A month before we packed our bags in Brooklyn and headed down to the farm, we attended a screening of a documentary called The Greenhorns.
The film shared the stories of young farmers across the country, giving a taste of the joys and challenges of starting out as a farmer in today’s world – which is no easy feat. I was shocked to learn from the film that the average farmer in the US today is 57. What’s going to happen when they all retire?
Soon enough, we found ourselves in farm country where we have made friends with quite a few folks who are really serious about farming. Perhaps owing to the interest generated by our own kitchen garden, or it could be due to our involvement with a locavore group and the farmers market, or maybe it’s just because we tend to like people who get their hands dirty, I would say that most of the people we have befriended here make their living producing food.
One couple was innovating a one-acre permaculture farm, another fellow raises crops on a small parcel of land and sells at the Market and to a CSA group, while another couple raised a flock of chickens for meat (M pitched in on slaughter day…I did not). Our social chatter often circles around matters of starting a farm business, the economic importance of local food, the challenge of reliable land access for young farmers, the ins and outs of farmers markets…
Then a few months ago, I learned that Storey Publishing would be releasing an anthology of essays from the same group who produced that fantastic documentary. I jumped at the chance to receive a complimentary copy to review.
Greenhorns – 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement is a collection of memoirs by members of the Greenhorns community. Many of them humorous, some heart-piercing, I found these essays gave a voice to the people across the country who – against the odds – find joy in the hard work they put in to bring good food to the rest of us. The stories, personal and full of emotion, impressed on me the sense of passion that motivates the people who grow & raise our food.
The book covers themes from the physical, emotional and intellectual exhaustion of farming to the crippling expense of operation; from the delight of seeing something grow from your land to neighborly bonds farming often fosters. It includes stories that discuss the high cost of land access, the challenge of maintaining an organic field when your neighbor uses crop dusted herbicide, the satisfaction of working hard – even though it leaves you dog tired, embracing bugs, the social nature of farming and how it builds community.
A taste of some of the stories I enjoyed:
One great story titled “How Not to Buy a Farm” is written by a couple who spent years establishing a small-scale farm only to find the rug pulled out from under them when the property owner (they were leasing) changed their mind. Committed to continue farming, they scoured real estate listings only to be denied a loan by bank after bank, and even the USDA Farm Service Agent. With nowhere to live or farm they had to get “real jobs” to make ends meet. Then suddenly they found their dream property – 18 acres with a farmhouse zoned agricultural – and the bank granted the loan…but only on the condition they agreed to keep their “real jobs” and give up the idea of farming. “The irony of having to quit farming so we could finally get a loan to buy the land to move our farm to stuck in our craw,” wrote the author.
Another essay, “Social Farming,” resonated with me. The writers claimed that “we didn’t become farmers because we were looking to socialize; we were looking for solitude. We wanted to own a business that enabled us to slow down and enjoy our lives each day…” But in the end, a community is what they got; sharing skills, machines, resources with other local farmers. They’ve developed caring and honest relationships with their CSA customers.
“On the farm we can escape the type of one-upmanship we used to feel (and dislike) in the careers we once had. We’ve realized, though, that we didn’t have to achieve this through solitude. As it turns out, we weren’t really seeking solitude as much as we were looking for a community that embraces hard work, good food and sharing.”
In another story, “What I Learned From Gwen,” the author relates how the simple act of milking her dairy cow, Gwen, gave her a chance to grieve for her grandmother — the matriarch of her family, whose farm they now owned, who had recently passed away.
“A day earlier, I’d taken the ripened cream from the kitchen counter and poured it into the Kitchen Aid mixer [Grandma] gave us for our wedding. The cream rose and whipped and flattened…
She would have known how to make butter from a Jersey eating our grass and our grain at our exact elevation. There was no substitute for what she knew and what I lost when I lost her….even though I longed for that lesson in butter-making, even though I have many new questions to ask her, I cling to the answers she already gave me, especially this one: We are on a familiar path and, through stubborn perseverance, we too will make our living on the ranch.”
If you appreciate the good food at your local farmers market; if you have even an inkling of interest in reconnecting the food you eat to the people who produce it, I encourage you to flip through this book and read some of the stories. The people who produce our food – a physically and intellectually challenging work – should be given a face and a name, and I think that to know their stories makes the food just that much tastier.
More about the book here.