This past summer, farming in Pennsylvania, I finally met and worked with people whose lives I could imagine myself living. My years in New York had been full. I cooked often, ate well, and was always working for four or five people at once, and going to school. I imagined I would start my own business – involving farmers and agriculture and getting food into the city – but I looked at cheese shops and butcher shops, ice cream parlors, restaurants, bakeries, coffee shops, specialty stores, taco trucks, you name it. And I didn’t imagine myself running any one of them. However much I loved the communities of Brooklyn, however many people I learned from in New York, I never met someone who both worked and lived in a way that I hoped I would. And so I hadn’t formed any particular vision at all, of how I wanted to live. I wanted to work with and support the producers of food, and I did, as much as I could.
The reason I was able to imagine myself farming was not because I am somehow built for it, or particularly talented at it, or because I have the means to enter into it easily. Farming is at the heart of my interests (which, in the broadest terms, are to preserve farmland, to make real food available to more people, and to strengthen local economies and communities). I loved that I didn’t have to debate whether or not the work was productive or valuable. But it was in fact the details of the daily work that won me over. Looking out over the fields in the morning, or seeing the lineup of beets to be washed. Joining in the rhythm of the boys loading the truck, or quickly frying our best peppers for lunch, or lying in the grass in the evening with a beer. I noticed moments every day that made me think that working there was beautiful work. When people visited the farm from the city, I didn’t wish I were them. I was proud, to be doing exactly what I was doing.
I also began to think more about myself last summer than I had in a long time. I had spent three or four years thinking about (and acting upon) what was needed for the strength of the food system in my neighborhood, city, region, nation. Suddenly, on the farm, every piece of work contributed to some very specific note for my own personal future. If I had a farm this, and if I had a farm that. If I had a farm, I would want to have goat’s milk, at least for the house. I would not use the turquoise berry baskets. I would grow heirloom produce. I would not waste time being indecisive in the field. I would sell locally. I would grow lots of garlic and onions, and never run out. I would only use a greenhouse for starting seeds. I would not grow zucchini. I would start with a good business plan, and not hire anyone until I could pay them a decent wage. I would wear gloves when picking okra. My farm would be diverse, but I would be known for something I grew that was especially good. I had begun to focus on a much smaller picture, and I had begun to envision my own life, as easily and happily as a little girl.
Maybe that’s just what happens on your first farm.
In November, I moved to Northern Vermont. The ridiculous climate and small population of this area are challenges for farmers (and people in general). And Vermont has produced a rather forceful group of men in the Northeast Kingdom who have risen to the challenge of producing food in this state, and not only surviving, but feeding as many people as they possibly can. Jasper Hill, Pete’s Greens, High Mowing Seeds, Vermont Soy. Mateo, Andy, Pete, Tom, Andrew, Todd. They are each intent upon growing their businesses, producing more, distributing farther, making their products ever more accessible to the people of the Northeast. They think of themselves as catalysts of change in the food system of this region. I get the impression they do not live for the beautiful moments of their day. They work as hard as any farmer, all the time, and yet do not seem to gain their satisfaction from any lifestyle they have chosen, but rather gain their energy from the impact they have upon this place.
In a place like Northern Vermont, where selling to large quantities of people means traveling far, it would be hard to even be the (relatively small) size of Eckerton Hill. You can’t grow that many tomatoes up here and sell them for a profit within five hours. If you need to drive five hours with your produce, you’re probably losing whatever profit those sales might have brought. If you only sell within an hour of your farm, you can’t sell much. The larger but still family-owned, community-supported, responsible farms up here make sense, because they make a large volume of high quality products that they can also afford to distribute. Jasper Hill sells their cheese locally, and all over the country. Pete’s Greens delivers to restaurants and his CSA sites within a one-day 12-hour loop, and also has a distributor pick up produce for delivery to Boston and New York. The community, in general, is overwhelmingly grateful for their efforts. Look at how they’ve come together since the fire. I spent hours yesterday stamping personal thank-you notes from Pete for donations from all over the region, which were given to help rebuild his barn.
Suddenly, in the company of these men of the Northeast Kingdom, it seems indulgent, even silly, to choose to farm on a small scale because of the lifestyle it implies. The idea of farming for the sake of it being “beautiful work” seems ridiculous. You run a high risk of losing a business that can’t afford (or doesn’t want) to distribute it’s own products outside of an hour’s radius, unless you can afford to lose money, or you have found some small niche group of people to whom you can ship your product for a high enough price (probably in New York City). Even if you’re bringing back old traditions, preserving farmland, producing a beautiful product, and you are a person who loves their every day….your farm is not much of a model for a regional food system, since it’s not doing much for the local economy, nor is it feeding as many people as it potentially could.
That’s the opinion I’m gaining in Vermont.
Yet. If someone is inspired to farm, particularly a young person, whatever their reasons, should they not pursue it, no matter the model that suits their idea of a lifestyle? If something about the reality of the small-scale farm is what makes them tick, than they should find a model that works, and farm where that makes sense. If they want to grow and collaborate and have an impact on the region, than perhaps they should choose a community like that of the Northeast Kingdom. Now is a time when many young people who have a choice – about where to live, and what work to do - are deciding to farm. And if we’re smart about it, we’ll each contribute to a stronger system, of diverse models, and distinct goals. The personalities of old farmers and the intentions of the new will characterize the food system in the regions where we live. As it has here. We may not all agree on the value of what we are each doing, but we will be part of the same movement, regardless. And maybe, we will have created the lives we envision now.