Guest: Grace Olmstead
Host, creator, producer and co-editor: Megan Torgerson
Editing, mixing and music composition: Aaron Spieldenner, Sean Dwyer, Hazy Bay Music
Additional editing: Elle Castelli, Hazy Bay Music
Transcription by: Josh Moyar
SEASON 3 FUNDING PARTNERS:
Megan Torgerson (narrating): Place is a cluster of wild crocuses, a floating haze of gravel dust on a harvest night, grandma’s potato patch. Place is the smell of hot coffee in a church basement, rough hands folded in prayer at a high school football game, a child’s-eye view of squared-toed and narrow-nosed working people’s boots. It is the crunch of old snow, a row of dripping galoshes, a teal strike of northern lights ribboning across a winter sky.
Place is language and it is lore. It recognizes the vernacular of kin, the cadence of landscape and the consequence of extraction. It is a container, dynamic and changing.
Place holds memory, culture, spirit, ecology and identity. It knows the hopes and losses of an individual, of communities and of eras.
Grace Olmstead is the preeminent Western author on place. Her book Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind – which is set in Grace’s rural home region of the Snake River Plateau in Southwest Idaho – explores what it means to belong to place, the cost of uprooting and the journey of rekindling connections to place.
Grace Olmstead: My vision was to write a series of stories about a rural community that helped highlight both its strengths and beauties. And its struggles and its injustices over time, and to help readers understand the complexity of these rural communities. And their importance going forward, because of the fact that there are oftentimes larger voices that look at the ageing of these communities, or their hollowing out over time, and argue that, “well, it's best to just move out. Get out if you can.” And I struggle with that language and the way that it oftentimes does not emphasize the dignity of these communities and their importance to real people who live there and who want to see them flourish and succeed.
Then, of course, there's the other piece, which has to do with questions of exodus and return, and just our relationships to place in a society that is extremely mobile and transitory. The United States has some of the highest rates of moving from place to place of most countries. I think it's upwards of 20 times in the average American’s life that they're going to move around. And that has great advantages, oftentimes, because it means that for a lot of Americans, they're able to be socially mobile and economically progressive in the course of their lives. But I think there's a question of the personal toll that that amount of mobility can have, because obviously, every time you move, you have to try and grow community from scratch. And there's some question of what impact that has on places themselves because of the fact that we don't have the same kind of cultural emphasis on investment in place.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today a conversation with writer, contemplative and student of Wendell Berry, Grace Olmstead.
Like myself, Grace has experienced the benefits and tolls of mobility, having studied and worked on the East Coast and the U.K. While in her book she explores the homesickness she felt living in these places, and the question of how to remain invested in Idaho while living so far away, last summer Grace moved to back to Idaho with her young family. I was excited to speak with her about her transition to Boise as this summer I also moved back to my home state, landing in Bozeman. Like Boise, Bozeman has also recently experienced rapid population growth and urban sprawl that’s threatening prime farmland.
The focal point of Uprooted is Emmett, Idaho, an ag community 30 miles northwest of Boise. Fruit and vegetable farming were the cornerstone of the community in the last century. And while Emmett is still known for its Cherry Festival, in recent years its agricultural economy has been eclipsed by suburban development expanding from Boise and the Treasure Valley.
Grace’s book explores this economic transition applying Wallace Stegner’s categories of the “boomers” and the “stickers.” Boomers follow the boom bust tides of the West’s resource economy in pursuit of the American dream’s rags to riches mythos. As the name suggest, the stickers are those who reject the trend toward transience and stick to a place, in times of grief and of glory. Grace’s book opens up by examining the cultural narratives that encourage young people to leave their rural home communities along with the history of resource extraction in the western U.S.
“In the West,” she writes “immense natural resources nurtured the assumption that we could achieve limitless growth, expansion and wealth. Each new boom led to intense surges of extraction as a result – predicated on the assumption that there would be no real consequences to our pillaging.”
Uprooted follows the outcomes of this abuse detailing the history of agriculture, from the mishandling of soil that led to the Dust Bowl of the dirty ‘30s, to the prioritization of international trade over cultivating local markets – a result of WWI and WWII when farmers were encouraged to produce more. A glut in supply lowered prices, forcing farmers to increase volume by purchasing more land and adopting new technologies to continue farming. This is the era, Grace writes, that farmers “came to see themselves less as part of a local community and more as a part of a national effort to ‘feed the world.’”
In her book, Grace goes on to probe big ag today, but she also weaves personal narratives from Emmett farmers past and present including her Grandpa Wally and her great grandpa, known as Grandpa Dad.
Uprooted, and my conversation with Grace, brings together themes I have explored throughout Reframing Rural’s third season and in earlier episodes including: the need to keep agricultural land in working hands and regenerative agriculture as a solution for addressing climate change and forging more resilient rural communities and economies. It also touches on the impacts of suburban sprawl and gentrification on rural and agricultural communities and lands, as well as the need to approach rural stories with the curiosity and care that they deserve.
My conversation with Grace begins with her story growing up in a small agricultural community in Southwest Idaho.
Torgerson: So I found your book at a time when I was feeling homesick, when I was producing stories about rural Montana from the distance of Seattle, when I was feeling nostalgic about my home state and felt a pull to move there to make a greater difference. The pull to move home is a personal tension woven throughout your book. So that is the place where I would like to start today. To help place listeners in your community of origin, can you please share what it was like to grow up in southwest Idaho?
Olmstead: Absolutely. So I grew up in the small town of Fruitland, which is a town of about 3,000 people, or at least it was when I was growing up. I'm sure it's a little bigger now. But I grew up in this rural town that was named after all the orchards that used to exist there, because it was fruit farming land, at least from kind of the 1900s onwards. And when I was growing up, there were still a lot of orchards. There were a lot of different crops grown around there, from mint and potatoes and onions to obviously lots of corn. And I had grandparents who farmed and a great grandpa who farmed, and our lives were kind of built around the rhythms that they sustained, and the rhythms of the fruit farms that were still there as well. And so growing up, there was that side of my connection to the region and its seasons. And then my family also spent a lot of time up in the mountains camping through the summers. And even though I was extremely nerdy, and spent most of my time as a bookworm, reading everything from sci-fi to fantasy to historic novels, I fell in love with nature guide books, in part because of all the time we spent up in the mountains, and so I actually learned a lot about native plants and native ecology. I would just spend all this time watching birds or picking wildflowers and then learning about the different wildflowers that we had, or learning about the different trees that grew and what makes tamaracks turn such bright, brilliant colors in the fall. And so that became just this deep part of my understanding and my love of the place where I grew up. My mom also spent quite a bit of time teaching us about local Idaho history, and we learned about local Indigenous tribes and their rhythms and their agricultural patterns in the places where we lived. We learned about the camas bulbs that were such a huge part of agricultural livelihood and abundance at one time in the state of Idaho, and in the people who lived there and harvested them. And so all of those things just became part of kind of the tapestry of thought and belonging and appreciation that I think I had subconsciously, for the community in which I grew up.
Torgerson: I feel like you really recognize the stories that existed in that landscape, both the stories the land was telling you and the history of place and that really, that language really comes across in your book. And one thing that stood out to me, you said that the home that you grew up in, the home of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes, they described it as “the country where the willows are tied standing in a line.” And I love those particularities that you wove throughout the piece that really immerses readers into that place that really shaped you.
Is there a memory from childhood that you look back on that helps you trace your interest in storytelling and place, and your reverence for the past and the sense of justice for family farmers that you're writing really evokes so beautifully?
Olmstead: Well, I was very fortunate to get to grow up with my great grandfather. He was in his 90s when I was in elementary school, and he lived to be 96, so I guess he would have been in his mid to late 80s and then, and then I knew him up and through until he passed. And he loved telling stories of when he was a boy, and so whenever we got together, I remember he would come over to my grandparents’ house. We would shuck corn. We would have different family birthday celebrations, or we might be celebrating Christmas or something like that. And my sister and I played piano and violin, so we would often play some songs for him, just have a little concert, the things your parents make you do. And then he would just love to tell us stories, and I think one of the things that made them special is because he was connecting us to this understanding of our community and our region that was quite a bit older, and that a lot of people our age just would have no knowledge of apart from a textbook. So he talked about riding his horse from Boise to Emmett, which would have been at least a one day journey, and he did this when he was 12. So he would ride out by himself, he would sleep under the stars, you know, not entirely the safest thing to do as a 12 year old, at least for us. I can't imagine doing that with one of my kids, but this was part of his life, something he was confident doing. And he would talk about just lying out there and gazing up at the stars and just how many different constellations he could see. So obviously, with our increasing loss of the night sky, with light pollution we have, we don't have that connection in the same way. So things like that were beautiful. He'd also tell stories about watching silent movies in the local Emmett movie theater. And one of his school teachers was down playing the piano to accompany the silent movie in the theater. So I think things like that just were fascinating for the difference they provided and the contrast they provided, but also for the way they gave me this sense of how communities in our landscape have kind of evolved over time, and a sense for the world that he grew up in and had loved and still loved. And so you know, things kind of started there, and then the more he told stories, the more curious I really became, and I wanted to learn more about how this community had changed and evolved over time and how farms, in the way he described them, which were very interconnected, very neighborly, very mutually supporting, had also changed through those years.
I'm curious what your experience was like when you moved to Virginia for college and encountered perceptions of Idaho that maybe didn't match your experience or just complete gaps in knowledge about Idaho as a place and the intermountain west.
Olmstead: It is really interesting, as you begin to travel, to see how people perceive a place that you know really deeply and well. I'm sure this happens to people who live in any part of the world. It's not just us in rural communities. But it is funny when you visit the East Coast or probably to some extent the West Coast as well, although I think the East Coast is just enough removed, it's probably easier for there to be stereotypes or things like that. But one thing that always struck me as funny was that Idaho, Ohio and Iowa were so easily conflated in people's minds, they couldn't tell them apart, which is just funny for the fact that they are in such different regions of the country. They have completely different ecosystems, completely different economies. The only thing that’s similar is the names and the fact that they probably have, to some extent, an agricultural economy, although Ohio by itself is kind of part of the Rust Belt, so it's very different. And Iowa, if you visit, it looks so different from Idaho. So that was something that was often funny, and my friends who were from Ohio and Iowa and I would all just kind of sympathize with each other and laugh about it. But there was also a sense, I think, that being from a rural area, and especially being from a farming community, was a novelty. And so that was surprising for me as well, because obviously, if you've grown up in a rural community, or you've grown up around farms with farmers that you know, it just feels normal. But what we know now or what I know now is that about 1.3% of the U.S. workforce is employed in some sort of farm industry. So that's a tiny percentage of the national workforce. And so that was something that was actually quite staggering for me to learn that so few people now will have any sort of relationship with the people who grow their food, because that number is so small. And so I think that was also present, especially once I started living in the Washington DC area and would meet people there. When I got introduced to people, it was like, “Oh, and Gracie, her grandpa is a farmer.” Like it was this really funny, unique thing about me. That was really amusing and unexpected, at least at first. And I think that was one of the things that made me realize, “Wow, we just, we don't have enough national conversations probably about rural communities, about agriculture, about farming, so that it isn't a novelty.” It's absolutely ridiculous to think that the food on your plate and the people who grow it would be so distanced from you that the professions and the people who work within them would be unknown in that way, if that makes sense.
Torgerson: I can recall, in college, I went to school in Missoula and had some friends from the West Coast and someone was asking me just about the cycles of the farm and ranch that I was raised on, and I started to describe just the seasons and I think I started to get irritated, and I didn't recognize it until my friend was like, “You're kind of getting a little mad in how you're like describing things.” And I think looking back on it, it was because I was frustrated that they had no idea how their food was raised. And I didn't intentionally mean to get mad at them, but I think I was a little angry at just the overall knowledge, or lack thereof, that people have about this type of lifestyle that's so integral to everybody.
Olmstead: Yeah. Well, and I think too, it was interesting how often rural or even farming itself is seen through almost a nostalgic lens that assumes that ways of life in rural areas or that farming itself still employs very antiquated methods or rhythms. It was funny just how many people would have questions about infrastructure or about lifestyle rhythms or whatever that made it very obvious that they assumed there was, for lack of a better word, something “backward” about living in a rural community, and that being a farmer or living in a rural community, it was itself equal to kind of living in an outdated or a backward way, which obviously does not have to be true.
Torgerson: Yes, very much so. I've also had people respond to me saying that I grew up on a farm and ranch and thinking that I grew up in poverty or a lack of experiences or culture must have been my experience, because I grew up on a farm and ranch. And that's a large, large part why I started Reframing Rural too, to share those stories and those complexities and to celebrate the lifestyle without romanticizing it too much.
In the final chapter of your book you wrote, “Homesickness can be a way to identify the parts of the past and carry them forward, even as we leave behind things that ought to be reformed and abandoned.” And then you later write, “Homesickness reveals opportunities to respond, to love.” And I think that, I love throughout your book, you're facing things that are difficult about Idaho and that are difficult about the history of, for instance, the Asian Americans that were integral to the development of this region and were pushed out and unable to stay and to farm. So I love how homesickness has furthered your love, and how knowledge has furthered that as well, but you're not afraid to look at things that are hard as well.
Olmstead: All of us have complex relationships with their places. They love them, but they are angered by legacies of injustice, by economic habits of extraction, by environmental degradation. There's these things that we can truly be angry about. But in that way, I think loving a place is a lot like loving a person, because if we truly love someone then we're going to see all of their incredible talents, their gifts, the ways they make the world a better place, and we're going to know them intimately enough to get frustrated and annoyed when they do things that we don't think they should do. But love calls us to speak truth to that, and to, you know, if and when, of course, it is safe and right to do so, to work with them through that and to partner with them in their growth. And that's something that I feel very strongly about. If we love a place and ignore its injustices, its wrongs, its habits that are not healthy for itself and for the people who live there, we're not actually loving it, not really in a way that would actually help it become the place that it ought to be. It's in that kind of membership that sees and acknowledges the difficulties and the wrongs and the injustices that reveals what love is, I think. Truly what it should be.
Torgerson: So how did you come up with the idea to write Uprooted and to spend so much of your life force and energy to highlighting these aspects?
Olmstead: So I think a lot of that inspiration did come from Wendell Berry, because I've gotten to read several of his books, and I've gotten to do a couple of different interviews with him via letters. And the thing I observed and appreciated about his work is that he is looking at trends, agricultural trends, economic and socio-political trends, that are particular to rural America and rural communities. But he always tells those stories or gives you an understanding of those trends through a particular place, in his case the stories of the county where he grew up in Kentucky. Oftentimes in fiction, it's told through kind of this fictionalized version of the town he grew up, a town that he calls Port William. But Port William, the fictionalized town, is, in fact an image of his actual town, and the stories are stories that are pulled from true people and true instances of change in the county where he grew up. And so the thing that he argues that I think makes a lot of sense, especially since as we talked about, rural places tend to get conflated with each other and the larger populace tends to think, “Oh, cows, corn, barn. It's all the same.” The argument he makes is that in order to draw out and help grow people's imaginative understanding of the issues we face and their appreciation of these communities, we need to give them particular faces, particular stories, and an understanding of the diversity and the dignity that exists in these places. So I had been trying to study and tell a story that covered the entire United States, and I think the more you do that, the more just the complexity, like the infinite complexity of agriculture itself and of these places, begins to bog you down, because obviously, rice farming, or farming corn and soybeans in the Midwest, or growing cotton in Arizona, which is a thing that happens. Those are all very unique problems in unique places with their own sets of issues to be explored, and to try and explore all of them at once begins to get very hard, very fast, and I think can lead to a reduction of the complexity that we need to serve in telling these stories. And so I began to realize if I went back and told the story of one farm town in rural Idaho, I could actually delve deeper and give readers that particularity, that depth, hopefully that complexity, in a way that still helps them understand the larger issues better, that will still have tie-ins and applicability to their own communities. But as Barry I think points out, it emphasizes the complexity and diversity. It emphasizes the dignity and the beauty in a way that is hard to do if you're trying to tell too big of a story.
Torgerson: I forget where I've read this, but there's this idea that we get to connection through specificity. And I think sometimes when I'm writing, I'm thinking, “Oh, maybe people who don't know exactly what Dagmar, Montana, is like won't be able to relate to this experience,” but then time and time again, I think, when I go into the details of a person or a place, that's when people can really humanize and relate to those issues or to those people. In an article that you wrote for Plough magazine, you cited a passage from Wendell Berry's essay where he wrote, “People exploit what they have merely concluded to be a value, but they defend what they love, and to defend what we love, we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.” So I'm wondering how you came up as you were writing the book with a particularising language that matched Emmett?
Olmstead: Well, there was a lot of history, research, and a lot of time spent looking through old newspapers and microfiche. If you've ever gone to a local library and looked through microfiche, you know, it's a fascinating process. A lot of time spent getting to know native species and plants and things like that over again, a lot of time trying to visit, to get to know the streets again, a lot of time spent talking to local families and learning their stories, interviews that didn't necessarily go into the book were still helping me understand what people were experiencing in this place. And so then, through that process there was a series of decisions I had to make in terms of what to leave out, and what to emphasize. Because even within larger agricultural conversations or policy conversations or what have you, there's all these things that are important, but didn't necessarily apply to the town that I was specifically looking at. And so, you know, for instance, thinking about the impacts of the Dust Bowl say on communities throughout the Midwest, and just the huge ecological damage that was done there, I did a ton of research into that but the more I studied the impact of the Dust Bowl on the Heartland, the more I realized the largest impact of the Dust Bowl on the state of Idaho and Emmett itself was perhaps driving a few families toward the move to Idaho. Actually, the problems that we had with soil erosion were primarily due to poor grazing practices. And we didn't have quite the same levels of, at least from the research I did, it didn't look like we had the same levels of dust storms or things like that that were being experienced in that region. So anyways, it was this process of, I would say, figuring out which issues were most impactful and thus needed to be built into the conversation around this place, and which issues had a larger impact elsewhere and needed to be considered there. But you know, the impact of cattle and sheep grazing on soil health and then riverbank health throughout the state was such a huge issue that legislation had to be passed in the early 20th century to kind of try and combat just the massive influx of new herds throughout the region of the Mountain West. And so that became a big part of one of my chapters, was I was helping, hopefully helping, readers understand that many of the issues we face today in terms of environmental issues, soil runoff, etc. This is not necessarily new, it's a problem we've had as agriculture has developed in this region through time. So anyways, that's one thing I think about when I think about particularizing language. It's understanding what kind of historic and present issues or troubles, injustices or forms of exploitation have helped shape this region, and then trying to find concrete examples or stories of those problems so that people understand them and their impact on real people or real places in real time.
Torgerson: So you're using human stories and research to triangulate in on the issues that you most wanted to emphasize in the book and then tying that into some of the other issues that are really impacting the area today like suburbanization and the growth of Boise and its urban sprawl. For people who haven't read the book, could you just give a quick kind of overview of what the book covers?
Olmstead: It tries to do a lot at once, in part because I received a lot of encouragement for there to be kind of a personal component in which I grapple with the question of how I myself or others who've moved away might relate to or connect with or even return to the communities that we love. My vision was to write a series of stories about a rural community that helped highlight both its strengths and beauties and its struggles and its injustices over time, and to help readers understand the complexity of these rural communities and their importance going forward, because of the fact that there are oftentimes larger voices that look at kind of the aging of these communities or their hollowing out over time, and argue that, “Well, it's best to just move out. Get out if you can.” And I struggle with that language and the way that it oftentimes does not emphasize the dignity of these communities and their importance to real people who live there and who want to see them flourish and succeed. So there is that piece. But then, of course, there's the other piece which has to do with questions of exodus and return, and just our relationships to place in a society that is extremely mobile and transitory. The United States has some of the highest rates of moving from place to place of most countries. And I think it's upwards of 20 times in the average American’s life that they're gonna move around. And that has great advantages oftentimes, because it means that for a lot of Americans, they're able to be socially mobile and economically progressive in the course of their lives. But I think there's a question of the personal toll that that amount of mobility can have, because obviously every time you move, you have to try and grow community from scratch. And there's some question of what impact that has on places themselves because of the fact that we don't have the same kind of cultural emphasis on investment in place that other communities might experience.
Torgerson: I think your book and Sarah Smarsh's book Heartland really touches on this narrative that for rural kids if you want to make it in the world, you need to get out. And so I really like how you drew that out with Wallace Stegner’s the “boomers and the stickers” throughout the book, and also emphasizing on what value there is in sticking to a place. And even though maybe you haven't lived in different parts of the country, you have inherent knowledge from staying and from witnessing the changes on the ground throughout those years. That's been a big reshift in my thinking, I think, after, you know, I've moved around for the last eight years and just coming back to Montana within the last few months, but to recognize the value and the knowledge that people have who haven't had that experience of moving around, and to see the community connections that people have, and almost an easiness, I think. They're not they're not trying to find themselves again in a new place.
Olmstead: Yeah, there's this quote I love from Robert Macfarlane’s book Landmarks. He's a nature writer in the UK. But in the book Landmarks, he talks about Nan Shepherd, who grew up in the mountains of Scotland, lived there her whole life and wrote this book called The Living Mountain, which is about this one mountain outside the village where she grew up. And what Macfarlane argues about Shepherd is that in her case, writing about one place being focused on such a tiny corner of the globe, did not result in “knowledge curbed, but rather knowledge cubed.” And I love that image, and the fact that what he's arguing is that building deep knowledge of a place should not result in a tribalistic or hubristic attitude of, “This is the best place, I know this place so well.” Rather, it results in just these deepening, deepening layers of humility, as you realize just how much there is to know about this one tiny corner of the globe. And that can of course, always be stretched and deepened by learning about and by visiting other places. I think having the privilege of traveling and of interacting with other communities is still absolutely integral. But if we're able to kind of deepen our knowledge of the places in which we live, of their struggles, of their beauties, of what they uniquely contribute to the world through caring for and nurturing their health. These are lessons that help us build healthy human and non-human places. And they help us be more hospitable and more fully members of the places in which we live, hopefully.
Torgerson: One thing that I really appreciate your vulnerability in the book is exploring the personal tension that you experience between the person who you were growing into in Washington, DC, and the person who you were in Idaho, and how you show up in both places, and navigate these different identities. And I'm wondering how that showed up in your writing process. Was that difficult to convey through the book, to explore that kind of personal transformation?
Olmstead: I think that at times, I worried that the people in Idaho who read the book wouldn't appreciate the points at which I was very critical. I just worried that folks back home would want me to write a book that only showed the best side of our state. And I knew that's not what I wanted to do, nor would that be a truthful story. And so I was always hoping that they would embrace the parts of the book that encouraged reform and change, rather than feeling that it was an attack. And I think, on the other side, as I was grappling with this question of, if I stay here in Virginia, what does it look like to bring this same sort of energy and investment and knowledge building to the place in which I live? There was also a sense of tension there, and I know I had friends in Virginia who, as I was writing, were saying, “So does this mean you're gonna move back to Idaho? Like, what are you gonna decide?” And it was hard to write a book in which I'm so obviously grappling with the question of, do I stay or do I go? And almost feeling like there was this pressure to end the book with some sort of final decision that neither I nor my family felt like we were ready to make and finishing on a note of indecision with this, “I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen. We love both places so much,” was the best, most honest answer I could give. It also doesn't feel like the best literary ending, but it's real. It's true. And hopefully, that's something that people could appreciate.
But I was really honest too in the book at the end about the fact that I worried that as I had changed politically and become more progressive on different issues, more concerned with environmental extraction, with problems of racial injustice, you know, what does it look like to move back to a state that is very read, very libertarian in a lot of ways? And it was funny even when I moved home, which I did do last year. We're in Boise now. I would run into all these people who were like, “So I read your book.” And I always was wondering, “Oh, what did you think?” But people have been really gracious, and it's opened up opportunities for conversation, and I've been so blessed by the fact that, as I talked to people who are oftentimes on polar opposite sides of our kind of political, partisan landscape, they are both eager to talk about these issues. And I haven't had any one shut down conversation after reading it. And so I've just been really grateful for that and for that hospitality that readers have shown me throughout the process.
Torgerson: Wow, that's really hopeful to hear. There's sometimes some stories that I put out there that I'm curious what people back home will think or nervous maybe to share my opinions in that way. But I love that people were open to having conversation, even if maybe they didn't completely agree. And I think that it's probably really great for the people in southwest Idaho to read a narrative that reflects their experience. And like you write about how when you used to drive from Fruitland. Fruitland or Fruitland?
Olmstead: Fruitland, yeah.
Torgerson: Fruitland? Okay, when you would drive from Fruitland to Boise, how you used to mark the passage of that drive by the passage of field and how the corn was growing in the field, and now you mark the passing of time by the growing absence of fields. And so I think for someone who is experiencing that, you know, to draw attention to that, must feel really affirming and feel like people do care about farmland being paved over.
Olmstead: Yeah, it's a big change. It's one that impacts the community in a variety of ways. And so, again, talking about particularizing language, there's some farm communities in some areas in rural America that are just being hollowed out. So take, for instance, some communities in Kansas, there's an extraction of people from towns, in part because of the kind of specialization and consolidation of agriculture, that results in completely emptied out rural towns. That's one set of issues. That's one problem rural America is facing. The problem of suburbanization is different. It's good in some ways. I'm always for the fact that communities should grow and develop and change and evolve over time, and that growth itself is good. It's something that most rural towns would love to be having right now. So that is something to celebrate.
On the other hand, the way we currently develop these communities has a series of implications for their long term health, and for the economic stability of people in those communities, including low income families that can oftentimes be ignored. So a lot of the suburban development in the Boise area, the Treasure Valley and then into Gem County and Emmett which is outside the Treasure Valley but right on the other side of it in its own valley, it’s low density, its sprawl. A lot of the housing going in is aimed at people who are middle class or upper middle class. And so there is currently a huge lack of affordable housing in the area that's not being fully addressed by changes to the zoning code in the area. The last numbers I looked at said that kind of 80% of the AMI, or for rent specifically, is upwards of $1,200 a month. So if you're trying to find affordable housing in that area, the numbers are not working in your favor, and there is a lot of homelessness and other issues related to that.
So that’s one set of issues having to do with suburbanization, and I would argue one of the most important. Public transportation is also a huge issue. Where money is getting invested does not reflect, again, the need to provide for communities with a large array of income needs and housing needs. Walkability in Boise is not reflected in the way that we're developing it, and so people's ability to access their jobs or their grocery stores without a car is just very poor. And so there's all those issues, but then, of course I think something I care about being a part of the Mountain West is water usage, and how are we building and developing in a way that reflects the fact that we live in an arid atmosphere? Yes, we have access to a huge reservoir, but that doesn't mean that we can just pretend that water is eternal and is always going to be there. Stewarding it wisely should be the top of our priority list, and that's not necessarily reflected in the amount of golf courses being built, or even also, in agricultural practices and how we irrigate. There's just a whole set of issues related to water usage, both within agricultural management and suburban development that I think gets ignored. So anyways, but when I talk about suburban development and growth in the book, that's the tension I'm trying to explore. And I know it's one that you also are familiar with, as the Mountain West grows exponentially, we want to be welcoming, hospitable places. However, we also need to be growing in such a way that we're preserving land, that we're nurturing local ecology and riparian systems, that we're actually treating our places in a way that's going to bless current and future generations, and not just kind of build short term financial profit without a mind to what we're creating for the next 100 years.
Torgerson: Well said. Thank you for outlining all of these issues, the ripple effects of this rapid development. And I think one image that really stood out from the book is a four-way stop, where one end of the stop sign was just leading out into a field, like in a field expecting to have a development on it soon.
I really also appreciate in addition to highlighting the infrastructure issues and the water issues that come with this rapid development, issues of walkability, like you mentioned, and quality of life that comes from that, that you also touch on the loss of culture, and these names that come with places that are quickly being forgotten.
Olmstead: I would love to see kind of the mutually supportive and neighborly framework that could exist if instead of having this relationship in which it feels as if one is pushing the other out, the two are in relationship with each other a little more fully. And I think this is attention too in just the expectations we have around suburban development, you know? One of the drivers of the move away from a farm, if you become kind of surrounded by suburban development, is the fact that oftentimes people who build next to a farmer don't like to see manure on the road or don't like the sound of equipment or of chickens or of cattle or of whatever it might be, and there can then grow a relationship that's very irksome and antagonistic between the two, because there's a set of expectations that that people have for the environment in which they live, and then there's the working reality of a farmer on their land, and the things that just come with owning a lot of animals and moving them around. And so, I know one of the farmer families that I got to know in Emmett, they have this regenerative agriculture production that they've put together and worked on for decades. But their question and the tension they're currently grappling with is, what if we get to that point where we're surrounded by suburban houses? Will they welcome us? Will they want us gone? Will they understand our no spraying protocols and kind of the ways in which we try to keep our farm healthy? Will they respect that? Will they also get annoyed by the animals? I think, to some extent, there's awareness and education that can be done to fix these problems, but they really do need to be grappled with so that we can build communities in which, as growth happens, farmers are part of that fabric. They're welcomed into that fabric and relationships can exist that enable the two to live together, work together.
Torgerson: One thing I really appreciated about your book that I could really relate to the area where I grew up, which isn't facing suburban development but is really facing farming in isolation, like you've written about. For instance, the population of where I grew up has continued to shrink more and more. And you really dive into the historical origins of issues that we see in agriculture today. From the World Wars to international trade, the boom/bust economy and intense surges of extraction, as you've written, that follow. I'm wondering what this history, the industrialization of agriculture and consumerism, what does this teach us about today and what does it foreshadow for agriculture?
Olmstead: This is such a good question. I feel like we're in the midst of a lot of unknowns. And I don't know if it's altogether appropriate to call this moment a turning point, because I think anytime you're in a moment in which a lot of people are realizing that what we have grown and cultivated in terms of agricultural habits, economies, infrastructure is unhealthy. That doesn't mean that we necessarily change. We always hope that it means that but it doesn't always mean that, and so I hope this moment is a turning point, but it's hard to turn really big ships around. So that having been said, I think one thing that I do notice in our own time is the fact that infrastructure and systems of agriculture in the U.S. are very brittle. COVID made this very clear. We had these extremely efficient pipelines and systems of processing, distributing, packaging, etc, that got food to grocery stores. That broke down in the midst of the pandemic, and revealed kind of the lack of health and oftentimes justice existing in those systems.
So we saw this, for instance, with meatpacking and distributing. The way in which workers were treated in those systems was a huge part of the problem in the midst of the COVID pandemic, and has to be a big part of the solution there. Farm worker rights and food worker rights are completely ignored in a lot of agricultural conversations, and they need to be at the forefront of those conversations. But we also saw systems in which a farmer would be throwing potatoes next to the side of the road or dumping milk at their dairy or slaughtering hogs that they couldn't get to market. And yet, in the grocery store down the street, maybe just a few miles away, there was no milk and there was no bacon, right? So I think the jarring irony of that and the waste it represents and the food insecurity it represents for the families who go to those grocery stores, was very present and represents a lot of the struggles that we currently face as we ask the question: How do we build a more resilient food system, a more just food system, one that addresses food deserts in both urban and rural communities, one that addresses the rights of food workers and farm workers, and one that acknowledges the fact that farmers can't keep working like this in systems that are very isolating and communities that are dying out on farms that are oftentimes thousands of acres and do not represent either soil health or communal health, in terms of the way in which they've been built? So that's kind of the dire side in my mind, but I think the hopeful side is in response to that lack of resilience, we did see some firms band together and start to build co-ops, start to build their own processing, distributing and packaging infrastructure in order to try and serve a customer base that was very present and very eager to work with them. And so slaughterhouses have become increasingly centralized. And that whole market had grown very consolidated, but kind of in response to the inputs and pressures of that moment, we saw, at least to some extent, a growth in regional slaughterhouses. Same with things like flour mills, farmers building co-ops so that they could then put together a flour mill for their product that was owned by the members of the co-op and controlled by them, and one that enabled them serve a market that was smaller and more regional.
So anyways, these sorts of things, I think, are oftentimes missing and crucial to kind of the growth of healthy, resilient systems of agriculture in the U.S. There's also, I think, a danger that as we are slowly stepping out of kind of the COVID backlog or congestion within those systems of infrastructure, consumers might abandon those farmers or those systems. And so I think there is a huge question mark in my mind. Can we build resilient regional systems and kind of rebuild that missing middle of infrastructure that supports the farmers and helps them get products that they've produced within community with partners that help them feel more supported, that helped build local health? Can we build those systems that then connect them to a market that's much more resilient and long term and healthy then just having farmers’ markets or just having CSAs, because those are good, but they're not replacing the grocery store system or the other systems that we currently have in place, and they definitely are still a niche market that don't serve a larger population or a population that doesn't have a lot of disposable income. So anyways, that's a big question mark that I have. And I hope it's going to continue to facilitate growth and change, but I think we're still in the midst of figuring that out. And I'd love to hear your thoughts on that, because I'm sure you've observed some of those things yourself.
Torgerson: Yeah. Well, I'm just starting to work on a short documentary film about two first-generation women ranchers in Montana, and one of them is working in eastern Montana and one of them is working in southwest Montana. And the rancher in eastern Montana is raising cow calf pairs that she is then bringing to her rancher lady friend in southwest Montana in McLeod, where they’re being grass-finished and then distributed into the local food system there through Cowgirl Meat Co., a local brand that Jaimie Stoltzfus runs. And I really appreciate that collaboration even though they're about a five-hour drive from one another, they're both taking advantage of the unique ecology of where their ranches are located, and then really distributing really healthy food from these really rich grasslands that are just producing this amazing beef to their local communities. And so I am really hopeful in seeing those types of collaborations and hearing them talk about hopes that they have for, you know, sharing equipment in their valleys or just being a little bit more cooperative.
Olmstead: I think you begin to realize that the complexity of agriculture, because it's working in a living system, the soil, the water that we work with, the plants that we're working with, the animals that we're working with, if we're talking about a healthy agricultural system, that's impossible for one person to do alone, to truly do it well, because if you're taking out human supportive frameworks of labor and support, you're having to input chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, etc. to do a lot of those jobs, or you're having to reduce the amount of animals you have on the land because of the amount of stewarding work involved in moving those animals through the landscape. I think the decline, the fact that we have that number 1.3%, that then reflects the fact that we have kind of built a system with problems related to environmental and ecological health, because as we've reduced the amount of people working in the landscape, we've had to increase the amount of chemicals we use and we've had to decrease the amount of crops we grow and the amount of complexity and diversity reflected in the farms themselves. And so there is a lot of work that could be done to build collaborative systems so that there's less pressure on any single person and so that farmers are learning from each other, either because they own a farm in common and they each do different jobs on that farm in a cooperative fashion. And we have both incredible examples of this through history like Fannie Lou Hamer and her Freedom Farm Cooperative. Indigenous systems of agriculture were collaborative. We also have farmers like Leah Penniman’s Soul Fire Farm and things like that going on, that she writes about in Farming While Black, that are doing this with incredible results for local communities and for the farm itself. So there's a lot to learn from there. There's also work that farms can do if they're still owned by individuals to be working together in common by banding together through associations and co-ops and then finding those opportunities, as you point out, to mutually benefit each other, to find markets, or to see the ways in which one person's land might benefit another's and vice versa, that I think are really compelling and beautiful, and that would have such a mental and emotional benefit even to the farm families involved, not just to the community. I think both are vital. And it's important to emphasize the fact that I don't think we humans were ever meant to work alone. And it's a very lonely and sad thing to be so isolated in the work that we're doing.
Torgerson: Yeah, I was really struck by this passage from your book: “Farmers who work in isolation are likely to estrange their children from the farm because of its grueling and lonely labors.” I think that speaks to my experience. And then you also talk about the great risks of farming in isolation as it connects to mental health and the risk of suicide, which as we know is high among farmers, so I really appreciate that you talk about isolation in really tangible terms, and how it's pushing people away from the land and also impacting individuals. Yeah, I guess to kind of pivot, so you have recently moved back home. About a year you've been in Boise. I'm curious, what has your first year back been like?
Olmstead: It's been good. I've actually been surprised by how easy it has felt to kind of start building friendships and community. I think that's the thing that's always scary to me when moving to new places. Are we going to feel isolated? How hard is it going to be to make friends? And we've just been really grateful for the people we've met in this year and how welcoming they've been. I've met some women who invited me into this fantastic book club, and then another person invited me to join their writing club. And so we just get together once a month and we share things we're working on and writing and give each other feedback and I've never had that before. Especially since becoming a freelancer, I think writing can be a really lonely thing. And so that has just felt like a huge gift and an absolutely fun, hilarious time where we ended up laughing and talking about podcasts and TV shows and books more than we get any writing done as well. Yeah, just some of those forms of even intellectual support and community have been really amazing. And then I've just been really grateful to be close to my parents. I'm really lucky that I have a really close relationship with my parents, and they're some of my best friends. And I've missed them. And so getting to see them and giving my kids the opportunity to live close to them and get to have so much time with them has been really sweet. We always joke that my youngest, who's two and a half, that he would willingly go live with my parents in a heartbeat if we let them, because he just loves them so much and almost every day he's asking to go to their house, and never wants to leave when we're there. So that's, that's been really sweet. And some of the challenges, like cost of living in Boise is insane right now, and we had a hard time kind of finding a house, and some of those things, were definitely challenging. And we're feeling really settled right now and are really thankful for that. The market started dropping a little bit, and so it made things a little bit easier for us. But it's still trying to figure out how to buy groceries and pay for housing and all that has just been part of the learning curve, I guess. But I don't think that's unique to Idaho, either. I think, you know, with inflation, that's something a lot of communities are dealing with right now. So lots of good, and then also just lots of things we're learning and figuring out as we go along and kind of put down roots.
Torgerson: And how has it changed your writing practice? So I've only been back in Montana for about a month and a half, but one thing that I've really been curious about is how being back in Montana will impact my ability to write about Montana. It was sometimes nice to have that distance. So I'm curious if that's something that has come up for you.
Olmstead: That is a good question. I don't know yet. I think one thing that's really funny right now is that, so my kids are almost-eight and five and two-and-a-half, and I haven't figured out how to write yet with those ages. When they were littler, they all took naps, and so I would wake up early and I would write a little bit early in the morning, and then when they all had their naps in the afternoon, I would write a little bit then, and then they all went to bed at seven and so then I could do a little more then, and that's just disappeared. And now you know, they're up earlier, and they don't nap. And they oftentimes, especially in the summer, go to bed later. So like when do I write? So it's not necessarily a bad problem. And I'm really, really privileged to get to spend so much time with them and to get to be at home a lot, and so I also just like getting to soak up time with them, especially in the summers, but in terms of writing, I feel like this season of my life, it's the hardest season. And so I'm working on projects very slowly, and I'm hoping that ends up being a good thing, that the writing I produce as a result is very thoughtful because it takes a long time to steep.
I'm working right now on a series, hopefully, of essays on farm women, and the first one looks at dairying in the UK kind of through a character and one of George Eliot's novels, and highlights the fact that dairies used to be mostly women-run, and they were actually a huge source of farm income in 18th century England, and the reason I'm looking at this particular character in George Eliot's book is because of the fact that she ends up giving the owner of the farm that she works on, because she's a tenant farmer, she ends up giving him this huge talking to because he wants to expand the dairy and increase her work at least three fold, and she tells him no. And because she is the major driver of profit on the farm, he listens to her. But kind of near the end of the 19th century, and potentially starting in the mid-19th century, there are some historians who suggest a lot of those women got driven off the dairies as they were expanding and growing in size. They did not stay and continue the work they've been doing. And obviously, dairying work is so intensive and 24/7, they probably were neither getting full compensation nor full acknowledgement or support from their communities for the work that they were doing. But I want to consider the pride in that work that's present in a lot of the stories that are told and the fact that a lot of people don't know or acknowledge the fact that so many of these dairies were women-run and were a huge contributor to the profit of farms at the time. So anyways, that's something I'm working on, and then if I am able to finish it, I'd love to write a little bit about kind of farm women in the Midwest around the turn of the century and in the States and what their lives look like how many of them owned farms themselves and the work that they did. So anyways, that's something I'm researching and working on right now.
Torgerson: Whoo, I'm so excited. I feel like since becoming aware of the work of Women In Ranching, a nonprofit where the executive director is based in Montana—she's actually part of the short documentary film that I mentioned, Amber Smith—just becoming more aware of even the language that I use when talking about farmers and ranchers and trying not to assume a gender to that. And I'm still like unlearning that and really trying to recognize the role of women in farming and ranching communities, and also that, yeah, there's a whole backlog of amazing women who did that on their own in history and continue as well. So that's really exciting to hear about. And I'd love to hear your perspective as a mother and a woman writer and comparisons perhaps between you and women dairy farmers in England. Because writing’s intensive as well.
Olmstead: It is. It takes a lot of mental focus, and I think one of the things that's funny is this current mode of life, there's a lot of interruptions that happen. So something I've thought about doing is, I just need like a pad of paper in the kitchen and another one in the bedrooms, or whatever it is, because usually what happens is I'll have a thought, and I'll be like, “Oh, I need to think about that more, or research that or whatever it is.” And then within an hour, I haven't had a chance to sit down, and so it's gone. It's completely gone. So part of the, I think part of the issue is just even finding out how to support the work as you move and do other things and don't have the ability to sit at a desk all day. I'm really glad I don't sit at a desk all day, but I also need a system to help sustain thought over time if that makes sense.
Torgerson: I love the image of just a bunch of legal pads or sticky notes or journals everywhere stashed in your house.
Olmstead: All over the house, yes.
Torgerson: Well, I appreciate you carving out some time to not be interrupted for this interview. I know you have a lot going on. And yeah, I just will open it up to any final thoughts that you have or any questions that you think I should have asked or things that were missing from the conversation.
Olmstead: I don't think so. Thank you so much. I deeply appreciate your work and your podcast and it's such a gift to get to have conversations about these places we love, knowing that there are so many audiences who also love similar places and are in the process of advocating for them and growing within those communities and helping those communities grow. And I think getting to partner and learn from each other is such a gift. So, thank you.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you so much to Grace Olmstead for your deeply appreciated perspective on topics we’ve been exploring throughout the season. Visit this episode’s webpage via ReframingRural.org for a link to where you can purchase Grace’s book Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind.
I produced and co-edited today’s episode on the ancestral lands of the Apsoloka, Cheyenne and Salish peoples. Music and audio editing was done by Aaron Spieldenner and Sean Dwyer at Hazy Bay Music, with additional editing by Elle Castelli. Josh Moyar transcribed the interviews available on our website.
Our next episode will be the final installment of season three Groundwork. I’m excited to share with you a behind-the-scenes conversation with Reframing Rural story editor, Mary Auld and audio engineer, Aaron Spieldenner from Hazy Bay Music. This creator Roundtable will explore inspiration behind this season, what it’s like for Mary to receive my messy first drafts and for Aaron to compose original music for the podcast.
Mary Auld: Megan, when you and I were talking about bigger picture, season three what’s going to happen next. One of the things I pointed out that I love about this show, is how musical it is and it sounds really good and it feels really carried along by the music and the music feels really well integrated with the stories and with the content. I think that really makes this show stand out and so Aaron’s work elevating that even further from season two when I already thought it was amazing, it just made the show lean into an identity that I think it already head – kind of strengthened that part of it.
Torgerson: Season Three Groundwork is funded in part by Humanities Washington, Humanities Montana, Headwaters Foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, Montana Farmers Union and listeners like you.
To access resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation to Reframing Rural visit reframingrural.org. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Department of Public Transformation and an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC. Thank you for listening!