Do you enjoy a personal narrative full of gentle good humor? Are you a little dubious about the conventional wisdom “bigger is better?” Concerned about animal welfare? Fascinated by Amish culture? Sad about the dwindling number of family farms? Me too. Why Cows Need Names: and More Secrets of Amish Farms by Randy James is a special book, because it appeals to readers with many different interests. For me, finding it was like striking gold.
Randy James is a professor emeritus with Ohio State University, and served as the county agricultural agent in the Geauga Amish Settlement for almost 30 years. The book is largely an account of his working relationship with that community, in particular a young couple called Eli and Katie Gingerich (names changed for their privacy) who are just starting up their own family farm. Interspersed with information about agricultural practices in America and surprising data about the current and potential strengths of small farms doing business in these agro-industry times, James keeps his narrative interesting and relevant by checking in with the Gingerichs as they work toward their goals.
I won’t spoil it for you by explaining why cows need names, but I will say that the earnest efforts of the farming members of this Amish community to live up to the social values they espouse appear to be a big part of their success. Their families and farms are interwoven in such a way that they are able to benefit from cooperation, whereas competition is the foundation of the success or failure of an agribusiness. Interestingly, there are more small family farms in the non-Amish population of the region as well, and those farms are more successful than the national average. While mostly avoiding the political soapbox, James shares a hopeful and compelling vision for a return to more sustainable and sustaining farms.