Preface

There is honor that comes with treating the land and its environs respectfully and with appreciation. It may not be said explicitly, but if you listen to the stories from those who work the land, it can be heard. And the food we consume also has its own stories; we taste those at every meal.
There is an underlying reverence—a felt sense of the personal connection people have to land and the food it produces. As explained by one farmer, ‘This is about the slow restoration of the good…there’s wisdom in redemption.

Those words mark the final paragraphs of an article I wrote about a conference focused on investing in sustainable agriculture that, in part, inspired me to write this book. That event was nearly two years ago, and despite all that’s happened between then and now—after countless discussions with farmers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and many others who play a role in American agriculture—this assessment still holds true. In fact, several of the entrepreneurs whose stories I feature in the final chapter I first encountered at that very event.

I had a lot of learning to do over the years. For instance: Soil is not dirt. When this fact first came to my attention, I realized just how much I did not know about agriculture. For most of my life I have been fascinated by all the beauty and mystery of the natural world, first sparked by a canoe trip into the Canadian boundary waters’ wilderness as a teenager; exploring nature’s wonders has been a pastime ever since. Yet my knowledge of agriculture was limited. I knew just enough to seek out certain food labels when grocery shopping, but I lacked anything close to a deeper understanding, let alone appreciation, of how my food was produced.

I started to pay more attention. And, yes, that meant learning why soil is not dirt, and what actually constitutes fertile, healthy soil. The Smithsonian Museum’s soil exhibit presents a wealth of information about this wondrous substance that is so vital to our existence, including this revelation: one teaspoon of good farm soil contains up to a billion bacteria and more than 4,000 species.

The agricultural realm is part and parcel of the natural world, though finding agriculture practiced with cultivation methods that produce “good farm soil” and align the farm with nature is no easy undertaking.

American agriculture today is a complex entanglement of forces—political, governmental, technological, international, financial—and it is as lucrative and intertwined as any other sector within the global business paradigm. Now valued at approximately $400 billion in annual sector output, American agriculture is no longer just about matching food supply to consumer demand, or the ancient practice of placing seeds in the ground, waiting for harvests amid unpredictable weather, and rotating the land with grazing livestock at timely intervals. Each decade since World War II has brought a steady stream of new developments, propelled by rapid population growth, profound technological advances, and the morphing of the capitalist model.

This book is divided into three sections: Part I: Industrialization, Part II: Divergence, and Part III: Innovation.

In Part I: Industrialization, I explore how we as a nation arrived at this place in agriculture, in part by unraveling the scientific discoveries and economic and policy decisions that have made corn the most ubiquitous American crop. I show how one state—Illinois—has fared during this transformation and explain the global strategies of Monsanto, one of the sector’s leaders. It is increasingly difficult to keep pace with the scientific developments affecting our food and farmland; here I share the larger picture, translated for those among us who are not fluent in the language of crop science.

Part II: Divergence is a snapshot of the developments emerging across the U.S.—from the Northwest to the Southeast—starting with the grassroots fervor of the local food movement. I explore the passion for food that underlies this movement, the transformative leaders who have led the charge, and the not quite (or not yet) mainstream means of food production that have arisen as a result. In this section I also demystify the most popular food labels—which are multiplying in number and often cryptically written—and look at how innovative financial vehicles are making it easier to invest in the enterprises that are part of this emerging food supply chain, combining both profitability and ideological commitment. 

Part III: Innovation is pure storytelling: I share the tales of nine entrepreneurs (and one enterprising nonprofit) who have created successful businesses within the agricultural supply chain. I had the privilege of learning about their companies firsthand, and I discuss how these innovators took a kernel of an idea and despite obstacles found a way to scale and make a start-up business profitable. What happened with these organizations often extends beyond farming practices and effective operations, and speaks to the ripple effect of transformation—from fostering community development to deepening familial ties.

Let me preface the narrative with an observation, one that I made early on and throughout my research. Each person I interviewed, whatever his or her role—steeped in technology or in certified organic practices—did his or her work with diligence and a strong intent to impact society in a positive way. Their work often seemed like a calling. It was also clear that there was little or no discourse among those on either end of the continuum of agricultural practices, even within the same institution; I believe this reflects the public discourse at large.

The transformation of American agriculture is occurring on myriad levels, and no matter their role, everyone I spoke with—from the scrappy entrepreneurs to the crop-science researchers—is playing a part in this transformation. The changes are happening with such swiftness (a major overhaul in less than a generation) that the general population is often unable to keep up, left to piece together information about all the disparate parts of this new agriculture before the next wave hits.

Writing this book has been a journey like no other, not only because it is my first book, but also because I had a dearth of knowledge of the topic—a topic of such enormity and far-reaching consequence. And although the process was daunting and incredibly humbling, it has been one of my most rewarding professional endeavors. My new appreciation for the agrarian world is grounded in the privilege of seeing firsthand its wonders and rhythms, as well as speaking with those who grow crops, raise livestock, or help farmers bring their harvests to market. Writing about a cycle so fundamental to life brings an honor all its own.

This book does not delve deeply into the wonders of soil—that tale could fill another entire book—but its essential role is a thread throughout all the chapters. Wendell Berry, author, poet, and farmer, wrote the following words about soil, and thus, I believe, about the future of American agriculture:

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.