Alan Guebert grew up on a 720-acre, 100-cow dairy farm in southern Illinois. His weekly syndicated column, The Farm and Food File, runs in 70 newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada. An award-winning journalist and agricultural policy expert, Alan recently co-wrote the book The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey with his daughter and editor, Gracie Foxwell. Gracie Foxwell has been a member of the Food Tank team from its founding, contributing to the growth of the organization as a grant writer and consultant. She co-directs the social media advisory firm Foxwell Digital with her husband Andrew in Madison, Wisconsin.
Alan and Gracie are spending the summer touring rural America to share stories from The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey, engage in an intergenerational dialogue about farming and food, and to hear from farmers, foodies, and friends from Maryland to Montana. Food Tank had the opportunity to sit down with Alan and Gracie and talk about their new book, the unique potential of rural communities, and how agricultural policy has affected family farms across America.
Food Tank (FT): Without giving too much away, what's the main takeaway from the book?
Alan Guebert (AG): The book was meant to be a collection of columns about growing up on a large dairy farm in southern Illinois. I have written 60 or so of these columns over the course of 20 years as a break from my policy- and politics-heavy weekly column on farming and food. Gracie edited them and compiled them into seasonal chapters, we co-wrote a prologue and epilogue, and The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey became a memoir. Now, however, I see it also as a blueprint for how farming and food could once again be.
Gracie Foxwell (GF): In the past 50 years alone, farming has significantly changed, both in America and around the world. In the early 1960s, my grandparents' farm was a self-sustaining community that supported the Guebert family of six children, multiple hired men and their families, and dozens of other neighbors through the farm's milk and my grandmother's sprawling garden. However, with time, bigger, faster machinery came onto the farm and my grandparents couldn't wait to modernize—effectively pushing many people off that farm and out of farming. In truth, Indian Farm became more focused on business and profit, and less about people, which is a very common tale in agriculture. So, while our book is a personal history of Indian Farm, it's also a roadmap to where family farms can return if they re-prioritize people, community, and sustainability.
FT: How has the public image of the ‘family farm’ changed from when you were growing up?
AG: I don't think the public image of the family farm has changed very much because, frankly, it’s not understood very well. First, most Americans are unaware of the immense change agriculture and its structure has undergone in the last 50 or so years. Second, Big Ag has spent vast sums of money and millions of hours trying to keep the image of the straw-hatted farmer very much alive—through marketing, advertising, and lobbying--when, in fact, that farmer disappeared with giant-finned Cadillacs and 78 rpm records. Today's farmers are business managers focused on crucial assets like land, machinery, and cash to generate profits in the most efficient way. On the farm of my youth, we, too, wanted efficiency and profits but we lived a rural life with clean air, clean water, homegrown food, and neighbors. We were deeply concerned with what our neighbors thought and we all cared for the communal property of the southern Illinois bottoms, including our creeks and rivers. All those items were important elements of our lives; we couldn't imagine farming without caring for our natural world and our neighbors.
GF: I think the public still views the majority of farms as family farms, but where I grew up in central Illinois, this truly isn't the case anymore. Nowadays there are fewer families, bigger farms, and more landlords. These property owners own the vast majority of the land in the tri-county area but many do not live on or work the farm themselves.
FT: How can The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey reshape our view of and help us better understand farming as a profession as well as the farmer?
AG: In The Land of Milk and Uncle Honey, we explain how farmers and families back then maintained the "culture" in "agriculture." That was a key, vital element in America back then, and our rural schools, churches, businesses, and communities reflected that value. We didn't do anything special or different than our neighbors; they had beef cows or chickens or hogs, and we had milk cows. The separate pieces of the neighborhood, however, made an integrated whole; we often worked together in annual jobs like hog butchering and silage making. Now it seems to be more about money, land, and power and that, too, is reflected in our dead or barely alive rural businesses, schools, churches, Main Streets, and communities.
GF: Our book is a collection of heartwarming stories of a southern Illinois farm but it by no means romanticizes rural life or the very hard work required of farming. Furthermore, Indian Farm relied not only on adults but also on children, to milk the 100 dairy cows twice daily, to haul 90-pound sacks of soybean meal, and to can 100 quarts of peaches in one day. I note in the book's epilogue, "Dad reported the hard, indisputable facts while also recounting those truths the way he remembers them, and the way he would prefer them to be remembered." In this vein, I think our book touches both young and old, and urban and rural readers. We all have to eat, and more of us are caring where our food comes from, and who works to put it on our table. This book reminds us what is truly required of real, honest farming: humility, selflessness, community, and care for the environment, land, and animals.
FT: What is one major lesson you learned from farming?
AG: I now understand the key interplay between nature, farming, and community more than ever. Back then there was a timeless element to what we did and how we did it. All seemed scripted from previous generations; they knew what worked, and they taught us more about the land, animals, and nature than any professor or extension agent ever did or ever needed to. Now it's different. Big Ag is more willing to push good sense and good practices out the window, and to pick up the last nickel the land and animals are physically capable of producing, which is very machine-like. In turn, the animals burn out after one or two lactations or farrowings, the land requires more and more artificial fertilizer, farmers need to spend more to make more, and the government is now their "insurance" partner. None of it sounds fun because it isn't fun. But that’s twenty-first century farming. With this book, Gracie and I are asking, why does it have to be like that? Why can’t we care a little more about each other and the world we share?
FT: How have the stories from this book shaped your views on agricultural systems and food policy?
AG: The stories in the book are mine; they are my memories and what I was taught to believe. The subsequent 50 years have afforded me plenty of time and experience to test those beliefs, and while some were shown wanting, most have held up pretty well. Those beliefs include: People are as important as the land; good food is timeless; real pleasure comes from truth; Mother Nature works 24/7 therefore she is always in charge; dust to dust isn't just a truism; and perhaps most importantly, nothing is “new” and truly everything returns on the circling winds. I’d like to see changes in U.S. food policy to make farming more people-directed. That means more focused on farmers and less on farm production, more attention to rural communities than agricultural economics, more on food than farm profits. There’s another book in there, right?