Just read the November 23rd, 2017 Washington Post Article: "A growing number of young Americans are leaving desk jobs to farm" by Caitlin Dewey.
The article shares USDA stats that the number of young farmers 25-34 increased for just the 2nd time in the past century. I'm assuming the last time was the 60’s-70’s. Meanwhile avg age goes up and avg acreage goes up. So it’s easy to miss this trend. But it’s significant, considering how likely it is that these farmers, the majority of whom hold a college degree, are bucking an easier living with much better financial return. For many, its a vow of poverty- or a vow of working two, but in reality more like four jobs and still dealing with debt. It’s clearly “more than money” for many of us. Are we all naive?
Running a small farm is a serious challenge. It’s easlly romanticised (we haven’t seen the peak of the farming romanticism bubble yet). The movement of young people into honest farming work taken at face value is an interesting trend. Most will fail at first- naturally underestimating what it takes to nurture diverse lifeforms, haul heavy materials, make sales, get produce to buyers, design equipment and systems, pay bills, manage inventory, train workers, pay workers, get the word out, and manage a constant flow of potential disasters while maintaining a healthy social and family life. This is attractive? It's those farmers who get back to doing it from scratch, do it regeratively, and scratch out a living through their effort whom I hope the public starts to take notice of. If we are to have a future, these farmers are at the leading edge of the future food economy. Necessarily, many of us will experience failure, and we need to let these ill-fated enterprises disappear to make room for the truly sustainable. We need to see our farms for what they are. So as we shift from agro-business to mom n pop, we need to make sure those who are buffered against failure by deep pockets --whether those of governement or of speculating investors looking to capitalize on the branding opportunity afforded by Local and Organic aka “Mom n Pop Farms Incorporated”- are exposed to honest market forces and trends. The key is buying into what’s real. As for those well-intentioned farms that experience failure: farms fail but farmers who have the means and fortitude to stay in the game only get better at what they do. We are here to support eachother.
As a nation, our connection to our deep agrarian roots has been all but severed over the last few generations. Those older farmers who have made an honest living are the stewards of natural agrarian history, but they’re few and far between, overshadowed by those who, for fear of bankrupting the family, listened to the USDA in the 1950’s and “got big [got chemicals] or got out.” They’re tired, and odds are their kids and grandkids have left the farm and farming altogether. Young people who come to farming in their adulthood have an opportunity to keep that thread alive by embodying the work of their predecessors- becoming better conduits for the ever evolving wisdom and knowhow of the natural world that is humanity’s bloodright. Young farmers have an obligation to gather the stories of the elder farmers, horticulturalists, hunters, gatherers, ancestors- that is if we want to become elders ourselves. Looking forward, the democratization of information, has provided farmers the tools to advance the ideals of the older generation of farmers-- those who never left and those who were moved by honest hippie idealism during that last wave-- into broader society. We can share their story as part of our own, just as the land tells the history of those who have lived and died on it.
This story is the counterpoint to the story of a people (also Us) who relied on the combustion of fossilized life at the peril of the planet to fuel their modern way of life. Who isn’t sick of this ugly story? We all share it- whether you're rich or poor, on the right or the left. It's all meaningless unless we steer this experiment in a new direction.
Again, farming is HARD work. For hard work to be rewarded we rely on an ever-growing chunk of society increasingly seeing the value in participating in this story and putting their dollars, their bitcoins, their social capital etc behind it. Folks are buying into honest farms more and more, but at this moment, small farmers are disproportionately feeding a small subset of the wealthy, so it follows that it’s these wealthy who we rely on to pay our bills. This is in spite of the ethos of social justice that is shared by many small farmers which is largely echoed in a personal “vow of poverty” or the like. We want to feed those people who can’t afford to buy our food. If we share the bounty across class lines in any significant way, odds are, at this moment, that we’ll fail and everyone will end up back at the costcos of the world (as long as there’s food an the shelves, and we don’t want that to change). No hate to the costcos- it's filling the niche we've created.
Even those at the very top appreciate the benefits of living in a society where most of those at the bottom aren’t starving for calories and basic nutrients. With the iminent health crises: pandemics of food and lifestyle related diseases set to completely burden our economy, we need to get the good stuff into the costcos, and this happens when enough of the wealthy are there to subsidize the poor with the choice they make to give their dollars to those who are growing it right or moving toward growing it right.
At this moment, the vast majority of wealthy people still subsist on industrialized food. While they can afford daily takeout from the local farm-to-table, they still shop at costco and shop alongside the single mother working two jobs. Just as we ignored the macro-trends in food production in order to see the emerging grassroots trends, we have to look at the demand side the same way. Forget the hoards of wealthy costco-goers, those who have stayed rich thanks to an ethos of conglomeration of materials. Their access to superior pharmaceuticals will help cover up associated maladies, so at least they’ll feel better than the single mom as they ease into dementia. Leave them to the old food economy while we sprout the new one.
Instead see the emerging sector of the wealthy who buy into the story of living food, fertile land, clean water, and honest livelihoods- whether they know it or not. These early adopters are the conduit of resources back to the ground level. They are the trees breathing out the water vapor which waters your neighbors garden. When people choose to participate in the new food economy based on the value they’re getting back, we have a renewable resource that can only grow because we’re there to feed the participants right.
If you’re one of the 10% of the 10% (or whatever it is) who buys local, odds are you didn't inheret an estate. Odds are you’ve worked hard, educated yourself, and made the energy to act on principle, at least when it comes to food. Buying a CSA share- you’re not only staking your $, your staking your time and bandwidth required to adopt to a changing supply of produce when preparing your own meals- and not just feeding the compost pile :) It’s a lot to ask! So we farmers need to appreciate your sacrifice and prepare the critical information in a way that can be digested quicker than a pickled routabega.
There are always those die-hards who who actually read the farm newsletters and show up for the gatherings, and they are our greatest allies. If you're reading this, your probably included in this bunch. You're the ones who get your friends to buy in. You are total sweeties and we love you. And the fact is, many of you do not enjoy the expendable income that we’re talking about. Setting aside you besties-of-the-farm, we see the need to get to those people who look at their paycheck and see an opportunity to eat a lot of really tasty food that will nourish their bodies and help in their pursuit of becoming a more effective, happy, attractive person. It just so happens that the environment and all the hard work it took to get that food to the plate were rewarded with that purchase. Once ingested, the food speaks for itself, and opens a door for the bigger story of the farm to make its way deeper into common discourse- to fill the surprisingly large void of information when it comes to the very nature of our food. Farming is about seizing opportunities, capturing peak value, when presented. A huge opportunity exists within this informational void; and farmers, with help from chefs and other early adopters, will tell the new story of food. Most of us eat three times a day. We all have time to think about, and talk about, where our food comes from.
So what is that story? It’s a personal one for every farmer. It’s the story of life and of movement- of earth, water, elements. It’s one of turning sunlight and invisible air into wood into soil. Of competition, but more so of sharing: the microbiome. The macrobiome. Sea with land and land with sea. Of lean-ness and abundance. Of things mushrooming overnight. Of intelligence that is at once alien to us but so fundamental that our own intelligence could only emerge within it. It is Nature. Getting back to source. Giving back to source. A deepening. Of love. Of beauty. Of death. Of rebirth. It’s the story of Us and our singular home and it answers a big part of the question: where do we go from here? The time for head-scratching has passed.
We are in a period of reckoning, right? I reckon it’s time for many of us to get back to the farm. It’s harvest time. To fellow farmers: don’t forget to harvest your story tree and share of it freely! To those reading this, keep sharing your story and we'll keep striving to generate more content.