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Ted Genoways Gives Voice to Rural Working Class

August 23, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Ted Genoways

Gives Voice to Rural Working Class

by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in July-August 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine ( http://omahamagazine.com/articles/ted-genoways/)

 

Award-winning poet, journalist, editor, and author Ted Genoways of Lincoln, Nebraska, has long been recognized for his social justice writing as a contributor to Mother Jones, onEarth, Harper’s and other prestigious publications. While editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, the magazine won numerous national awards.

His recent nonfiction books—The Chain: Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food, and This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Farm—expand on his enterprise reporting about the land, the people who work it, and the food we consume from it. The themes of sustainability, big ag versus little ag, over-processing of food, and environmental threats are among many concerns he explores.

He often collaborates on projects with his wife, photographer Mary Anne Andrei.

His penchant for reporting goes back to his boyhood, when he put down stories people told him, even illustrating them, in a stapled “magazine” he produced. His adult work took root in the form of secondhand stories of his paternal grandfather toiling on Nebraska farms and in Omaha meatpacking plants.

His father noted this precociousness with words and made a pact that if young Ted read a book a week selected for him, he could escape chores.

“I thought that was a great deal,” Genoways says. “Reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was the first time I remember being completely hooked. After that, I tore through everything Steinbeck wrote, and it made a huge impact on me. I thought, there’s real power in this—if you can figure out how to do it this well.”

Reading classics by Hemingway, Faulkner, and other great authors followed. The work of muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair made an impression. “But those Steinbeck books,” he says, “have always really stuck with me, and I go back to them and they really hold up.”

Exposing injustice—just as Steinbeck did with migrants and Sinclair did with immigrants—is what Genoways does. Nebraska Wesleyan professors Jim Schaffer and the late state poet of Nebraska William Kloefkorn influenced his journalism and poetry, respectively. Genoways doesn’t make hard and fast distinctions between the two forms. Regardless of genre, he practices a form of advocacy journalism but always in service of the truth.

“I’m always starting with the facts and trying to understand how they fit together,” he says. “There’s no question I’ve got a point of view. But I don’t show up with preconceived notions of what the story is.”

He’s drawn to “stories of people at the mercy of the system,” he says, admitting, “I’m interested in the little guy and in how people fight back against the powers that be.”

While working at the Minnesota State Historical Society Press, Genoways released a book of poems,Bullroarer: A Sequence, about his grandfather, and edited Cheri Register’s book Daughter of a Meatpacker. At the Virginia Quarterly, he looked into worker illnesses at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota, and the glut of Latinos at a Hormel plant in Fremont, Nebraska. He found a correlation between unsafe conditions due to ever-faster production lines—where only immigrants are willing to do the job—and the pressures brought to bear on company towns with influxes of Spanish-speaking workers and their families, some of them undocumented.

That led to examining the impact “a corporate level decision to run the line faster in order to increase production has up and down the supply chain” and on entire communities.

“That’s become an ongoing fascination for me,” Genoways says. “I can’t seem to stop coming back to what’s happening in meatpacking towns, which really seem to be on the front line of a lot of change in this country.”

The heated controversy around TransCanada Corp.’s plans for the Keystone XL pipeline ended up as the backdrop for his book, This Blessed Earth. He found “the specter of a foreign corporation coming and taking land by eminent domain” from legacy farmers and ranchers “and telling them they had to take on this environmental risk with few or no guarantees” to be yet another challenge weighing on the backs of producers.

His focus became a fifth-generation Nebraska farm family, the Hammonds, who grow soybeans, and how their struggles mirror all family farmers in terms of “how big to get and how much risk to assume.”

“They were especially intriguing because they were building this solar and wind-powered barn right in the path KXL decided to cross their land, and that seemed like a pretty great metaphor for that kind of defiance,” he says.

Pipeline or not, small farmers have plenty to worry about.

“Right now, everything in ag is geared toward getting bigger,” Genoways says. “The question facing the entire industry is: How big is big enough? What do we lose when we force farmers off the land or make them into businessmen more than stewards of the land? To my eye, you lose agri-CULTURE and are left with agri-BUSINESS.”

Farming as a way of life is endangered.

“Nebraska lost a thousand farms in 2017,” he says. “Those properties will be absorbed by larger operations. The ground will still be farmed. The connection between farmer and farm will be further stretched and strained. That’s the way everything has gone, and it’s how everything is likely to continue. Agribusiness interests argue these trends move us toward maximum yield with improved sustainability. But it also means decisions are made by fewer and fewer people. Mistakes and misjudgments are magnified. So we not only lose the culture of independence and responsibility that built rural communities, but grow more dependent on a version of America run by corporations.”

Chronicling the Hammonds left indelible takeaways—one being the varied skills farming requires.

“We saw them harvest a field of soybeans while keeping an eye on the futures trading and calling around to elevators to check on prices; they were making market decisions as sophisticated as any commodities trader,” Genoways says. “This is one of the major pressures on family farms. To survive, you have to be able to repair your own center pivot or broken tractor, but also be a savvy business owner—adapting early to technological changes and diversifying to insulate your operation.”

The Hammonds weathered the storm.

“They are doing well. They got good news when the Public Service Commission only approved the alternate route for KXL,” he says.

Meanwhile, Genoways sees an American food system in need of reform.

“We would benefit mightily from a national food policy,” he says. “How can you explain subsidizing production of junk food and simultaneously spending on obesity education? How do we justify unsustainable volumes of meat while counseling people to eat less meat? If we really want people to improve their eating habits, we should provide economic incentives in that direction.”


Visit tedgenoways.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

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Journalist-author Genoways takes micro and macro look at the U.S, food system

June 6, 2018 2 comments

Journalist-author Genoways takes micro and macro look at the U.S, food system

©by Leo Adam Biga,

Originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com)

It should come as no surprise that a writer who chronicled a year in the life of a Nebraska farm family, exposed the dangers of a broken American food system and is now researching Mexico’s tequila industry has always marched to the beat of a different drummer.

Growing up, Ted Genoways was encouraged to read books well beyond his years by his natural museum administrator father, Hugh H. Genoways. That was okay with the youngster because he liked reading, even though it took his dad makiing a bargain with him to replace comic books with classics.

The great American interpreter of the common man’s struggles, author John Steinbeck, became an inspiration for Genoways and remains so today. The exposes of muckrakers such as Upton Sinclair further lit a fire in him – that still burns – to stand up for the underdog.

“I just recently got fascinated by the work done by the ‘Stunt Girls,’ the forerunners of the muckrakers and the first undercover investigators. Their whole notion was to get into spaces hidden from public view and write about what was going on there in order to bring public pressure to bear and change conditions.”

Following in the footsteps of these socially conscious writers, Genoways has documented the hardships facing small farmers, migrants and immigrants and he’s explored the effects of big ag on towns and families.

Storytelling has captivated him for as long as he can remember. “Strangely fascinated” by the stories others told him, Genoways developed a habit of writing them down and illustrating them, a precursor to the student journalism he practiced in high school and college and to his career today as journalist and author.

Some of the stories he heard as a boy that most captured his imagination concerned his paternal grandfather’s experiences working on Nebraska farms and in Omaha meatpacking plants. Though Genoways hails from an urban background, this city boy has repeatedly turned to rural reaches for his work. After all his travels, including a short stint in Minnesota and a decade-plus back east as editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, Lincoln, Nebraska is where he now calls home.

His father’s work meant a nomadic life for Genoways. He was born in Lubbock, Texas and grew up in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, where the family stood out both for lack of want and for the title, Dr., his Ph.D. father carried. Most of his friends and schoolmates were the sons and daughters of blue-collar working parents, some of whom were laid off by the mills and struggling to get by. By contrast, his father was curator of mammals at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

When the elder Genoways accepted the directorship of the Nebraska State Museum, the family moved to Lincoln in 1986. At Lincoln East High School, Genoways found in Jim Schaffer the first of two crucial mentors in his foundational years as an aspiring published writer.

“Jim was our journalism teacher and the publications advisor,” said Genoways, who with some fellow students and the encouragement of Schaffer founded a school magazine, Muse. Only three years after its launch the Columbia School of Journalism named it the nation’s best high school publication.

“That whole experience of working on that magazine was really formative. It was also a case where because we were all so new to that stuff, we didn’t think a lot about genre distinctions. We were all writing fiction and poetry and descriptive pieces and to whatever extent a high school student can we were trying to report on things that seemed to be of broader significance national issues and things relevant to the school.”

Muse getting singled-out resulted in Genoways and his classmates going to New York to accept the Columbia recognition. By virtue of Schaffer working on a dissertation about baseball columnist Roger Angell, the Nebraska group got entree to visit the legend at his New Yorker magazine office during their Manhattan trip.

“It was quite an experience. We went also to Spy Magazine, which we were interested in because one of the editors, Kurt Andersen, was from Omaha.”

Three decades later, Genoways is now the established professional emerging young writers seek out.

All in all, he said Muse proved “definitely an important beginning point for me.”

It worked out that Genoways and Schaffer matriculated to Nebraska Wesleyan University at the same time – to study and teach, respectively. Again, with Schaffer’s blessing, Genoways founded a magazine, Coyote.

“It was more ambitious and probably more openly irreverent,” Genoways said. “It was something we really enjoyed. it was a great incubator for just trying out all kinds of ideas and really seeing what a magazine could be.”

At Wesleyan, Genoways found another key influence in the late state poet William Kloefkorn.

“To have an interest as I did in both the literary side and the journalistic side and then getting to work with Bill Kloefkorn at Nebraska Wesleyan while also working with Jim there was really ideal. I’ve had a lot of great teachers over the years, but I think it would be pretty impossible to match the kind of wisdom and knowledge Bill had with that incredible generosity. He was always teaching and always glad to share his thoughts with young people who were wanting to know more. I feel really lucky to have had somebody like that at a point when I was just getting started.”

Genoways soaked it all in.

“I was an English major with a creative writing-poetry emphasis and thesis but was a journalism minor. I would say over time my interests and my work have moved back and forth between those things. But I don’t see them as all that different. I mean, my first book of poems, Bullroarer, was kind of a reimagining of the life of my grandfather, who worked in a meatpacking plant in Omaha when he was young, and that definitely was part of what got me interested in investigating the meatpacking industry and writing the book The Chain (Farm, Factory and the Fate of Our Food).”

A particular story oft-told by the author’s father influenced Genoways eventually writing The Chain.

“When my dad was a kid. the family came to Fort Calhoun for Easter. And for whatever reason, his father thought it would be a good idea to show him where the Easter ham comes from. The story is that my grandfather worked in the Swift packinghouse, He took him into the kill floor there. My father said he didn’t know exactly what his dad was thinking taking an 8 or 10 year old kid to see the hogs being slaughtered, but it made a real impression on him.”

As an adult, Genoways sees an interconnected tood system full of health hazards that span the planting, fertilizing and harvesting of the grain that feeds livestock to the ways animals are housed, killed and processed.

The Chain was this whole idea of wanting to see this go from seed to slaughter.”

More family lore has spurred his work.

“My grandfather’s upbringing during the Great Depression and landing out in western Nebraska on a farm and raising my dad out there was a big part of what was behind writing This Blessed Earth (A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm). That’s the reason there’s kind of a coda at the end, where I go back to some of those places I remember from my childhood with my dad – but now with a new understanding of all the pressures my grandfather had been under and all the factors that had helped shape my dad’s childhood.

“So to me it’s all part of the same work – it’s just different ways of approaching it and reaching different audiences. But also I suppose kind of testing out what medium and what approach works best for different kinds of material.”

 

The Chain

He has used literary journalistic prose and straight investigative reporting for examinations of unsafe, unsanitary conditions at Hormel hog plants in Austin, Minnesota and Fremont, Nebraska and animal abuse in Iowa and for his delineation of challenges facing small family farmers. His work has appeared in Mother Jones, OnEarth, Harpers and other national magazines.

“As much as I love the pure activity of the research and writing, my hope always is it does more than just entertain and inform. I would hope it’s also shining a light on issues people hadn’t thought about before and making them see the world in a different way and maybe moves them to want to do something about injustices of the world. There’s no question I’ve got a point of view. It’s one of the reasons magazine journalism, which traditionally is more forgiving on those sorts of things, feels like the right place for me.”

Genoways doesn’t shy away from showing his sympathies for the average Joe or Jill who get the shaft from big money forces beyond their control.

“I’m always starting by seeing a complex of issues or events I think are worth investigation. I always feel like what i can contribute to the conversation is constantly saying it’s not simple – here’s another complex dimension of that. I’m interested in exposing the mechanisms of systems to show how things are stacked against the little guy. So my interest is in leveling the playing field and making sure everybody gets a fair shake. But that’s really as far as my philosophy extends. I don’t have a big political agenda.”

His reporting in meatpacking company towns revealed sped-up productions lines whose workers. many illegal. suffer more injuries and illnesses. He also shed light on predominantly white Fremont’s racially-charged stands and measures to make life inhospitable for undocumented workers and their families.

Finding packers willing to talk to him can be a challenge, but he said he’s hit upon a reliable strategy of reaching out to “whoever in the community is advocating on behalf of the workers,” adding, “There’s all these nonprofits providing interpretive services or medical help or helping navigate the immigration process.” In Austin, Minnesota, where workers suffered a neurological disorder from exposure to an aerosolized mist created from liquifying hog brains, he developed enough rapport with the afflicted that he got several to sign waivers.

“That waiver allowed the state-appointed social worker for this case to turn over her records and the release of their medical records. Having these monthly reports on their progress created a timeline, a kind of verifiable trajectory for their symptoms and illness. It also then allowed me to have this record of dates to go back to the workers themselves and jog their memories. It also opened up other kinds of conversations.”

Since paranoid management makes on-site journalist observations at any plant next to impossible, Genoways finds other ways to recreate what goes on there.

“The central problem of working on anything with meatpacking is you’re almost certainly not going to see the workplace, and so you have to kind of reconstruct it from what the workers can describe but then also try to find whatever you can in the way of documentary evidence to go with that.

“in addition to second-hand accounts from line workers and supervisors,” he said “ideally I try to get applicable government inspection records and reports of problems documented at those places. so it’s a lot of triangulation rather than direct access. To me, the process is interesting. Anytime someone tries to drop the curtain to conceal what’s going on somewhere, it feels like the place we should be going and trying to see what is behind the curtain. It’s an indicator there’s          something going on we should be paying attention to.”

He suggests instead of companies investing in mega security to keep prying eyes out “money might be better spent changing processes and policies so you don’t have to worry about public scrutiny.”

He and photographer wife Mary Anne Andrei have worked on magazine and book projects together.

“I love working with Mary Anne. We seem to have some kind of built-in radar that allows us to be focused on our part of the project while remaining attuned to what the other person needs. That communication means Mary Anne is asking questions in interviews and I’m sharing what I see as she’s getting shots. It’s a true collaboration.”

this blessed earth cover

In the Hammonds, they found a tight-knit, fifth-generation farm clan now growing soybeans who defied a proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline route to have cut right through their property.

“Our interest really got ramped up when the neighbor to the south of them who had been renting them two quarters of ground for many years said, ‘I don’t agree with this stance you’ve taken and I’m not going to allow you to farm this ground anymore.’ The Hammonds took a real financial hit from having expressed this strong opposition to the pipeline and that was the point at which we said we’d like to spend a year as your family works to deal with struggling to make ends meet when you’ve taken a stand like that.”

Genoways saw the family as a symbol for thousands jlike them.

“They embodied so many of the challenges of modern farming as well as struggles that all family farms are up against — how big to get, how much risk to assume.

Things just kept stacking up, Prices bottomed out

There were all sorts of new pressures. And to their great credit Rick Hammond and his daughter Meghan and her fiance Kyle all said, ‘We’ve committed to doing this, we’ll stick it out. We want people to see what it’s really like here – what the stresses are.’ So they let us follow them around for that year, It was a tremendous commitment on their part and they really hung in there with us, even in times that were incredibly stressful for them.

“I hope that openness they exhibited translates into something that allows people to see just what that life is really like.”

Genoways recently returned from a trip south of the border for research on his new book, Tequila Wars: The Bloody Struggle for the Spirit of Mexico.

Visit http://www.tedgenoways.com.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at https://leoadambiga.com.

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