There’s a crisis looming in agriculture, both in the United States and throughout much of the developed world. As the current generation of farmers ages out, not enough young farmers are stepping into the fields and paddocks to replace it. It’s easy to see why. Farming is hard labor, both physical and mental, and economic rewards are elusive. Barriers to new farmers include lack of access to farmland due to soaring prices, the burdens of student loan debt, and a market dominated by corporate agriculture, where monocropping and low wages have set the prevailing standard for nutrient-poor products sold at rock-bottom prices. Soil depleted by decades of chemical fertilizer use, climate change and drought (among the many vagaries mother nature keeps up her sleeve), too, don’t make this the safe-bet choice of available vocations.
Yet if you believe, as I do, that a return to a cleaner form of small-scale, diversified farming is crucial to feeding the world’s exploding population, providing equal access to food for all, improving global nutrition and reversing climate change, then ensuring that enough young people take up sustainable and regenerative farming is an issue you should care about.
To address this “farming gap,” the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture has issued its first book, Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food Farming, and our Future, a collection of essays by three dozen of sustainable agriculture’s brightest minds and biggest stars. It’s designed to pass on some of the accumulated wisdom of elders that in earlier times would have been handed off from generation to generation of families farming the same land. I don’t plan on buying a farm, yet I loved how rich the essays are in experience and how evergreen their hopes are for a better future. Letters to a Young Farmer is also a bad-news, good-news kind of mix, both a reality check for those who might be too in love with the romance of farming, and a gesture of invitation, beckoning those unafraid of hard work back to the land.
First, a sampling of the healthy dose of grim reality and tough love the essays deliver:
One-third of U.S. farmland is currently farmed by people who are over age sixty-five, the average cost of farmland is the highest it has bever been, and farmers are forced to operate by a single principle: produce as much as possible.”
You’re a bit player in the agricultural world: A belief in “ecological agriculture” means that “for all practical purposes, you will be largely ignored by those, including our government, who accommodate the big players.”
You’re a generation of “orphan farmers” who need to work hard to learn the basics before you can begin changing the world.
“The bias against country people and places is real. My father calls it the last acceptable prejudice, and at some point, you will feel it.” Young people have to accept “that they will not be able to live what we consider a middle class life. They will have to get out of the money economy as much as they can by practicing subsistence agriculture. They will have to take seriously the economic value of intangibles.”
Now that we’ve established that one has to be truly committed, fiercely determined, and a little bit crazy to take up farming in this day an age, let’s hear what the elders of Letters to a Young Farmer have to say in favor of their calling:
“However calloused your hands, however grimy the uniform,however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, intellectually demanding.
“For the right person, farming can be the dream job that will draw on absolutely every skill and ability you have, develop ones you never knew you could, and provide constant learning opportunities.”
Farming is a political act and you can be an agent of change. “The most political act starts with you…just proving every day that you can grow the food that we all want to eat and want to feed our families. I can stand up to make the most eloquent and articulate argument about why we need to do things very, very differently — but unless you are there, with your delicious tomatoes at the farmer’s market filling up the CSA [community supported agriculture] boxes every week to supply the families of your community with healthy food,….someone can always say, “That’s nice,but it can never happen.”
— Farmer-turned Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree
This one is a bit of a mixed bag, appealing to the ascetic and spiritually driven young farmer:
Farming is “more of a spiritual calling than a career or a profession, and “if you go into farming thinking you’ll make money every year, you just might as well drive over to the casino and gamble, because your odds there will be better.” Farming is “not that different from becoming a monk, a street preacher, or a contemplative hermit, because it is ultimately about adhering to a spiritual path.” –Gary Paul Nabhan
Then there are the givers of highly practical advice:
“Live frugally. Live simply so you can survive initially…Conduct your gross margin analysis. Either marry, birth, or hire someone who’s good with numbers…Do time and motion studies..How long does it take to gut a chicken? Put away a dozen eggs? Plant a foot of carrots? ….The numbers should be on the tip of your tongue…Farmers are viscerally engaged in creation stewardship — taking care of nature and growing great food — which is a wonderfully sacred mission. But the mission does not override the need for good business savvy and personal discipline. These threads work in every climate and every culture.”
Though our problems may be big, our solutions can be small: “Understand the importance of scale and learn to determine the scale that is right for our places and needs. Brought-in industries are likely to overwhelm small communities and local ecosystems” because they “ignore the issues of scale.”
“Attention to detail….keeping our eyes open, writing down observations, never taking anything for granted, and acknowledging the veracity of the old Chinese saying: “The best fertilizer for any farm is the footsteps of the farmer.”
And finally, many contributors spoke about the importance of finding community. “What matters in this movement — what makes it so precious — isn’t merely technique or philosophy. It is the welcome return of farmers to a depopulated and denatured landscape. For once it has been tilled, the richness of the soil depends upon the social and cultural wealth of the community that lives upon it.”
Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming and Our Future. Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. ed. Martha Hodgkins, illustrations by Chris Wormell. Princeton Architectural Press, NY, March 7, 2017, $19.95.