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It says it right there on the book’s cover, and from the mouth of Mark Bittman: “This will make you want to become a farmer.” This is certainly true of some readers—and maybe a few of those readers will become farmers. Maybe they already are. But Letters to a Young Farmer did not make me want to become a farmer.
I’m not a stranger to how difficult farmwork is, and the book’s 38 contributors—farmers like Wes Jackson, restaurateurs like Dan Barber, innovators like Temple Grandin, and writers, activists, and educators like Marion Nestle and Bill McKibben—are not shy in their descriptions of the challenges that are part and parcel of this way of life. But I’m grateful for this seriousness: It made me hopeful that young farmers will indeed follow the extremely muddy, bumpy path they’ve chosen with intention. It did also make me want to be a better consumer and a better community member, and it bolstered in my mind just how important the presence of farmers and farms is for our country’s eating habits, health, culture, and economy.
Letters doesn’t predict weather patterns, moon cycles, planting and frost dates. But it is in a way a sort of farmer’s almanac, aiming to guide the eponymous young farmer psychologically, spiritually, culturally. It addresses issues of race, ancestry, loneliness, and community, and recommends modes of mental steeling and surviving cold and cash-poor winter seasons. (The book even looks a bit like a farmer’s almanac; under its green and gold cover, it’s bound simply in cream-colored paper with firm black type.)
It becomes clear fairly immediately that those who pick up the book looking for the romanticized vision of farming that shopping at a city farmer’s market allows will not find it in the book. As Mary Berry, daughter of Wendell Berry and founder of The Berry Center, admits in the first paragraphs of her letter, she wavered even writing her bit, sensing a “general reluctance to encourage you to take up what I know to be an incredibly difficult, demanding, and sometimes heartbreaking way to make a living.” This cautioning is one of the collection’s recurring themes.
So is financial difficulty—if not financial strife—the challenges of actually profiting on what you and your farm can produce (if you manage to break even, that is). So is loneliness as someone who will spend a lot of time, from sunup to sundown, in fields, barns, trucks, or at a desk plotting crops or doing accounting.
So is the terrifying specter of climate change, the need as a farmer to learn anew each year the region’s weather.
So is navigating land stewardship.
So is remembering the histories of peoples who lived on the land before a particular farm was set up on it, the importance of keeping in mind our country’s complicated relationship to farm labor. Raj Patel urges that farmers, as people who work daily with the land, and thus with history, cannot forget “what happened to the planet under European colony and white supremacy.”
It is easy to see all of this as discouraging: We know that the few still farming are growing older (many of the book’s contributors are in their 60s and 70s), and this book is a collection of their hopes for an agricultural future they know they won’t be around to participate in. And it’s hard to imagine—as a layperson but also, I imagine, as an aspiring farmer—what that farming future will look like in the years to come, with more mouths to feed, with industrial agriculture and its effects to consider, as climate change progresses, as there's less land to do the farming on—but it’s not all scare tactics.
There are survival tips—the most recommended: Find a community and engage with it. For both friendships and business, find other nearby farmers to share land or tools with, get to know your neighbors and, thus, your consumers. You’ll create a support network of farmers and customers, people who want to pay for hayrides on your farm, people who will continue to support you if you need to raise prices or borrow equipment. In return, when customers know the producer, and know the enormous amount of work that the producer does to keep her farm running, they become better-informed and more engaged customers. It’s good to feel needed, many of the contributors write—and that goes for both farmers and customers.
Letters—and, maybe, the work of being a farmer—comes down to caveats and, as Ben Burkett puts it, a necessary, near-spiritual optimism: You will spend a lot of time alone, you will fail over and over again, you will fret, you will wonder if you are making the right choices, you will not make very much money. But, but you will “get paid in being up for drop-dead gorgeous dawns…in feeling depleted soil heal into fertility once more. If those are not moments of religious ecstasy,” writes Franciscan monk and farmer Gary Paul Nabhan, “...I don’t know what is.”
To learn more about Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future, head here.