- 2018 Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize WinnerThis Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways
The winning author, Ted Genoways, lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Mary Anne Andrei, and their son, Jack. The son of Hugh Genoways, a former director of the University of Nebraska State Museum, Ted has long Great Plains roots in Bayard, a small town in Nebraska's Panhandle. Before receiving this award, Genoways won a National Press Club Award and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. This Blessed Earth is Ted's third book and follows The Chain (2014), an exposé of the hard truths of the meatpacking industry in Fremont, Nebraska, and Austin, Minnesota.
We all know that farming is a risky business: local weather and global markets are always in flux; expensive equipment can fail at any time. Farmers in the Great Plains make high-stakes decisions at a near-dizzying rate: what, where, and how to plant; when to harvest; when to sell; who to hire and who to let go. These decisions are made in the context of equipment debt, pivot debt, land debt, and the vagaries of crop insurance.
This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm follows the Hammond family of York County, Nebraska, through a year starting in June 2014. In October 2014 untimely rains force them to store the beans they had hoped to harvest and sell early before a burgeoning harvest would likely cause prices to drop. In May 2014 they learn that, due to forecasted corn surpluses, Pioneer may not need them to grow as much seed corn as last year. Later, they find out that they must renew their efforts to stave off a menacing transcontinental pipeline.
Opportunity, romance, tragedy, and contingency play big roles in every family history, but with farming, all this drama can take place on a single set. On that set, succession—how will the farm be passed to the next generation?—generates by far the most drama. Rick Hammond, born and raised on a small cattle ranch in arid western Nebraska, met Heidi Harrington at the agricultural college in his hometown; they married after Rick's stint in the Peace Corps. Heidi was from eastern Nebraska, near the eastern edge of the High Plains Aquifer—some of the best farmland in the state. She was one of five sisters—the fifth generation of a family that had worked Centennial Hill Farm since it was homesteaded in 1874. Although divided equally among four of the sisters, the farm was then run—with considerable discord—as a single operation. In 2006, Rick and Heidi's daughter Meghan's high-school sweetheart was killed by a roadside bomb while serving with the US Marine Corps in Iraq. Meghan, then a student in Omaha, [End Page v] decided to return to the farm. She became the glue that held her hardworking family together, and eventually met and married Kyle Galloway—a quiet, competent man with the right skills and temperament to further secure the farm's future.
Within the main narrative, Genoways skillfully intersperses an education on many subjects: the origin of hybrid corn, the evolution (and recycling) of tractors, and the coming of center-pivot irrigation to the Great Plains. Genoways was able to finally get me—a geologist focused on the carbon cycle and climate change—interested in soybeans after living in Nebraska for thirty-seven years. It turns out that in the mid-1930s, Henry Ford started to worry about the growing scarcity of world oil reserves. He wanted to keep farmers hooked on the tractors he built, so he financed research into the use of soybeans as biofuel. He invested $5 million in a soybean mill. Fortune magazine declared him "as much concerned with the soya bean as he is with the V-8 engine." Time called him "the bean's best friend." The 1938 discovery of the 75-billion-barrel Ghawar oil field in Saudi Arabia pulled the plug on soybeans as a biofuel, but, luckily, livestock feeders had just discovered that these oil-rich beans were just the...