Fields Without Dreams: Defending The Agrarian Idea, by Victor Davis Hanson
Despite my mixed feelings about the author’s work, I find that he is rarely if ever more appealing than when he is talking about his life as a farmer. Coming as I do from an agrarian background on my father’s side of the family , there is a lot to relate to here. This book is somewhat of a memoir of the lack of success in farming for Hanson’s own family farm operation and that of his neighbors, and while I admittedly know little about raisin farming (although more than enough to know that raisins do not have their own trees–a frequent joke about clueless city folk that the author makes in this book), this book does give a good understanding of the struggles faced by him and those who like him are quixotically devoted to farming in spite of its growing obsolescence. And in defending the agrarian ideal, the author has some good things to say about culture and the importance of yeoman farms like that my family ran for so many generations, and about what is lost when such people are driven into either serfdom or the city.
Overall, this book takes about 300 pages to cover roughly a decade in the life of the the author as a farmer, along with some context. After a preface and introduction the author discusses the context of his family farm and how the land was acquired and who it was that built it up (1). He then talks about raisin farming and what makes it unique, being a somewhat antiquated manner of farming that has so far not greatly been benefited by machinery (2). The author discusses the great raisin crash of 1983, the grim reading of it justifies by itself the time spent reading this book (3). After that the author discusses his tragicomic efforts to save the farm by turning to new varieties of plants that predictably flop (4). This leads to a more melancholy discussion of the efforts of one Bus Barzagus to grow pear-apples on a mountain (5,7), which book-end a chapter on the author’s failures to grow certain types of table grapes and plums (6). The author then closes this gloomy but fierce book with chapters on the heroes of the agrarian pantheon–an unusual set of people carved out of flint–along with a look at the last generation of American agrarians, with a postscript that ends this book on a decidedly downbeat note.
Like many of the author’s crusty neighbors, this book is not kind, but it is right. Family farming is doomed in this nation for all kinds of reasons, including laws that are making it impossible to use children as a free labor force, the steadfast refusal of either Democrats or Republicans to cast off illusions of gigantism and economies of scale, and a strong disinterest and inability of people growing up in family farms to continue the tradition. Independent family farms are a dying breed, and the author does a good job at showing how this happens not merely from a general perspective but what it looks like to those on the ground trying vainly to get their royal plums to set and trying to make money off of Thompson seedless raisins, itself a largely impossible task. By not succumbing to the tendency to romanticize family farming, the author presents a grim but honest and deeply insightful view of what its moribund status means for the fate of the American republic. The prognosis there is just as grim as that for family farms, largely for the reason that it is the people of the land whose native crustiness and suspicion of fads are almost the only break present on our society’s headlong rush towards self-destruction.
 See, for example: