Barbara Kingsolver Cheers on Young Farmers
Letters to a Young Farmer is full of good counsel for the next generation from the likes of Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and the noted novelist Barbara Kingsolver.
Dear young farmer,
Let me speak to you as a familiar, because of all the years I’ve cherished members of your tribe. Of course, I also know you’re only yourself, just as I remember the uniqueness of every intern, WWOOFer, and summer weed-puller who has spent a season or two on our family’s farm. Some preferred to work without shoes. Some were captivated by the science of soils, botany, and pest management. Some listened to their iPods, or meditated, or even sang as they hoed and weeded, while others found no music among the bean beetles. A few confessed to finding this work too hard, but many have gone on to manage other farms or buy places of their own. In these exceptional souls I invest my hopes.
I don’t need to tell you what there is to love in this life; you’ve chosen it. Maybe you’ve even had to defend that choice already against family or academic advisers who don’t see the future in farming. Clearly you do, and are moved by the daily rewards. You like early rising. You can’t wait to get outside, cup of coffee in hand, to walk among seeded rows and take stock of the new lives that have risen to meet the day. You’d stay late in the barn with a ewe giving birth, just for the thrill of watching the newborns emerge and make their wobbly first march to the teat, a new family creating itself before your eyes. You’ll slog through a deep February snow to enter the summery hoop house, inhale a humid blast of kale-scented oxygen, and smile like a fox, knowing you’ve mastered time travel here, at least on a modest vegetable scale.
I expect you know you’ll have to navigate many kinds of relationships. It’s tempting to think of farming as a hermitage, and it’s true you’ll sink deeply into one place, learning by heart the insides and edges of its weather and soils. Its pollinators and birdsongs will be the poetry and music of your days. You’ll have a stormy, long-term relationship with a troop of deer or a dynasty of groundhogs. You’ll need a good dog. But your life will be full of people, too—so many as to drive you a little crazy—as you foster your own tribe of interns who come to you with unformed agrarian ideals. Give them enough work to sort out the able from the unsuited, and whet their ambitions. Look around for mentors. Traditionally, farms passed down through generations, but at this point in history, that’s not likely to be your case. It will be up to you to find your farming family, people who can teach you how to make smart choices and forgive your own mistakes. You’ll meet long-timers at conferences, and if you’re lucky, in your own neighborhood. Even if some of these old-schoolers have approaches that strike you as outmoded, they stayed on the land when everyone else was leaving it, and for this they deserve respect.
Of course, the majority of people in your life won’t be producers but consumers: the happy you-pick families and CSA subscribers, the hard-to-please chefs and retailers, the farmers’ market patrons. Their ignorance will alternately entertain and aggravate you. They won’t understand what to do with your kohlrabi, or why you can’t hand over turkeys in November that they didn’t order in April. They’ll want to know why your tomatoes cost more than the ones they buy at the store—the ones picked by exploited labor, grown on some faraway land that’s being poisoned to death. Try to explain. Once will not be enough. Be patient, because you need these hungry people as a musician needs listeners, as a writer needs readers. To them you owe the privilege of doing the work you love.
It probably goes without saying that you’ll need to study, keep good records, keep your eyes open, and respect the complexities of your profession. It’s a bold business in which you will partner with your ecosystem in everyday acts of creation. People have been doing this for as long as we’ve called ourselves civilized, and that doesn’t mean it’s easy. That means your profession has a history, a philosophy, a body of science, and whole libraries of accumulated wisdom. As the world changes, you’ll have to learn not just the old ways but new ones, how to cope with new kinds of droughts and floods, the critical importance of sequestering carbon under your crops and grass-finished livestock. You can read the modern innovators—Eliot Coleman, Joel Salatin, Wes Jackson, among many—who are rescuing your profession from decades of mistakes that masqueraded as modernity. And the scientist-philosophers whose wisdom exhorted us all along to avoid those mistakes: Sir Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner, Lady Eve Balfour, Masanobu Fukuoka, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry. You’ll have to work these into your curriculum between the more urgent readings of veterinary manuals and tractor repair guides. I hope you didn’t choose this job because you disliked school. You’re still a student, and your homework will never end.
This is getting at the heart of what I want to tell you: however calloused your hands, however grimy the uniform, however your back may sometimes ache, you are a professional. Your vocation is creative, necessary, and intellectually demanding. Unfortunately, you’ll run into a lot of people who won’t see you that way. You’re the offspring of a generation—mine—that largely turned its back on the land and its benefaction. We, in our turn, were raised by a generation that set itself hard to the project of escaping from agriculture. For the latter half of the 20th century, the official story was that modern ingenuity could mechanize farming so efficiently, a handful of folks could oversee the process while everyone else fled the tyrannies of farm life and rural stultification. Legions believed that story, trained their sights on the city lights, and never looked back. Or they were heartbroken at the prospect of forsaking their family livelihood, but still were forced by poverty to leave the farm for the factory. In any case, they counseled us, their children, to stay in school and study hard so we could score a respectable life sitting at a desk indoors and never get dirt under our fingernails at all.
The subtext of this message is that manual labor is degrading and that soil is, well, dirty. Some people will see your coveralls and presume, at best, a countrified backwardness, and, at worst, a deficit of smarts or ambition. It’s a hateful bigotry, as wrong as equating those deficits with dark skin, or femaleness, or a Southern accent. (And I’ll add here, if you are a female Southern farmer of color, I dearly hope you’ve found an online support group.) Prejudice runs around unchecked in surprising quarters. I know kind, well-educated people who happily patronize their farmers’ market but recoil at the idea of their offspring becoming farmers. It will take time for your profession to recover from decades of bad press. Whether you like this agenda or not, your career is going to be a sort of public relations event, in which you will surprise your market customers not only with your flawless eggplants but also with your intelligence, industry, and good grammar. This might be just the mother in me talking, but if you show up clean, it will help.
In exchange for your efforts, we will learn to respect the art and science of your work. We’ll be grateful for your courage and your vision. Prepare to rectify one of the most ridiculous, sustained oversights in all of human existence. When we told our youth that farming was a lowly aim compared with becoming teachers, doctors, or lawyers, what were we thinking? We need teachers for just a few of life’s decades. If we’re lucky, we’ll see a doctor only a few times a year, and a lawyer even less. But we need farmers every single day of our lives, beginning to end, no exceptions. We forgot about that for a while, and the price was immense. Slowly, we’re coming back to our senses. Be patient with us. We need you.
From Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future by Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture. Martha Hodgkins, editor. © 2017 Princeton Architectural Press. Reprinted with permission.
Barbara Kingsolver’s 13 books of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction include the novels The Bean Trees, The Poisonwood Bible, and The Lacuna, winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction. Translated into more than 20 languages, her work has won a devoted worldwide readership and many awards, including the National Humanities Medal. Many of her books have been incorporated into the core English literature curriculum of colleges throughout the country.
About the Book
Letters to a Young Farmer, a project of the Stone Barns Center, is for everyone who appreciates good food grown with respect for the earth, people, animals, and community. Three dozen esteemed writers, farmers, chefs, activists, and visionaries address the highs and lows of farming life as well as larger questions of how our food is produced and consumed in vivid and personal detail.
About Stone Barns Center
Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is on a mission to create a healthy and sustainable food system that benefits us all. A nonprofit organization, Stone Barns Center works to develop a culture of eating based on what farms need to grow to build healthy soil and a resilient ecosystem. In its quest to transform the way America eats and farms, the organization trains farmers, educates food citizens, develops agro-ecological farming practices, and convenes change makers. Stone Barns Center, 25 miles north of New York City, is home to the celebrated Blue Hill at Stone Barns, under the direction of chef and co-owner Dan Barber, a multiple James Beard award winner.