LETTERS TO A YOUNG FARMER: ON FOOD, FARMING, AND OUR FUTURE
During my travels around Southeast Asia, I picked up a new book called Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and our Future. It is a collection of letters by a slew of farmers, chefs, authors, and business leaders trying to advocate the younger generation to get engaged in the farming industry. The book caters to a very specific audience. Many letters begin by thanking the reader, acknowledging that the person reading this book falls into an unusual category. Most farmers choose to be farmers because it’s the family business and don’t need a book to explain what it’s like to work on a farm and what you should think about if you’re considering this. But there is a new type of farmer on the rise: people reading this book clearly did not stumble upon it; something compelled them to find this book to learn more about the lives of farmers. The tone of some of these letters surprised me; they weren’t necessarily a cry for help, but they certainly stressed how important it is to start shifting attitudes about how agriculture is ran in the United States, and many others are currently feeling the same way.
Some letters offered apologies. All of the writers lived through a time where the industry was just becoming industrialized and a lot of the practices did not have the best interest in the general public. Mass food production uses pesticides and egregious amounts of water to grow. There have been radical shifts in the attitude of how food should and needs to be grown and these farms that are represented in this book explain the efforts they have made to counter the effects on industrialization. It is not easy, but it isn’t impossible, and it requires the small farms to work with each other, not against each other, to prosper and change the farming industry for the better.
One of my takeaways about farming is that it is unbelievably challenging and not very glamorous. Yes, there are redeeming moments, but you are not going to get there without pitfalls. Farming is fragile and contingent upon the state of nature. So how does a farm remain profitable during the coldest of winters, the wettest of springs, or the harshest heats of the summer? What if the quality of the crops doesn’t turn out as expected? What if there is a pest problem? What if a farmhand messes something up and you don’t have the yields that you need to make a certain quota?
All of that happens and these farmers have suffered as a result. This is why many of them emphatically state that you need to be very confident in your decision to go into this field. After all, their reality is what I am curious about, it’s the reason why I chose to read this book in the first place.
After finishing the book, I wanted to visit the place that is responsible for the inception for this book, so I got in a car and drove an hour north of New York City to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. The farm is small; however, it is anything but disappointing. It only has about eight acres of farmland, but it is laid out beautifully, complete with a farm-to-table restaurant in the center. The farm is a science experiment; they stress the importance of maximizing the use of the land as well as the crops. Why not grow cover crops that can help heal the land after a crop has been harvested, then harvest the cover crop and till the land to grow something new? Why not bring some of the chickens over to the crop site after tilling the land so they can poop on it and fertilize the soil? Why not grow a rarer type of corn that could appeal to chefs that want to make a tasty polenta? There are so many choices and decisions to make when operating a farm that makes the process of it all so exciting.
The book complements the farm well in achieving a specific goal: to inform young people about farm life. Stone Barns is a tangible example of the issues and solutions discussed in Letters to a Young Farmer; farming is stressful and a penny-pinching operation that requires the land to be used to it’s capacity. I learned about crop diversification, choosing what animals should be raised on the farm and where to raise, the effects of nature on the harvesting cycle and the solutions used to persist, and more.
Overall, the book and the farm visit taught me that this is a straight-up business. Don’t be fooled by the farmer in a Hanes t-shirt, Wrangler jeans and utility boots. These people need to have a sharp business sense to continue having a legitimate operation. As Mary-Howell Martens writes in the book:
While reading Letters to a Young Farmer, I thought about how Urban Agriculture had a head up on the competition (against conventional farming) in regards to how technology improves the efficiency of the farming process by controlling the “uncontrollable forces” of nature. Conserving and recycling water runoff, eliminating the use of pesticides, controlling temperatures in a greenhouse environment to grow crops year-round seems like a no-brainer solution to forecasting a farms likelihood of success. But it isn’t as simple and likely to succeed as one may think. After visiting the Stone Barns, I was impressed by the amount of crop and animal diversity that existed on the farm and how easily they can modify their production if they need to go in another direction. I feel that there is a lack of diversity to the output of product brought by urban agriculture. Microgreens and leafy greens are fine but what about real produce? Urban Agriculture may never become a true substitute to traditional farming, yet it complements it. Urban farms need to think strategically about diversifying their output. They need to be current, and more importantly handle the needs of their consumers.
It’s a great book for people who are looking for inspiration, and maybe even a reality check. It confirms the humanitarian desire one may have in pursuing agriculture, that one can feel satisfied by connecting with nature and providing a fundamental need for all people in a (hopefully) responsible manner. For a book like this to be published is a statement in and of itself. There is a growing desire to change the food landscape as consumers are becoming more interested in transparency and being informed about what they eat. More and more young people are looking at this issue and want to find ways to solve it, but need a book like this to feel encouraged and inspired to actually take that step in the right direction.
You can buy the book here