REVIEW: The Fate of Family Farming
Tempting fate
A philosopher considers the past, present and future of family farms in America

Reviewed by Constantine Markides


The Fate of Family Farming: Variations on an American Idea

Ronald Jager, University Press of New England, 2004; 244 pages
ISBN: 1584650265
$26.00 (hardback); $17.95 (paperback)

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February 17, 2005: It is not for mere etymological kicks that Ronald Jager opens The Fate of Family Farming by noting that in Shakespeare’s time ‘to farm’ meant ‘to lease out’ rather than ‘to work the land’ (what we now call farmers were then called husbandmen). The disconcerting irony is that many farmers today—farmers in the peculiar sense that they manage farms from their dirt-free urban headquarters—are more properly farming in the 16th-century sense of the word. This may be good news for the smattering of mega-farmers and their families, but not for the more modest family farm and the many families whose livelihood and lifestyle rely on it.

Jager’s investigation into the fate of these threatened yet survivalist family farms focuses on New England, with an emphasis on New Hampshire, but it spans history, biography, science, literature, lore, practical farming and journalism. The writing—at once eloquent, warm and playful—never sprawls into tangential irrelevance, and makes for pleasurable and tireless reading, even offering lyrical turns of phrase (“…new obligations grow like weeds in farmers’ footprints”). The family farm, Jager suggests, is not only about putting food on our tables—great as that mission may be—but also about our national origins, our mythic character, our political ideals.

Jager devotes the first section of the book to this history: the farming miseries of the hapless Pilgrims; the farming successes of the more prepared and competent Dutch settlers; the adoption of Native American crops like the resilient sweet corn, initially scorned as the crop of “barbarous Indians which know no better… more fit for swine than men”; the elevation of farming to noble calling by American figures like Adams and Jefferson, who countered European views that farming was a slavish and ignoble activity (this too, of course, not without its bitter irony, considering Jefferson’s ownership of slaves). Jager brings us to a cattle show to hear Emerson rhapsodizing about the American farmer in an address but does not shield us from the caustic writings of Emerson’s friend, Thoreau, who pitied that same farmer for what he felt was a spiritless life of backbreaking drudgery. We also read about the 20th-century's agrarian spokesmen: the novelist-turned-farmer Louis Bromfield, who preached and practiced healthy agriculture on Malabar Farm in Ohio; the writer and fruit farmer Victor Hanson, who turns his Thoreauvian polemics not only upon the corporations that have come to dominate daily life, but also upon the complacent citizens who embrace the corporate world even as they resent it; and Wendell Berry, whose less biting but no less determined vision and zeal to, in Berry’s words, ‘make scars grow grass’ has startled countless Americans out of their passivity.

On this firm foundation, Jager then describes four specialized New Hampshire family farms which, respectively, produce maple syrup, milk, corn and eggs, and apples—all traditional New England products. He visited the farms repeatedly over several years, and the thoroughness of his research is evident. It also helps that he grew up on a family farm. In the chapter on Gould Hill Orchards, Jager reflects back on how he would harvest apples for sauce as a child in Michigan, according to a method he still uses: “[S]hake the tree limbs gently, and then collect and immediately use only the prime apples of those that fall… [S]hake a little harder, and the falling apples will include slightly tarter ones to add summer zing” (p.180).

He peppers the stories of these farms with proverbs (Don’t tap a tree smaller in diameter than the bucket you put to it), with curious facts (cows that ingest metal can be fed a magnet pellet to draw the metal down to the bottom of their stomachs), with etymological sex-ed lessons (the word ‘rooster’ was brought to life in 19th century America because its four-lettered synonym had taken on an impolite connotation), and with intriguing historical practices that may partly explain why voter turnout is lower now than in the Republic’s earliest days (for over a hundred years hard cider was generously passed out on Election Day).

Jager describes the daily operations of the farms he describes: how maple trees are tapped with tubes, how a milking parlor is organized, how an egg-gathering machine works, how apple trees are thinned. But he also shows how today’s agricultural system pushes family farms to change, especially to get big or get out. Some farmers don’t hesitate to expand; the Bascom’s Maple Farm, with its high-tech sugarhouse, lies somewhere between what Jager calls a factory farm (based on profits and efficiency) and a craft farm (centered on lifestyle and tradition). Gould Hill Orchards, on the other hand, is more of a craft farm; the owner, Erick Leadbeater, refuses to pasteurize his cider, which would compromise its quality, though it enable to access larger markets.

Whether Jager is musing on imported vine-ripened tomatoes--“all green as grass”--at the Boston Market, or on the innocent-until-proven-guilty policy that has quietly admitted genetically modified foods into our supermarkets, his sympathetic eye is always aimed forward in an effort, as he says in the preface, to illuminate the family farm's fate. It is also the fate of our food, our land, our farmers, our health and our culture. And Jager does illuminate this fate brilliantly, giving a rich sense of its complexity. Of course ‘fate’ may be the wrong word. Fate implies predestination and, as I presume Jager would agree, the future of the family farm depends less upon the gods than upon us.

Constantine Markides lives on Monhegan Island, Maine. He can be reached at