The farm west of Benedict is nearly as old as Nebraska itself, named Centennial Hill by the English immigrant eager to celebrate his new country's upcoming 100th birthday.

When author Ted Genoways began spending time there three years ago, Centennial Hill had become the heart of a bigger farm — a patchwork of fields producing soybeans and corn and cattle in York and Hamilton counties.

The original 80 acres still serve the same industry, its soil still nurturing a livelihood for members of the same family.

But the homesteader would not recognize what farming has become, 140 years later. Or what farmers need to know now, and what they fear.

“They are simultaneously keeping an eye on the horizon for storm clouds and they're watching the global commodities market and paying attention to trade policy,” said Genoways, whose new book, “This Blessed Earth,” examines the pressures, threats and rewards facing family farmers. “That's a lot of stuff to worry about.”

Genoways had no idea, either. As a child in Pittsburgh, he'd visit his grandparents in the Panhandle and felt like an outsider.

“I was painfully aware of how little I knew about this stuff. It became a fascination for me, but I didn't know it firsthand.”

He moved to Nebraska when his father, Hugh, was named director of Morrill Hall at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and graduated from Lincoln East and Nebraska Wesleyan. He wrote about factory farming in his 2014 book, “The Chain,” chronicling the effects of production pressure at corporate meatpacking plants.

But until he and his wife, photographer Mary Anne Andrei, followed the Hammond farm from harvest to harvest, he still knew little about the family farms he saw — that all Nebraskans see — through his windshield.

“I really entered into this with some trepidation, because I knew it's incredibly complex,” he said. “I'd say I didn't know how much I didn't know.”

* * *

Much of “This Blessed Earth” is an intimate look at a year on Rick and Heidi Hammond's farm.

It's told through Rick, who grew up near Curtis but spent four decades working and adding to his wife's family farm; their daughter, Meghan, a sixth-generation farmer who lost her first serious boyfriend to a roadside bomb in Iraq; and her fiance, Kyle Galloway, who she met when they worked for an Omaha car dealership.

Genoways and Andrei visited the farm several times a month, more during the growing season, often reporting for days at a stretch.

“They wanted people to know this story, and they would have to live with the fact there was a book about them. This comes with a lot of risk for them.”

And much of Genoways’ book is also about risk. Farmers face routine pressure to keep growing —  more land, higher yields, better-but-costly equipment to plant and harvest and haul their crops —  despite thin profit margins.

“And to get that big, there's a lot of overhead,” he said. “Everything is potentially dangerous.”

Like too much or too little rain or heat. Hailstones and insects. A changing climate that is increasingly hard to predict. High farm debt and falling farm income. Proprietary seeds and tractor technology that take control away from farmers. Threats to NAFTA and the erosion of other foreign markets.

What happens, Genoways asks, when farmers begin to feel like employees, duty-bound to seed companies and equipment manufacturers that dictate what to plant, where to plant, how much to plant, where to water, where to fertilize?

“When people don’t feel like they are making the decisions and they don’t feel like the land is theirs, I think we’ll see more selling out.”

And what happens if Mexico and other countries start buying more commodities from other countries?

“We can’t dictate foreign policy through our food supply anymore,” he said. “We used to think the world depended on our food supply, but it seems to me we’re dependent on the world for their demand.”

It can be a bleak and unlikely picture, all of these uncontrollable forces flowing through the fields of a farm in the middle of nowhere.

But Nebraska farmers are resourceful, serving as economists, soil scientists, engineers — often at the same time.

Genoways describes a night when the Hammonds were helping a neighbor harvest. The sun was going down, the moisture in the air rising. He listened to the farmers discuss what that meant for the soybeans, and whether they had time to finish before the plant moisture grew too high.

They checked closing soybean prices in Chicago and the prices in China as the markets opened there, trying to determine their next move. They found an elevator willing to stay open to pay that day's price per bushel.

They were racing a clock when the combine struck a concrete pad anchoring an irrigation pivot.

“They have to repair this half-million-dollar piece of equipment,” he said. “You go from being a commodities broker to being a world-class mechanic in a matter of moments. I don't know of any other profession that requires that range of skills.”

* * *

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline introduced Genoways to Centennial Hill.

Andrei was taking photos for Bold Nebraska, which was actively opposing the project.

Meghan Hammond and Kyle Galloway were active, too; the proposed route would bore through the farm they are taking over. Rick Hammond allowed the wind- and solar-powered Energy Barn to be built on land he rented from his in-laws, directly in the pipeline path.

The movement became a national cause. Singers Willie Nelson and Neil Young raised anti-pipeline money at a cornfield concert near Neligh.

Still, the Hammonds had their own bills to pay, and the barn had taken acres out of production and alienated neighbors. A landowner who had rented to Rick Hammond for years ended their arrangement.

“The cancellation letter made no bones about the reasons,” Genoways wrote: “'I am sorry to inform you that your outspoken endorsement of defeating the Keystone Pipeline is not in our common interest. While it is certainly your right to support whatever causes you wish, we have chosen not to subsidize those expenditures.'”

The letter cost their farm up to $200,000 in gross income for the next year.

But there's also hope and history in rural Nebraska, and a reason why the state still counts nearly 50,000 farms and ranches.

Farmers can make a good living off the land, Genoways said. And as powerful as all of the external pressures — the ag companies, the environment, the climate, the global market — tradition remains strong, too.

“This Blessed Earth” follows Centennial Hill's transfer from Rick and Heidi to Meghan and Kyle.

“But handing over control of the operation — 'succession,' as it's known — is one of the hardest times in the life of any family farm. The older generation always struggles to let go of the reins … the younger generation bridles against the meddling and second-guessing and feels the double weight of scrutiny and doubt in every misstep,” Genoways wrote.

It's working out on the farm west of Benedict. Meghan and Kyle married and gave birth to a daughter, the seventh generation on Centennial Hill who may, someday, plant the same soil.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.



Peter Salter is a reporter.

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