- The Changing Scale of American Agriculture
Geographers specializing in American agriculture seem to be a dying breed, much like the farmers they write about. Thankfully, we have living scholars such as Charles Aiken, John Hudson, and especially the perpetually perceptive John Fraser Hart to interpret America's agricultural landscapes and patterns of process and productivity. Fraser Hart has spent most of his eighty years on the planet observing agricultural trends and rural livelihoods on the American landscape. In this book, Hart does not disappoint. He takes us along to look at changes in the corn belt; beef; different ways and places in dairying; broiler areas and broiler people; eggs; turkeys; hogs; critics; and the nation's edges called The Rim.
Hart is especially selective of the topics in the book. You might notice that most of the subject matter deals with livestock or livestock feeds. However in chapter 14—"The Rim"—Hart addresses a few domestic food and fiber crops, but even there he briefly touches on cotton, vegetables, and nursery/greenhouse forms. Nothing is said of Louisiana's changing patterns in sugarcane, my personal favorite; but he does mention sugarcane in the Florida Everglades.
Fraser Hart's personal look at American agriculture is refreshing because it covers two scales of thought. There is the larger picture of the changing patterns of regions best illustrated by his signature maps. Unique to this book is a "changing scale of American agriculture" in which Hart gives us close up views of contemporary agriculture from the perspective of the farmer. It is a profound look at farming [End Page 281] through farmer's eyes. Here, real people, the salt-of-the-earth kinds of people, speak to and through Fraser Hart in ways that might surprise us. They tell how they have found ways to expand their agricultural pursuits; how they not only survive but also how they prosper. Those who know Hart's earlier works will immediately recall his many maps covered with dots showing distributions of agricultural patterns gleaned from census data. He has those here too. But more important, he has clearly stepped out of the office and perhaps into something else especially in a dairy barn or beef feed lot. He has put some miles on the vehicle, gotten his hands dirty, smoked the pipe, and has done the proper job of a good field man ever so late in life to bring to us the fascinating story of The Changing Scale of American Agriculture.
Today, too few geographers have the gumption or willingness to go right up to a farmer and ask him or her about the business. There was a time when the most natural thing to do in the field was to talk to someone. While our personal observations and interpretations were important to us, we often felt that the job wasn't finished until we interviewed someone local to the area. The late Merle Prunty and his protégé Charles Aiken; the late Fred Kniffen, my mentor and the mentor to many fine cultural geographers had the gifts of observation, curiosity, interpretation and the easy ability to talk to farmers and other rural folk without hurting anyone's feelings. As evidenced by his book, Fraser Hart still has what it takes to speak with folks in the field.
The advertised strength of the book is the unusual changing spatial patterns of contemporary American agriculture. Did you know that the second leading hog producing area just behind Iowa is in a few counties in eastern North Carolina? Did you know that the leading dairy state is California and no longer Wisconsin? Or do you care? The popular preconceived notion of American agriculture is that it is failing. Small family farms are disappearing, the numbers of farmers are declining, and a bleak picture emerges. Hart's book tells a different story. While the family farm is vanishing, the family agricultural "corporation" is flourishing. The importance of changing and much improved transportation, technological innovations, and...