Monday, September 10, 2007

Outstanding in His Fields

Though I haven't reviewed a book here in a while, I've been slipping in a good bit of reading between rounds of canning and cooking. And since I'd tried for months to get a hold of Michael Ableman's Fields of Plenty: A Farmer's Journey in Search of Real Food and the People Who Grow It, I was utterly delighted to have its arrival coincide with my visit to the Original Organic Farmer and her little slice of heaven.

Ableman, a farmer and artist, left his own fields with great reluctance and longing one harvest season in order to travel across America, visiting a wide variety of farms and farmers in different bioregions who raise different crops by different methods and offer different views of farming and the world. His photographs reveal the simple beauty of the farm life, from the undulating rows of fresh greens and the smiling faces of farming families to the vibrant color and life in a pile of chili peppers or homemade cheeses.

When you consider that farming is one of the few professions in which the practitioner is out on the land every day observing nature, it's hardly a surprise that many farmers are inspired writers, musicians, and visual artists. (p.128)

He traveled from his home in British Columbia down to the Central Valley of California, across to the drought-stricken Southwest, up to the lush dairy country of the Upper Midwest, across to New England, down and across and around again, musing along the way about the various methods he's seen, what techniques might apply to his own work, and what a sustainable food system might look like in our vast country. While he confronts some of his own ideas and prejudices in looking at other farms, he also recognizes the value of individual, local solutions, and he celebrates the biodiversity not just of the farms, but of the farmers themselves.

I consider the individuals I've met on this trip, farmers who might be lumped together under the banners and slogans that attach to "organic" as it becomes more mainstream. The farmers I've seen have no such consensus or homogeneity of thought, method, or food. (p.163)

The farmers all have definite views on why they farm the way they do and how they view their customers. Some farm specifically to supply large chains like Whole Foods, some tailor their production to the needs of local chefs, and others focus on selling at local farmers' markets. And some can be pretty outspoken.

The conversation drifts to the local-food movement. Amy [Ransom] questions the way it's being presented. "This whole idea that's being put forth, that if you don't buy locally, farmers will go out of business, makes people think they're saving our farm by buying our milk. We want people to buy our milk because it's good milk. ... I don't want to ask people to buy my stuff out of charity or out of some belief system. It's the pleasure equation instead of the guilt equation." (p.169)

The visual and verbal snapshots Ableman offers of these farms and farmers reveal a group of people passionate about good food and the need to take an active part in supplying it to others. They care deeply about the parcels of land in their stewardship, and they care about the people they serve. Each has made choices along the way, some better than others, and each has made compromises that from the outside might look like a betrayal of principles when in fact they reflect the need to adapt to the ever-shifting reality of working with nature. Reading the book is an eye-opening experience, and even though I thought I was open-minded, looking beyond rigorous labels of "organic" and "local" and drawing on my own gardening experience, I learned a great deal about the ups and downs of farming and the need to make compromises for a farm to survive and flourish.

Ableman sums up the beauty and the purpose of farming in his elegant way:

There is a richness and complexity that comes with lives lived in the pursuit of abundance -- not material abundance, but that which comes from good relations and careful connections: with the land, with a community of soil organisms, with the plants and animals we eat, and with other people. It's more than the food. ... To gather together around food, food that is of a place, carefully brought forth by a person, is the ultimate expression of love. (p.225)

Along with the stories and interviews with the farmers and the lush photography, the book includes recipes, either from the farmers or based on the produce Ableman sampled on his journey. It's an ideal pairing: if you're more interested in cooking than farms, you'll find yourself fascinated with the stories behind the food.

In short, it's a book worth finding and savoring in slow measures, and if it doesn't make you want to run off to a nearby farm to sink your hands into the soil or pick fresh produce, I'll be surprised!


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