A letter to a beginning farmer

Greetings to the void!

I read this out loud at the end of my “25 Mistakes I Made In Farming” talk that I recently gave at the Georgia Organics Conference. Many people asked me to post it, mostly because I’m a terrible narrator, and partly because of interest. And so here it is, with a small addendum to the end (thanks to great feedback from Jean Mills of SSAWG )  that points out rays of light in my somewhat clouded view... 

Hope you enjoy! 

New Farmers: You’re (probably) not going to make it, but do it anyway.

There are so many things that I would have loved to know when I first started out. I wished someone had schooled me on the importance of not ignoring nutsedge. I wish someone had made it clear to me that the local food movement was not a mystical realm where the laws of supply and demand failed to hold. I wish I had been given a heart to heart on the best way to not piss off overworked interns, or why it’s a bad idea to siphon fish emulsion with your mouth (It’s surprisingly sour. And also revolting). So many things. 

Just a quick disclaimer if you are ready with a pen and paper to jot down all of the secrets and then go on to fault free farming: There is no list. You are working in a vocation of impossible odds. At it’s heart, farming is the practice of making controlled mistakes every day. Every crop, every season, every planting risks a multitude of failure points. During any given year, you make more mistakes than you could possibly count. The best farmers I know don’t ever succeed, they just screw up a little bit less every year. 

So, knowing that, what would be the one thing I would tell my self to do twelve years ago when I first started on this crazy path? I would have told myself to farm not as a vocation, but as a practice. I wish I could’ve consulted myself to take a strategic standpoint and say, “Hey, you’re going to learn something from this, but at some point, this ride will end.” 

In reality, there is no way I would have listened. I was drunk on a heady mixture of Pollan, Coleman and Salatin. I was obsessed with going the distance. I was going to prove all of the naysayers wrong. How? I wasn’t sure. Maybe ginger? Is kale still in? Or how about carrots? That’s it, I’ll just grow a bunch of those. It’s like being a commodities trader with none of the upside… 

What I wish I knew when I started was that the story we tell ourselves as dewy-eyed farm rookies is invariably false. As much as we all want to break the mold and figure out a way to make a living farming small plots of land, the overwhelming truth of the matter is that this type of life is not suited to long term economic prosperity. Yes, you may be able to grow some really good food and make connections with some amazing people. And yes, there are unequivocal stories of success, but keep in mind the whole reason casinos exist is that somebody gets lucky every once in awhile. I’m not saying you shouldn’t play the odds, but make sure you accept them first.

I know that nobody wants to hear this. We all have a tremendous amount invested in the conviction that this calling we have accepted is not a waste of time. We are desperate to believe that we have chosen wisely and that we are the exceptions to the rule.

But what if we lay it bare and admit to ourselves that for the vast majority of us, farming isn’t going to be a lifetime profession. Just for the sake of argument, let’s accept the unthinkable. 

Now, the real question becomes should you still do it? Of course you should. You should grow not because you stand a good chance at retiring as a farmer in 30 (or 50) years, but because the practice of farming is a training camp of will and perseverance. You may not be successful in farming, but there is a great chance that farming will make you successful. 

There are very few professions that require a similar level of commitment and dedication. I can’t think of a better way to train as a leader or a change agent. Market farmers not only have to commit to the big picture ideal of changing our food system, but often the same person is in charge of sales, marketing, logistics, maintenance, finance, accounting, customer service, human resources, product development and inventory management. And that’s just before lunch. 

Learning to interact with and be cognizant of our environment is a rapidly depleting skill in an age of pop-up ads and Snapchat spectacles. People who have worked on a farm for even a single season are taught skills that are virtually unobtainable in any other venue. They understand teamwork, they understand integrity, and they understand the intrinsic value of working really hard for a thing you truly believe in. 

What if, instead of focusing on training the next generation of farmers, we except that by encouraging young people to spend time engaging directly in their communities, learning the cycles of the season, and squeezing every available amount of energy towards farm work, we actually end up with better people as a result, career farmers or not. 

Farming has imbued me with a sense of adventure and possibility that has transplanted in to everything else I’ve done, and that is worth all of the missed income, the comatose rides home from market, and (almost) all of the rotten tomatoes I’ve put my hand through.

One last optimistic point I will make is that we have no idea what opportunities the future will present. We are currently sowing seeds for gardens that may reap bounties beyond our current understanding. I hope so. I hope my experience and the experience of the thousands of others who have come to fall in love with small-scale agriculture will serve to cultivate the field and foster success for those just sprouting up in the movement. 

We really have to bank on that. That’s why, while I may no longer be farming for a living, I am still working with farmers, changing the variables and experimenting with possibilities hoping to land on a recipe for long term viability. The only way forward is to invest in the unknown and in my opinion, there is no better investment than the potential of a seed. 

So do yourself a favor, intrepid farmer. Don’t feel like you have to sign on to this ride for your whole life. Take the lessons in eagerly, learn to deal with failure and dead chickens and smashed high tunnels. You will take those lessons with you far beyond the farm, and they will serve you well. We won’t save the world by growing more food on small pieces of land. Truth be told, we have enough food already. We will save the world by growing better people through farming.

Take Care and Eat Well!

Cory