Lisa Hamilton on Deeply Rooted Farmers

May 15, 2009

hamiltonWhen local author and photographer Lisa Hamilton set out to write Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness, she admits she had a “Capital ‘M’ Message” in mind. After spending several years getting to know the three farmers she profiles in the book — a dairyman from rural Texas, a grain farmer from rural North Dakota, and a rancher from rural New Mexico — she says she decided to “quiet myself and let their stories take over.” What emerged is an intimate look at the lives of three farming families that remain amidst a rising tide of efficient, faceless food production. Hamilton recently spoke with CUESA about what she learned from writing the book and what she hopes it might offer her readers.

CUESA: How did you choose these farmers?

Lisa Hamilton: People have been surprised that there’s no one from California in the book; that was a conscious decision. These are farmers and ranchers working outside the support of urban areas and therefore outside of active food communities. They represent a larger group of people whose voices are virtually never heard. Yet they’re making important contributions to the food system, not only in terms of calories, but in terms of innovation and their role in holding rural communities together.

C: All three of these men come across as somewhat eccentric diehards. Is that the type of personality necessary to do the kind of work they do?

LH: In order to work outside of convention in the way that these farmers have, you need a conviction that can override that strong small-town tendency to stick with the program. All three of these men know in their hearts that there’s an alternative to what’s happening around them, and what’s remarkable is that they act on that knowledge. Harry

If you talk candidly with a lot of conventional farmers, you’ll find that they have opinions that might not exactly reflect what they do. There’s a moment in the book where David Podall [the grain farmer from North Dakota] is talking about how, despite the fact that their family is outcast in their community, he’s had a number of other farmers who live in the area take him aside and say, “You’re doing the right thing. I just can’t do it myself.”

I do see that level of conviction in a number of farmers around the Bay Area. Take Rick and Kristie Knoll — they’re sticking with it against all odds in Brentwood, an area where I’d imagine they feel like they’re really holding on.

C: The rural areas you travel to in the book are almost as important as the farmers. Can you say more about what you hope people will understand about these places?

LH: This is a tricky moment to be a locavore. I believe really strongly in buying my food as locally as possible; I’m a devotee of the farms near where I live in Marin. But at the same time, I think the 100 Mile Diet misses the point. What’s lost in that equation are the hundreds of farmers who exist more than 100 miles from any urban community. In a lot of ways they remain the backbone of our food production, even as we move toward a more localized system.

HamiltonI think the geography of our food system is much more complex than things like the 100 Mile Diet are able to recognize. There’s an impulse to come up with a very simplified set of ideas about how to fix the food system. But more important to me is changing the role that farmers play in our society. How much we ask them to participate, how much we respect them and also how much we reward them. That’s a much more important step in changing things than drawing a boundary regarding the size of the farm, the distance it is from where you live, etc.

C: You also examine the conundrum many farmers are in because the labor involved in small scale sustainable production is devalued by consumers’ expectations that all food should be cheap. Do you have any ideas about how to get us out of this bind?

LH: As I see it, that [tension] is one of the biggest issues of our time. The ability to produce a lot of food very cheaply has enabled this gigantic population and along with it the idea that inexpensive food is a human right. Food shouldn’t be prohibitively expensive for all the people who need it, but you absolutely have to balance that with the value of the work that goes into it and the cost to the environment.

I think a very practical way of correcting that [as a consumer] is by eating food that is less resource-intensive to produce. And to value more resource–intensive foods in the way they deserve to be valued — particularly dairy products and meat. Good, healthy food is a human right, but three hamburgers a day? There’s no way that that can be a human right and also be sustainable.

Read Hamilton’s essay about writing Deeply Rooted >

Photos by Lisa Hamilton