by Leo Adam Biga | June 26, 2018 5:01 am
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 making 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 food 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.”
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 set 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.”
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 just like 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 fiancé 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.
Source URL: http://fsmomaha.com/nebraska-journalist-author-genoways-takes-micro-and-macro-look-at-the-u-s-food-system/
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