Is Farming the New American Dream?
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In the post-Omnivore's Dilemma reality, where farmer Joel Salatin is known far outside his county, it doesn't take a genius to say it: farming has totally blown up.
What I mean is, alongside the cultural idolization of growing your own, there has been a notable increase in college graduates who opt to spend their first year out of college on a farm. These, mind you, tend to include (but are not limited to) folks who could otherwise get jobs in the film, art, banking, engineering, psychology, academic, etc. worlds--if they need a job at all. But more than just recent graduates; there is a growing number of young people opting out of school altogether, or on the flip side, actually up and leaving the corporate world after years to start farms, collectives, co-operatives, and even communes. There are kids quitting their high-level jobs in the city, moving to small-scale farms or homesteads in Vermont, and haying their butts off for no pay other than a roof and food (like my friend who worked at the #1 restaurant in NYC, and now picks squash blossoms in South Royalton, VT). And there are a number of flush youths who are cashing in their trust funds--in some cases--for cows. But why? Because unless you invest in a big-organic company that sells to WalMart, there's not much money in farming. It's a touch-and-go kind of life, incumbent on the weather, commitment, responsibility, and hard work. In this economic climate, especially--look at all the dairy farms going under--why is farming becoming a desirable life for young people who have the luxury of choice?
Some might say it's a passing trend, like flannel shirts in Williamsburg. Some might say it's because there's a dearth of "real" jobs, and farming is a good interim experience until the economy perks up. But perhaps it's something more profound: you know, a deeper desire to get back to the agrarian life. Or, a more emotional reaction--a re-establishment of home values, a switch in the long-term goals of the entitled, and a deepening need for connection to one's food, and work ethic. Perhaps we're looking at a new world of homesteading, manual labor, and life on the land. A life of farming, in other words.
But are these kids real farmers? Because alongside manual labor, some of them might also be writers. Or painters. Or teachers. Some of them might not even sell their food; they're just into living off the earth's bounty.
According to Gene Logsdon--to whom Wendell Berry refers as "the most experienced and best observer of agriculture we have"--the answer is yes, they're real farmers. If they're serious about it. If they love it. If they work hard. In his book Living at Nature's Pace: Farming and the American Dream, he talks about this very issue:
It seems to me that, living at nature's pace on our little farm, I come closer to making my living from farming in a literal sense than "real" farmers. Carol and I raise most of our food including our meat, and some for other family members, keep a garden almost an acre in size, produce half of our home heating fuel from our own wood, derive most of our recreation and satisfaction from our farm, grow corn, oats, hay, and pasture, keep a cow and calf, two hogs, twenty ewes and their lambs, a flock of hens and broilers, and sell a few lambs and eggs. I'm sure I spend more time living on our farm than any industrial farmer in our county does. When they are not golfing in Florida or fishing in Canada, they spend a lot of time in the coffee shop or in my office telling me how farming is going down the drain....But urban people are also bringing agrarianism back to the cities. Developers build subdivisions that look and function like yesterday's villages or neighborhoods. Gardens and home businesses are planned into the landscape, as are nearby retail and service shops. Some communities even utter the almost forbidden words, "neighborhood schools" again. New neighborhood houses of worship in the ghettoes, small and humble and unassuming, return in the shadow of the abandoned cathedral-like churches. A surge of market gardening and farmers' markets recalls those years not so long ago when thousands of tiny truck farms, using horse manure for compost in their hotbeds and coldframes, supplied their cities with vegetables and fruits nearly year-round. The term "urban farming" turns out not to be an oxymoron. Chicago is even encouraging animal husbandry as part of its urban farming projects. In the heart of Cleveland, in the shadow of skyscrapers, horses plow garden plots. And with the returning agrarian spirit comes its wonderful offspring, agrarian ingenuity
I think I hear a faint rustle under the blacktop of shopping center parking lots, under the abandoned animal factories of yesterday and those yet to be abandoned tomorrow. Not only are the weeds pushing up through the cracking pavements, making way for the trees, but the irrepressible agrarian impulse is pushing through too. As long as humans are free to follow their hearts, there is hope.