Dear Aspiring and Practicing Young Farmers,
Before anything else, I want to apologize for previously failing to acknowledge your value to our society at large, and to more fully support you in gaining traction with your endeavors. In four decades of writing about farming and ranching, I am afraid I have missed the mark by not writing about the issues most critical to your health and well-being. I have been so attracted to helping save the seeds, breeds, soil, and water of food-producing land that I failed to notice that, first and foremost, those resources need bright, passionate, energetic, and innovative farmers and farmworkers if they are to survive and thrive.
So, if you forgive me for my past lack of attentiveness to the most pressing issues you are facing, let me cut to the chase—to the issues of a) making a go of it in an economy that remains structurally adverse to providing a true safety net for young farmers, and b) remembering that farming is more like a spiritual calling than a career or profession.
As one grain-grower laconically reminded me, “If you go into farming thinking you’ll make money every year, you just might as well drive over to the casino and gamble, because your odds there will be better. Unless you do it because you love it and feel called to do it, whether or not you ever break even, you probably shouldn’t become a farmer.”
So let me take the second issue first, because I am not very helpful when it comes to economics unless we define what is of value in the broadest sense. As best as I can figure, becoming a farmer is not that much different than becoming a monk, a street preacher, or a contemplative hermit, because it is ultimately about adhering to a spiritual path. You have to have faith that it is your calling, because undertaking it does not make much economic, social, or political sense at all. Very few of you will get rich (and stay rich), get famous and powerful, or get laid simply because you are a farmer.
However, you will get paid in being up for drop-dead gorgeous dawns, in seeing trembling creatures give birth, in seeing fruit trees break bud into a bounty of blossoms, and in feeling depleted soil heal into fertility once more. If those are not moments of religious ecstasy that celebrate the incarnation of the Creator in the Creation, I don’t know what is. Farming can be the Good News made manifest right in your own back forty.
But you also need faith in the Creator to survive the hardships: the blasted grasshoppers, the unseasonal freezes, disease-ridden crop failures, the foreclosures, the arguments with neighbors or business partners, and the heartbreaks among lives living under stress. Notice that I do not assert that you need “unswerving faith,” because you may need to learn how to swerve even to survive. You may find yourself cursing your God as Job did, but at least choose a God who listens and forgives. You will need him, because most famers I know (myself included) royally screw up a time or two. Or three or twelve. Or twelve thousand times. Praying won’t necessarily be enough to get your tractor or front-end loader out of deep shit. But God helps those who help themselves, whether you use a come-along or a powered winch.
So let’s talk economics. Despite tremendous increases in yields per acre over the last half century, farmers today clear no more farm-gate income per acre than their grandfathers did in 1950, largely because the costs of land and inputs have outpaced the higher prices consumers are willing to pay for food. Sure, there are exceptions to that rule, and you better aim to be an exception. But a growing number of farmers collapse under the nagging burden of debt, and the suicide rate among farmers—not only in America, but around the world—is one of the highest of any profession.
It is above my pay scale to offer you tried-and-true solutions to this dilemma, but I can sure as hell tell you a few things not to do. Don’t buy expensive equipment if you can loan or rent it. Don’t purchase a big four-hundred-acre farm for its natural beauty if only twenty acres of it is arable but cannot produce enough to pay the monthly mortgage for the entire four hundred. Have a diversified portfolio of products destined for different markets, but have at least one unique product that restaurants or consumers can’t get from other sources. Have some off-farm income.
Furthermore, get health insurance that covers accidents, injuries, and bouts of depression no matter what. Don’t run yourself or your partner into the ground just because it’s the American way. Pray, but don’t ask the Creator to answer your prayers the very day before the next payment is due. She might get pissed if you try that too often.
The most important lesson that farming imparts to the wayward human psyche is the constant need for humility. It does so by reminding us that we are really not ever in control and that we will likely be wrong about the complexities of nature and the economy more often than we will be right.
On the other hand, being a farmer is as close as you can get to being with God in the sense that you are invited to be a cocreator and steward of a beautiful piece of earth. If lovingly and painstakingly cared for, you will see that farm heal its own wounds to produce more bounty and diversity than ever before, and you yourself might be healed too along the way. God forms partnerships with those in other professions as well, but seldom does She invite a mechanic or bus driver or receptionist to be engaged with Creation as intimately as She beckons farmers to do so.
I may be extrapolating a little too much from the scant data I can hold in my head and my heart, but I would argue that the Creator has chosen farmers, foresters, and habitat restorationists to be the glue that keeps the world from falling to pieces. We are the connectivity She shaped between the divine and the dirtiness of life itself; between the animal, the vegetable, the mud, and the miracle; between the soil and the soul. This concept is something that the Southern Agrarians like Robert Penn Warren eloquently articulated nearly a century ago, but I sense that it is even truer today.
Bless all your work and may the Creator place a salve like Udder Balm on all of your wounds, scars, and suffering. May you plow in peas.
Gary Paul Nabhan is an Ecumenical Franciscan Brother, a plant explorer and orchard keeper of 150 varieties of heirloom fruits and nuts. He has economically failed at about every other kind of farming he has tried to do, He used to write books before he met Brother Mule in a Dark Alley. The mule broke him, not the other way around, so now he only writes short poems.