogue—and thus better at the practical matter of getting things done in the world. That’s all.

I take up the question of why more farmers don’t change to sustainable agriculture in the first two sections of the book. One answer is the agricultural version of the oft-heard statement “people don’t like change”—that is, that farmers don’t like change. There are several problems with such a view. Farmers, like most people, are quite eager to inform a willing listener of the things they wish were better in their lives. Pretty much everyone, I think it safe to say, has desires, plans, ambitions, and dreams. What are these but changes people hope for and look to? So farmers, and others, often do like change.

Of course, there are many changes at work in our lives that we are not happy about, and generally these are changes that thwart our desires, plans, ambitions, and dreams. Indeed, it is generally because of the changes we don’t like that we seek the changes we would like. And all farmers today experience change, as they try to ride the constantly transforming machinery of technology, markets, and regulation, as well as environmental transformations such as soil erosion, water shortages, and pest problems. So while switching to sustainable agriculture would entail significant changes for a farmer, not switching to sustainable agriculture is no way to avoid change. Not switching to sustainable agriculture is thus unlikely to be a matter of a farmer simply not liking change.

Another common answer to the question of why more farmers don’t take up sustainable agriculture is that the structure of agriculture—that is, the technology, market forces, and government regulations that affect agriculture—makes it very hard to change to sustainable practices. Indeed, the current structure gives farmers still in the game very little incentive to change. Sure, it might be hard on those who have been forced off the land. But if you’re still farming, the argument goes, then the structure of agriculture must be doing okay for you. Moreover, those who are still “in,” as farmers say, can quietly celebrate their survival as a sure sign that they are doing something right. Surely they must be more efficient, and working harder, than those who have failed.

Farm structure is indeed important, very important, for understanding why more farmers don’t switch to sustainable practices. But it’s not the whole story. The situation of farmers is one of great uncertainty, even for those who are still “in,” at least in Iowa. Acquiescing to the structure of agriculture does not relieve a farmer of pressures, doubts, and troubles. Most Iowa farmers experience continual economic crisis, and all are constantly aware of the economic sword dangling but a few inches above them. “The fun’s gone out of it now,” is a common refrain among Iowa’s farmers. Few can be said to be clearly doing well. The same can be said of their emptying communities, and sometimes of their families too, stressed by the knowledge of the sword above and the time spent dodging and ducking as it swings in the economic and political breeze.

And given the dominant role of subsidies in contemporary agriculture, and the similarity of farm practices from Iowa grain farm to Iowa grain farm, it is not clear that a difference in efficiency has all that much to do with most farmers’ ability to stay “in”—except efficiency in landing the subsidies. Some Iowa farmers are remarkably efficient in this regard, taking in annual subsidies in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, while some are only getting subsidies of a few hundred dollars a year. Many adept and hard-working farmers—farmers whose crops are not the ones favored by the current subsidies, whose families were not able to give them as much of an economic boost when they started, or whose farms experience a couple of unlucky years of weather—will find themselves without the same cushion and without the same ability to compete for land base as those with big subsidy dollars.

While it is true that the current structure of agriculture encourages farmers to farm the subsidies and not the land, many if not most Iowa farmers (and their communities, their environment, and their families) find themselves poorly served by this encouragement, I argue in the first section of the book.

In the second section, I argue that the reasons why most farmers nonetheless don’t change to sustainable agriculture lie in matters of knowledge and its relationship to identity. Central to making it in farming are various recipes and routines of agricultural knowledge, ordered understandings of how to do what needs to be done. Farmers must contend with an endlessly perplexing tangle of interactive and changing factors: crop varieties, crop pests, soil fertility, markets, regulations, human tastes and values, equipment, buildings, access to land, access to capital, family situations, labor availability, off-farm work—and, of course, the weather. For most Iowa farms, this complexity has to be coordinated for multiple crops, and often livestock too. So there isn’t time to continually reinvent and experiment. The corn has to be in the ground now, if there is to be time to plant your soybeans. The weeds need to be controlled now, if there is to be time to get to that second farm that you have just rented or that off-farm job you have just taken on to add a bit of income. The hogs need to be taken to market now, despite today’s low price, if there is to be time tomorrow to get to your daughter’s high school basketball game. Besides, you’ve missed the last three.

In other words, like most large endeavors, farming requires the acquisition of a vast array of tricks of the trade—some tricks you buy, like better equipment, better seeds, and better marketing software; some tricks you learn, like crop rotation, the peculiarities of your own farm, and the neighbors you can best trust to help out in a pinch; and some tricks you both buy and learn, like ridge tilling your corn and soybeans, a technique that requires both different equipment and different knowledge. Once acquired, you can’t take the time to continually question the stock of tricks you have at hand. You have to take them for granted, because the wind is up and it is about to start raining, hard. Even when you have reason to believe that the knowledge you have doesn’t really work, you go with it anyway, because at least it’s something you can do. When the storm bursts, you seek the shelter at hand, even if you have reason to suspect the soundness of the roof.

This phenomenology of farming—this taking for granted of what you know works, even when you think it might not—is a matter of more than material and temporal investments, though. It is equally a matter of identity, of the investment of the self as a man, as a woman, as a farmer. What you know is who you are. The stocks of knowledge we each hold within are stocks of self as well. I am a sociologist not just because my brain retains sociological knowledge but because I identify with that knowledge, and others identify that knowledge with me. Farmers are farmers because they identify themselves with the knowledge of farming and others identify that knowledge with them. Increasing the refraction on the microscope, farmers are types of farmers—grain farmers, livestock farmers, industrial farmers, sustainable farmers—because of what they know, therefore do, and therefore identify with.

Plus, most of what we know is known, at least to some degree, by others, and most of what we learn is learned, at least to some degree, from others. You can’t learn everything on your own. We take it from others that certain species of mushrooms are poisonous. We take it from others that there are machines and chemicals—computers, tractors, fertilizers, drugs—that can help us along through our day. Or perhaps we may take it from others that certain machines and chemicals may in fact hinder us. We don’t have time to do all the experiments ourselves, to build the machines ourselves, to concoct the drugs ourselves. So we learn from, and with, others., and gain a sense of social connection thereby. Knowledge is cultivated within culture and culture’s lines of difference and identity—what I will be terming the cultivation of knowledge. We know, therefore we are.Knowledge has a history, a social history, and we connect ourselves to that social history—and the social present and social future it implies—when we connect ourselves to knowledge.

For this reason we are rarely content to ask only the question what knowledge. We also almost always ask whose knowledge. We want to know the social history of knowledge so we can locate it within social life. Did this knowledge come from the local farm chemical dealer? From the guys at the co-op? From the university extension agent? From personal experience? Each of these histories places knowledge within particular social settings, which in turn strongly influence how we regard it and act on it.

In other words, knowledge is a social relation. Knowledge is people. It ties us to some, and often disconnects us from still others. What you know is who your friends and relations are. And with identification with knowledge comes a sense of trust in it and those we received the knowledge from—the trust required to take that knowledge for granted when the wind is up and a hard rain threatens.

Which means that to give up a cultivation of knowledge, to give up a field of knowing and relating, is to give up both a field of self and its social affiliations and a field of trust in the secure workings of the world. That’s a lot to give up.

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But some farmers do change to sustainable practices, despite the structure and phenomenology of agriculture. In the third section of the book I take up this question, “visiting with,” as Iowans say, the farmers and farm families of Practical Farmers of Iowa.

What PFI members say is that there are times when one’s trust in a cultivation of agricultural knowledge—that nexus of identity and the taken-for-granted—is called into deep question. Other things being equal, retaining a cultivation yields a steady crop of trusting comfort in what you know and who you are. But sometimes other things are not equal. Sometimes that trusting comfort erodes away under the force of a steady rain, a rain of suspicion that other people’s social interests have engineered the crops of knowledge in one’s own fields.

Farmers are not unaware that knowledge and interests are connected. They routinely distinguish, for example, between the knowledge cultivated by university scientists, the extension service, government agencies, agribusiness chemical and implement dealers, farm commodity groups, and the chat by the coffee pot at the local grain elevator. They know that there are different interests involved in each case. They may not always stop to consider with care the interests behind each knowledge claim. Indeed, frequently they don’t. And they may not always recognize what those interests are, even when they do stop to consider the matter. Again, frequently they don’t. But they are certainly familiar with the general social logic involved. We all are, for we are all farmers of knowledge.

Sometimes, however, social conditions are such that the rain of suspicion develops into a sudden downpour, a flash flood, that threatens to sweep away both crop and soil—both knowledge and self. Sometimes conditions are such that the relationship between interests and knowledge becomes an unavoidable focus of one’s attention, eroding the field of one’s knowledge cultivation right down to the roots. PFI farmers report that this erosion is particularly intense in moments of economic stress and conflict, when the threat of others’ interests to one’s own seems especially salient.

It is not an easy matter to take up a different cultivation of knowledge. Most PFI farmers who have done so describe the period of change to sustainable agriculture as a great challenge, a kind of personal transplanting to a different field of knowledge cultivation. Many also describe the change to this new cultivation as a rapid breakthrough—as a sudden phenomenological rupture and subsequent sense of a new calling—with everything seemingly happening at once. It is difficult to give up an old identity and yet retain an old phenomenology of farming, and vice versa, because of the cultivation of identity in the cultivation of knowledge. So the two often change together. New farm, new self; new self, new farm.

But what is this new cultivation? What I argue in the last three chapters of the book is that sustainable agriculture is more than an alternative set of farming methods—ridge tilling, organics, rotational grazing, etc.—and an alternative set of social relations, of friends and associates with whom one identifies. It is both of these, but also, and perhaps more important, sustainable agriculture is a different social practice of agriculture—at least as practiced by Practical Farmers of Iowa. By a different social practice, I mean that the relations of knowledge within PFI have a different feel to them, a different way of experiencing others and of experiencing one’s own self. And that different way is to recognize difference and to encourage it as a source of learning, change, and vitality, rather than as a threat to self and knowledge. That different way is the way of dialogue, rather than monologue.

In an uncertain world, however, monologue can be very appealing. Doubt is a difficult terrain on which to maintain a sense of self. Industrial agriculture offers listeners the monologic comfort of its universal claim to truth, secured on high in the laboratory and in the market.

Many also find monologic comfort in accepting only one’s own word; at times, we all do. A focused recognition of the interests behind knowledge can bring about a loss of confidence in the words and experiences of others. Or it can create a self so uncertain that it finds stability in the denial of others—in a retreat into one’s own self and one’s own farm, abandoning science, government, industry, even one’s family and friends for the pure local knowledge of the farmer himself or herself.

Either version of monologic practice—the one universalistic, the other solipsistic—leads to a similar social condition: that of disengagement from others and their differences. They lead to speaking without listening, and listening without speaking. In either case, we are left with nothing to talk about.

There is a third possibility, though, and most PFI members are discovering it. The recognition of interests can enrich the soil, as it were, by encouraging perspectives that blend their knowledges together. Rather than rejecting the social relationship between interests and knowledge, as the universalist does, rather than rejecting the possibility of knowledge because of its social relations and interests, as the solipsist does, and rather than rejecting the social itself, as both these forms of monologue do, most PFI farmers seek dialogue.

Central to this new understanding is how PFI farmers understand themselves as men and as women. The phenomenological investments of the self are strongly gendered in rural Iowa, as in most places. Those gendered investments typically encourage monologue between and among men and women. They encourage men to find their selves in the seductions of authority, of speaking without listening, of asserting sameness across difference, of having little need or concern for attending to the needs and concerns of others. They encourage women to find their selves through supporting the monologues of men by serving, paradoxically perhaps, as both audience and stage manager for them. But PFI farmers, men and women, increasingly find this an unsatisfactory arrangement for all parties, as it suppresses the vitality of difference that they are discovering, through dialogue, is very much worth relishing.

PFI farmers seek therefore to create a dialogic agriculture, an agriculture that engages others—men, women, family members, other farmers, university researchers, government officials, and consumers alike—in a common conversation about what it might look like. The aim of PFI farmers is thus not to create the top-down universal truth of the absolutist, nor the exclusively bottom-up local truth of the solipsist. Instead, they seek to create the social conditions of an agricultural knowledge that endeavors to take into consideration everyone’s experiences and everyone’s interests, creating a cultivation of cultivations. Through dialogue, these PFI farmers seek to cross-breed knowledge, to create pragmatic knowledge that gets the crops to grow in ways that sustain families, communities, societies, economies, and environments.

In short, PFI farmers are great talkers, and thus better doers. Herein lies the heart of the cultivation of practical agriculture, an agriculture that roots action in dialogue and dialogue in action, and thereby sustains them both. In an increasingly fractured and untrusting world, this is a cultivation worthy of the interest of us all.

A few words about methodology. In keeping, I believe, with the spirit of PFI, this book is a species of what has come to be called “participatory research”—that is, research in which the people under study help conduct the study. Two of my colleagues in this project, Donna and Sue, are longtime members of PFI. Donna is a former member of the board of PFI and farms in western Iowa with her husband and son. Sue has been an active volunteer in PFI since its beginning, and her husband, Rick Exner, was one of the people involved in founding the organization in 1985 and was long PFI’s only employee. Greg and I represent more the external and academic side of the project, Greg as a former graduate student in sociology at Iowa State University and now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Fox Valley, and I as an associate professor of sociology at Iowa State, and now at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where I am an associate professor of rural sociology. Neither Greg nor I had any previous personal connections to PFI or farming before the research began.

I should emphasize the phrase “represent more”: all four of us have academic degrees in sociology and have close connections with Iowa State University. Donna has a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Greg now has a doctorate in sociology, and Sue has a doctorate in rural sociology, all from Iowa State. I taught sociology at Iowa State for nine years before moving to the University of Wisconsin–Madison and served as Greg’s and Sue’s major professor. Plus, to study PFI and sustainable agriculture is to study the university itself, given the longtime role of land grant universities in agricultural research and the special association of PFI with Iowa State University. And as the research progressed, my own personal ties to PFI increased when my wife took a position at Iowa State in sustainable agriculture education, a position that led her to work closely with PFI on a number of projects. I also joined a folk band with Rick Exner and two PFI farmers, and we performed at several PFI events. For Greg too, his interest in sustainable agriculture and his personal participation in it increased over the course of the research. Although we did not initially conceive of the study in this way, it turned out in the end that we were all participants of one sort and degree or another.

Participation is not the usual way in which research finds its results, of course. It has long been a reflex of science to isolate its subjects—to turn them into objects neatly detached from the observer, supposedly fostering a neutral, value-free perspective. As I discussed earlier, such a conception of the actual practice of science is at best inaccurate. Science is a human and therefore social endeavor, with the all the unavoidable subjectivity that goes along with being human and social. But even more, such enforced distancing can also foster misunderstanding and irrelevance. The allegedly detached observer—who in many ways is better understood simply as someone who is new to a social setting—may miss much that a person local to the scene would readily be able to point out. And conversely. The most apt insights should come from maintaining distance and closeness at the same time, drawing on the strengths of both. That balance is precisely what participatory research seeks to attain, involving those with varying degrees of distance and closeness in the research through a process of open and critical interchange. As well, participation promotes research that is more rooted in the concerns of the community under study, and thus is more likely to be of direct social relevance—more likely to be research that is valu-able, and not merely value-free.

There is no precise formula, though, for how to conduct participatory research. It depends on the opportunities and constraints of each situation—on who has the time, the support, and the inclination to participate. But the intent is always the same: to democratize the research process through dialogue. The emphasis on dialogue does not mean, however, that all the participants have to agree. On the contrary, the point is to welcome discussion about differences of experience and opinion so as to better develop the critical sensitivity that is the true goal of all scientific research.

Nor does participatory research mean that everyone has to have the same role in the research process. At least it did not mean it here. I was “principal investigator,” as funders put it, on the grant that supported our research. I initiated it, I was most centrally responsible and accountable for its conduct, and I did the writing. And why? Because part of my job as a professor is to conduct research and write books. (Also, I like to do these things.) Donna, Greg, and Sue were paid out of our grant—Sue helped write the grant proposal, too—and that income supported their efforts in helping conduct the field work and in participating in our many hours of meetings about what it all meant. They also volunteered their time in reviewing the drafts of the manuscript as the chapters slowly emerged from my computer. But the only financial support for the actual writing of the book was my salary as a professor. Besides, I’ve done this kind of thing before. So, for better or for worse, out of this tangle of positions and responsibilities and interests and experiences, the writing fell to me.

But the dialogue still isn’t wide enough. One of the goals of this book is to provide an opportunity for others to engage in the conversation about what a practical, dialogic agriculture might look like—to broaden our understanding of who is a farmer. Iowa is far away from most of America, culturally and physically, as are most of the farming regions of our country. We read about Iowa and farming life in The Bridges of Madison County, A Thousand Acres, and Moo. We see them in Twister, Field of Dreams, State Fair, and a flurry of news items every four years about the Iowa caucuses. But few have actually been to Iowa and to farm country, aside from some dull hours on Interstate 80 between Chicago and the Rockies.

And yet it is there with us three times every day (or more, if you’re like me) when we bring the rural deep into our urban mouths, although we may scarcely think of it. Food connects us all to agriculture. What we choose to eat and not to eat has enormous implications for what goes on in places like Iowa. Food makes farmers of us all, whether we are aware of it or not.

As an Iowa native once remarked, “The problem, then, is how to bring about a striving for harmony with land among a people many of whom have forgotten there is any such thing as land, among whom education and culture have become almost synonymous with landlessness.” That Iowa native was Aldo Leopold, writing some fifty years ago, and his words still ring true despite the ensuing decades of environmental debate. Leopold’s point was not, I think, that we urbanites all need to go live part-time in an old shack in the countryside, as he did, or as Thoreau did a century before him. Rather, he was writing about the need for recognizing that none of us is apart from the land, however high above the ground our apartment may be or however far a trip it may be to where we can see crops grow. Moreover, none of us is apart from those who grow those crops, although the patterns of our lives may mean that we rarely encounter them.

Not apart, yet still very distant. This is the trouble with so much of contemporary life. We specialize. We categorize. We segment markets. We change channels by remote control. We gate our communities. And we meet each other in traffic jams, horns blaring. But what are we to do? It really is a long way to Iowa now, and to most of the other states of being in our society.

In other words, social life is a structured life and dialogue has to take place within its structures—even when dialogue’s goal (as is often the case) is to change the structures of our lives. It’s a paradox, and it often as not means that change doesn’t happen. But sometimes it does. We can only hope sometimes it does. For sustainability is not about the maintenance of the past, but rather about the maintenance of the future.

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