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High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta
High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta
Gerry Helferich
Counterpoint, 2007
328 pp., 25.00

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Bill McKibben

Yeoman of the New South

Farming ain't what it used to be.

In recent years the publishing world has seen a spate of books devoted to the proposition that history can be profitably viewed through the lens of some single commodity: salt, say, or potatoes. Gerald Helferich works hard here to make the same case for the cotton grown on the Mississippi Delta, those 7,000 square miles squeezed between the Yazoo, the Tallahatchie, and the namesake great river. Without cotton, he insists,

slavery would not have taken root so deeply in the South, loosing the economic and sectarian tensions that led to civil war. Without cotton, in all likelihood there would have been no Republican Party, no Reconstruction, no battle to reclaim civil rights … . Today's racial landscape would be unrecognizable as well, for the enduring rift between black and white is also part of the legacy of cotton.

Call it the great crop theory of history. Call it, too, the weakest part of what in certain respects is a very fine book. There are passages here that deserve the back-cover praise "in the tradition of Tracy Kidder and John McPhee." But there's also lots of padding, and missed opportunities.

Helferich is out to tell the story of one Delta cotton farmer, Zack Killibrew, his first wife's cousin. Killibrew farms 1,700 acres, most of which he leases, on four parcels around the county seat of Lexington, Mississippi. He is meant to be emblematic of the embattled small farmer in America, sustained by his "prodigious know-how and Rebel stubbornness," but in the end "his financial success or failure is largely subject to impersonal meteorological forces—just as it's been since the first settlers began planting cotton in the Delta."

And indeed the loveliest scenes in the book all involve Killibrew's intense sense of husbandry—his visceral feel for how the seedlings are developing beneath the soil, his agony when the elements go awry:

"It's jus like a baby bein' born," he tells me in his deep southern timbre. "You have the due date, and you're just waitin'." And when the seeds sprout, covering the dark earth with pale green fuzz, it fills him with hope. "That looks good to you," he smiles.

At times Killibrew exhibits a literal weather eye: "The sky is streaked with the high, wispy clouds known as mare's tails, which he tells me may indicate a change … . And he doesn't like how the breeze has been picking up all morning. 'Wind out of the southeast is good for neither man nor beast,' he recites."

In truth, as Helferich soon discovers, farming involves far more choices than most occupations, and at higher stakes: what to plant, when to plant, how deep to plant, when to weed, how deep to weed, on and on ad infinitum. When Helferich asks Killibrew straight up what it is about farming that attracts him, "it's the challenge, he says right away; the very fact that it's so hard makes him want to do it."

And despite Killibrew's genuine connection with the elemental realm of earth and sky, there's not much that's pastoral about the actual farming. Basically it's industrial—he buys genetically modified seed, plants it with hundred-thousand-dollar machines, and then spends almost all his time applying wave after wave of chemicals: aldicarb, Roundup, a special growth regulator "which will direct the plant's energy towards the developing boll and away from the leaves and stems." Several times a day he visits what an earlier generation would have called the seed store—Killibrew, more accurately, calls it "the chemical place." And often he needs outside help—the $650,000 crop-dusting airplanes that deliver their own loads of pesticide and herbicide, for instance, not to mention the late-season aerial treatment with a "defoliant that causes the cotton to shed its leaves in preparation for harvest."

This is nothing new, of course. In the 1960s, as Helferich reminds us, boll weevils had grown so resistant to ddt that farmers were dropping two pounds per acre on the cotton every week, the kind of insanity that led to Rachel Carson and the banning of a chemical that should have been reserved for the anti-malarial uses it's now once again being employed for in the developing world. But the degree of chemical armament still in use will surprise many readers (and make that shirt begin to itch against your back).

In any case, Killibrew's fortunes do not depend solely on the rich Delta soil. He's assiduously cultivating the rich vein of Washington subsidy that supports what would otherwise be an uncompetitive agriculture. In a real sense, like all those inner city mothers set to work on minimum wage jobs by recent reforms, he's on government workfare, and to say so isn't to deprecate his labor. Indeed, the prospect—at book's end—that Congress might withdraw the teat in the new farm bill has him thinking about giving up the pastoral life. (Or maybe switching to the newest scam, growing crops for ethanol.)

The strength of Helferich's analysis lies in his ability to make clear the pressures on a relatively small grower like Killibrew—the way that the price of his "inputs" leave him vulnerable to the market and the whim of regulators. Its weakness lies in the author's inability to conceive of any possible alternative—there's no evidence that he's read, say, the three decades of work that Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry has devoted to pointing out both the absurdity of this commodity agriculture and some of the ways out. More recently, Michael Pollan, in his Omnivore's Dilemma, has grappled with these same questions in far deeper ways. Suffice it to say that in a country where farmers markets are the fastest growing part of the food economy, it's at least possible to conceive of a gentler, more diversified farming.

But not, perhaps, one that pays quite as well. Helferich's efforts to portray Killibrew as a poor son of the soil balanced on the fine edge of bankruptcy are continually undercut by the descriptions of all that he owns. Not only his machines and his barns, but also his fancy pickup, his less-fancy pickup for driving to his private hunting land (or to the hunting club to which he also belongs), his shed with the safe full of classic guns.

The author also punts when it comes to plumbing his hero's private life. Killibrew's separation and divorce come during the year Helferich describes, but they are handled in about three sentences—not Kidderesque. Worse, we never get a real sense of race on the Delta. There's one sad scene where Killibrew makes a black worker grovel in the dirt picking up a few seeds he's spilled, and long accounts of slavery and the civil rights movement which will add little for readers conversant with American history. But Helferich never seems to ask Killibrew what he thinks, and he doesn't spend much time at the homes of the field workers. This is a shame, because the other side of the Delta is a fascinating place—I remember well a few days spent at Sugar Ditch in the Delta town of Tunica, amidst poverty that rivaled anything I've seen in the worst favelas and barrios of the developing world. Sugar Ditch is gone now, but my guess is that there are stories at least as interesting as Killibrew's on the other side of the tracks. Helferich's decision not to tell them robs this book of any chance of becoming a classic.

By its end, as Killibrew prepares to plant another crop of cotton, one is left hoping that Washington will soon change the ground rules so that these seasons of industrial mayhem and unfair subsidy (which human rights groups have shown undercut the livelihoods of millions around the world) will finally come to an end and the fine soils of Mississippi can be put to better use.

Bill McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. His most recent book, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, was published in March by Times Books.

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