Most of the farmers I’ve ever known—and all of the farmers I’ve ever known well—were family members: grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. In my memory, they’re so different from each other that it’s hard to say what unites them, apart from being kin and working on the land. They seemed monumental to me when I was a child, people of a stature that a townsperson in Iowa could never possess. What gave them that stature I can’t wholly say at this distance, now half a century later and so many of them gone. It was strength, hardiness, a capacity for endless labor and invention, but also a certain saltiness of mind and—I’m thinking of aunts and uncles now—a habit of speaking ironically. My dad once or twice tried to explain why he, the fourth son of a prosperous farmer, didn’t become a farmer himself. I suspect it was because he didn’t understand irony—how to hear it when it was being used around him, how to employ it in conversation.
Letters to a Young Farmer is for everyone who appreciates good food grown with respect for the earth, people, animals, and community. Three dozen esteemed writers, farmers, chefs, activists, and visionaries address the highs and lows of farming life as well as larger questions of how our food is produced and consumed in vivid and personal detail, including Barbara Kingsolver, Dan Barber, Michael Pollan, and Bill McKibben. Letters to a Young Farmer is both a compelling history and a vital road map–a reckoning of how we eat and farm, how the two can come together to build a more sustainable future, and why now, more than ever before, we need farmers.
I’ve seen photos of all of them young. I know they were young once, and some of my cousins I knew when we were youngsters together. But it’s hard to imagine any of those farmers being truly young in the ways it’s possible to be young today—or that I was young then. They grew up with too much responsibility. They had their own version of the quiet, profound air I often see in ranch kids, who understand the consequences of things: a gate left open, a water line frozen, a thrown shoe. I don’t mean to suggest that my farming kin were unduly sober. Every farm kid I knew growing up seemed to have a wild side, except when it came to the serious business of farming. Put the two together—a certain wildness of heart and an unerring sense of responsibility—and you end up with men and women who understand irony.
When I first wrote about farming—in a book called Making Hay—I was surprised to discover that I had somehow earned the respect of the farmers in my family. I was surprised because I thought I qualified, at best, only for their affection. I was a nuisance on the farm. I feared the machines. Many of the animals also scared me. Out in the countryside, I sometimes saw weary, humorless farmers living on bleak farmsteads that were lit at night by yard-lights staring blindly down at rutted farmyards. These were farmers who were going under. I was surrounded by the consequences of things, but I never did see them until it was too late—and only after they were pointed out to me. I looked at the skills my young cousins had—good mechanics all of them—and it seemed like they’d simply been born with them. I wondered sometimes whether they were ever explicitly taught how to do the things they knew how to do—and why I missed all that teaching. But then I remembered. They grew up on the job from the first day there was a job to fit them.
Their letter to young farmers is the one I’d like to be passing along to you—the one my grandpa or my uncle Everon or aunt Janelle might have written. I can’t imagine what it would have said. They weren’t, as a rule, advice-giving people. They could tell you what to do, if needed, but otherwise they assumed you had common sense, which, if you’re lucky, is a wellspring rising artesian within you. They told stories about people who needed advice, and it was clear, if you listened between the lines, that needing advice was a state to avoid. When I came around while writing Making Hay, I asked over and over the questions they never expected to have to answer, questions like when and how much and how and why. In time, I think they began to enjoy answering me. It was a summer full of delicate, almost fragrant ironies.
In the absence of that letter—their letter—I’d like to point out a few things. Perhaps you’ll find them worth thinking about. The farmers I grew up around were rural people. They came from the very spot they later farmed or just a few miles down the road. They didn’t come from cities or suburbs, nor did they go to them, much. They didn’t choose to farm. Choosing would have meant choosing not to farm. Their educations were shaped around the fact that they would be farming one day, which is to say they were educated almost entirely on the farm, though most of the men were also leavened in the military. Farming was never once, in their long lives, fashionable.
They were conventional farmers. To the extent that they innovated, they tended to innovate toward greater mechanization, higher yields, less time in the fields, and skillful use of the increasingly complicated financial tools they were offered. In the century and more that my relatives have been farming in northwest Iowa, they followed the fundamental arc marked out by the USDA. In that world, as it happens, survival and success turned out to be one and the same.
Are these the conditions that lead to the best kinds of farming? They are not. My aunts and uncles (my father, too) were born into a socially rich and culturally ambitious countryside full of farms and small farm towns. Over the course of the 20th century, the rural population plummeted. Families vanished, and their farmsteads were plowed under. As social and biological diversity dwindled, so did democracy. (Plot together, if you will, the decline in species and rural votes per rural acre in Iowa between 1915 and now.) This is an ongoing tragedy of largely unexplored dimension. The history of farming in Iowa over the past century looks like the grimmest kind of evolutionary struggle. What makes it worse is the ease with which the illusion of choice has been preserved.
Perhaps you don’t need a theory of free will to farm well. Perhaps you don’t need to understand the intricacy of what it means to be rural, to think of rural as a construct defined by forces far beyond the control of the people who actually live rural lives. Perhaps it isn’t necessary to try and see all the ways in which you’re bound to a system that follows its own imperative without hesitation and with no regard for your welfare. But I think it makes all the difference. To farm well now, at this moment in history, you need to be radicalized, again and again, every day, to turn yourself into that rare figure, the “practical radical,” to borrow a phrase from William Cobbett, the 19th century English farmer and reformer.
Recently, something has swept many young people into farming. The moral energy behind it—and, yes, the fashion—makes it possible to believe that this new agricultural movement is more powerful than it really is. Will there come a moment soon when the energy lapses and young people—who have grown up, most of them, in a world of innumerable choices—are swept just as rapidly out of farming? Will they choose again and choose differently? I see it happening already. What matters in this movement—what makes it so precious—isn’t merely technique or philosophy. It is the welcome return of farmers to a depopulated and denatured landscape. For once it has been tilled, the richness of the soil depends upon the social and cultural wealth of the community that lives upon it.
That sounds like a metaphor, but it isn’t. I mean it quite literally. I suppose it’s possible for the kind of social and cultural wealth I’m talking about—a collective wealth, surely—to be embodied in some monumental individual. That person—he, or as likely she—resembles the “future farmer” who shows up to guide us around his Wisconsin farm near the end of Aldo Leopold’s hopeful but still vital essay “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” which was written in 1939. Leopold is portraying the good farmer of his best hopes, the one with a care for the past as well as for progress, who has a profound respect for the diverse workings of nature and the wisdom of elders and the teachings of science. Individuals like that come along from time to time. But it’s more practical to imagine those virtues embodied not in a single person but in a community of farmers, which is the very thing conventional agriculture has been killing as long as I’ve been alive.
Header photo of Iowa farming landscape by tpsdave, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Verlyn Klinkenborg by Alexandra Enders, courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.