A Nation of Farmers will grow on you

Cover of Sharon Astyk's A Nation of FarmersBOOK REVIEW

A Nation of Farmers: Defeating the Food Crisis on American Soil
By Sharon Astyk & Aaron Newton
New Society Publishers, 2009, $19.95

This is a terribly important book, packed with crucial information for our times. Its co-authors take turns writing chapters, and while their styles are – as you would expect – a bit different, the difference isn’t great enough to be jarring.

Sad to say, however, the book is poorly edited. That’s nothing new anymore, but the missing words, wrong forms of the right words (e.g., considerable/considerate), and general lack of understanding with regard to the need for punctuation can all be distracting.

That said, the authors created a book which will serve as an important reference in times to come. Their observations are gleaned from lives spent gardening and/or farming. Among them, the observation that 2,000 acres farmed by 500 individuals yields a great deal more than 2,000 acres farmed by one individual – or corporation. My own observation: people who farm must absolutely be close to the land!  (Friends and I listened to Gene Logsdon make this very point recently.)  When migrant workers do the important work of harvesting, they know far more about what’s been produced than the farmer.

The authors also make the very necessary point that industrialized organic farming is not at all the same thing as small scale organic farming. “The word ‘small’ here is the operative one.”  Indeed it is.  People who sit in the air-conditioned cab of a $100,000.00 tractor find it difficult to see what’s happening down there on the ground. Enormous tractors compact the soil. Compacted soil cannot support microbial life because it’s been crushed.  Again, something migrant workers could have told us, had we been listening, long ago.

Current Midwestern soils harbor only 1-2% carbon, where 20 years ago they contained as much as 20%. Industrialized organic farming does nothing to build soil.

All is not lost, however. Astyk and Newton believe that people who grow and cook their own food will be the hope of our nation. Both activities will be rather grand adventures for 21st-century people who grew up nuking their food. My 25-year-old son recently thanked me for not using a microwave when he was growing up – he said that, unlike his friends, he realizes that cooking is a possibility! There’s lots of practical, homegrown advice in this book about both the growing and the cooking, with fabulous-looking recipes to try. I can’t wait to make the cherry crumble, myself.

Finally, our authors urge us to view growing (and foraging and hunting) and cooking food as more than a family affair. It needs to be a community affair. Where one has coaxed plenitude from the soil, the other may be less experienced. While gun-owning neighbors may have meat to eat, those who shun weapons may not. At some point, we all need to raise a few chickens or rabbits. Goats may also be a possibility. Cows, I think, really require you to know what you’re doing. Again, one may know, another might not. Caring for each other is why we’re here.

I would highly recommend this book to any reader with even the slightest interest in knowing how to cope as the weather warms and the national, corporate, fossil-fuel dependent food system begins to collapse. While I for one do not look for total collapse for some time yet, it is entirely possible that citizens will need to start filling in gaps in the food supply sooner rather than later. These authors are knowledgeable and compassionate, and have written this book in order to be of help.  Buy this book!

You might also enjoy


  1. Diane Blust says

    I just finished this book and think it should be required reading for everyone! I’m hoping it will be one of the first books we tackle in a soon-to-be established book club in Reston, VA focused on sustainability and community self reliance.

    Thanks for the thoughtful review – the lapses in editing were bothersome, but the message comes through.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *