NOTE: It has been noted to me that writers don’t usually choose the name of their op-eds. True, and that’s on the NYT staff. Still, it’s hard to argue that they were off-base, considering the discouraging tone of the column.
ANOTHER NOTE: This is solely my opinion and does not reflect the opinions of other individuals or organizations.
My Twitter and Facebook feeds have been inundated the past two days with links to an op-ed called “Don’t Let Your Children Become Farmers”, in which the author contradicts himself repeatedly and sprays bullets of accusation at everyone around him. The piece frustrated me enough to finally make a post on my blog for the first time in many months.
I hear that the beginning is a very good place to start, so I have to ask, why would one assign this title to the column? Farmers just getting started are never going into it for the money or the fringe benefits because that’s clearly a foolish idea. (As Smith rightly notes, farms most often operate in the red and support the business with outside income. Ironically, financial institutions look favorably upon outside sources of income when making loan approval decisions.) This means they are in it for other reasons which can range widely, but most want to see some major changes in the food system. With this title, people will assume that becoming a farmer is a terrible idea. Smith does note several reasons why this might be true but precisely zero reasons why one might want to become a farmer. How is discouraging people from becoming farmers going to help anyone?
Discouragement is a theme of this piece, however. Apparently chefs suck, non-profits suck, journalists suck, students suck, and food consumers (so literally every person) suck. Sure, Smith notes in one late sentence that “it’s not the food movement’s fault that we’ve been left behind”, but with no backing to this concession, he clearly does not mean it. Smith wants every person, every advocate of every stripe, to get out of farmers’ ways so that they, with all of the free time they have after running a farm full time and working second and third jobs, can organize politically and crash Big Ag shareholder meetings and drive their tractors to Washington again.
Don’t get me wrong: I long for farmers to rage against the lot they are perennially given, and we can’t change our food system without hearing from them and organizing with them. I also agree that non-profit farms competing with small farm businesses is contradictory and hurtful to those business owners having to fight against a very unfair advantage. But what does Smith really want here? He calls for farmers’ organizations, which do exist and are growing in influence (see the National Young Farmers Coalition, The Greenhorns, the National Farmer’s Union, and many local, state, and regional organizations), he calls for food hubs and distribution systems, which are notoriously difficult for farmers to start and maintain on their own, again because farmers only have so much spare time and energy (and typically far less than the average person) despite ample passion and knowledge suited for the task, and he calls for a series of reasonable and desirable policies that will require non-farmer partners that he has just spent a lot of time disparaging to realize.
There are other contradictions here. Smith speaks almost exclusively about new/young/small farmers, yet cites statistics that are gleaned from surveys of farming households of all sizes and types of operation. This, unfortunately, is a problem that the “food movement” is actively struggling with when trying to make its case, as many of the new farms of the past 10-20 years are very difficult to compartmentalize due to their diversity of crops, production practices, income streams and ownership structures, because they tend to flit in and out of existence, and because they are less likely to benefit as an individual or as a business from completing a survey than a conventional farm business is. Still, the point is that this data is most likely not appropriate for the point he is trying to make. Smith also yearns for the farmer movements of years past, yet fails to note that the current food movement, with its focus on directly influencing markets by producing great food that people actually want to eat and by positioning the movement’s message as a larger struggle against corporate control, climate change, and acute health crises, is arguably far more robust and sustained than any attempt in recent memory.
At its end, the message I receive from this op-ed is that farming sucks, no farmer is profitable or happy, no one can or will help farmers except themselves, no one gets how difficult farming is or how broken the food system is, nor is anyone willing to listen, and that farmers need to add several additional tasks to their already daunting job descriptions. I’m really unclear what Bren Smith was trying to accomplish with this op-ed. Ostensibly, it was to encourage farmers to unite and fight for farming to become a livable career but, in the end, all I read, directed at farmers and anyone trying to work with them, is “quit while you’re behind.” I can fully understand that the life of a shellfish and seaweed farmer is difficult and it can feel as though everything is working against you. But remember that you have allies, Bren, and remember why you got into this in the first place.
Originally published here on 4/1/14.
Over the melon field at Broadturn Farm, Scarborough, ME.
Traditionally speaking, I’ve never been a farmer. The title implies land ownership, independence, and ruggedness. Having never been a land owner or numero uno on a farm and certainly having never cut a rugged figure, I didn’t think it right to call myself a farmer. (I did bend on this rule when a former boss, an actual farmer, pointed out how goofy “agricultural practitioner” looked in my email signature and told me it was okay to call myself a farmer, if just for brevity’s sake.)
The fantasy has of course crossed my mind, of owning and cultivating a unique landscape, of being food independent, of that farming life that is a distinct dream despite what a nightmare it can sometimes be. My farm dream is based on an image that simply popped into my head one day and has rested, patiently, in the back of my mind since, with occasional elaboration. The image is of myself, walking along the edge of a long, glass greenhouse that stretches off some distance, ending at a still-young crop of rye which eventually yields further off to a wooded hillside. The greenhouse is steamed up because it is holding a lot of heat, which is helping it to grow a variety of tropical plants, from banana to pepper to tea. I am walking along the mowed margin of the greenhouse, followed closely by a pack of about half a dozen dogs, some who are nimble herders, some who prowl at night keeping the hens safe, one who is an expert ratter, and one who has been around awhile and doesn’t do much besides be the lovable alpha dog. From this single image of my future self, the mental construction of my farm has grown dramatically because, if we’re just fantasizing anyway, why not add a brewery and distillery and a flour mill?
I’ve mulled this dream over enough times that I am fairly convinced that, one day, I will be at that farm, doing my work, and realize I’ve walked into that image that popped into my head so many years earlier, with all the dogs cavorting around me in the clover. I’ve also tempered this dream and questioned what it would take to get there and what would have to happen in my life to grab hold of it. The answer is a lot. It would require changes for which I am not prepared yet. I want to be part of the work of creating more successful farmers and impacting our food system in that way, which means that my farm dream will continue to wait with due patience. I believe it will be there waiting for me, and since I learn something new and useful about farming every day anyway, every day I get a little closer and a little more prepared.
This is what our Farm Dreams workshops are about, in the end. If you’ve happened upon this blog, and even moreso if you’ve read this far, I would bet you are one of those folks who know what I mean by the smell of warmth, the “breath of spring”. Not the feeling of heat, but the smell of the earth gaining energy. (As it turns out, that is the smell of actinomycetes in the soil as they first stir to life. Science loves to pick fights with poetry.) For those conscious of this smell, it is titillating. It heralds spring, and hope, before any robins or flush of green. It refreshes the farm dream in me every year (on this, the first day of April, my mind drifts constantly out the window), and I’m sure that it does for you too. We offer these workshops because we want to help you discover if this year is finally your year. Come join us at any of our five workshops (more here) and discover how we can help you live the farm dream. Let us help you find your greenhouse-rye-tropical plants-pack-of-dogs happy place and let yourself dream a little.
The author, having a farm dream.