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Book Review: Farming for Us All: Practical Agriculture & theCultivation of Sustainability

  • Subject: [cg] Book Review: Farming for Us All: Practical Agriculture & theCultivation of Sustainability
  • From: Alliums garlicgrower@green-logic.com
  • Date: Sun, 23 Jan 2005 13:48:15 -0500

Hi, Folks!

I'm snowed in, so I figured I would get this review finished.

I retain copyright; do let me know if you'd like to use this review -- it's 
one of the worst books I've ever been asked to review, so I can understand 
if folks want to pass.



Farming for Us All:  Practical Agriculture & the Cultivation of 
Sustainability by Michael Mayerfeld Bell, Penn State University Press, 
2004.  ISBN:  0-271-02387-2, 299 pages. $22.50.

Sometimes, one starts a project with the best of intentions and not until 
time, money and effort have been overspent, does one realize that the 
project just isn't working. The fortunate are able to cut their losses and 
move on to something more productive; the others (usually when someone 
else's money must be either recouped or repaid) are forced to complete the 
project, even when benefit is unclear.

Farming for Us All is supposed to "present PFI (Practical Farmers of Iowa) 
as a model of farmers, consumers, university researchers and government 
officials working together to spread understanding about sustainable 
agriculture and local foods."  It is "based on interviews and years (!!) of 
close interaction with more than 60 Iowa farm families, many of them PFI 
members" by Michael Mayersfeld Bell, a sociologist then at Iowa State 
University and now at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who won an 
"Outstanding Book Award/ Sociology of Culture Section" from the American 
Sociological Association for Childerley:Nature and Morality in a Country 

The book is divided into 3 parts, with along with an "Overture" and "Coda", 
all divided from each other by an "Intermezzo."  Bell mentions off-handly 
that if you know little about sociology terminology, you could skip the 
"Intermezzos" which are teeming with confusing verbage about modernism vs 
post-modernism, dialogue vs monologue (Bell's favorite theme, poorly 
expressed), warranted  assertibility and the like.  The endnotes for the 
entire book tend to read like the Intermezzos, where Bell feels obliged to 
show that he can toss around his sociology collegues' arguments to bolster 
his own points, but doesn't feel obliged to explain these concepts so that 
anyone outside of a university sociology department could understand them.

One suspects Bell writes obtusely about what he does know as a smokescreen 
to cover his research's lack of new data or insights.  The transcripts of 
actual Iowa farmer interviews are the liveliest parts of the book, but no 
one says anything we all haven't read in other books, other sustainable 
agriculture newsletters, other e-mail lists or heard at agricultural/food 
system conferences.  Bell was obviously hoping for some measurable 
differences between those Iowa farmers who join PFI and those who do not, 
but he admits throughout the book that the farmers are "more alike than 

It would appear that universities are desperate for books about rural 
sociology; a web search revealed no comments about the book, but plenty of 
listings in the "New Additions" to university libraries and a couple of 
Rural Sociology syllabi.  Obviously, it's worth the effort for the 
credentialed to study rural life; one simply hopes that those with a talent 
for clear and readable prose will take up the challenge.

The Practical Farmers of Iowa website states that it will receive half the 
royalties from this book (an item not mentioned in either the book itself 
or the publicity materials).  Do yourself and PFI a favor and donate the 
full cost of the book ($22.50) to them at their website 
You won't have to slog through the text and PFI can use the money to 
continue the on-farm research and farm to market programs that will really 
ensure the viability of sustainable agriculture in Iowa and beyond.

Reviewed by Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John's United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden
Phoenixville, PA

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