By Matt Low
What would the conversation sound like if an organic farmer, a large-scale mono-crop farmer, a hog confinement operator, a slaughterhouse worker, a local winery owner and a failed family farmer were put in the same room and asked about the state of modern-day American agriculture? That is the hypothetical question posed in Farmscape: The Changing Rural Environment (Ice Cube Press 2012), the new book compiled by Iowa’s poet laureate Mary Swander.
One of the major strengths of Farmscape’s compact 150 pages is its unconventionality. The book itself is split into two major sections: The first section is comprised of a reader’s theatre play script that Swander has been staging in communities throughout the Midwest; the second section features a dozen essays by different authors, a few of whom recount live performances of the play. The rest lend unique, firsthand accounts of agricultural practices. Through formatting the book in this way—making the most of both the play and the essays—Swander maximizes the number of different perspectives on the topics of food production and consumption, above all else bringing a breath of fresh air to what has become a fairly stagnate debate.
The Midwest’s food systems have long been a component of Swander’s writing, perhaps most prominently in her memoir Out of This World (1995). The memoir details her efforts to grow most of her own food herself—necessitated by life-threatening allergies to processed foods— alongside the Amish community that resides near Kalona, Iowa.
In putting together the different pieces that comprise Farmscape, Swander broadens her scope to include everything from gardening to row-crop farming, all the while upholding the dignity of those who have made farming their vocation.
The centerpiece of Farmscape’s first section is a reader’s theatre play script completed by Swander and students enrolled in a creative writing course at Iowa State University in the fall of 2007. Using interviews with individuals involved with food production at virtually every level—including those occupations noted above—the play interweaves the immensely varied experiences and opinions of nearly 20 characters, all of whom have staked out livelihoods and legacies in the realm of Midwestern agriculture.
As a result, the script reads like a checklist of controversial issues related to growing, harvesting and processing food. Lonna and Joe, for example, run a small organic farming operation that they view as an extension of land stewardship as much as a way to make a living. Randy and Kristi, on the other hand, run a contract hog confinement operation mainly because, as Kristi states, they are “doing whatever it is we can to hold on.”
Then there’s Jon, who started working in a slaughterhouse right out of high school. It doesn’t take long to realize that Jon hates every minute of his work, which prompts the one disclaimer for the book (some adult language is used). But Jon cannot imagine finding a way out, and his perspective is therefore perhaps the toughest to read. Overall, the play’s disparate voices fit together seamlessly and make for compelling reading, particularly for those new to the format of reader’s theatre.
Swander’s essay “How Farmscape Happened” is the first piece of the book’s second section. In this essay she gives significant background information for many of the play’s details, including how her class went about collecting interviews for the script’s dialogue, the work that goes into casting the play in each new location as it travels the Midwest and the (mostly) positive response the play has received.
What is most interesting about the details in the essay is the vivid portrayal of the many people living in both rural and urban locales throughout the Midwest who are looking for a venue to express gratitude, vent frustrations or share innovations concerning smalland large-scale agriculture. Swander’s essay also reflects upon the idea that, although staging a performance of the play may require significant planning and preparation, ultimately doing so is an achievable goal and is absolutely worthwhile. She concludes “How Farmscape Happened” with an outreach to individuals and communities interested in staging their own productions of the play.
The other 11 essays that follow Swander’s piece cover everything from specific aspects of the play’s performance to substantive commentary on the agricultural issues and controversies presented. The latter tend to be the most interesting, as they are written by individuals who have extensive experience in food production, land stewardship and farm advocacy.
Claudia Prado-Meza’s contribution, for example, gives background on the growing role of the Latino community in American agriculture. She says this community is strong in the fields, in the slaughterhouses and even—as featured in the play—as small business owners of restaurants, grocery stores or bed-and-breakfasts.
In Leigh Adcock’s essay, “Where Are Women’s Voices in Agriculture?” she interrogates the general lack of women’s perspectives and concerns in the historical discourse of American farming largely because, as she notes, “They refused to participate in the corporate industrial system that currently dominates U.S. food and farming.”
Finally, Francis Thicke details his work as a small-scale sustainable dairy farmer. He highlights the practices he employs to ensure that he produces a high-quality product, while still preserving the integrity of the land upon which every aspect of his dairy operation relies.
Combined with the realistic portrayals in the play itself, the work as a whole gives the reader an opportunity, as Swander herself asserts, “to learn from [the] struggles and resilience” of this comprehensive profile of farmers and laborers.
If you’ve picked up a copy of this publication, you have shown a willingness to embrace at least part of its motto, which is to “Eat. Drink. Read. Think.” At the risk of sounding like a shameless plug, what makes Edible Omaha (and all of the Edible Communities publications) so essential in this day and age is its unique perspective on agriculture; that is, publications of this sort openly embrace the cultural component of food production and consumption. This involves celebrating the successes and commiserating over the failures, as well as expressing shared concern over safety, health and ethical practices.
Farmscape participates in the exact same discourse, a discourse that has a long history of participation by America’s greatest environmental and agricultural thinkers, writers and philosophers, from Thomas Jefferson to Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry. Readers of these and similar authors will surely find Farmscape to be an equally compelling read, with the added caveat that most of the voices conveyed stem not from philosophical or academic backgrounds, but from on-the-ground experiences and (often hard) lives lived in the fields.
Matt Low has a PhD in English from the University of Iowa. His research and writing interests focus mostly on the American Midwest, including the inseparable issues of sustainable sustainable agriculture and prairie restoration. Matt lives and teaches in Omaha.