Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture
Edited by Martha Hodgkins
Princeton Architectural Press 2016
Review by Debbie Weingarten
As the average age of the American farmer creeps ever closer to 60, we find ourselves in a serious pickle. Consider this: There are more farmers over the age of 75 than there are between the ages of 35 and 44. If you work in agriculture, or if you think about it on the regular, you can wet your finger and stick it up in the air, and you will feel the looming questions like a strong breeze: What will happen to the 573 million acres (70 percent of our nation’s total farmland) expected to change hands over the next two decades? What will happen to the farm infrastructure—the barns, the mills, the butcheries, the good livestock expertly bred over decades? And what of the precious knowledge and skills tucked inside the brains and bodies of our older agrarians? Will there be enough young farmers to take the reins, to steward our farmland, to grow our nation’s food?
These questions are the fire and the urgency beneath a new anthology, just released by Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. In Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future, 36 wise and influential farmers, writers, chefs, and food activists (including Edible Baja Arizona’s own Gary Paul Nabhan) dish out advice and inspiration for those aspiring to farm for a living. Some of them were young farmers themselves, conflicted between choosing a life built on logic and one built on heart. Mary-Howell Martens, a grain farmer from upstate New York, writes, “Once, not very long ago, I was an innocent suburban Long Island teenager working at a children’s community vegetable garden, gleefully shocking my family by declaring that I wanted to be a farmer.”
The authors were prompted with a single question: What would you say to young farmers who are setting out to farm now? While the responses vary in tone and advice, there is a strong echo of the foundational importance and necessity of farming. “Farming is the oldest profession, and young people should be highly recognized for wanting to become farmers,” writes Ben Burkett, a fourth generation African-American farmer from Mississippi. Nancy Vail and Jered Lawson, the cofounders of Pie Ranch, write, “If there’s one job in the world that offers the chance to save humanity on the planet, it’s yours. No pressure.”
But there is also a strong dose of reality in these pages. Mary Berry, an eighth generation Kentucky farmer and founder of The Berry Center, begins her letter with notable disquiet. “After a couple of months of starting and stopping this letter, I have three dilemmas that I keep running up against, and so I will just tell you what they are. The first is a general reluctance to encourage you to take up what I know to be an incredibly difficult, demanding, and sometimes heartbreaking way to make a living.”
Indeed, the economic and physical realities of farming rear up in these letters. “You have to have faith that it is your calling because undertaking it does not make much economic, social, or political sense at all,” writes Nabhan. Again and again, the authors remind our young farmers that they will likely not be particularly well-off—at least, in the financial sense of the word—with the money made from farming. There are, however, practical tips given for making a modest, decent living. Live frugally. Stay home; don’t go out if you can help it. If possible, extend your season. Don’t buy equipment if you can borrow it. Plant on time. Develop healthy relationships with mentors. Don’t buy a 400-acre farm if you only intend to grow on 20 acres of it. Know how long it takes to complete certain tasks, and price your product accordingly—as Joel Salatin writes, “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 for the things you’re growing and the procedures you’re doing.”
Ultimately, young and beginning farmers need allies throughout the food system. And that means chefs, nonprofit advocates, land activists, experienced farmers, grocers, and so on. After all, we will only be successful in creating food system change if we think and act as a system, wherein the parts rely upon one another to make the machine go. If you are an eater of food, you are central to this conversation, to the sorting out of these challenges. As a community, we must create opportunities for our young farmers to succeed—physically, economically, and emotionally—for our entire society is built in the chaff of agriculture.
Reading these essays feels a bit like listening to a series of toasts at a wedding reception. There are moments for chuckling, for personal recognition, for raising one’s fist in resistance to the status quo, for drop-dead seriousness. Letters to a Young Farmer is a collective toast to the perseverance of youth and spirit, and a whole lot of hope for the future of our food. Clink.
Debbie Weingarten is the co-founder of the Farm Education and Resource Network and a writing partner with the Female Farmer Project. She loves coffee, nectarines, and monsoon season.