It took me about a week to sit down to read the heavily-circulated New York Times Opinion piece by a Long Island farmer named Bren Smith, entitled “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers.” I read many social media reactions and thought about what that title could possibly mean. Farmers and farm supporters were not across-the-board siding with or against the opinions in the piece, so I was glad when someone handed me an actual paper copy of the piece. I could mark it up, and read it undistracted by the many tasks of my job as Chief of Letting Children Be Farmers (also known as Beginning Farmer Program Coordinator). I had been occupied each day of the week planning educational opportunities so more farmers would learn to be strong business owners, and contacting leaders of the current new farmer community with information they’d requested to further strengthen their skills as meat, vegetable, medicinal herb and dairy farmers. I was not sure what I’d end up writing, but I wanted to highlight a few points of the article from my perspective of working nearly 4 years on this singular goal of getting more people to be on the path towards farming success (as they define it). I’m leaving it a little raw and unedited, so forgive the stream of consciousness. This is merely a blog post, after all, not a letter to the editor (many have been written in the past week).
First, that title. Oh, that title. As a lover of words and debate, I love the title. It sparks interest, engages the reader to read more, and is subject to interpretation. I actually agree with one interpretation. I say, of course we shouldn’t let children grow up to be farmers. We don’t merely let a child become a doctor, a lawyer, an electrician, an astronaut or a senator. We nurture them. Thus, we should HELP our children LEARN to be farmers if we want to eat. A farmer who came from a family of farmers did so through an intention by the family. If I (and many of my colleagues in the farm-education world) had my way, each family would spend a decade training the next generation in farm business management and allow the next generation time to explore farming practices away from the family farm. We call this “Farm Succession Planning” and there are organizations and training programs for farmers on this topic. Transfer of assets can happen over the course of a year, or through a signed legal document, but it’s generally agreed that there is indeed work to be done to keep family farms going, and that work is in transfer of management. So, family farmers, don’t just let your children take over your established farm. Teach them, guide them, encourage them to reach their potential as your farm’s next great leader and business owner. Allow them to have major setbacks, absorb their costs of learning, and incubate them before the risk is entirely theirs. The older generation can retire, and the younger can run the farm with a solid grounding in the history of the farm’s management and decision-making process, but with a new perspective for modern marketing and methods as well.
Farming is a career choice, and a viable one. It is no accident. The majority of the aspiring and beginning farmers I work with are not family farmers. They want to farm, and have chosen it. I believe we can call our farmers as trained and professional as anyone else with a prefix or a suffix. Shouldn’t we call them Farmer ____ as we’d call a priest Rev. _____? Or, shouldn’t they sign their names, Mr. _____, Farmer as we’d call someone Mr. _______, Esq?
Many come to farm after other careers, or after an education in a different field. and so they come to it intentionally, planning to farm for some reason. More often than not, I hear that my generation (I’m 29, college-educated and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer) wants work that allows them to add value to the world around them. They want to improve a situation for others and live simply but healthily, and see farming (as well as craftsmenship and culinary trades) as a means to those goals. Who are we to stop this group? I’ll mention that we can’t be stopped, so why not join in supporting us? Some will farm for a long time and see success in those goals. To help, we (meaning the world of farmers, family members, supporters, politicians and advocates) must not let them slide into farm business ownership or management casually, without acknowledgment, without helping them find an education in production, business, marketing and self-care. We must give them the chance to dabble and experience farming by providing healthy, safe, respected and affordable options for practical and academic education. There are excellent farms that teach their motivated employees more than just the daily tasks that must be accomplished; these training farms provide an immersive experience so that aspiring farmers learn to make decisions about production, purchases, marketing and labor management. There are “incubator farms” sprouting up that allow new farmers the opportunity to test their production and marketing skills in a somewhat risk-protected environment; equipment may be shared, land is available, and the farmer can make sales, invest in smaller purchases that can be taken with them, and grow their earnings before moving to independent farm ownership. There are countless farmers who educate new farmers over the phone, through online forums, through consultation services and through mentorship programs. This is the right way for our community of farmers to grow. No mentor is about to give an unrealistic perspective on the realities of farming. They have told me, time and time again, they don’t want the next generation to repeat mistakes. They want farming to continue into the future.
We need more farms who don’t let “children” (which I use to mean “aspiring farmers” to reflect on the article’s title) grow up to become farmers. We need more farms who enable children to learn to farm. There can be more of these farms if we embrace the concept of training farmers in a professional manner. Many of these “children” will decide farming is not their passion, as it is a hard and unpredictable life. Given the right opportunity to test their interest, aspiring farmers can self-sort into the producers-for-life and the farm-supporters-for-life. Increasingly, there are farm training programs which a family can encourage their high school senior to seek out and apply for. The Sustainable Agriculture Education Association compiles a list of degree and non-degree programs that teach production and business, often rounding that degree out with an education in food justice or rural development issues and economics. When the author of last week’s article talks about organizations and supporters, who better to grease those wheels and get farmers’ ideas moving than those who have tried out farming or who have studied it in a focused way? I’ll count myself in that group. I hold a B.S. in Plant Sciences from Cornell University (I focused heavily on sustainable agriculture and rural development issues), I have farmed and may farm again one day. For now I’m involved in helping many many aspiring and new farmers get the education they need. I refuse to let them grow up to become farmers. I will fight so that anyone who might become a successful life-long farmer knows exactly their career pathway to that end, and that they are neither discouraged by their community nor underprepared for the challenges ahead.
We must not look the other way, lest aspiring farmers be fooled into thinking that farming is not a serious career and a serious decision. Worse yet, if organizations do not intervene, our promising aspiring farmers and children may fail to find the right education or support program (government or otherwise) to catalyze their success. To this end, I was confused by Farmer Smith’s words that farmers must start organizations to get what they want, and that their stories must be told. Farmers must make use of organizations and support and tell them how more they can help. These organizations are eligible for grants for which farmers are not eligible, in many cases. They can do the work that can’t be done by farmers who want to be in the fields, producing food and selling it and enjoying the lifestyle they have knowingly, willingly, eagerly entered. There are organizations, from the National Young Farmers’ Coalition to The Greenhorns to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) to the one I work for, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY) that are there to help farmers find their community, to organize, and to come out a step ahead. National Young Farmers’ Coalition runs an excellent blog, called Bootstrap, which follows several young farmers per year on their journey. Those are real stories. The Greenhorns is involved in everything from storytelling to compiling best practices into fresh, readable and useful literature on topics such as cooperative farming models to land access success stories. These organizations regularly and reliably connect with farmers to enact policy change. NOFA-NY also lobbies and supports policy that affects farmers. Based on members’ positions, we take on a few policy initiatives each year, inviting all in our community to participate in political action on legislation that affects small-scale organic and sustainable farmers. Moreover, we organize on-the-ground education and networking opportunities for farmers on topics ranging from organic fruit pest control to scaling up equipment to meet the farm’s ultimate vision for size and sales. Research organizations like SARE provide grants for farmers to try innovative practices and guide research with university personnel, and share their findings with their community. This research often has a bottom-line-assessment component, asking questions such as whether a certain labor-intensive practice impacts volume of production enough to change the farm’s profit/loss numbers for the better.
Reflecting back on the whole article (as I’ve mostly just reflected on the title and a few points that really struck me), I see that the abrasive title doesn’t exactly match the content of the piece. It catches the attention, but when I read on, Farmer Smith and I certainly agree that more must be done to help farmers find success, especially when it comes to sales, marketing and policy. I think the title of the article might be better with a few more words. “Don’t Just Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers: Find a Way to Help Them!”
Further Reading (Farmer Blogs):