Book of the Month

AgBookClub 2021 Selections

2020 may not have been what anyone expected, but it will soon be time to turn a new page into 2021. We know that the year will be off to a slow start in many places (thanks, COVID), but that doesn’t mean AgBookClub has gone by the wayside – in fact, we’re stronger than ever thanks to our dedicated participants!

Here’s a preview of what’s to come with AgBookClub in 2021. We invite any and all to join!

The #AgBookClub Twitter chat takes place every Wednesday at 8pm Central time. (First time joining a Twitter chat? Here’s a quick guide to everything you need to know.)


January

The first selection of the new year is a relatively new book, released summer 2020, on current food culture. Here’s a brief synopsis of what to expect from Hungry: Avocado Toast, Instagram Influencers, and Our Search for Connection and Meaning*+ by Eve Turow-Paul.

We wait in lines around the block for scoops of cookie dough. We photograph every meal. We visit selfie performance spaces and leave lucrative jobs to become farmers and craft brewers.

Why? What are we really hungry for?

In Hungry, Eve Turow-Paul provides a guided tour through the stranger corners of today’s global food and lifestyle culture. How are 21st-century innovations and pressures are redefining people’s needs and desires? How does “foodie” culture, along with other lifestyle trends, provide an answer to our rising rates of stress, loneliness, anxiety, and depression?

Weaving together evolutionary psychology and sociology with captivating investigative reporting from around the world, Turow-Paul reveals the modern hungers—physical, spiritual, and emotional—that are driving today’s top trends:

  • The connection between the “death” of the cereal industry and access to work email on our smartphones
  • How posting images of our dinners on social media both fulfills and feeds our hunger for human connection in an increasingly isolated world
  • The ways “diet tribes” and boutique fitness gyms substitute for organized religion 
  • How access to round-the-clock news relates to the blowback against GMO foods
  • Wellness retreats, astrology, plant parenthood, and other methods of easing modern anxiety
  • Why “eating local” might be the key to solving not just climate change, but our current global sense of disconnection

From gluten-free and Paleo diets to meal kit subscriptions, and from mukbang broadcast jockeys to craft beer, Hungry deepens our understanding of why we do what we do, and helps us find greater purpose and joy in today’s technology-altered world.



February

Two big topics we know will spill from 2020 to 2021 are (1) the environment and (2) animal protein and the alternatives. Sacred Cow: The Case for (Better) Meat: Why Well-Raised Meat is Good for You and Good for the Planet*+, by Diana Rodgers and Robb Wolf, examines a common argument against eating animal protein: that plant-based proteins are better for you and better for the environment. This book compliments a documentary of the same name, released in 2020. One interesting thing to note is that author Diana Rodgers is also a dietitian, so is likely bringing a different perspective to the table.

We’re told that if we care about our health—or our planet—eliminating red meat from our diets is crucial. That beef is bad for us and cattle farming is horrible for the environment. But science says otherwise.

Beef is framed as the most environmentally destructive and least healthy of meats. We’re often told that the only solution is to reduce or quit red meat entirely. But despite what anti-meat groups, vegan celebrities, and some health experts say, plant-based agriculture is far from a perfect solution. In Sacred Cow, registered dietitian Diana Rodgers and former research biochemist and New York Times bestselling author Robb Wolf explore the quandaries we face in raising and eating animals—focusing on the largest (and most maligned) of farmed animals, the cow.

Taking a critical look at the assumptions and misinformation about meat, Sacred Cow points out the flaws in our current food system and in the proposed “solutions.” Inside, Rodgers and Wolf reveal contrarian but science-based findings, such as:

  • Meat and animal fat are essential for our bodies.
  • A sustainable food system cannot exist without animals.
  • A vegan diet may destroy more life than sustainable cattle farming.
  • Regenerative cattle ranching is one of our best tools at mitigating climate change.

You’ll also find practical guidance on how to support sustainable farms and a 30-day challenge to help you transition to a healthful and conscientious diet. With scientific rigor, deep compassion, and wit, Rodgers and Wolf argue unequivocally that meat (done right) should have a place on the table. 

It’s not the cow, it’s the how!


March

American cuisine is arguably the most ethnically diverse cuisine of the world, greatly in part to our history as the “melting pot.” As you may recall from our 2020 AgBookClub discussions, we scratched the surface of this topic with The Food Explorer by Daniel Stone. Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine*+ by Sarah Lohman dives deeper into this topic. (Bonus! It’s an editor’s pick on Amazon.)

“Very cool…a breezy American culinary history that you didn’t know you wanted” (Bon Appetit) reveals a fascinating look at our past and uses long-forgotten recipes to explain how eight flavors changed how we eat.

The United States boasts a culturally and ethnically diverse population that makes for a continually changing culinary landscape. But a young historical gastronomist named Sarah Lohman discovered that American food is united by eight flavors: black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. In “a unique and surprising view of American history…richly researched, intriguing, and elegantly written” (The Atlantic), Lohman sets out to explore how these influential ingredients made their way to the American table.

She begins in the archives, searching through economic, scientific, political, religious, and culinary records. She pores over cookbooks and manuscripts, dating back to the eighteenth century, through modern standards like How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Lohman discovers when each of these eight flavors first appear in American kitchens—then she asks why.

“A fresh, original perspective to American culinary history” (The Christian Science Monitor), Eight Flavors takes you on a journey through the past to tell us something about our present, and our future. We meet John Crowninshield a New England merchant who traveled to Sumatra in the 1790s in search of black pepper. And Edmond Albius, a twelve-year-old slave who lived on an island off the coast of Madagascar, who discovered the technique still used to pollinate vanilla orchids today. Weaving together original research, historical recipes, gorgeous illustrations, and Lohman’s own adventures both in the kitchen and in the field, Eight Flavors is a delicious treat—which “may make you hungry” (Bustle).


April

The Scientist and The Spy: A True Story of China, the FBI, and Industrial Espionage*+ by Mara Hvistendahl is something totally different than other books we’ve read in the three-plus year history of AgBookClub. We know that genetic technology for crops is important to U.S. farmers and we thought that planting season (knock on wood we don’t experience another 2019) would be the perfect time to tackle this read.

A riveting true story of industrial espionage in which a Chinese-born scientist is pursued by the U.S. government for trying to steal trade secrets, by a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.
 
In September 2011, sheriff’s deputies in Iowa encountered three ethnic Chinese men near a field where a farmer was growing corn seed under contract with Monsanto. What began as a simple trespassing inquiry mushroomed into a two-year FBI operation in which investigators bugged the men’s rental cars, used a warrant intended for foreign terrorists and spies, and flew surveillance planes over corn country—all in the name of protecting trade secrets of corporate giants Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer. In The Scientist and the Spy, Hvistendahl gives a gripping account of this unusually far-reaching investigation, which pitted a veteran FBI special agent against Florida resident Robert Mo, who after his academic career foundered took a questionable job with the Chinese agricultural company DBN—and became a pawn in a global rivalry.

Industrial espionage by Chinese companies lies beneath the United States’ recent trade war with China, and it is one of the top counterintelligence targets of the FBI. But a decade of efforts to stem the problem have been largely ineffective. Through previously unreleased FBI files and her reporting from across the United States and China, Hvistendahl describes a long history of shoddy counterintelligence on China, much of it tinged with racism, and questions the role that corporate influence plays in trade secrets theft cases brought by the U.S. government. The Scientist and the Spy is both an important exploration of the issues at stake and a compelling, involving read.


May

We know that more than 90 percent of U.S. farms are family owned and operated, although there is a lot of misinformation regarding farm ownership and operation among the public non-farming community. May’s selection, This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm*+ by Ted Genoways, should be an interesting take on the perception of family farms being portrayed to the public through literature – specifically, this book dedicated to the topic.

The family farm lies at the heart of our national identity, and yet its future is in peril. Rick Hammond grew up on a farm, and for forty years he has raised cattle and crops on his wife’s fifth-generation homestead in Nebraska, in hopes of passing it on to their four children. But as the handoff nears, their family farm―and their entire way of life―are under siege on many fronts, from shifting trade policies, to encroaching pipelines, to climate change. Following the Hammonds from harvest to harvest, Ted Genoways explores the rapidly changing world of small, traditional farming operations. He creates a vivid, nuanced portrait of a radical new landscape and one family’s fight to preserve their legacy and the life they love.


June

This selection is quite different than our usual AgBookClub selections, and we hope that it will be an interesting variation from our normal reading schedule. Barn 8: A Novel*+ by Deb Olin Unferth is a fictional story of a plot to steal a million chickens in the dead of night. The fictional nature of this book should provide a different take on the animal agriculture industry in comparison to past selections on the topic, and we’re interested to see whether it includes accurate portrayal of agriculture.

An unforgettably exuberant and potent novel by a writer at the height of her powers

Two auditors for the U.S. egg industry go rogue and conceive a plot to steal a million chickens in the middle of the night―an entire egg farm’s worth of animals. Janey and Cleveland―a spirited former runaway and the officious head of audits―assemble a precarious, quarrelsome team and descend on the farm on a dark spring evening. A series of catastrophes ensues.

Deb Olin Unferth’s wildly inventive novel is a heist story of a very unusual sort. Swirling with a rich array of voices, Barn 8 takes readers into the minds of these renegades: a farmer’s daughter, a former director of undercover investigations, hundreds of activists, a forest ranger who suddenly comes upon forty thousand hens, and a security guard who is left on an empty farm for years. There are glimpses twenty thousand years into the future to see what chickens might evolve into on our contaminated planet. We hear what hens think happens when they die. In the end the cracked hearts of these indelible characters, their earnest efforts to heal themselves, and their radical actions will lead them to ruin or revelation.

Funny, whimsical, philosophical, and heartbreaking, Barn 8 ultimately asks: What constitutes meaningful action in a world so in need of change? Unferth comes at this question with striking ingenuity, razor-sharp wit, and ferocious passion. Barn 8 is a rare comic-political drama, a tour de force for our time.


July

The Good Food Revolution: Growing Health Food, People, and Communities*+ by Will Allen has been on both of your hosts’ To-Read lists, but hasn’t made it onto the official AgBookClub list today. We expect that this book touches on an important topic: what constitutes healthy food and how do we make sure everyone has enough of it?

A pioneering urban farmer and MacArthur Genius Award-Winner points the way to building a new food system that can feed- and heal- communities.

The son of a sharecropper, Will Allen had no intention of ever becoming a farmer himself. But after years in professional basketball and as an executive for Kentucky Fried Chicken and Procter & Gamble, he cashed in his retirement fund for a two-acre plot just outside Milwaukee’s largest public housing project. The area was a food desert with only convenience stores and fast-food restaurants to serve the needs of locals.

Despite financial challenges and daunting odds, Allen built the country’s preeminent urban farm-a food and educational center that now produces enough produce and fish year-round to feed thousands. Employing young people from the neighboring housing project and community, Growing Power shows how local food systems can help troubled youths, dismantle racism, create jobs, bring urban and rural communities closer together, and improve public health. Today, Allen’s organization helps develop community food systems across the country.

An eco-classic in the making, The Good Food Revolution is the story of Will’s personal journey, the lives he has touched, and a grassroots movement that is changing the way our nation eats.


August

August’s selection brings back one of our 2020 authors, Jonathan Safran Foer (you may remember the March 2020 read, Eating Animals). We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast*+ is a different topic than Eating Animals, but we expect it has the same investigative feel the author is known for. Here’s a quick summary of the book:

In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer explores the central global dilemma of our time in a surprising, deeply personal, and urgent new way.

Some people reject the fact, overwhelmingly supported by scientists, that our planet is warming because of human activity. But do those of us who accept the reality of human-caused climate change truly believe it? If we did, surely we would be roused to act on what we know. Will future generations distinguish between those who didn’t believe in the science of global warming and those who said they accepted the science but failed to change their lives in response?

The task of saving the planet will involve a great reckoning with ourselves―with our all-too-human reluctance to sacrifice immediate comfort for the sake of the future. We have, he reveals, turned our planet into a farm for growing animal products, and the consequences are catastrophic. Only collective action will save our home and way of life. And it all starts with what we eat―and don’t eat―for breakfast.


September

2020 brought a pandemic, so what could 2021 possibly bring that would be worse? Just kidding – we really hope that 2021 doesn’t bring locusts, but they aren’t just a thing of biblical times. Did you know that locusts plagued parts of the upper Midwest as recently as the late 1800s? September’s selection, Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Heartland* by Jeffrey Lockwood takes a look at that time and how it changed farming.

Throughout the nineteenth century, swarms of locusts regularly swept across the continent, turning noon into dusk, demolishing farm communities, and bringing trains to a halt as the crushed bodies of insects greased the rails. In 1876, the U.S. Congress declared the locust “the single greatest impediment to the settlement of the country.” From the Dakotas to Texas, from California to Iowa, the swarms pushed thousands of settlers to the brink of starvation, prompting the federal government to enlist some of the greatest scientific minds of the day and thereby jumpstarting the fledgling science of entomology. Over the next few decades, the Rocky Mountain locust suddenly–and mysteriously–vanished. A century later, Jeffrey Lockwood set out to discover why. Unconvinced by the reigning theories, he searched for new evidence in musty books, crumbling maps, and crevassed glaciers, eventually piecing together the elusive answer: A group of early settlers unwittingly destroyed the locust’s sanctuaries just as the insect was experiencing a natural population crash. Drawing on historical accounts and modern science, Locust brings to life the cultural, economic, and political forces at work in America in the late-nineteenth century, even as it solves one of the greatest ecological mysteries of our time.


October

October is typically harvest season in the Midwest and what better time than to talk about grain and what happens after it leaves the field? Out of the Shadows: The New Merchants of Grain* by Jonathan Kingsman is another book that’s been on the to-be-read list for a while, and we’re excited to introduce it to you all in 2021!

In 1979, Dan Morgan, a journalist with the Washington Post, wrote Merchants of Grain, a definitive history of the international grain trade. In the 40 years since Dan’s book was published the grain markets have changed almost beyond recognition. So too have the merchants of grain. Once shadowy figures, grain merchants have now come out of the shadows. Almost everything that you eat or drink today will contain something bought, stored, transported, processed, shipped, distributed or sold by one of the seven giants of the agricultural supply chain. The media often refers to them as the ABCD group of international grain-trading companies, with ABCD standing for ADM, Bunge, Cargill and Dreyfus. The acronym, though, ignores the other three giants of the food supply: Glencore, COFCO International and Wilmar. Together, they handle 50 percent of the international trade in grain and oilseeds. In this book’s series of exclusive and unprecedented interviews, CEOs and senior traders from these seven giants describe in their own words how the agricultural markets are changing, and how they are adapting to those changes. Accompanying text explains how grain trading works, what grain traders do, and the journey that your food takes before arriving on your plate.This is the inside story of the grain market and of the seven companies at the centre of the world’s food supply.


November

Epitaph for a Peach: Four Seasons On My Family Farm* by David Masumoto is an older book than we usually read (first published in 1996), but we’ve heard lots of good things about it! We like to wind down the year with a lighter read and we feel like this fits the bill. We couldn’t find a summary, but here’s a promising review:

A lyrical, sensuous and thoroughly engrossing memoir of one critical year in the life of an organic peach farmer, Epitaph for a Peach is “a delightful narrative . . . with poetic flair and a sense of humor” (Library Journal). 



December

And another great end-of-the-year read: Stories from the Heartland by Max Armstrong!

Max Armstrong s broadcasting career began at age 11 when he strung an antenna wire from his bedroom window to a pole behind the chicken coop. That was on Jim and Stella Fay Armstrong s corn and soybean farm in Indiana s Wabash River Valley. Max turned on the transmitter he built from a mail-order kit, and WMAX was on the air. Its signal barely covered a quarter-mile, and who knows if anyone was listening, but the seeds were sown. Although WMAX didn t last long, Max has been broadcasting ever since. As a boy, Max dreamed of working at one of the big Chicago radio stations, a dream that came true at age 24. But he couldn t have imagined that his 40-year career would also mean originating broadcasts from every state and more than 30 countries. Whether traveling to big farm shows or to visit individual producers, Max got to know remarkable people with compelling stories of struggle and of triumph. And now and then, he bumped into one of those colorful characters with an infectious zest for life who just makes you shake your head and smile. As you read Max s warm tribute to the people he met and the places he went, a few words of caution: You may catch yourself smiling, and perhaps tearing up a little, and you may have trouble putting the book down. With a passion fueled by the lessons he learned on the farm, Max has become, as the cover states, one of America s favorite farm broadcasters as he advocates for the men and women who feed the world.


* Kindle version available

+ Audible audiobook available

Have something you’d like to add to AgBookClub’s future reading list? Suggest a book here!

Happy Reading!

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