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Wherever Home is Now, Stay There

In her new book, Grace Olmstead illustrates the ills of industrial agriculture and the personal tensions of America's urban and rural divides.
farm gate rolling hills

Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind, Grace Olmstead (Sentinel Books: 2021), 272 pages

Rural America is facing an existential crisis. The well-documented “brain drain” has left these communities without their would-be leaders, who leave for the greener pastures of concrete and cul-de-sacs. The few who do stay and attempt to carry on their regions’ agricultural traditions find themselves working in an industry transformed by specialization and consolidation, in which profits are siphoned off to global conglomerates and ends often struggle to meet. As rural populations continue to grey, these communities are quite literally dying. But all of this begs a more fundamental question: Does the fate of rural America even matter?

It does to Grace Olmstead. In her remarkable debut book, Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind, Olmstead wrestles with the debt we owe to our past and our place. Part memoir, part manifesto, Uprooted chronicles the history and struggles of the agricultural community in Olmstead’s ancestral homeland of Emmett, Idaho. She makes a convincing case that her community, as with any place that can be rightly called ours, deserves love and care for its own sake. In this sense, there’s a deep humanity that runs throughout Uprooted. Olmstead recognizes that man is far greater than a merely economic entity; he lives, loves, and thrives in relationship to the surrounding world that his Creator created and therefore is inextricably tied to the place that shapes him. The fate of that place, then, is a question that matters in the deepest sense.

Olmstead is at her strongest on this point when decrying the consolidation of the agriculture industry. “Get big or get out,” the message to American farmers delivered by the Ford administration’s USDA secretary Earl Butz, still lingers in the ears of Emmett farmers. Those taking the former of Butz’s two options not only struggle to afford additional land acreage but also find themselves dwarfed by the scale of their competitors. “Today, just four companies control 84 percent of cattle slaughter, 65 percent of pork slaughter, and 53 percent of chicken slaughter,” Olmstead writes, “This lack of agribusiness diversity hurts farmers.” This consolidation severely limits the economic choice of local farmers, keeping their crop decisions dependent on the contracts they receive from the conglomerates. It’s hard to argue this arrangement is a free market success story. Tracy Walton, an Idaho farmer whom Olmstead profiles in the book, “tends to be pretty libertarian on most issues, [but] does feel that the seed industry should receive more oversight.” 

But while Olmstead brilliantly illustrates the damage that economic liberalism unleashes on rural communities, her treatment of social liberalism is far less convincing. References to Idaho’s “legacy of racism and bigotry” are peppered throughout the book, exemplified by “an uptick in anti-immigrant rhetoric throughout certain parts of Idaho following President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.” She admonishes her forebears’ insularity: “Rather than trying to nurture a diverse local community, Idaho laws and cultural demeanors once determined to create the opposite.” Obviously unjust discrimination and racism should be repudiated. But could it be that the social cohesion, neighborliness, and interdependency for which Olmstead rightly pines are products of the same “cultural demeanors” that were skeptical of a “diverse local community”? Nowadays, indicators of social capital across the country continue to plummet as we rapidly integrate the cult of diversity into all aspects of our civic life. Perhaps the skepticism of diversity among previous generations of Idahoans was less about racial animus and more about protecting the social cohesion necessary for a flourishing community.

The real drama of the book, though, is in Olmstead’s personal story: She left. Unlike libertarian-leaning Tracy Walton, Olmstead joined her “brain drain” brethren of ambitious rural youth and uprooted herself, fleeing to Virginia first for college and now settling in the northern part of this Commonwealth. It’s a far cry from Emmett, Idaho, homeland of her Grandpa Dad (great-grandfather), the central figure of Uprooted. It should be noted, though, that Emmett is Grandpa Dad’s hometown, not Olmstead’s: She grew up in Fruitland, Idaho, 30 miles west of Emmett on the Oregon border, a fact which is only briefly noted in Uprooted. While 30 miles may be insignificant, this discrepancy gets to the heart of the question Olmstead explores: Where, exactly, should our loyalties lie?

The conflicted nature of Olmstead’s relationship to Idaho is what makes Uprooted so compelling. She perfectly encapsulates the tension between permanence and place that those seeking to nurture both values will inevitably feel amidst a socioeconomic order that chafes against both. Olmstead clearly yearns to return to Idaho, to her place, and to do her small part to reverse the “brain drain” effect on her homeland. And yet, Virginia has started to exert a permanence of its own on her: “More compelling as a reason to stay in Virginia are the roots I’ve put down over the past decade… Moving back to Idaho at this point would require finding and re-forming community.”

In a way, Olmstead’s advocacy for sustainable agriculture offers a metaphorical answer to her homecoming dilemma. “Soil aggregates—both macro- and micro-aggregates—form ‘microbial villages’ that share nutrients, store carbon, and lend health and vigor to the land we observe aboveground,” she writes. “Every time we tear roots out of the soil, we threaten the networks that provide structure and life to this plot of earth.” Here, her soil anecdote is instructive: every time we move we weaken the networks that provide us a meaningful life. While we may wish these networks existed in a different place, tearing out our existing roots—however tenuous or young they may be—is damaging to the health of our communal life.

Olmstead readily admits that there are no easy answers to the quest to stay rooted. It’s a quest that takes on a renewed import in the face of a socioeconomic order that increasingly renders us rootless and divides our loyalties. But if there’s any hope to reverse this trend, especially for future generations whose loyalties to place we will form, perhaps we should look to the title of a poem by Olmstead’s favorite writer, Wendell Berry: “Stay home.” Wherever that is now.