A good book continues to grow and change, long after it’s been published and its author has passed away.
That’s because a good book is multifaceted, and readers invariably focus on some aspects more than others. If the same readers return to the book at a later date, they will see new things.
I recently had that re-reading experience with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy. It is not part of her Little House series but rather a semi-fictionalized account of her husband Almanzo’s childhood on a diversified farm in New York state.
The book describes one year on the Wilder family farm—1866-1867—when Almanzo Wilder was nine years old.
Little Almanzo loves farming! Seasons come and go, and everyone has a role. Father directs the raising of a huge array of crops and livestock, while Mother directs the home workshop—the making of clothes and the preparation of food. Working together, the family produces everything they need, and for extras, they sell surplus directly to customers, bargaining shrewdly for a fair price. Almanzo and his older sisters and brother are constantly learning new skills from their dexterous parents, while routinely performing essential chores. Nothing makes Almanzo happier than to be kept home from school to help his father with the work. He has little interest in school or peers. His skillful, hard-working family and their self-sufficient farm are the center of his world.
I had led a discussion of Farmer Boy at a small town library years ago, and now Kansas Humanities was asking me to do so again.
I got out my notes from years before. Here are some of the things I had written down:
“It was axes and plows that made this country.” (Father to Almanzo)
“It was farmers that took all [the land] and made it America.” (Father to Almanzo)
“You will always be independent, son, on a farm.” (Father to Almanzo)
“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Jay.)
“[Farming] will never disappoint you.” (Thomas Jefferson urging Native Americans to take up farming)
“Jeffersonian agrarian myth” (the term scholars use for Jefferson’s promotion of the small farm as the bedrock of democracy, the essence of the American ideal)
The Homestead Act. (Jefferson’s widely-shared views infused later land-distribution policies, including the Homestead Act.)
160 acres (Land was allotted in quarter-section parcels with the belief that 160 acres was just the right size for an independent family farm.)
“Rain will follow the plow.” (a claim made by promoters urging people to take up homesteads, even in drought-prone Kansas)
“In God we trusted. In Kansas we busted!” (a slogan decorating the eastward-bound wagons of some of the one-in-two Kansas homesteaders who ended up losing their land)
“Seven successive years of complete crop failure, with work, weather and sickness…, and interest rates of 36 per cent on money borrowed to buy food” (Rose Wilder Lane, listing reasons for her parents’ failure at homesteading in South Dakota. Her parents were a grown-up Almanzo and his wife, Laura Ingalls Wilder.)
My notes concluded with these questions:
Did the Homestead Act fit the reality of prairie states?
Was the “agrarian myth” a siren song?
Is Farmer Boy selling us a bill of goods?
Then I put down my notes. I reread the book.
I happened to be reading at the same time agricultural journalist Stephanie Anderson’s One Size Fits None: A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture.
Most farms are still classified as “family owned,” she writes, but the phrase is misleading, as “20 percent of the farms produce 95 percent of the commodities and food. What we have is a top-heavy agricultural system, with a small number of very large farms providing most of our food.”
Farms of all sizes have to “play by the rules of agribusiness,” she maintains, with even small farms now “planting monocultures, spraying herbicides and pesticides, and sending their cattle to [feedlots].” But she sees growing resistance to those practices in the re-emergence of family farms practicing a kind of agriculture she calls “regenerative.”
The term refers to farming that emphasizes soil health above all and that seeks in general to align agriculture with the natural ecosystems of the land.
Anderson’s book introduced me to several practitioners of “regenerative agriculture.” Though they farm in different parts of the country, they have several things in common: They stick with small acreages, and they encourage a diversity of plants and animals. They reject expensive off-farm inputs, such as large machines and synthetic chemicals. Instead they rely on nature’s free services for fertility and pest control. To succeed financially, they sell to customers directly.
Shades of Farmer Boy! The Wilders, too, farmed a small acreage with a diversity of crops and livestock, and they too farmed “organically” (back then it was just “farming”). They, too, sold their produce directly.
Of course there are differences. Today’s family farmers incorporate years of learning about soil biology—the complex underground ecosystem comprised of countless macro- and microorganisms that together help grazers to thrive and crops to grow.
Still, as I prepared for the next discussion, I had to add new things to my notes:
Agriculture’s fastest growing sector (That’s how the Bureau of Labor Statistics describes small farmers selling directly to customers.)
Independence requires skills (The Wilders’ self-sufficiency required numerous skills. Regenerative farmers today are free of the dictates of agribusiness but they are constantly experimenting, sharing experiences, and studying in order to learn what to do instead.)
Love ( Almanzo loved farming. The farmers Anderson interviewed are also effusively enthusiastic about their work.)
Today’s regenerative farmers may seem new-fangled—but in many ways they are bringing Farmer Boy to life again. They are reaching back for the warm organicism of an earlier era while finding new ways to keep the ideal of independent family farms alive.
Clearly, a good book like Farmer Boy is not done telling us all the new things it has to say!