The Year I Walked Away from a Book Deal

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2018 was quite a year. It started out in a blur for me. I spent just about every spare moment I had in the final 7 months of 2017 racing to research, report, and write a book on regenerative agriculture and the true challenge farmers face trying to balance economic and environmental sustainability (the working title was Farm (and Other F Words)- I can’t resist a parenthetical). I turned in my first full draft mid-December, and was waiting, this time last year, to hear from my editor.

Two weeks into January, I heard. They weren’t really interested in the book I’d delivered, they were looking for something different. Something more in line with their environmental worldview. Less about the realities of farming, more about the ideal. More pastoral, more food-focused, less about boring, agricultural sausage-making. Less farmers and rural communities. More earthworms and chard. They didn’t want the story I’d almost killed myself to tell (I actually got pneumonia around Thanksgiving, which forced me to push my deadline… by a week), they wanted The Omnivore’s Dilemma without Michael Pollan’s fee.

So I walked away. I’d already stretched the narrative (and my body) as far is it could be stretched at my editors request, another inch and it would break. Or I would break. I had a call with the editor weeks later where we undid our contract and thanked each other for our efforts. But by then I was already deep in mourning for my dream.

The thing is, I love writing. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that makes me feel like I’ve really got something to say, and like I’m saying it the way I mean it. I wanted to write a book. And I did it. I wrote a book. But it wasn’t the right book. And I had to let the opportunity go.

Did that mean I’d given up on the book? On my dream? On myself?

I’ve been wrestling with these questions all year. I’ve had plenty to distract me, but I keep coming back to the same questions. I don’t know that I have the answers yet, but I have had one break through at least.

Being home on the family farm that raised me this December reminded me what a unique experience agriculture was for me. Waking up at 5am in high school to milk dairy goats. Selling a market duck for $1,900 at the county fair. Walking a lamb in the Pee Wee sheep lead and mutton bustin’. Running out in a storm to protect Mom’s strawberries from the hail. Hauling water to the barn in the dead of winter when the pipes were frozen. They are more than just interesting crumbs of an uncommon childhood, they’re artifacts of a way of life, my inheritance and my connection to just about every farmer I meet, whether I meet them on Capitol Hill or thousands of miles away, out in a corn field.

That’s what inspired me, all those months ago, to write this book.

I wanted to write a story that the people who raised me would relate to, appreciate, and maybe even see a little of themselves in. Because I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book that does a very good job of that.

And this is where I first started doing that. Here, on Medium. I‘ve written about AgTech, ag policy and startups, meat and the environment, and biodiversity. But the subject that I’ve always found connects the most, that leads to the most responses and the most good conversation, with strangers and friends alike, is about the people. Because however much we want to talk about plants and animals, microbes and the weather, markets and policy, dollars and sense — it really just comes down to the people.

People make the choices. All the science and marketing and predictions aside. Farmers decide the future of agriculture.

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So that’s my goal for this year. To walk with farmers and tell their stories.

Check back in with me here in 2019 and you’ll find the stories of farmers from the book that never was. Stories about young farmers who couldn’t make regenerative farming pay, and stories about young farmers who are using their farms to restore their ancestral knowledge. Stories about old farmers- farmers who have changed their operations dramatically to save them from ruin, and some who have overseen the slow evolution of a farm from the vantage point of the 17th generation. And alongside the pantheon of great American farmers I found along my path, I’ll share a few humble stories from the deeply unsuccessful farm I grew up on Wyoming. You’ll hear about Farms, and maybe learn a few other F words along the way.

Until then, I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you, to everyone who has ever read my stories, here or anywhere else. It still amazes and humbles me that people do. That passionate, informed, busy people find time to read my ideas, think about them, share them, and respond. The support I’ve found here made me believe I could write a book. And I did. That was you. You did that.

Thank you, and a very blessed and peaceful New Year to you and yours.

Looking forward to your comments. You might enjoy exploring what exactly it means to be a farmer/person. @sarah_k_mock

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Author of Farm (and Other F Words), pre-order now: https://bit.ly/2JTY90i. Rural issues and agriculture writer/researcher. Not a cheerleader, not the enemy.

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