Growing Farmers

            We’ve waited over two months for it to come.  Something we had so much of at the beginning of the season that it was nearly too much.  And then it vanished. Every once in awhile it would come back to tease – a little here, a little there.  We were patient, I was prayerful. Today it returned.  A beautiful rainy day.  Enough of one that I’ve decided to catch up on some paperwork in the office.

            My “office” isn’t much.  It was a little addition built onto the old farmhouse by my grandfather so grandma would have a pantry.  I prettied it up with plywood and paint, but the term ‘cozy” was born right here.  The one (and only) outstanding feature of this little room is the crooked window. 

            From it I see two young men working in the greenhouse, getting it ready for the winter crops.  Ed has been with me three seasons now.  I suspect he might know how much I depend on him to get the vegetable end of the farm right.  With him today is Bowie who joined us in June.  Bowie’s a part-timer now, teaching every other day at a local high school.  I guess if you’re a math teacher you can do things like that.

            Tomorrow, Jesse will be here.  He’ll have just gotten back from the Detroit area where he plans to buy a piece of land and begin to farm on his own.  He has spent nearly every Monday this last year out here on the farm.  It’s like he’s cramming for a final exam.  Thursday and Friday Rob will be here.  He has dreams of moving back home to Alabama and farming with his wife on some family land. 

            During the month we’ll have others come out and help.  Over the years we’ve had quite a few come by and help.  Some stayed a few hours.  Some kept coming back.  Jeremiah hung out until he found a company willing to hire a veteran.  There were a few we couldn’t wait to see leave.  But they’ve been few.  Most have become friends.

            The statistics don’t look promising for farming in the USA.  The average age of a farmer is near 60; the average age of a cattleman in over 65.  For an industry to grow, the average age should be in the 30’s.  That so many farmers have a siege mentality is completely understandable. The siege mentality goes something like this:  If you weren’t born into it, you can’t ever do it.

            This thought isn’t without some merit.  Good farming is the accumulation of a lot of knowledge, some of which isn’t readily apparent or available.  The problem is that we simply aren’t going to birth enough new farmers into US agriculture before it collapses into a wholly owned subsidiary of Monsanto.  Those of us with farms who are willing to hold onto the promise of clean food have got to share the knowledge with folk who aren’t from the country, let alone the farm.

            Guys and gals like Jesse and Heather.  They are twentysomethings, having grown up in and around Detroit.  Not what you’d call prime farm country.  It was the Marine Corps that took Jesse out of Detroit and dropped him in Okinawa.  He married Heather, his high school sweetheart, got out of the Corps, and landed a job in Washington, D.C. at the USDA.  He took advantage of the GI Bill and got his bachelor’s degree from UMUC in business administration.

            For most people, that would be enough.  But Jesse and Heather are not most people.  They have dreams and hearts bigger than a government cubicle, and the discipline to make those dreams become reality.  Two years ago, they joined our CSA, picking up their produce in Alexandria on Saturday morning.  Then last November they came out to the farm and helped dress 32 turkeys for our Thanksgiving customers.

            Since then we’ve poured concrete and built doors; plowed and planted; weeded and harvested.  We’ve talked about rebuilding a local economy and building a currency from scratch.  We’ve dreamed of how the world could be remade around good people producing good food for good people.  Yeah, people really do talk about this stuff.

            Everyday during the week, Miss P. cooks a big mid-day meal for the farm crew.  Sometimes, the crew will cookout, just to give Miss P. a break.  Dessert is a once or twice a week treat, something to look forward to.  And every so often, the beer comes out.

            But mostly we work 8 to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week.  No one but me works on Sunday, and I only do what is required to keep the animals going.  Now that fall is approaching, the work is slacking off a bit.  The CSA season is nearly over.  All too soon, Jesse and Heather will be back in Michigan.

            They have saved and planned.  They have no real debt outside of their housing.  They plan to see next year’s spring from a Michigan perspective.  There is no doubt they’ll have struggles.  They don’t know everything or even close to it.  But they’ve started the journey on the right foot, learning, planning, saving, and yes, dreaming.

            It’s the Jesse’s and Heather’s of the world that will be the key to turning around our industrial agriculture demise.  Young people willing to take a chance, cut the umbilical of the cubicle salary, and grow good food for good people.

            It’s night now.  My window is black.  The rain has past; Bowie and Ed have gone home.  The animals are all safely tucked in and I know the crops are as they should be.  On the farming front, there is peace, satisfaction, and the knowledge that I’m growing more than good food – I’m growing good farmers too.