'Letters to a Young Farmer' offers words of encouragement to new generation of food growers

The United States is on the cusp of the largest retirement of farmers in history. A new book is full of inspiration to all who produce or care about the food system.

Tim Wimborne/Reuters/File
Freshly cut wheat stands under approaching storm clouds on a property owned by farmer Scott Wason near Roma, 430 km (267 miles) west of Brisbane, Australia, October 29, 2011.

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture just released Letters to a Young Farmer,  a book which compiles insight from some of the most influential farmers, writers, and leaders in the food system in an anthology of essays and letters.

The United States is on the cusp of the largest retirement of farmers in U.S. history, with more farmers over the age of 75 than between the ages of 35 and 44. Letters to a Young Farmer aims to help beginning farmers succeed through advice and encouragement, while inspiring all who work in or care about the food system. Among the 36 contributors to the book are thought leaders Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, Temple Grandin, Wendell Berry, Rick Bayless, and Marion Nestle. I was honored to contribute to the book as well!

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is a nonprofit sustainable agriculture organization with a mission to create a healthy and sustainable food system that benefits all. The organization trains farmers, educates food citizens, develops agroecological farming practices, and convenes changemakers through programs such as a Summer Institute for High School Students and a two-day Poultry School conference.

Food Tank spoke with Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns Center, about Letters to a Young Farmer, the need to encourage young farmers, and hope in the future of the food system.

Isenbarger says “we created this book to give voice to farmers and illuminate the choices that can lead to a stronger future, for them and for all of us who eat. It reminds us that farming has always been a political act. These young farmers, who choose to farm rather than go into law or medicine or finance—they are taking a stand; they are expressing their commitment to the land, to their communities, to the food movement.”

Food Tank (FT): Why do young farmers need encouragement? 

Jill Isenbarger (JI): Farmers are becoming an endangered species. The number of farms and farmers continues to shrink, and farmers are aging off of the land at an alarming rate. The average age of a farmer in the United States is 58.3 and climbing, and only six percent of farmers are under the age of 35.

Young farmers need encouragement because our society doesn’t value them the way they should be valued. “You’re just a farmer” is the common refrain. Barbara Kingsolver, Wendell Berry, and Bill McKibben all write about this in the book. We’ve also lost many agricultural traditions based on community, a common history of stewardship and hard work.

To support the kind of dignified labor and environmentally sound land stewardship that will help us create a more sustainable farming system, we simply may have to pay more for our food. According to the USDA, in 1960, Americans spent 17.5 percent of their income on food. By 2013, that had dropped to 9.9 percent. As a country, we’ve grown accustomed to cheap food—food that is not only inexpensive, but food that doesn’t taste good and isn’t good for us. Paying more for quality, nutritious food (and helping those of lesser means gain access to it), grown by farmers able to earn a living wage and provide health care to their workers—that would go a long way to helping raise us all up.

FT: What unique obstacles do young farmers face? 

JI: Bill McKibben writes about surviving the “carbon binge,” and the challenges that a changing climate will bring to farmers who grow our food. Marry this with the challenges of finding affordable land to farm, paying off student loans, the dearth of start-up capital and a lack of regional agricultural infrastructure in some parts of the country, and you have a daunting set of obstacles that most young farmers face.

It is hopeful to note that H.R. 1060, the Young Farmer Success Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Courtney (D-CT), Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-PA), and Rep. John Faso (R-NY), was reintroduced in the House of Representatives in February. This bill will help provide college loan relief to young farmers. So, some in Congress are paying attention, especially among them Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), herself a contributor to our book.

FT: What are some of the most important areas for young farmers to focus their skills?

JI: One is soil health, the very foundation of sustainable agriculture. There’s a saying, “civilizations rise or fall on the health of soil.” Farming with nature is the key; farming that builds up soil, uses water wisely and with an eye on the future—we absolutely need more of this. Wes Jackson talks about this in his letter: “Ecological agriculture has the disciplines of ecology and evolutionary biology to call on, based on millions of years of emerging efficiencies such as those seen in nature’s prairie ecosystems.”

At Stone Barns Center, we focus on two aspects of building soil health: one is through farming, and we teach and experiment with agroecology. The other is the concept of creating what we call a farm-driven cuisine in America—catalyzing a culture of eating based on what ecosystems, including farms and their soils, need to be healthy and regenerative.

Young farmers need to focus not just on the practical skills to grow, harvest, and sell their products; they also need to focus on building strong connections to their communities, sharing their deep love of land and place, and helping people understand the value and importance of farming done well.

FT: Which letters inspired you the most? 

JI: So many of the letters and essays are extraordinary and inspiring and deeply moving. They flow with humor and insight, gratitude and humility. I love the wry wit of Barbara Damrosch, Mary Berry, Bill McKibben, and Gary Nabhan, and the lyrical insights of Raj Patel and Barbara Kingsolver. I was drawn to Amy Halloran’s line, “Eating is hunting in nature for food.” It pulls you back to the bond that we need to have with the earth. It is primal. I appreciate Wendy Millet’s articulation of her “hundred years” value, the idea of taking a long-term perspective on economically and ecologically sustainable management.

FT: What were the most common themes you found in the letters? 

JI: There are many overlapping ideas that ripple out in their own ways, but these are a few themes that arose in a number of the essays and letters:

  • Bridging the gulf between nature and agriculture, between land conservation and food production—and finding the path toward to a more sustainable future.
  • Renewing respect for farmers in a society that has taught children farming is a lowly occupation, and in a country that was founded by and largely composed of farmers until the mid-20th century.
  • The changing nature of today’s young farmers, from generational—ones that inherited their roles and land—to the self-selected farmers who want to be agents of change.

FT: What have farmers’ reactions been to the book?

JI: “When are you putting together the next book? I want to write a piece.” This has been a heartening response. Sharing the stories about the people who grow our food and steward our lands and waters is powerful and important. Farmers are a hearty, optimistic, and determined breed. To have received their support and encouragement is a great honor and means that we are advancing our mission in an important and meaningful way.

This story originally appeared on Food Tank.

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