Cultivating the Young

I’ve had the privilege of working with Dawn King from Brown University’s Engaged Scholar Program over the last several years.  It consists of pitching project ideas to teams of students who pick projects based on their own interests in the topics.  Last year I worked with two young women, Hailey and Nadine, to try and organize food waste relocation onto the farm to supplement our chickens’ diets.  In year’s past I’d worked with students around greenhouse construction and compost tea brewing.  This year I am excited to be re-exploring an old goal of BTF to expand the amount of people using EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer, aka Food Stamps) in our CSA.  The idea had been to organize and educate organizations in the community that work with EBT recipients to, when appropriate, steer these individuals and families to CSAs in their areas that accept EBT payments like BTF does.  Since CSA members routinely get a return on their vegetable share investment every year (2019 saw a 2-5% return according to share size) and also considering that the Bonus Bucks program provides EBT recipients with a 50% discount, people who receive food stamps stand to reduce their cost in CSA membership significantly.

Another project we have cooking is organizing a long-term, on-farm, multi-student, multi-grade level research project around soil health and crop production.  I am always trying to cultivate interest in students of any grade level in using BTF for research projects.  Last year we had a high school student from Ponagansett (Glocester High School) FFA working on a foliar feeding senior research project.  I am really excited to work with Brown to streamline some projects that would be available for students to step into, collaborate on, and expand.

Dawn was kind enough to invite me to speak to her class today.  I always start with my usual pitch about farming which is to ask the class if they are familiar with the concept of a guaranteed income.  The nut of the question is what are we going to do with ourselves once we’ve allowed silicon valley to automate us all out of work?  I posit this question to the class and then give me them an answer:  many people are going to come to work for me.  For free.  We turn away volunteers every spring due to over saturation.  I have one of the only jobs in the world where people are lining up to work for me for free and it’s not because of some moral obligation like you might see in a cat shelter or in a hospital.   It’s because farms offer something unique and special and farming is an enviable lifestyle.

It’s not always such an easy message to get across considering the stigma that still persists about this lifestyle:  thankless, penniless, back-breaking, endless drudgery are the stereotypes that come to many people’s minds when they think of farming.  Icy wind and snow turning to freezing rain and mud to blistering hot summers back to drenching fall downpours.  Yes, many uncomfortable, stressful days weave through the farming season but when your farm has the support of committed people, both in your labor pool and through your markets, and you’ve learned over the years to work smarter and not harder than farming changes from an agrarian nightmare to a joyful endeavor.  We are at the cutting edge of everything that is important on this planet from the immediate to the philosophical.  Farming more than any other industry has the power to mitigate climate change while improving our food and soil quality at the same time.  Farming has much to teach us and say about the intersection of work and purpose, stewardship and self-worth, nature and humanity.  Farmers have much to share with their communities not the least of which is providing beautiful landscapes for us all to enjoy.

Another scripted part of my talk is an anecdote I always employ when speaking to a group.  I take a head count, in this case forty students, and I ask twenty percent of the group to stand up.  In this case eight out of forty students stood.  I tell the class that the eighty percent of students still sitting represent the amount of farmland that Rhode Island has lost since World War Two and that the precious few still standing represent what we have left.  It is little use for me to try and inspire young people to consider farming as a viable career if we can’t hold on to what little farmland we have left.  I think that preserving open space and farm land is important for several reasons.  Farmland in particular supports both body and mind in the products they produce for us and for the reprieve their green landscapes provide for our minds.  I can’t think of any other land management strategy that performs both of these tasks in tandem.  Farmland is precious and it’s protection needs to be prioritized at the same time that young people need to be inspired to consider farming as a viable, fulfilling career.  As we look to the jobs and lifestyles that the twenty-first century is offering us we need a new narrative for farming.  It is one that many successful farmers are eager to share.  We need to quit with the simplistic caricature of what a farmer and farming is.  We have to explore why people are drawn to this lifestyle and what kind of life is possible when we work and prioritize the stewardship of the land and the health of our customers.

I sometimes wonder if I’m being irresponsible when singing the virtues of a life committed to agriculture.  After all I’ve had a few close calls financially and more than a few bouts of despair over disappointing years and projects.  But I always think about Gabe Brown when I heard him say “on our farm we want to fail a little every year.  Otherwise we’re not trying enough new things.”   It’s little mantras like this that expose that silver lining of what farming can be: an endless opportunity to learn about nature and sound
land management that has woven into it’s fabric, I believe, humanities salvation and more than a little joy.

Leave a Reply