Farming for Us All

Practical Agriculture and the Cultivation of Sustainability

Paper or softback
Michael Mayerfeld Bell
Published 22 Jun 2004
List Price £25.95

Only available to back order


“Mike Bell’s new book immerses the reader at once into the science of rural sociology, the practical art of farming, and the uncertainties of rural life—a delightful and informative read for farmer, university professional, or anyone interested in the sociology of rural communities. Bell’s scholarly method, ‘dialogue with practical implications,’ combines academic rigor with personal and heart warming anecdotes, providing the reader with a comprehensive understanding of farming and rural life and how to move toward sustainability.”

—Frederick Kirschenmann, Leopold Center, Iowa State University

“Michael Bell recognizes and describes wonderfully the continuing dialogue that is going on between people and the land. He truly captures the meaning of practical, sustainable agriculture both in its daily work and in its dreams of what it could be in the future.”

—Ron Rosmann, Rosmann Family Farms, Harlan, Iowa

Farming for Us All challenges our accepted national dedication to power farming and the notion that bigger is better. By putting a human face on the work, culture, and meaning of sustainable agriculture, Michael Bell performs an important service for a movement sometimes seen as preachy and self-righteous by mainstream farmers.”

—Sonya Salamon, University of Illinois

“Bell makes an important contribution to the literature on modern agriculture in the United States. His approach combines qualitative research on farm families with a phenomenological theoretical framework. The result is a compelling and personal narrative picture of how a group of Iowa farmers have changed their cultivation practices from ‘Big Ag’ to smaller-scale, more environmentally friendly practices.”

—A. A. Hickey, Choice

Farming for Us All is a very well-written book that speaks to many of the salient issues in the sociology of food and agriculture. It deserves placement as a seminal text in Sociology of Agriculture courses in Rural Sociology.”

—Douglas H. Constance, Rural Sociology

Farming for Us All is an important book, full of living voices and ideas that we all can learn from. Sustainable agriculture remains an open question without a single answer. It requires much more of the kind of candid and often difficult dialogue that is represented in these pages.”

—Timothy Vos, Gastronomica

“The book is situated squarely in one of the fundamental, complex tensions of our agricultural ideals of agrarian life and the realities of economic power. Farming for Us All is a fair, if passionately supportive assessment of the state of sustainable agriculture in the Heartland today. Whether or not it is relevant to their own work is something agricultural historians can judge for themselves.”

—Brian Donahue, Agricultural History

“Why do some farmers practice a sustainable agriculture and others do not, even when they come from similar backgrounds, farm in the same area, and plant the same crops? Farming for Us All is a fascinating and instructive contribution to answering that question. This well-written and well-documented book is the best approach to the question that I have seen. Bell greatly adds to our understanding of the question itself and makes a powerful case for his approach and conclusions. This is a seminal work in the field of sustainable agriculture.”

—John Mayne, Agriculture and Human Values

It is easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed by all the threats facing modern agriculture—threats to the environment, to the health and safety of our food, to the economic and cultural viability of farmers and rural communities. Hundreds of thousands of farmers leave their farms every year as the juggernaut of "big agriculture" plows across our rural landscape. But there are viable alternatives to big agriculture, as many farmers and others involved in agriculture, including consumers, are discovering. In Farming for Us All Michael Mayerfeld Bell offers crucial insight into the future of a viable sustainable agriculture movement in the United States.

Based on interviews and years of close interaction with over 60 Iowa farm families, Bell answers two critical questions concerning sustainable agriculture: why some farmers are becoming sustainable farmers and why, as yet, most are not. The first part of the book describes how the structure of agriculture—that nexus of markets, regulations, subsidies, and technology—has created a situation in which farmers are paid to undermine their own economic and social security, as well as the security of the land. The second part explores why, nevertheless, most Iowa farmers carry on with these destructive practices. Farming is a pressured endeavor, and farmers find themselves relying on recipes of knowledge to get them through the latest crisis, with little opportunity to explore some other way—even if they think what they know how to do isn’t likely to work very well for them. You have to go with what you know.

And yet some farmers resist the tide of big agriculture. In the third part of the book, Bell examines Iowa’s largest sustainable agriculture group, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), and finds a new model of social relations at work. Members of PFI seek to create an agriculture that engages others—farmers, university researchers, government officials, and consumers alike—in a common conversation about what agriculture might look like, but without insisting that a common conversation requires a common vision. Instead, PFI members come to relish their differences as sources of learning and new ideas. Through dialogue, these PFI members seek to crossbreed knowledge, to create pragmatic knowledge that gets the crops to grow in ways that sustain families, communities, societies, economies, and environments. Herein lies the heart of the cultivation of practical agriculture, an agriculture that roots action in dialogue and dialogue in action, and thereby sustains them both. In an increasingly fractured and untrusting world, this is a cultivation worthy of all our interests.

Farming for Us All gives us the opportunity to explore the possibilities for social, environmental, and economic change that practical, dialogic agriculture presents. It therefore represents an important step forward in our search for a viable sustainable agriculture in the United States.



1. Cultivating Sustainability


Part I The Uncertain Landscape of Industrial Agriculture

2. Economy and Security

3. Community and Environment

4. Home and Family


Part II The Culture of Cultivation

5. Farming the Self

6. Farming Knowledge


Part III The Sustainable Landscape of Practical Agriculture

7. Rolling a New Cob

8. Farming with Practice

9. New Farms, New Selves


10. Sustaining Cultivation




Michael Mayerfeld Bell is Associate Professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of several books including the award-winning Childerley: Nature and Morality in a Country Village (1994) and The Face of Connecticut: People, Geology, and the Land (1984).