One Size Fits None:
A Farm Girl’s Search for the Promise of Regenerative Agriculture
by Stephanie Anderson
University of Nebraska Press, 2019
Reviewed by KATRINA GERSIE-SPRONK
In her debut book, Stephanie Anderson argues that a better agricultural future must include a shift toward regenerative agricultural practices—techniques that do more than just “sustain” our already depleted natural resources, but instead work to renew them. While industrial agriculture encourages farmers and ranchers to adhere to standardized (and often damaging) practices, regenerative agriculture looks different depending on the variances of the local climate, the needs of the local community, and the ingenuity of the farmers. Anderson explores a wide scope of possible solutions, bringing the reader along on her journeys to meet five innovative farmers from North Dakota, South Dakota, Florida, and New Mexico.
In One Size Fits None, Anderson provides a comprehensive overview of American agricultural practices for readers with no experience in food production, while also delving into specific practices that will interest those who, like Anderson herself, have a longstanding interest and investment in the future of our farms and ranches. Anderson was born and raised on her family’s cattle ranch in South Dakota, and her motivation for writing this book arose from her desire to find a role for her family’s ranch in the brighter agricultural future she envisions. Anderson writes with compassion and understanding as she discusses the reluctance conventional farmers might feel when they contemplate changing their practices, but she is clear and persuasive in her argument that chance is not only desirable, but necessary:
What if we try to create a better agriculture and fail? If I’ve discovered one thing from the farmers and ranchers in this book, it’s this: it is never too late to change. Two of them converted existing conventional operations to regenerative ones. Two others entered farming at middle age, starting from scratch with no experience. . . . The changes described in this book are not revolutionary or new. They are about returning to time-tested philosophies and perspectives about growing food and reimagining them for the modern world.
It is Anderson’s admiration and empathy for all of the farmers and ranchers she meets—those who practice regenerative agriculture as well as those still struggling with the “get big or get out” philosophy espoused by industrial agriculture—that form the heart of One Size Fits None. One of her most persuasive and unique arguments for adopting regenerative agriculture hinges on a discussion of the mental health and fulfillment of the modern American farmer. Anderson writes that practicing regenerative agriculture allows farmers to return to their natural role as stewards who know their land intimately, rather than detached supervisors obsessed with turning a profit:
“This [connection] is what’s been lost for many because of industrial farming, what farmers and ranchers desperately need to feel again: a connection with the land. . . . Industrial farming demands that farmers set aside feelings and focus on numbers, profit, yield per acre. This approach makes farmers simple producers, not stewards. People become machines. . . . They are not men and women who feel joy at the smell of carrots and soil mixed together.”
Anderson effectively traces this modern phenomenon—the conventional farmer’s role as producer rather than steward—back to larger forces such as globalization (which forces small farmers to “specialize” in just one or two crops), industrialization (which makes farmers more reliant on machinery and outside businesses), and capitalism (which encourages “full production” at the expense of environmentally sound, climate-conscious farming practices). One Size Fits None leaves us with hope, however, as the reader absorbs Anderson’s profiles of those who are quietly and bravely breaking out of this unsustainable system. A vegetable farmer in Florida eschews machinery and pesticides, then sells organic greens to both high-end restaurants and dedicated personal customers while still maintaining plenty of time to surf. A super-small farmer in New Mexico works from greenhouses in his backyard, selling produce to area public schools and striving to put resources into Albuquerque’s Latinx community. A South Dakota bison rancher regenerates grassland through the reintroduction of one thousand grass-fed buffalo to the prairie.
To some degree, Anderson allows these fascinating people to tell their own stories; their diverse ways of being and thinking and their unique turns of phrase come across through Anderson’s ear for well-rendered dialogue. Readers will be grateful for Anderson’s guiding narrative voice as she combines stories of agricultural production in America with reflections on growing up on her family’s farm:
“My father’s cows calve in March and April. . . . . During blizzards, he races into the storm in his green and white ’70s era Ford, seeking out chilled calves. When he finds one, he lays it on the cab floor and barrels toward the garage, where he places the listless calf on empty feed sacks in front of a heater. As a small child I would sit next to the calves and rub their cold ears and stroke their velvet faces. One knows a calf is thoroughly chilled when the air exhaled through his nose feels cold—so I dried the calves with towels and snuggled with them until, when I placed my hand over their noses, their breath felt warm.”
Though these recollections have become complicated for Anderson due to her recent research, she writes convincingly that it is possible for her family’s farm—and all farms—to find and implement the sustainable practices that will carry them into a better future. Even readers who are not directly involved in food production will come away from this book as more informed consumers, able to make better decisions about purchasing the food that sustains us, and with a much deeper understanding of how agricultural production has changed. And how it will—how it must—change again.
Katrina Gersie-Spronk teaches high school English in Durham, North Carolina. She holds an MFA from Florida Atlantic University and an MAT from Duke University.