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The ‘Ghost Geography’ Of Midwest Farmland And A Year In The Life Of A Modern American Family …


Every year on the farm has its challenges. There are weeds, insects and random hailstorms. Unpredictable global markets can make or break a profitable crop. Recent years, though, have been especially troubling for the Hammond farm in York County in eastern Nebraska.

Rick Hammond raises corn, soybeans and cattle with his wife, Heidi, on land that has been in her family since the 1870s. Their daughter, Meghan, recently joined the farm with her husband Kyle Galloway – the sixth generation of the family to farm the land.

The farm economy for the last four years has been in a slump that many compare to the Farm Crisis of the 1980s. Times are tense and profits are hard to come by.

That’s the conflict that author Ted Genoways entered when he set out to chronicle life on a modern family farm. He wrote about the Hammond family for Harper’s, the Food and Environment Reporting Network and in a new book, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm. The book follows the Hammond family farm over the course of a year, detailing daily obstacles like a critical breakdown during soybean harvest and spring planting interrupted by rain.

For Genoways, the Hammond family is also a showcase for the struggles and successes faced by farmers today. Genoways writes about how the Hammond family is influenced by some of the big trends affecting modern agriculture across the globe.

Rick Hammond farms corn and soybeans and raises cattle on a family farm in eastern Nebraska.
Credit Courtesy Mary Anne Andrei

For instance, farm debt is set to reach the highest level since the ‘80s Farm Crisis. The USDA projects total farm debt could reach nearly $390 billion in 2017. For a farmer like Rick Hammond with personal memories of the 1980s, debt is a constant consideration.

“No matter how good it looks on a family farm, there’s still a lot of stress,” Hammond told Genoways. “And when you build a farm and ground is very expensive, why, you get into long-term debt. So then there’s always that monkey on your back that ‘Oh, I’ve got to produce. I’ve got to make this work.’”

According to Genoways, the history of farmers consumed by debt still marks the landscape surrounding the Hammond farm with a kind of “ghost geography,” a leftover of the Farm Crisis that forced so many farmers to sell their land, or lose it in bankruptcy.

“I’m always struck listening to the Hammonds talk about their ground. They almost always refer to it by the name of whoever they acquired it from,” Genoways says. “That always seems to be informing their decisions. They don’t want somebody else with a different last name referring to their ground as ‘the

Old Hammond place.’”

At a time when it can be hard to find steady profits in agriculture, the Hammond family has tried alternatives they hoped would allow them to establish a more lucrative niche. For a time, they planted organic white corn and raised grass-fed cattle, but it never worked financially.

These days, they raise the same conventional varieties of corn and soybeans as their neighbors and try to play the global markets to their financial advantage. Genoways says it’s a sign that even when a farmer may sympathize with the ideas behind organic agriculture or likeminded segments of the farm industry, whether or not they use those farming methods often comes down to more than personal ethics.

“I think a lot of people are under the impression that they can change the food system by what they buy at the grocery store and it’s really not that simple,” Genoways says. “It’s got to be about regulation. It’s got to be about incentives that are built into the system. For that to happen requires much broader changes than can happen through consumer habits.”

Meghan Hammond is one of Rick and Heidi Hammond’s four children, and the first to come back to the farm.
Credit Courtesy Mary Anne Andrei

Farm work may seem isolated: a solitary tractor trundling through a corn field, or a truck rolling down an empty gravel road. But the decisions made by consumers, policymakers and food advocates, Genoways says, really do have an impact on the families trying to make their living on the land.

More from Harvest Public Media’s interview with author Ted Genoways:

HPM: There’s so much technology on the farm – in the seeds, in the tractors. I kind of got the sense that Rick Hammond sometimes has a love/hate relationship with that technology. Is that the case? And does his daughter have a different perspective on that?

GENOWAYS: Maybe every generation regardless of what field you’re in regards the advance of technology as something that is full of promise but also intimidating. You look at somebody like Rick (Hammond) who started with a four-row planter and doing everything by eye and now is there with these huge multi-row planters that are programmed in advance with GPS and the exact seed density is determined by that program. The technology has changed exponentially.

I think there’s a recognition that there’s a huge learning curve there, but there’s also a great advantage in terms of managing resources and making sure you’re only using precious resources like water and seed where you need to. And of course that helps manage your input costs. So, as much as there may be some reluctance about the technology, I think there’s also a recognition that if you’re not keeping up with it while your competition is then you’re putting yourself at risk.

HPM: This one farm ends up serving as a really good backdrop for a lot of issues going on in agriculture. For instance, this tension between the mission to feed the growing world population, which a lot of farmers take very seriously, and at the same time the fact that there is this global oversupply of grain right now and that’s what’s holding down the prices that they earn for their crops. What are some ways you saw that playing out on the Hammond farm?

Kyle Galloway steers a combine through rows of soybeans.
Credit Courtesy Mary Anne Andrei

GENOWAYS: Probably the most dramatic way that I saw it was one particular evening early on in the soybean harvest when there was a lot of discussion between Rick and Kyle about whether to continue harvesting that evening or call it quits for the night.

Kyle had called around and found an elevator that was willing to stay open and take their beans at that day’s prices instead of just waiting until morning when the prices would be lower. What struck me about that moment was that Kyle was not just watching what the price at closing had been on the Chicago Board of Trade but was also looking at the futures based on what was happening on the trading floor in China. And it was influencing decisions being made on a quarter-section of ground in York County, Nebraska.

HPM: After spending all this time with Rick Hammond and his family, what did you learn about what it means to be a good farmer?


28 Comments on "The ‘Ghost Geography’ Of Midwest Farmland And A Year In The Life Of A Modern American Family …"

  1. fmr-paultard on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 6:09 am 

    of course permacultists don’t have any concern about feeding the world, they disguise themselves when going shopping for industrial ag. products.

  2. makati1 on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 6:27 am 

    Dying from food:

    “The Science of Addictive Food”
    “Old Before My Time: Obesity Documentary”
    “CarbLoaded: A Culture Dying to Eat”
    “The US Obesity Threat”

    Signs of the times in America.

  3. Davy on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 6:30 am 

    I know what these people are talking about. I had a 1000 acres of corn and soy under cultivation in 2000-2004. This was going to be my retirement. I had a partnership with two other guys each with a particular skill. I was the business guy doing the numbers and paying the bills. I also got out and did work I only had the weekends and evenings. I was then in finance and credit job. I hated being indoors and loved my weekends and afternoons working the farm. I wanted to pay off the land and have an occupation in my golden years. Screw golf and the sunshine of Florida I want to work until I die out on the land. It was as toughest an experience I have ever done. I finally got out after 4 years of struggle. I didn’t lose any money but I didn’t make any. What I got was an education.

    Industrial AG is tough unless you can go corporate and be vertically or horizontally integrated. It requires significant capital. In many cases on the smaller family farms which are often LLC’s one or more of the family in the operation works in town. Generally they have the land free and clear from being years in the family. That is how you make ends meet. I am now doing permaculture farming and it is not profitable. I cover my costs then some but it is not paying my labor. I could triple in size and treat my animals and the land with less respect to be profitable but I am not going to. I am in the position to triple in size if need be. My cattle and goats are my bank account for hard times and part of my long term prep strategy. If industrial AG declines I will be one of those small operations filling the gap.

    Industrial AG is going to decline if we are honest about overall decline and that does not bode well for close to 7BIL people who need to eat. We are seeing a compression of margins and a magnification of costs. Eventually the lines cross in mass default. We are heading that way and oh, BTW, typical anti-American article because this is global. Nowhere is industrial AG beneficial to the smaller farmer. Everywhere globally, industrial AG will be in decline. Everywhere AG is going larger and corporate. Get used to it because industries are going to concentrate to survive the compression of margins and costs. It is what happens in decline and we are in broad base global decline EVERYWHERE. The planet is in decline and climate is destabilized that is the other aspect of decline to industrial AG. Many of us forget we are still using Mother Nature to produce food. She is still the majority of the equation.

  4. Simon on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 6:58 am 

    Hi Dave

    I ponder when the cost of debt cannot be met by economies of scale anymore, will we see a return to the smaller farm.
    I read somewhere that 100acres (25Ha) is the optimum size without FF.
    I can see that happening here in the EU, and the Ag. equipment is already to big for our roads, so no more economies of scale really.


  5. makati1 on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 7:01 am 

    Simon, you bring up a huge problem that is obvious in the US.
    the end of corporate farms is the end of farming in the US. There are few real, experienced, farmers left there and they are mostly retirement age. Bad news for

  6. fmr-paultard on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 7:20 am 

    mak you are an old man and you’re being sentimental. you fear is deep. you need to live your life as truthful as you can. this way when it’s time to go, you go.

    why did you abandon america and find kindship in the phils? i don’t do aswang, or white meat as approdasiac sorry. i know better thanks to my research on cattle mutilation.

    i’m a tard, i do basic personal research for my own benefit.

    btw, do they have acid pills in the phils? if not you want to order some from america. it will help control microbes and aid with digestion for older people

    cook up all revisionist statistics all you want but just hide from abu sayaf

    love (i’m a former paultard i learned peace/love)

  7. fmr-paultard on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 7:23 am 

    sorry mak i refrain from addressing you directly. when you lose you call me degenerate. i just can’t help when i see your revisionist statistics.

    i’m only hear to empower women, to ask them to kill their way out of poverty. men have been doing that for ages

  8. Simon on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 7:34 am 

    Hi Mak

    Actually whilst the proportion of ‘natural’ farmers in the US is quite low, they kinda lead the way in terms of output per M2 using pre FF tech.
    I think the end of Industrial Ag. will be a shock, but this is a long emergency so, they will have time to adapt, problem is they will not have enough food to export, so I guess there will be issues in large parts of the world


  9. makati1 on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 7:45 am 

    fmr. then you are on a losing quest. Women are not mentally, nor emotionally warriors. Never will be except for a few genetic mutants. They are pro life, not against.

  10. makati1 on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 7:52 am 

    Simon, I disagree. Few farmers in America know how to farm without FF. Fewer still have the young age to learn. Most Americans don’t even have a clue where the food on the shelves comes from, or care. And I think we do not have the decades to change. Maybe a few years at best.

    Not to mention how those mega farms are going to be broken up into ~100 acre plots. (Communism?) Who gets what and how? Where will they live? HOW will they live while they learn? Farming is not something you can learn from a book and it is a gamble even for experienced farmers. No guarantee of a crop.

    No, when the SHTF, America is going to be in deep shit and it is not going to be fertilizer.

  11. Davy on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 8:05 am 

    “I ponder when the cost of debt cannot be met by economies of scale anymore, will we see a return to the smaller farm.”
    Simon, yea, we will see it happen out of necessity if it happens slow enough and the government does not get in the way. Unlike what makat says, most rural people are involved with farming in some way. Their land is leased out or they have a small so called “hobby farm”. This is how you make ends meet when you live in the country. The land must produce. If you are trailer trash on one acre that is a different story but most land is bigger acreages. These small farms could be ramped up quickly with the right support. If populations are forced to go local these farms will increase in importance. If populations are forced to go local it will likely be in collapse process so this will not be a smooth process. There is no replacing industrial AG and supporting 7BIL people. We should be glad we are in Europe and the US and not Asia where populations are already unsupportable or in Africa where they will be unsupportable soon.

  12. fmr-paultard on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 8:09 am 

    mak you’re wrong. killing tard extremist nazi preachers can be a career and women will want to work.

    men don’t want to kill either. this is known since wwI

  13. paulo1 on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 8:16 am 

    Very good and informative article. And except for the usual personal attacks, very thoughtful comments.

    Back in the Oil Drum days there was a retired military fellow who had some acres in Virgina?, perhaps it was Missouri and Davy or Mak will remember? Anyway, he started out his truck/vegetable farm and chronicled detailed expenses and cash flows against a background of production. He then hit the point of having to hire part-time help and continued to work even harder as he expanded. If my memory serves correctly he concluded it just wasn’t worth it and that the amount of money tied up and effort expended wasn’t worth the effort competing against industrial ag. He then quit posting.

    My farming relatives in Minnesota always had a family member with the town job to subsidize the dairy operation and corn/silage acreage. A retired buddy of mine has done the same thing, and has finally concluded he is making about fifty cents/hour. He is continually looking for the ‘niche’ crop for his greenhouses.

    I concluded years ago it wasn’t worth it, and instead have concentrated on simply augmenting our shared oil-based existence. While we don’t shop in disguise or with a bag over our heads :-), we do limit what we buy due to our production. We produce almost all of our vegetables and freeze for the winter what we can’t consume fresh. Our woodlot heats our house. Stellar jays and squirrels get all the nuts, and bears like our apples, but we eat/gorge when they are ripe. Motion lights keep the bears and racoons away from the plum trees and chicken pens, and thanks to LED Solar motion lights we can site them anywhere. Nothing but 7′ fences keep the elk out. The point of this is that it takes mucho time and money to play at farming once you migrate out of the kitchen garden. Every single day I give thanks to our oil-based industrial foundation and the luxuries it has afforded us. Our freezers are full of vegetables. Our house has corners of racked drying beans and saved seeds. the woodsheds are bursting with 6 years of firewood. I need 4 more salmon for the year in order to eat fish 2X per week, (caught a 30 pounder yesterday morning 🙂 Instead of farming our property I have building a small rental. It’ll pay the taxes.

  14. Simon on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 8:33 am 

    Dave…where does the USA export its Ag. produce to, I imagine in a transition, it will be feed the home first, so whoever you provide will go hungry first

  15. Antius on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 8:56 am 

    “I know what these people are talking about. I had a 1000 acres of corn and soy under cultivation in 2000-2004. This was going to be my retirement.”

    Thanks for sharing your story, it is interesting.

    This illustrates the difference between the US and most European countries. Where I live in the UK, the cost of land and property is so high that a person needs to be a multi-millionaire to be able to afford a property with more than a few thousand square feet of land. If you own a detached house with half an acre of land, people tend to assume you are rich. The price of property is eye-watering, with nearly all of the increase occurring in the past 20 years. Most farms average between a few tens to a few hundred acres. Everything is on a much smaller scale and the place is generally far more overcrowded, with more and more third world hoards trying to force their way in.

    Looking at what the previous generation could afford and what I can afford now at the age of 38, I can’t help but feel a little bitter. For young people it is worse. I know chartered engineers in the 20s that cannot afford to buy terraced houses in one of the UK’s least desirable northern towns. It is a bad and clearly unsustainable situation.

  16. Sissyfuss on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 9:46 am 

    It’s called overshoot, Antius and it is unrelenting. We need to increase food production by 50% for the coming extra 2 to 3 billion on the way. Impossible. Does anyone know the know the best time to plant Soylent Green? The package comes with no directions.

  17. MrBill44 on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 11:15 am 

    This family is acquaintences of mine. A number of years ago they relocated from Frontier County, Neb to Yourk County. My eldest daughter and son in law farm 4000 acres in that area. Things are pretty good if you have no debt and are able to raise seed corn as well as beans and field corn. Resistent weeds are a real problem this year as well as large flocks of small black birds which are decimating milo on dryland pivit corners.

  18. deadlykillerbeaz on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 11:28 am 

    Plenty of room in Russia.

    Migrant workers from Mexico can help with farming in the US, like they did before mechanized farming. Apple pickers will be needed. Somebody has to hoe the sugar beets.

    Modern methods from manufacturing plants produce farm machinery so you don’t have to use oxen, workhorses and mules.

    Helga will milk the cows.

    You’ll be able to live in the city, build airplanes, submarines, aircraft carriers.

    Your food will be in short supply without 400 horsepower tractors and combines.

    Cotton is down to a quarter a pound and I’m busted.

  19. Simon on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 12:11 pm 

    “Modern methods from manufacturing plants produce farm machinery so you don’t have to use oxen, workhorses and mules.”

    What is going to power this machinery ?

  20. anon on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 3:35 pm 

    Im on the entirely other end of the scale in the article and in some comments – i have a whopping 3 acres (1.2 ha) of land and thus far have it in some tree crops, a few fruit trees , some sown in emmer wheat , and next year will be more fruit trees and vegetable/herb gardens, and all dryland because i don’t have water unless i haul it there. It’s scattered in a half-dozen plots ranging from 500 yards to a mile or so from my (quite small) house. The good side? it’s all paid for. It produces not a cent of profit and if i didnt have savings from a modern-world job to burn, it would have been impossible.. but it’s my best guess at a viable plan for the future. what would i do with 100 acres? i’d have my own mini-empire (and a LOT of trees). I wish i had more land for trees and to graze a couple of sheep or goats for milk.

  21. makati1 on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 5:56 pm 

    As I said before, growing a few veggies in the back yard is NOT going to transform into a farm that supports you and a few hundred others. If you had to TOTALLY rely on what you produce, (no grocery available) most would starve. Mother Nature loves to mess with farmers with her army of destroyers, insects, virus, bacteria, weather, animals, etc..

    Asians will be able to survive easier in most locations. Americans will not. I do not know the European situation, but I would think it will be even worse there. Not enough usable land or experience there either, I would think.

  22. makati1 on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 5:58 pm 

    Simon, good question. Some here never think beyond their noses. Even if they have horses and the equipment to use them with, it takes acres of land to support the horse. Ask any Mennonite or Amish farmer. Not to mention the ability to actually hitch them up and plow. LOL

  23. makati1 on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 6:01 pm 

    I forgot to add in the most deadly of Mother Nature’s weapons, humans. When you have a crop that is about to ripen, and you have neighbors or roving bands who are starving, your crop may never get to your table. But then, you may never livev long enough to worry about it.

    We live in ‘interesting’ times. LOL

  24. Go Speed Racer on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 6:12 pm 

    Good news, we don’t need farmers
    anymore because we can all eat just
    Three Musketeers Bars. Those are
    made from 100% plastic and chemicals,
    so nothing needs to be grown.

    If it gets too boring we can also add in
    Gummi bears, for a side dish.
    And if we drink only diet Coca Cola,
    again we only need chemical refineries
    and no farmers needed anymore.

    Lastly the SNAP welfare cards will buy the
    Three Musketeers Bars, the Coca Cola
    and the Gummi Bears, all for free and
    nobody has to work anymore.

  25. onlooker on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 6:14 pm 


  26. onlooker on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 6:33 pm
    19 climate change feedbacks now feeding themselves
    Soon it will not matter. So don’t worry embrace the doom it is not going away

  27. deadlykillerbeaz on Fri, 15th Sep 2017 7:24 pm 

    Rudolph Diesel built an engine that was fueled by peanut oil. The way to power the machinery.

  28. Sissyfuss on Sat, 16th Sep 2017 9:22 am 

    Mak, I feel propelled back in time when I watch my Amish neighbors work their beautiful 4 horse plow team. The seem to prefer Percherons, massive light colored beass of burden that have a magical ability to synchronize the movements with each other. Much more poetic than a FF dinosaur plying it’s trade.

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