Can novels be used in courses on production agriculture? In general, our first challenge is to engage students with sometimes complex material, for them to learn the principles, and then to apply information to real-world situations. Yet equally or more important is to encourage critical thinking skills and an ability to evaluate the relevance and applicability of in-class topics and learning to contemporary challenges in agriculture and the food system. Prairie Fire is in fact a novel that may help achieve the goals of achieving relevance and promoting responsible action. The book is more than a totally engaging story that captivates the reader as if it were a Dan Brown suspense adventure. It reflects careful research and analysis of a modern-day systemic problem in the global food system, and provides a strong political statement that questions the organization of our most important industry as well as our basic values. What could be more useful for a university course?
Author Dan Armstrong is editor and owner of Mud City Press in Eugene, Oregon and has written extensively on political and environmental issues. In Prairie Fire, he weaves a complicated story of the plight of modern day farmers who are dependent on monoculture systems and expensive production inputs such as seed, fertilizer, and chemical pesticides. In the U.S. Midwest they are locked into a marketing system for grain crops that is dominated by a handful of large, multinational corporations whose power and control were described in Merchants of Grain by Dan Morgan in 1979. Prairie Fire begins with a protest directed toward this power and economic domination, when several farmers burn their crops just before harvest in order to deprive the corporations of windfall profits from a wildly fluctuating international wheat market. A Missouri farmer and leader of the National Grange sees this as an opportunity to mobilize farmers across the country in a coordinated strike that would not only bring attention to their fragile economic position but also to the exorbitant profits reaped by a few companies capable of manipulating world supply and prices.
Farmers going on strike in 2016? As hard as this is to believe, through the internet it has become possible to organize a widely dispersed group of farmers with common concerns. A meeting of farmers in Kansas creates a movement that quickly captures the interest and support of wheat growers across the country. With multiple sub-plots that include a coalition with Montana-based militia, a decorated war hero from Afghanistan turned wheat farmer in Kansas, a socially-concerned reporter in Washington, and various caricatures of leaders in government, military, and the business establishment, the novel unfolds across the Midwest but jumps to the oil fields of Central Asia and the financial hub of Singapore. More than a device to build suspense, these forays abroad illustrate the total connectedness of world financial and grain markets and the consequences of a globalization of economics that transcends any single government. What unfolds is an intriguing and even believable saga of the potential consequences of financial and political power run amok, and the populist reaction that sounds plausible even in the conservative farming culture of the U.S. heartland.
From the agricultural angle, Prairie Fire is exceptionally well researched, with timely and appropriate information about how wheat is grown and the complicated interactions among crop, soil, and weather and how current systems are highly dependent on purchased inputs from outside the farm and the region. Information about soil fertility and fertilizers, crop dependence on timely rainfall, and protection from insects and pathogens is provided in a credible form. From the grassroots level of the farm to the intricacies of the complicated international grain trade, the details are laid out well. We are exposed to the potentials of manipulation by traders who have perhaps never seen a wheat drill planter or a combine for harvest. To combat this power, the farmers arrive at a solution that is against their very principles, and their commitment to produce food for a hungry world. Although the suspense of the narrative keeps the reader engrossed, the ending is less than conclusive, leaving us to speculate on what could happen if any of a number of scenarios were followed. This is the beauty of a well-told story.
To the informed reader, the book brings up memories of the battle between wheat farmers and the Pacific and Southwest Railroad described in The Octopus, by Frank Norris, published in 1901. Its hard-hitting expose of corporate greed reminds us of the meat packing industry and The Jungle, from 1906, by Upton Sinclair. And the level of power and influence of the grain companies even today could be considered parallel to that described in The History of the Standard Oil Company, in 1904, by Ida Tarbell. Similarly, the plight of farmers that was characterized by the Joad Family in The Grapes of Wrath, in 1939, by Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck rings true for wheat farmers today in the Midwest and in Prairie Fire.
This list of literary triumphs is formidable, but Prairie Fire has the potential to raise awareness and lead to social change in ways similar to each of the above. For this reason, the book could be considered as an essential reading in courses in Agroecology, Agricultural Economics, Policy and Political Science, and Rural Sociology. One should be warned that there is explicit sexual content and violence in the book, perhaps used by the author to sell more books. Providing alternatives for concerned students could be an option. When the sexual content is mentioned during the introduction of class assignments, of course, it could be an incentive for people to read a book that they would otherwise skim through quickly. Without doubt, this is a novel that can broaden the perspective of how the wheat industry functions in a compelling way that few textbooks could achieve, and it is sure to catalyze valuable discussion about corporate agriculture, moral and ethical issues, and the long-term future of agriculture and the global marketing system. What more could we hope for in our classes and seminars?
*Francis, C. 2010. Prairie Fire (book review),by Dan Armstrong. NACTA J. 54(2):62-63.