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Posted July 24, 2007

Books offer insights into where our food comes from

A Good Day's Work: An Iowa Farm in the Great Depression by Dwight Hoover. Ivan Dee (Chicago, 2007). 206 pp. $26.

Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. Penguin Press (New York, 2006). 464 pp. $26.95.

Reviewed by William Droel
Catholic News Service

The golden age for self-sufficient farming in this country was "the period from 1900 to 1914," explains Dwight Hoover in "A Good Day's Work," his detailed memoir of three generations in his family. Technology, markets and other factors favor larger farms and demand hefty quantities of risk capital. Thus many debt-ridden farms failed during the Great Depression. Some family farms recovered during and immediately after World War II, but today a wholly-owned family farm is an exception.

Four lyrical chapters describe life on the farm during each season of the year with paragraphs on the difference between checkerboard and contour planting, the necessary space between rows of crops, animal psychology, machinery maintenance, proper storage or packaging of grains and vegetables, and much more. Six shorter chapters provide background on Hoover's family, his education and his eventual decision to pursue a career in teaching, rather than in farming.

Hoover indirectly explains why things changed in a chapter about tractors, which seemed like a great innovation in the 1930s. Tractors, however, encouraged farmers to buy more land. But more purchasing means more capital at risk. Further, efficient tractors discourage crop diversity. They also perform better without interference from fences. That means fewer horses and cattle, which in turn means no manure and more chemical fertilizer. All of which necessitates a big cash flow, beyond what a single family can sustain.

In "Omnivore's Dilemma," Michael Pollan of the University of California, a leader in the alternative-eating movement, traces the ingredients in some typical food items back to their source, which is very often an Iowa cornfield. An ingredient, Pollan finds, travels at least 1,500 miles from farm to kitchen table (or to drive-through window). Although farm production doubles about every 10 years in this country, food production and delivery is expending more energy than is contained in our menu.

Pollan concludes his report with his attempt at a perfect meal, one "that is eaten in full consciousness of what it took to make it." To cook such a meal he learns to hunt and clean wild game and to forage for mushrooms. Although it is a "thought-intensive dinner," Pollan believes that a perfect meal "is worth preparing every now and again."

The U.S. Congress is currently deliberating a renewal of the farm bill. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference, along with dozens of other groups, is lobbying for policies that promote family farms, environment-friendly agriculture, and nutritious food processing and distribution.

Those urban dwellers looking for a better understanding of where their food comes from could find some ideas in these two books.

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Droel is an instructor at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill.