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Book Review: Fruitful Labor

Fruitful Labor: The Ecology, Economy and Practice of a Family Farm

Written by Mike Madison
Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018
Reviewed by Rhiannon Lewis

Mike Madison is a farmer, a biologist, and an advocate for biota at all scales. From the soil fauna, to the cultivated crops and the native creatures, Madison espouses a philosophy that “advocates the rights and values of all species regardless of their utility to human enterprises.” This book illustrates his ecology-forward take on the operation and utility of a small family farm, using his own farm in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California as subject.

The book will interest and benefit the beginning small scale farmer, and the casual farmer’s market shopper alike. The farmer gains a handbook written with precision and care on expected topics including the soil, crops and animals of a farm, farm setting and infrastructure, and required tools and machinery. Madison also covers aspects of farming including productivity, required energy inputs in units of both human effort and fuels, economic and bureaucratic nuances, and the social context of farming. The food and farm enthusiast will find a readable, compelling look at the guts of the small working farm, complete with trivia (a traditional acre is long and skinny because it’s plain difficult to turn a yoke of oxen) and points of connection to the highs and lows of the work of an organic farm.

One aspect that makes this book different from other true-life farm stories is the emphasis Madison places on the farm as part of the ecological system. He discusses areas of farming where agribusiness focuses on individual crops, pests, machines, and the singular goal: profit. He counters by discussing his practices and interventions, which are holistic, focused on organismal interactions, and favor the long arc of the land over the yield of a single season.

I put down this book feeling real gratitude for the small farmers in my community, and across the country. Madison shows the reality that the work of the small organic farmer is not only the true sustainable choice, but also seems to require the farmer be a near-expert in economics, plumbing, ecology, species interactions, tax law, marketing, rodent control, and all of that possibly on a Tuesday. The section on the economics of farming also invites the reader to peruse his farm’s actual tax filings to see the reality of what a small farm is “worth” and can realistically generate.

His mastery of and affection for his work is so evident in his lists of individual types of tools, poundage of produce, hours of labor pruning, checking, cooking, planning, constructing, wondering, and living on the farm. Madison advocates an attitude toward agroecology that is holistic in nature, informed by personal observation and experimentation, and kept running on hard work and firmly held beliefs. My understanding of food and farming was deepened by this inspiring, instructive book.

About the Reviewer

Rhiannon Lewis grew up admiring the organic gardens her parents, grandparents, and great grandparents worked in rural New England. She works as an international educator in Northern California where she also tends community garden plots, keeps honey bees, and loiters in mystical redwood forests as often as possible.

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