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WINTER: AN EXCERPT

Rick revved the engine of his four-wheeler, sliding through the prairie grass. In only a few years of letting the land lie fallow—just a spot to graze his small herd of black Angus for a few months out of the year—head-high stands of big bluestem and Indiangrass had sprung up. He chugged to the top of a bluff and cut the engine. It was quiet there, the only sounds: mooing cows on a neighbor property to the north and the sighing of wind whipping across the meadow. Rick’s own cattle chomped drowsily, their loose jaws churning and ears twitching as they watched us from afar. Now February, the last drifts of snow hid in the lees of ridges and cedar trees. Calves would be coming soon, and Rick was hoping to fatten the expectant mothers before they gave birth and started nursing. They rested, dark and still, seen only through the shifting veil of ochre grass.

     Otherwise the fields appeared continuous and empty. Clouds cast shadows that seemed to move like galleons across the green and yellow waves. “Prairie ships,” Rick said. Farther in the distance, the wide bend of the Platte River curved from Central City, with its grain elevators and ethanol towers, around to a grove of trees to our east, where a Pawnee camp had been for hundreds of years. My own grandfather talked about his father going to that camp to trade in the 1880s. It was this view that Rick wanted me to see, and he pointed out a cluster of depressions along the edge of the bluff—a group of Pawnee graves, he believes. He could understand why they would have buried their dead here, with this panoramic view of the river valley.

     “I come up here sometimes to get a little perspective,” Rick said. “It’s easy to get lost in the worries of the day-to-day. You worry about money, mostly—yields or prices—and you can forget to appreciate what you have.” Rick acquired this land, about fifteen miles northwest of Centennial Hill, when Meghan and her siblings were still little. Right from the beginning, he envisioned this as the view from his dream house—a place of his own, close to Heidi’s inherited acres but with an even deeper history and one undefined by her family. “When we bought this land, it was a sealed bid,” Rick said. “When we found out we’d won, Heidi was jumping up and down. But I bent over like somebody had kicked me in the gut, because I knew that for the next ten years I had to produce every year and as efficiently as possible. It would be a decade before we could even think about remortgaging everything to where we could build.”

     Rick was nearly out from under that burden when he received a strange letter in 2010. An oil company was writing to inform him of an upcoming town hall meeting at the church in Hordville. The company, TransCanada, was planning to build a pipeline, stretching from the tar sands mines in northern Alberta to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, and they wanted to meet with area landowners. Rick soon learned that the proposed route would cut directly through this piece of land. He went to that meeting feeling defiant. He had two natural gas pipelines under his grazing land in Curtis and knew firsthand what kind of impact digging trenches can have. “The land is never the same after it’s disrupted like that,” he said. “I don’t care what they say. It’s never the same.” But a TransCanada land agent from Tennessee, who was also an ordained Baptist minister, told everyone that the company wanted to do right by the community, that he could see that they were the salt of the Earth and that he would make sure they got a fair deal.

     Rick was dubious—and the more he researched the pipeline project, the less he liked it. The refining of tar sands crude is among the dirtiest fossil fuel processes in the world, contributing to climate change in ways that, in Rick’s view, were a serious threat to Meghan’s future on the farm. More than that, he couldn’t find proof that any of the heavy diesel that would come out of the refining would even be legal to burn in the United States, and the refining byproducts, like petroleum coke, were expected to be burned in China, both undercutting American coal and supplanting it with an even more toxic substitute. Most worrisome of all, that very summer a similar tar sands pipeline owned by another Canadian oil company ruptured in Marshall, Michigan, severely contaminating nearly fifty miles of the Kalamazoo River with oil, toxic diluents used to make the heavy crude move through the pipeline, and still more chemicals used to break up and absorb the slick.

     “They asked, ‘Oh, don’t you want to get your fuel from a friendly neighbor?’” Rick said. “But they never talked about all of the refined petroleum products going overseas or about how they were major greenhouse gas emitters. I mean, what the fuck? Why would I want a pipeline pushing toxic sludge through my soil, through the Ogallala Aquifer that we depend on for irrigation and drinking water, so some foreign oil company can make a buck? How is that being a friendly neighbor?” But Rick confessed that for all his anger, he was also afraid. Along with the promises of a fair price and a fair deal were oblique threats of land seizures if farmers and ranchers dared to resist. He stalled on giving TransCanada a definitive answer.

     “I was polite, but I was dragging my feet,” Rick said. “After it became obvious that I was not going to sign, they threatened me twice with eminent domain on the phone and once in writing.” After he received that letter in July 2010, Rick gave in and signed the easement. He regretted the decision even before he put the documents in the mail, but he felt he had no choice. TransCanada was a $50 billion multinational, and he was a self-described “little guy,” one man against a fleet of lawyers with nothing more on his side than a gut feeling that what they were doing shouldn’t be legal. What could he do? “They crushed me,” he said with a shrug.

     Six months later, TransCanada contacted Rick to tell him they’d changed the proposed route, skirting around his property after an early cultural impact study suggested the likely presence of ancient Pawnee artifacts on his property, perhaps even graves, exactly as he had always suspected. Rather than deal with the red tape if one of the company’s backhoes hit human remains, TransCanada had decided to push the route to the east. At first, Rick was relieved. “I said, ‘Okay, if I give you the money back, will you give me my signature back?’ They said, ‘No.’”

     Worse still, when TransCanada revealed the new planned route, Rick discovered that it crossed a section of his sister-in-law Terri’s land, just west of Centennial Hill—one of the properties where he raises seed corn for Pioneer, the cornerstone on which much of his operation now rests. Though the pipeline was no longer passing by the doorstep of his dream home, the new route threatened to be even more perilous to the family business.

     Rick and Meghan convinced all of Heidi’s sisters to join up with two antipipeline organizations, the Nebraska Easement Action Team (N.E.A.T.) and BOLD Nebraska, and they even started their own local group in York County called the Good Life Alliance. “They may have crushed me as an individual,” Rick said. “But there is strength in numbers and all of us standing up for the right thing.” They started going to meetings and speaking out, writing editorials and placing full-page antipipeline ads in the York newspaper. Rick told me that, if there was any silver lining in living with threats from TransCanada, it had been watching Meghan blossom into one of the most vocal and articulate young leaders of the pipeline resistance.

     Meghan and her siblings have been outspoken liberals since they were in high school. “During the Kerry-Bush election we had a vote in our political science class,” Meghan said later, “and my twin sister and I were the only two that voted for Kerry. Our teacher, said, ‘Oh, you Hammond girls, you just want to be different.’” But now, with their land under threat, some of those same neighbors were pleased to see Meghan speak up at zoning meetings of the county commissioners and committee meetings at the Nebraska legislature. She combed over the government reports and prepared careful statements. When the U.S. State Department’s own study estimated that the project would create only thirty-five permanent jobs along more than a thousand miles of pipeline in the United States, Meghan was quick to seize on the point. In May 2013, she rose at a massive public hearing at the fairgrounds in Grand Island, Nebraska, held by State Department officials as part of the agency’s approval review process. Still wrapped in a scarf from the freak spring snow swirling outside, she leaned confidently into the mic. “How can you risk our land and water for thirty-five permanent jobs?” she challenged. “If you want thousands of jobs, you will find it in sustainable energy.”

     It was that statement that gave Jane Kleeb at BOLD Nebraska the idea of building a barn, powered by solar panels and a small wind turbine, on Terri’s property. “It was kind of a ‘put your money where your mouth is’ kind of proposition,” Meghan said. “We kept talking about wind and solar, but now we had to show that we believed in it enough to actually build it.” Within a few months, Kyle and two of Meghan’s cousins led construction, as dozens of volunteers from around the state helped to raise the structure in just four days. Billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer flew in from San Francisco for the ribbon cutting and put up money for a viral video about Meghan and the barn. Heidi and her sisters posed together with Steyer, all smiles. But it wasn’t long before the neighbor just to the south wrote to Rick to withdraw from the contract allowing the Hammonds to farm two quarters of his ground. Meghan told me later that she felt transformed by that betrayal.

     “Losing two quarters of ground, that was huge—huge. And it’s changed how we feel forever,” she told me. “We wouldn’t change what we’ve done with the pipeline, but our neighbors are our neighbors forever, you know? For generations and generations and generations. And now we have neighbors who won’t even wave to us, so how are we supposed to trust them now?” Most of all, she said she was worried about the impact it had had on Rick. He dropped from view for months during that time. Some days he didn’t leave the house, even during harvest. He regretted having signed the agreement with TransCanada, and he regretted that having fought back had brought unintended consequences. “He carries a lot on his shoulders, because he feels responsible for all of us,” Meghan said.

All photographs © 2017 by MARY ANNE ANDREI

“Compelling...

The heart of this story is the Hammonds. Genoways tells their story—and, through it, the story of farmers all over the country—with compassion and insight. This Blessed Earth is a cogent, well-reported examination of the forces putting the family farm at risk.”
—BOOKLIST