REVIEW: With an Ear to the Ground
Serving the public good
The latest book from SARE broadcasts a genial, informative voice from the Northeast sustainable ag community

Reviewed by Laura Sayre


With an Ear to the Ground: Essays on sustainable agriculture

Vern Grubinger, Northeast Regional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, 2004; ISBN 1-888626-08-9; $10.00; 198 pp.

purchase now

November 23 , 2004: In 1997, some fortuitous alignment of the planets brought University of Vermont Cooperative Extension specialist Vern Grubinger into the studio of his local NPR affiliate to tape the first of a series of short radio addresses on sustainable agriculture in the Green Mountain State and beyond. With an Ear to the Ground, the latest title put out by by the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, collects six dozen or so of these addresses into book form. As Grubinger admits having learned along the way, these are not lectures, but informal, informative, often humorous ruminations about everything from raspberries to the National Organic Program to lawn mowing. The result is something like a collection of lay sermons, or homilies, perfect for lulling you to sleep at the end of a hard day (I mean that in the best possible sense) or filling an indefinite number of minutes in the waiting room of your dentist or mechanic.

I was fortunate enough to pick this book up the same week I attended the biennial SARE conference, held this year in Burlington, Vermont, and so for me it also served as a timely, genial primer on sustainable ag happenings in the Green Mountain state. While maintaining a perspective broad enough to keep the interest of readers nationwide, Grubinger describes projects like the Vermont Fresh Network, which encourages restaurants to purchase directly from local farms and food processors; Land Link Vermont, which matches retiring and aspiring farmers and assists with alternative land transfer arrangements; or Kindle Farm, a non-profit educational center that uses farming and other rural vocational activities as a focus for working with at-risk youth. As director of UVM's Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Grubinger is well-placed to survey such efforts.

Some of Grubinger's most enjoyable pieces center on individual species or groups of species: clover, blueberries, tomatoes; lady bugs, Colorado potato beetles. Another group of essays center on Vermont's dairy sector—its diversity, its productivity, its role in shaping and preserving the characteristic Vermont landscape of fields and farms and small towns. As the father of two small boys, Grubinger also talks about issues related to family life, environmental education, and dietary health, applying liberal quantities of anecdote for comic relief.

Other essays are more serious. Grubinger offers a brief introduction to the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 and its ongoing consequences for pesticide regulation, and argues passionately for the value of small farms to local economies and rural aesthetics. Perhaps the boldest essay, from 2000, tackles the question of 'neutrality' on the part of extension personnel: although Grubinger acknowledges he can't speak officially for the University of Vermont or the USDA when voicing an opinion about, say, genetically modified crops, he argues that dogged neutrality is neither possible nor desirable. "Many of the farmers I work with want more than a list of pros and cons when they face a tough decision. They ask me, "What do you think?" And they want a straight answer." By declaration and by example, Grubinger carves out a space for extension personnel to act as forceful advocates for a diverse, vibrant sustainable agriculture, to not feel that they must hedge their advice between the conventional status quo on the one hand and organic-farming-as-niche-market on the other. This in itself is a valuable contribution to the public good.

Aimed at the broadest possible audience, this book is not a thorough-going treatise on agriculture in the Northeast or even in the state of Vermont. It might be valuable, however, for convincing your Uncle Joe to consider reducing the size of his lawn or explaining to your cousin Jane what Integrated Pest Management is about. And above all, it will remind you—should you need reminding—of the quiet leadership one small state is providing in the realm of sustainable agriculture, and it will renew your faith—should it need renewing—in the value of cooperative extension for both rural and urban constituencies.