As I glance out at the grey German January clouds, pines swaying in the blustering wind outside, I am thinking about being in a different country in a week and on a different continent in a month with a mixture of excitement, anticipation, and anxiety. Of course the unknown is scary, especially for us that love to plan our every step, and there are enough motivational quotes that tell us to “do at least one thing that scares us every day” or that “life starts outside of your comfort zone”. But there is more on my mind than just the prospect of moving to a different country where I know no-one – I’ve done that before, though I was mostly lucky to gather a social network pretty quickly. Rather, it is a certain questioning of how quickly, and many times more, I want to make such a location change. It’s funny to even ask because I’ve always characterized myself as a “world citizen” without strong roots in any particular place, enjoying the here-and-now and the friendships that develop in any particular part of the world. Yet, as my times of being a student come to a close (6 years in which I moved every single year, and lived in 4 different countries), and I’m blessed with the possibility of trying out different careers and different places, I’m starting to realize that the urge for continuity is getting stronger. Of picking up hobbies again, joining clubs with the expectation of being a member for more than one season, and making groups of friends that will not disperse to the four corners of the globe in a few months. It’s a curious affliction of my generation that we have the choice to an international lifestyle and have to consciously weigh the advantages and disadvantages that come with it. I do not mean to discount the privilege of seeing different places and encountering many cultures, but despite our technological possibilities of staying in touch it can be profoundly lonely at times.
Yet, I would venture another observation – that even among us that are staying put for longer than a couple of months, meaningful social connections, and the creation of a community, are not automatic. Here is where I see a lot of optimism and potential in the food movement, particularly the grassroots efforts to build up small-scale farms and their networks of customers through CSAs.
After forgetting about them for a couple of months, I recently remembered the Plough and Stars project who just finished their first year as new farmers. I voraciously read through their blog posts chronicling their experiences and was particularly touched by the bitter-sweet review post “Looking Forward, Looking Back“. Here is an excerpt:
And out of the dirt and chaos of this adventure, some amazing beauty has emerged.
Each week, orderly piles of squash, bright baskets of peppers and zucchini, magnificent fountains of chard, kale, and leeks spill out over three huge tables during our CSA pickups. It is enough to make any farmer a bit breathless. Neighbors buzz about, sharing news of an engagement, swapping recipes, playing ball and ogling over a newborn. “We’ve all lived next to each other for years and never said bubkiss to each other,” I overheard a member saying a few weeks back. “Now look at us.”
Then there are our own dinners, savored on the porch in the waning hours of each day. As we eat, Wendell busies himself with his own work, digging his hands into planters and showing us over and over again what he’s found. “Dirrt!” he says proudly – the first word that ever crossed his lips. We savor each bite knowing firsthand all that went into it. And in dozens of houses all around us, neighbors are themselves sitting down to their own meals and holding us, their farmers, in their thoughts. I don’t know what prayer is these days, but that strikes me as pretty close.
Just inside the kitchen door still lurks the chaos counter. But during those dinners, and if only for a moment, all is well.
With one week to go before the end of our season, we haven’t made any money. As in, zero dollars after expenses. And for all our creative budgeting and business-model Jiu-Jitsu, next year looks to be about the same. But in every other respect, our first season has been more successful than we ever dreamed.
Now we’re looking toward next season with a heavy puzzle: How can we afford to farm? We love this work, but we can’t keep going at this pace. And we surely can’t continue to do it for free.
The thoughts reminded me of a piece in Orion Magazine that portrays “the New Farmers” as urban, hip, well-educated first-generation “farmsters” that straddle the line between aspirational and idealistic to the point of being naive. With a clear idea of how our food system should work, and very strong visions that allow them to keep going through the drudgery:
She thinks for a moment. “What’s hard is when you’re so tired, and your body hurts so much, and you’re so poor. We finally figured out we make less than five dollars an hour. How much do you sacrifice for this vision?
“But when I get down, I think about a conversation with my mom that really helped me,” she reflects. “She asked, ‘If everyone was doing what you’re doing, would the world be a better place?’ And the answer is, of course, yes. Yes, it would. And that’s why I do it.”
Yet, when the dust settles, a couple of years have passed, and the buds of a relocalized community have emerged, the broader economic frame may outweigh the ambitions:
For many of its participants, the movement stems from a sense of social and environmental responsibility. “My decision to become a farmer had to do with my feeling very strongly that farming is a nexus for social, ecological, and political change,” explains Matthew Shapero, owner and operator of Buckeye Ranch, a lamb and garlic operation down the road from Sweet Roots Farm. A dashing 2006 graduate of Columbia University with a BA in Eastern religions, Shapero is equal parts rancher and Brooklyn-hip. Like many of the new farmers, he came of age during a time of economic hardship, climate change, and general disenchantment with business as usual. “Becoming a farmer felt like the most radical vocation I could choose,” he says. […]
Despite these efforts and a growing food consciousness, changing the agricultural industry remains challenging. Matthew Shapero, from Buckeye Ranch, had decidedly high hopes when he got into this radical affair of sustainable meat production five years ago, but now there’s a bit of jadedness setting in. As he puts it, a small-scale farmer is “still very much strapped and inured by the current food market and by the practices of industrial agriculture.” […]
Will the Farmsters and the Greenhorns, the Millers, Martins, and Shaperos stick around? Or will they meet the fate of the back-to-the-landers, look for easier lives, urban or suburban comforts? Or, worse, will they ultimately crumble under the weight of the agricultural system, massive and heartbreaking, that they’re trying so mightily to change by their own hands?
Surely some will quit, move on, make a change. This summer, Shapero is selling off his yearlings and harvesting the last of his garlic, at least for a while, and getting ready to enter a master’s program in range management at University of California, Berkeley. He wants to improve the environmental practices of farmers — his own or those of others, he’s still not sure. Miller and Martin don’t have plans to leave, but if they ever do, they say that they’ll take their farm experience and the ethic with them. And if the current trend continues, each year will bring thousands of new, young farmers who could take their place.
While this piece ends on an optimistic note, I still find it sad that this ambitious young man who was clearly passionate about farming didn’t see a sustainable future there. And the fact that there thousands of new, young farmers that are ready to take the same gamble doesn’t change the basic problem here – that the rural communities are dispersing, that small farmers are disappearing in Europe and the US both, and that the social ties which the farmers at Plough and Stars worked so hard at establishing might break apart again once they decide that a sustainable financial bottom line is more important for their family than the warm feeling of community.
Maybe this all comes from a feeling of romanticism – romanticizing rural communities and the tough work of farmers is after all a specialty of urban academics – but I cannot help but question our social model that tells youth to go out in the world, explore, and make a future of their own, and yet denies them the framework conditions to build a sustainable life around their ambitions in one place. While diametrically opposed professions, this is true as much of international organizations – which benefit off young professionals’ ambitions and idealism to keep them on short-term contracts between 3 and 6 months, with frequent location changes as needed – as much as of sustainable farming, where access to land and to fairly priced markets is notoriously difficult.
Possibly, our generation has been given the wings that our parents’ generation was dreaming of, just to realize that roots are just as, or even more important. How to gain the latter while maintaining the former will be our personal task – and how to create the political framework that allows it, that of our generation’s policy-makers.