- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000

THE LAND WAS EVERYTHING: LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN FARMER By Victor Davis Hanson. Foreword by Janey Smiley. Free Press, $24, 258 pages


Except to urban people and the government, it's no secret that trying to keep a family farm going in these times is a hard, unrewarding and economically naive activity. More often than not, such farms don't support their owners. Their owners, directly or indirectly, support them.
From the vantage point of a hilly 250-acre livestock operation in northeastern Maryland, started by my father 55 years ago, I can testify to that first-hand. So, from a continent away and much more eloquently, can a fifth-generation farmer named Victor Davis Hanson.
In addition to raising fruit on irrigated land in California's San Joaquin Valley, Mr. Hanson is an academic a college professor of Greek and a distinguished writer on classical history and literature. But that's just his off-farm job, something which almost every family farmer in the year 2000 has to have in order to survive. The author is a farmer first, as genuine a modern agrarian as the Montana schoolteacher feeding his cattle by moonlight or the Iowa lawyer, diesel-drenched, repairing his broken combine in a dawn cornfield two hours before he's due in court.
Mr. Hanson has put in his time dealing with broken equipment and unreliable labor and pesticide regulations and suburban neighbors and the caprice of markets and weather. And from that experience he has produced some brilliant, cranky prose about American family farmers, and about the modern society in which they no longer seem to fit at all.
Mr. Hanson is no rural romantic, that's for sure. His 1996 "Fields Without Dreams" contained a searing account of how the Great Raisin Crash of 1983 almost ruined his family. In that book, he asserted persuasively that as the millennium neared, the United States had reached "the penultimate stage of the death of agrarianism, the idea that farmland of roughly like size and nature should be worked by individual families."
Now, with "The Land Was Everything," Mr. Hanson explores that thought still further, and debunks what he sees as some of the major urban myths about family farms and family farmers. Farming, he explains, not especially pleasantly or tactfully, isn't serene, or simple, or even eternal. And while farmers may well be hard-working and law-abiding, that doesn't mean they're nice.
Farmers still use words like "mean" or "stupid" or "crooked" or "no-good," and if we returned to an agrarian society, Mr. Hanson points out, such language would come back, and a lot of other things would change too. There'd be no more after-school soccer or gymnastics; the kids would be out in the fields along with dad and gramps. Food would be much tastier, but it wouldn't look as pretty, and there might not be as much of it, especially out of season. There'd be more churches, less illegitimacy, and less crime, but people would be poorer, wearier, and much less mobile.
In fact, as we have moved away from agrarianism, our country may have become for a moment more democratic and free, as well as more leisured and better fed. But there has been a price for such progress. As Mr. Hanson says, "we have become more humane collectively and in the abstract, but somehow far worse individually and in person."
In any case, we're not about to emulate the Amish, abolish corporate agriculture, or roll back the suburbs. In fact, Mr. Hanson says, he has discovered a rule, "wherever family farms thrive, be it due to culture or climate, suburban development will follow them" and, eventually and inevitably, eliminate them. By contrast, corporate agriculture, like heavy industry, tends to drive away its neighbors.
Mr. Hanson takes his subtitle, "Letters from an American Farmer," from the great 18th-century work by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, and he begins each chapter with a quotation from Crevecoeur.
Like Mr. Hanson, Crevecoeur was an intellectual who could farm as well as write. For seven idyllic years, in upstate New York, he farmed, created a homestead, and raised a family. But the fires of the Revolution destroyed all that he had built, drove him back to France, and took his wife's life. His experience demonstrated, as does all human history, that peaceful agrarian interludes never last. Wars, social progress, and other calamities sooner or later overwhelm them.
Crevecoeur, Mr. Hanson observes, saw "unlimited land, small towns multiethnicism, the growth of a [rural] middle class, self-reliance, and a common culture" as the underpinnings of American democracy. And with the loss of these things, along with the physical loss of the old rural landscape and the families who shaped it generation after generation, the prospects for the American future are arid indeed.
This is of course a dour and pessimistic outlook, especially at a time of such peace and prosperity. But it's also quintessentially agrarian. Farmers, as Mr. Hanson likes to remind us, aren't very good at euphemisms.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer living in Maryland.

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