New Book Looks at How Geopolitics Affects Family Farms

Author uses Nebraska farm as a prism into viewing the history of the global agricultural market.

September 17, 2017 5:00 am

Family farmers in rural Nebraska may have more of a vested interest in foreign affairs than you might think. Journalist Ted Genoways looks into the challenges faced by the Hammond family, whose family has owned a farm in the Cornhusker State since the 1860s, in his new book, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm.

Among those challenges are trade agreements, immigration fro Mexico, and Trump’s volatile relations overseas, all of which can affect the the sales and prices of the grains grown by the Hammonds.

How did American farmers become so dependent on international politics? The Smithsonian writes that it goes all the way back to 1862, when Abe Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in order to keep slavery from gaining a foothold in the American West. Lincoln also signed the Pacific Railway Act, which provided land grants for railroad companies. These two acts lured a lot of people into American territories with promises of land and freedom.

But then nature intervened. Nearly 75 percent of the country’s crops were eaten by grasshoppers in 1874. Then the Bank Panic of 1893 crashed the economy, then nature struck again, with multiple years of drought.

Enter Henry A. Wallace, the man who developed a drought-resistant variety of corn just as the Dust Bowl hit, writes Smithsonian. Wallace later because Roosevelt’s vice president and, during his tenure, convinced FDR to establish a federal grain reserve, which helped keep prices stable despite wild swings in production here and abroad.

These developments, plus other changes in modern-day life, created an agricultural system where the U.S. exports grains in large numbers, partly in order to have influence around the world, Genoways writes.

Family-owned farms still make up 99 percent of the 2.1 million farms in the United States. But Genoways’ book looks into the complexity of farming in this global system, and how the government’s actions will have a direct impact on those farmers as well as what all of us eat.

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