Thoughts on Letters to a Young Farmer: Addressing Common Assumptions About Agriculture and Farming

I recently finished the book Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future, a birthday gift. It’s a collection of essays from the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, located near New York City. The essays were written by people who are connected (or loosely connected) to agriculture in some way, most of them located on the Coasts. Surprisingly, the first several essays actually discouraged me, a strange beginning for a book professing to inspire people to become farmers.

The essays made several assumptions:

  1. Farmers are victims of everything around them, including weather, businesses, government agencies, universities, and agricultural media.
  2. Farmers must know everything about everything.
  3. Farmers will be poverty-stricken their entire lives, but it’s worth it because they work with the soil.
  4. All young farmers will farm organically.

These assumptions do not at all help the book’s cause of convincing young people to pursue farming or other agricultural involvement, I thought.

Yet, I continued reading. I was determined to understand several points of view, and the book jacket listed writers from whom I wanted to hear, such as Temple Grandin, Allan Savory, and Danielle Nierenberg. With each turn of the page, I hoped I was approaching their words.

But then, one night before falling asleep, I read an essay that praised a farmer’s nationally televised suicide at a rally as the “ultimate act of self sacrifice” (p. 69) for the cause of farmer activists.

I threw the book down on the floor next to my bed and nearly yelled at the text. It was 10 at night. (I have since decided I need to only read fiction before I go to bed.) I wouldn’t touch the book for a few days.

Yet, stubbornness prevailed, and I finally started to read the next essay.

********************

Before going any further, I want to address the assumptions listed above and explain why they frustrated me so much.

  1. (First, in full disclosure before addressing this assumption, I worked for government agencies for two summers, graduated from two major agricultural universities, and am currently a part of agricultural media [and have been for a long time]. I also have worked with major agricultural corporations in a previous position and sometimes interview agribusiness representatives.) The promotion of the idea that farmers are victims of everything around them can lead to a victim mentality. According to Merriam-Webster, victim mentality means “the belief that one is always a victim : the idea that bad things will always happen to one.” I’ve seen this mentality at work, and it drags people down. The assumption as demonstrated in this book eliminates farmers’ choices and abilities to make decisions in their operations. They only follow advice and have no thoughts or say of their own, according to several essays’ unspoken statements.
  2. The “knowing everything about everything” assumption is a common implicit thread among several essays, but it’s stated explicitly on p. 20: “I urge you to acquire all the necessary skills, including labor management, bookkeeping, equipment repair, long-range planning, carpentry, record keeping, integrated pest management, weed identification, fertility analysis, computer skills, and all the rest.” No pressure….In reality, all that’s needed is to learn our strengths and what we can do and then find someone who can fill in the rest. Sometimes, that source of information includes businesses, government agencies, universities, and the agricultural media…maybe even the local meteorologist. There could be a friend who can identify weeds or an uncle who’s a mechanic. And, as the saying goes, there’s always YouTube. Trying to know everything leads to self contempt and disconnect from ourselves, as I discovered while teaching high school agriculture.
  3. While the prices farmers receive for agricultural goods are low and some producers are losing major contracts, the assumption that farmers cannot make any money because that’s simply the nature of farming is misguided at best, damaging at worst. Asking people to start or continue in a profession and assert proudly that there is no money to be made is a downgrading request. Combine that with the mental health challenges that many in agriculture experience due to stressors such as low profitability or major weather events like wildfires or floods, and it’s a downright dangerous combination. With this assumption, one asks, “If there was absolutely no money to be made, how are there still farmers? Why are we still paying for food? Shouldn’t it just be given away? Shouldn’t it be free?” I’ve seen many people make farming profitable. Sometimes, it just takes some thinking outside of the box.
  4. I am a young farmer who will not be farming organically.

Now, back to that next essay….

********************

That next essay I read was written by Joel Salatin. I was skeptical at first, a combination of the first few essays I had read and remembering ideas I’d previously heard from the writer.

But his was the first essay in the book with practical suggestions: assertions that it is okay to sculpt a landscape and buildings to bring “healing and redemptive capacity to the landscape” (p. 72) and encouragement to expose oneself to many ideas. He promoted entrepreneurship, diversity, and more, practices I had seen work in New Zealand.

I breathed easier. He never assumed that young farmers should farm in a certain way, only made suggestions based on experiences.

I continued to read, opening up to the next essays with less trepidation. Ben Burkett encouraged young farmers to “have a true heart and a loving spirit” (p. 83), and Nephi Craig said, “Develop your skills in a way that can enable you to be a teacher to other farmers, your neighbors, your community, and beyond, because your work touches every level of human life” (p. 91).

And then, I reached Wendell Berry’s essay.

And I breathed free at last.

To be continued….

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