Harvesting the Ordinary of Midwestern Farm Life


FARM: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FARMER by Richard Rhodes, New York: Simon and Schuster, 336 pp., $19.95.

STEP onto a farm and you quickly realize you've entered another world. The ho-hum of the city dweller's day - weather, the lay of the land, mechanical know-how - take on vital importance out on the farm. Richard Rhodes's new book is all about the importance of such things.

The author lets you hear the crackle of corn stalks at harvest. He lets you see the insides of a combine and listen to the homespun humor of these self-styled stewards of the land. In six years of reporting on the subject, I have never read a better description of what it's like to live and work on a Midwestern farm.

Mr. Rhodes's previous book, ``The Making of the Atomic Bomb,'' won a Pulitzer Prize and other honors for its clear and elegant description of one of the most extraordinary happenings in science. Here, he has taken on the equally great challenge of describing the ordinary. And he's succeeded, for the most part.

Rhodes spent most of a year visiting and working with a farm family in central Missouri. Except for a wonderful vignette about deer hunting in which Rhodes himself plays the protagonist, there is very little drama in the book. The language is so homey and easy, the story so stripped of sentiment, that one moves through it with a recurring question: Why am I reading this book? Do I need to know what it means to till a field? Am I enriched by watching farmer and veterinarian assist the birth of a calf? Yes, you need to know about such things. But you may finish the book and still wonder why?

Americans, it seems, are saddled with many myths about agriculture. There's the romantic myth of the sturdy farmer struggling to stay on his land. There's the conservative myth of the greedy farmer grabbing at government subsidies. There's the liberal myth of the ignorant (or insensitive) farmer who overuses chemicals and pollutes the land.

There are elements of truth to all these views, but they get twisted and distorted in the public mind. They also miss the larger realities of agriculture. Most farmers are like Rhodes's hero, Tom Bauer: hard-working, honest people who are as sensitive to land and nature as any environmentalist, but wed to a technological and commercial system that champions production and profit above all else.

What Rhodes has done is to deromanticize and demystify this strange and often contradictory world. ``Tom didn't like pesticides,'' he writes midway through the book. ``He would have been happy to farm without them. He just didn't see how he could. ... `I'll take a free market for agriculture,' Tom would say, `if the price of my supplies will go up and down too. But the farmer's the only man who can't get his own price.'''

Rhodes devotes half of his book to harvest time. He details the waiting and the worrying for the right day to drive the combine into the corn and soybean fields. He introduces us to Tom's wife, Sally, their two sons, Wayne and Brett, and daughter Sammi. We see the enduring friendships Tom has with his neighbors.

Yet, in striving to describe the ordinary world of farming, the author has downplayed the extraordinary period that farmers like Tom Bauer have just come through. The farm crisis of the early and mid-1980s gets short shrift. One might suspect that Bauer, like most farmers, was not seriously threatened with bankruptcy. It is not until the end of the book, though, that readers find out that the net worth of his farm operation was cut by nearly half during those turbulent years.

How did the crisis affect farmers' outlook? What did it do to families? You won't find the answers to those questions. But after reading this book, you might be inspired to take a second look at those tall, precious crops that grow, just out of reach, by the side of the highway.

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