Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Ideal is, without question, one of the finest works about the decline of the family farm, specifically the harsh realities of California agriculture during the 1980s (written from the perspective of the late 1990s). The profiles of the last holdout “yeoman” are compelling and full blooded. But what’s even more interesting is how, through the small details and the individual anecdotes, Hanson is able to diagnose the larger trends and social consequences of this decline.
One thing other reviewers haven’t pointed out is that this book is really a warm-up, the personal backstory, for the much tighter and much more damning argument put forward in Hanson’s book The Land Was Everything. I have turned passages over and over with my wife ever since I finished the last page. You just can’t read some of those paragraphs once. They are simply too packed with implication and subtle observation, based on years of real-life experience.
It is also the foundation for his book Mexifornia, which separates out in a humane and clear-eyed way the realities of illegal immigration in Central California. Like The Land Was Everything, this book is a classic in the genre and will be read for insight long into the future. So, all in all, these other two books might be approached with more benefit first, before turning back to this mid-way point in Hanson’s thought. Anybody who is interested in learning what it takes to grow grapes for raisins will be interested in this earlier account.
My only question is: Why aren’t Hanson’s books on agriculture better known? The quality of writing and thought are far superior to a Michael Pollan (who is really too urban) or even a Wendell Berry (who tends to be too abstract or ponderous). There is so much in these books that, perhaps contrary to most expectations, liberal readers interested in the dynamics of social class or race, the construction of gender, the criticisms of corporate capitalism, and the problems of environmental stewardship will find much to ponder. Conservative readers will be equally challenged by the concern for virtue, the difficulty of good government, and the inevitable problems of modernity.