American Harvest: God, Country, and Farming in the Heartland
(Graywolf Press, 2020)
I read Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s latest effort, American Harvest, while traveling to a wedding in Indiana. The book, which details Mockett’s attempt to gain perspective about midwestern life while driving on the harvest trail, was the perfect companion for my journey soaring over “flyover” states, and gave me plenty to think about in between eating vegan food at a biker bar at 1 a.m., and having my first dance with my partner. I thought about the book constantly during the trip, and don’t think I would have been able to appreciate the state culture for what it was had it not been for Mockett’s thoughtful words on city life vs. rural life, organic food, and midwestern Christian churches. We spent an afternoon discussing her approach to reporting while on this trip, the book’s gestation period, engaging with the culture of the rural midwest, and ethical farming.
Eric Farwell (Rail): Even though you have a connection to the land, you identify yourself primarily as a city person in the book. How did you go about making sure the project was always a product of meaningful reporting, and never anything resembling condescension or gawking at Midwest living?
Marie Mutsuki Mockett: I think I started to be interested in writing about the farm maybe 15 years ago. I’ve always had exposure to the farm and to farmers. They’ve always been part of my life. I never thought of the farm as a project until maybe 15 years ago, when I was sitting in the Quonset hut with my family, and the farmers were coming in and out, and I thought, wow, nobody writes about this. This is an interesting world. I should also say that my goal in being a writer, for so many years, had been to write fiction. I became aware of nonfiction as something a writer could write maybe fifteen years ago, so that was probably part of my looking at the farm and going, nobody writes about this part of the world, and these people, and this is very interesting. So, I have that history to tether me. Then, in terms of condescension, you know, I did not feel condescending to the farmers or to the world of farming because I wasn’t raised that way. My father never spoke of farmers with any condescension, but with respect and admiration. I always heard my father talking about some solution to a problem that somebody he knew had come up with—how to fix something, how to build something, how to repair something, and how smart that farmer was. So that was the general attitude within my family. Once I was in the city, I was certainly aware that the attitude toward what we call “Middle America” was different. I think in early versions when I was trying to draft a proposal, I tried to use a more arch tone, because I thought that was what I was supposed to do if I write nonfiction about Middle America, and it didn’t work. It didn’t work because it wasn’t genuine to me. Once I dispensed with what was essentially a performance, which happened early on in the process, I then wrote about the farm with sincerity, or at least tried to. I was always aware of how things might look to my peers who had never sat in a Quonset hut or talked to farmers trying to figure out how to fix an auger.
Rail: You mentioned that you worked on this project for 15 years. You also say in the book that Eric invited you to do the full trek during a visit, but that you weren't ready. Did you commit once you knew this was a book-length project, or was there more to it?
Mockett: 15 years ago my father was still alive, my uncle was still alive. The way that we had farmed was still intact. Bear in mind that I have a family that’s naturally very curious about how things work, so part of the way myself and my cousins, who were also exposed to the farm, were raised was to be curious about the way things worked. For the most part, that translated into people in my family becoming interested in the sciences, some becoming engineers, and others scientists. My nuclear family, which is very small, were mostly artists, but we still had that sort of hm, how does this work kind of brain. When I’m with them, conversations immediately turn into how does this work, how does the world work? When I was sitting with my family 15 years ago, and the conversation was swirling around me, I had been living in New York City at the time trying—not really succeeding—to become a writer. I was listening to all this interesting conversation about whatever my uncle was doing with physics, whatever my cousin was doing as an engineer. Then the conversation veered toward whatever was going on on the farm. I thought, nobody writes about farming. That’s very interesting. When I had told people in New York I was going to go to harvest, they were very curious, because it’s not something most people do. I probably had some awareness of how bizarre it was that I was in Nebraska for my friends who were accustomed to seeing me in a different context. Then, the farmers would come and go, and I thought, wow, they’re all devout Christians, which is not how my family is. Then, everytime I talked about farming to friends in New York, they would say, “Is your farm organic?” So I asked, because I actually didn’t really know. I asked my family if the farm was organic, and they sort of laughed, and we had this conversation that’s in the book. Then I thought, why are my friends, who believe in evolution, eating organic food and prioritizing organic food, and the people here, who are conservative Christians and probably believe in creationism and are comfortable with GMOs, feel differently? The question stayed in my mind, and over the course of 15 years, I’d bring it up to different farmers. Before my father died, he said, “If something happens to me, you can trust Eric, and you can trust Ray, and they’ll teach you about farming.” I said this to Eric, and he knew it. So over the course of a number of years after my father died, Eric tried to teach me about farming. He knew I had this pressing question, and in the book I think I make it simple. Like he says, “You’re not really asking a question about garnering scientific knowledge, you’re asking a question about the divide.” He said that to relieve the conversation we’d been having for a number of years. I was making trips to his farm in Pennsylvania. He would set up these amazing visits to talk to Amish farmers because he lives in Lancaster County, and I would meet Amish farmers who are very conservative and religious, but some of them would use Roundup. We would have a conversation about no-till farming where the Amish farmer had mules pulling a plow, and he would tell me about his reduced acreage, because he couldn’t use a tractor, but our farming methods were the same, and it kind of blew my mind. Then I would meet farmers who were organic, or farmers who really questioned the organic label. I met chicken farmers, and at some point I decided I couldn’t write about animals and grains, because the subject was too huge. Still, I went to poultry farms, and egg farms. I knew I wanted to write about this, and would talk about it periodically with my agent. While I was doing all of this, I was concurrently writing the book about Japan and the tsunami, and that book took a lot of my attention. After I was done, I thought I really wanted to turn my attention to this farming issue, because I thought it was interesting, and no one was writing about it. I wrote a proposal and sold it in September. Then Trump was elected, and both Juston and Eric called me that night, because they were both really upset. The election is what I think prompted Eric to say, “Why don’t you come. I bought an extra trailer. Bethany, who's a woman, is going to come, and you can stay in that trailer.” He had, for a number of years, during all of these visits to farms and seeing him at harvest said, “I really want you to see this part of the country.” He really proposed coming to harvest, or being part of harvest, or coming to Idaho to see what that farm looks like. When Trump was elected, it made it very clear that I should just see the entire harvest route, and then I would see a lot of different kinds of farming, and meet a lot of different kinds of people. I spent a lot of time really talking to people and building relationships. It wasn’t like I just suddenly went along on a harvest trip. This was something that was, in fact, years in the making. Then, for a writer, structure is one of the things I worry about the most, and once the invitation to see the harvest route was put forward, I went, okay, I can address all of these questions using the harvest route as a spine. I didn’t know what I’d discover on the journey, but I knew that if I focused my attention on the questions that were in my mind, then it would yield interesting material.
Rail: How much knowledge did Eric's crew have about what you were working on beforehand, and how did you balance reporting with being an active member of the crew?
Mockett: From the last book that I wrote, I did learn—and I think other writers say this—but it’s really important to take your notes down right away. I had it in my head that I had to write notes as quickly as possible. They knew that. They all knew I was writing a book. Eric made that very clear, that part of their going on the crew with him that summer was that I was coming along, and that I would be taking notes. At one point, a friend of mine who’s a photographer also came to take pictures, so they got to know her. They were all aware of it, and we just took it case by case. I think there’s even a point in the book where Michael makes fun of me for wandering around with a notebook all the time. Carrying that notebook all the time, you need to be doing something. So, I would put my notebook down and do something. The word intuition is not one someone should use, but it’s really what I did. Like, in church, I realized that a lot of people wrote down what the pastor was saying, and took notes, so I felt very comfortable in church taking notes. Some conversations, I would have the notebook out and take notes. I found that was less intrusive than recording the conversation, although I did some recording. I would try whenever something really eventful happened to go and write down what had happened immediately afterward so that all the details were fresh. It’s a lot of work; and the process of writing this book, and the process of gathering materials for the book, or the material around the narrative portion of the book, is similar to the time I spent in Japan in that I was not in my comfortable world. I was in a place where I was not only having to pay attention because I wanted to write about the world, but I was having to pay attention because everything was, in a sense, foreign. That’s tiring. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to focus, and I’m the sort of person who worries about offending people, so I was constantly trying to watch my behavior to make sure that I was not making other people uncomfortable, and I was also trying to absorb as much information as possible. Then the end of the day would come, and I’d have to write out notes. There were also days where I was so tired I didn’t write notes down, and, you know, here and there there’s a day that’s lost. I filled up three notebooks, and would then take the notes I had in one of three notebooks, and type them out on the computer, so I had a more lucid, written account of what happened. I finished that summer with 250 pages of notes. I knew from my previous book I had to do that in order to successfully craft a story.
Rail: Did you notice any reticence?
Mockett: Sure. I think that comes through in the book. It gets harder and harder. There are some people for whom we don’t get their interiority because they don’t open up. There are some people who are very guarded, but may be guarded anyway. There’s a little bit of fracture in the crew, because they become uncomfortable with me. Some people are not, and some become increasingly uncomfortable. I don’t blame them. They’re young guys, and this is their fun summer thing, and this older woman keeps asking them questions, which becomes tiresome. I think anyone would have been tired of that after a certain period of time. In general, I really have nothing but gratitude for the people who shared as much as they did. It’s extraordinary access to a world that we don’t really get to see. By and large, I feel that most people tried to be open and share what they could.
Rail: There's a tension that builds toward the back half of the book that seems to surround you and the book. How did this impact the project? Did you embrace or engage the tension in any way? Were you ever concerned that it threatened the book?
Mockett: I never thought of it as threatening when I was working on it. I mean, part of my job is to sit in a situation that is uncomfortable, and to write about why I’m uncomfortable. That is true of the book I wrote about the tsunami, which has very uncomfortable moments in it too, although of a very different nature. This book also has moments that are highly uncomfortable, but without that…I think I was also conscious of the fact that the discomfort was important. The discomfort meant that I was approaching something in the story, or something in this unusual situation, that needed to be looked at. I think one of the roles of the writer is to be in an uncomfortable situation, and to say why it’s so uncomfortable. That’s the only way that you can bring something new to a reader, I think. I think I would ask myself if I’m able to keep staying in this situation. Have I gotten enough material to tell a story that's well-rounded? That was all on my mind, but most of the time when I was uncomfortable, I was making myself ask why I was uncomfortable, and making sure that when I tried to answer that question, I wasn’t going to just any of the knee-jerk reactions I might have to any of the particular people I was with, or any of the particular circumstances I was in. I know that because of my upbringing, it’s really easy to be in a foreign situation, and be uncomfortable, and think that anything making you uncomfortable is everyone else’s fault. I was trying not to default to that.
Rail: One of the through lines of the book is you trying to connect to something, and struggling. Do you have any sense of what you were seeking, or did those things reveal themselves as you went to different churches and services?
Mockett: Justin and I had been having conversations about theology, and we had been going to churches prior to this road trip. I think the first megachurch I went to might have been after the election. He wanted to share what he called “his world,” in the world of church and religion, with me. I didn’t have any guarantee that I was going to go to country churches and walk out with any understanding of Christianity. I just trusted my curiosity. There is something nice about having managed to write two books that convinces you, okay, I’ve done this twice. I can write a third book. I will say that the book I wrote about the tsunami in Japan, I wrote in a constant state of terror that I would fail. I never meant to write nonfiction; I didn’t know I was going to write nonfiction. I had written this op-ed for the New York Times about Japan and the tsunami, and the pitch said, I’m writing this book on the tsunami, no problem. But I was really scared the whole time. Can I do that? I don’t know. One thing I told myself about this book and the farming was, you can make yourself uncomfortable, and ask a lot of questions, and do things you normally wouldn’t do, but you’re not going to spend the entire process writing this book in a state of total terror the way you did with the last book. I did say that to myself. I had plenty of moments of insecurity, and I have some wonderful friends who were really supportive through those moments. I didn’t know what I would find. What I trusted was my curiosity, and that if I really pushed hard, and asked more questions, I would arrive in a different place than where I had started. Creatively speaking, when I wrote the book about the tsunami, I had no idea I was going to wind up at the temple in the north of Japan, at some temple that is nominally a Buddhist temple that actually enshrines this ancient deity who doesn’t belong to any particular religious sect in Japan, but which is dedicated to this old woman who we normally translate as the non-pc moniker, “the old hag,” who greets the souls of the dead when they cross the river. I didn’t know what it would open up to me, or open me up to about Japanese culture. But it happened that I just kept asking questions and following the flow of that story. I would say to myself, you need to do that with this story too, and the only way to do that is to not have biases about how you think the story is going to go. You have to let the world, and the characters, and the people tell you what they want to tell you. And then you’ll go someplace new. You asked what I was seeking. Mostly I just thought, I don’t understand any of this. What is this? Remember Eric is the one who says you’re talking about the divide. I hadn’t thought of what I was seeing as the divide until he said, “This is the divide, Marie.” I just thought there seems to be a paradox here, and I don’t understand it. I was really just trying to resolve the paradox, but I also thought I needed to go back and ask what Christianity is, because I’m not sure that I get it. I’d grown up surrounded by this Judeo-Christian culture. I didn’t really know what I was looking at, or why people were so devoted to Christianity, and one of the gifts of the book was the question that Juston had too, and wanted to share with me.
Rail: You manage to capture the grace and stoicism of this group that is, for the most part, deeply adherent to Christianity. As a person that gets anxious about offending people, were there concerns you had about accuracy when writing about these things?
Mockett: This is narrative nonfiction. I’m not a reporter, right? I mean, yes, I was taking notes, but this is not pure journalism. It’s subjective. It’s incredibly possible that anyone would have been to any of the church services and had a different experience than I did. I wouldn’t argue with that person. If that’s the case, it’s incumbent upon me to be as honest as I can be about what I’m experiencing, and not performative. And honestly, until I met Pastor Jeff in Oklahoma, who runs the Mennonite church where the farmer gets up at the end and talks about all of the bales of hay he delivered to the starving cattle who didn’t have enough to eat because of the prairie fires, I thought, well, I’ll just keep going to church after church in America, and I won’t be able to connect with anything. Honestly, it was kind of exciting when Pastor Jeff got up and spoke, and I thought, this makes sense to me. This is speaking to something that I can understand. I didn’t know that would happen. With someone like Eric, it’s interesting, because my family always said, “You can trust Eric, you can trust the Knowles,” but nobody said, “because they are true followers of Christ.” Nobody said that. They always said they’re very good people, and very smart. What I think is so interesting is how, in many ways, the attitudes their families have toward the Christian religion is very similar, even though they have completely different backgrounds. I did see this pattern among people who considered themselves to be followers of Jesus. This was something I didn’t know existed, and it’s actually something that’s historical. Luther says, “all of this liturgy has nothing to do with what Jesus has to say. We need to focus on what Jesus had to say.” This is an argument people are still having. I didn’t really understand that until I went out on the road and met Christian after Christian, and started to see this pattern where I met people who struck me as having this authentic engagement with their religion. I found it very moving, but I had no idea that that would happen. I now understand there are a lot of people in the world who have this relationship with Jesus, but I didn’t know that prior to this trip.
Rail: One of the debates in the book is whether or not organic farming is sustainable, let alone real. You write about the farmer's trust in GMOs and the use of Roundup to grow crops. After all of these conversations surrounding what's real and what's advertising, how has it impacted you as a consumer?
Mockett: I remain concerned about large quantities of roundup, and I think there’s sort of a disagreement about whether it’s glyphosate that is safe, or if it is mixed with the surfactant, which is when it’s used to easily disseminate onto the surface of leaves, and what is it? Which part of that combination puts people who use large quantities of it at a higher risk for Lou Gehrig’s disease? I think in general, no, I tend to trust our food production and our farming practices. I also think my understanding of how vast a problem it is has gotten more complicated. I didn’t know, prior to going on the road, that we already cultivate 37–38% of the earth’s surface. It was said to me on that trip that we need to increase output out of the land, otherwise we’ll have to start burning the Amazon. What were we doing last year? They were burning the Amazon to create more arable land. I think it was partly because of the tariffs that were put on soybeans. I haven’t really vastly changed how and what I eat. I still, even before all of this, was looking for wild fish instead of farmed fish. When my father used to go fishing, he’d go out on a boat, and get a big salmon, and vacuum pack it, and freeze it. After he died, I remember how emotional it was eating the last salmon steak he had caught and vacuum packed, and put in my suitcase for me to take back to New York from California. So, I still would prefer to eat wild fish. I do think we have a pretty admirable food safety system. I’ve been thinking a lot about that with coronavirus, and some of the conversation around whether or not wild animals have transferred the virus from themselves to us. I haven’t really changed the way I buy food. I am very curious about how we can use the land we have. I think science is going to be important for that. I am also interested in how food is produced in Japan, because fruits and vegetables, and eggs, in particular, taste really good there, and often better than they do here. I’m curious as to why that is. Mostly I have a lot of respect for farmers in this country, and didn’t realize how complicated this question is of feeding everybody on the planet successfully, and how much harder that’s going to be down the road.
Rail: You mention that an average farm income is in the six figures. Obviously farmers have a strong relationship with commerce, and I'm wondering if you had any discussions about how the notion of the poor farmer at odds with the hotshot city moguls is far-fetched when you think about it in monetary terms.
Mockett: Let’s be careful here. Average farm income takes into account an income source outside of the farm—few people make six figures off of farming alone. Oh my gosh, absolutely! A really good farmer, in general, is very thrifty, and I think has to be. Their life is a lot less material in the way that ours is in the city. Theirs is material in another way, in the sense that there’s a lot of conversation around farm equipment, and the new farm equipment, and the software downloaded to the new farm equipment. They’ll talk about that more than, say—I had an email the other day about how the silhouette for women’s jeans has changed. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I thought, do I really have to get rid of these high-waisted jeans and wear new ones? Then I thought, as I often do, what would Eric say? Eric doesn’t have any time for whether or not the waistline of jeans has gone up or down. I think it’s really important to point out that farming is difficult, and the guys on the crew are young men who would love to farm, and say over and over again that they have no money to get into farming. When my father died in 2008, immediately everyone said you should sell the farm, because you don’t know anything about farming. This did not make it into the book, because we couldn’t find a place to put it, but in those years between 2008 and now, I would sit in a combine with a young guy who was on Eric’s crew, and inevitably he’d say I would love to break into farming, but it takes so much money to break in. The point was that here are these guys who actually have the skills to run a farm, and they can’t get into farming because, like buying a brownstone, it’s just too much money to get started. It made me consider the value of what I had. A lot of reporting on farmers does focus on poor farmers, and farmers who lose their land, and it happens all the time. People who are successful in the way that Eric is, you know, are not common. We meet a lot of really successful farmers in this book, but that’s not really the dominant story in the great plains. There are a lot of protections in place to try to keep farms as family farms. There are a lot of laws. I think there are seven states that have laws to keep corporations out from buying farmland, to try and preserve the farm as a family farm, and it’s difficult. It’s difficult to break into farming, and it’s difficult to buy land and then farm if you’re a regular person.
Rail: You're very game while you're part of the crew. You say yes to shooting pigs, learning to use a rifle, going to rodeos, and going to churches. Was this easy for you, or did you keep taking in these parts of rural life as a means of getting a full view of that world?
Mockett: Absolutely. Here I am thinking that I’m doing everything. I’m going hunting. I’m learning how to fire a gun. And Michael basically keeps saying, “You need to not be writing. You need to be experiencing.” So even to the degree that I was trying to experience what was happening, he was saying, “Actually, you need to experience more.” So there’s no end to trying to learn to experience something. I never became a harvester. Juston is a marvelous writer, and I’m always haranguing him to write something about harvesting, because he is a marvelous writer, and he can drive the semi truck, and the combine, and the tractor. To the degree that I could physically do something, I did it. I just know from experience that there’s a very big difference between purely observing and truly thinking about something, and physically doing it. One thing I thought about on and off for years…I can credit it back to when I used to live in New York and take a ton of dance classes, and all the teachers always yelled at me that I asked too many questions, “Stop asking questions and do it. Commit to the movement.” In other words, I couldn’t prepare myself for whatever jump or turn I was supposed to do. I just had to commit to whatever the movement was. It’s the same thing when I would go to Japan, and do some form of meditation, they would say the same thing. I also know from my experiences in Japan that speaking the language and participating physically in cultural practices revealed so much about Japan to me, than if I had simply read about a festival in a book.
Rail: Eric's efforts to follow in Jesus's footsteps is undercut by his avoidance of blaming historical white men for stealing and enslaving other racial groups. As a non-white person out on this trip, did this behavior, which seems to stem from a lack of diversity in farm country, clarify the divide between city life and rural life, or did it just make you feel alone?
Mockett: There are definitely moments where it makes me feel alone, and I do write about moments where I feel alone. I also kept saying time was of the essence, so you don’t have time to sit here. I think there’s one moment where I call up my friend Garnett, and he says you have to go back to the trailer and talk to the people you’re traveling with, because you have this opportunity. What I try and do in a situation like you’re describing is go, okay, what’s really happening here? There’s the script that I could jump to in my mind, which is, these people are ignorant, and that’s the end of the story. Or, I could go, wait, I need more information to understand what’s happening here. By understanding, I don’t mean I’ll put myself in their shoes, and then I’ll understand, but historically what’s happening. There’s a scene where I meet one of Juston’s teachers in the city who says to me this country was built on white men using land, and enslaving one group of people, but also taking land away from another group of people. Both of them were dark-skinned, and I’ve never really come to terms with that. He said that, and I thought, I need to go back and look at what he’s saying again, because even though I know that’s the history, I didn’t fully understand what it meant. Not to say I fully understand what it means, but part of what he was saying was that Christianity was distorted to permit this to happen, and we have inherited that distortion. This is something a certain kind of Christian understands clearly, and something I didn’t. There’s a distorted version of Christianity, and we run into it all throughout the book, that has twisted the words of Jesus, or focused on the parts of the gospel that are not related to what Jesus says. Then there are people who try and wrestle with what Jesus says, like Eric does, who say, “Right, gay bashing is wrong. I don’t think Jesus said it was a sin to be gay.” You watch Eric come to these conclusions. What this told me is that there’s a form of Christianity in this country that’s a distortion. Then there are people who try very hard to follow what Jesus said.
Rail: You do an elegant job of mirroring the fraught history of American colonialism with your experience on reservations and in Japan. I was wondering if you could talk about how you went about connecting these elements, and how you avoided heavy-handedness when connecting them.
Mockett: The whole book is an effort. It was the best I could do at the time. Something that’s not in the book is that in 2005, I went to the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and the Navajo poet Orlando White was there, and he walked up to me and asked, “Who are your people”? I said, “Well, I’m half-Japanese. My father’s from Nebraska, and my mom’s from Japan.” He said, “My people admire your people. We think of the Japanese as our brothers across the sea, and we admire how you touch your land and your culture.” I’ve been unpacking that for years. That’s why he’s thanked in the book. He made me think so differently, and I still wonder what he meant. You still see the impact of that conversation on the text. I by no means think that what I put in here was perfect, but it was my attempt to show some of the reflection that I’ve done on that. Japan is not a Judeo-Christian culture. It was isolated for nearly 300 years before it was opened in 1868. It had some contact with the West, but had limited its contact. It had to modernize in a very short period of time. I read these things in history books and don’t really know what they mean. What would they mean for me in experiences in the 1970s and early ’80s when I was going to Japan. Nobody had a flushable toilet. When people think about Japan, they think of anime and the bullet train, but it was also a country with its own unique culture that modernized in a short period of time. I realize now that this is all part of what Orlando meant. He was saying that Japan did this in a way that is unique and inspiring. Hearing him say that made me look at Japan very differently, and look at history a bit differently. The result of looking at history and cultural interaction in this broad and complicated way, and again, to compress Japanese history into a couple sentences, Japan was not colonized as China was. It saw what happened to China, and didn’t want it to happen to its own people. It was occupied. It went through some horrific wars and the bombs. In this country, Japanese Americans were interned. At the same time, Japan was also an aggressor and a colonizer. We have this complex history, and the people who lived through these generations have undergone a really wrenching transition. For me, intellectually, it means that anytime I look at anything having to do with modern experience, Japan is always this complicating factor. Because yes, Japan was occupied. Yes Japanese Americans were interned, but they were also oppressors of other asians in the world. I’m accustomed to having to stop and say, what’s really happening here whenever I’m examining any moment in history.