By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics
I’ve never had a job so rooted in place as farming, and I’ve certainly never known a career that combined proactivity with futility so beautifully. For the most part, the calendar sets us, we don’t set our calendar. We always aim to cut first crop hay on the 15th of May, but as we get closer and closer to that date, we invariably surrender our best laid plans and spend the rest of the summer doing our best to keep up with the swirling clouds and make the best decisions we can along the way. Each year has its spectacular challenges, humbling setbacks, and plenty of room for improvement.
Now that the leaves are falling and a killing frost looms, we have our eye on the next season: winter. Perhaps in a few years, winter will become more of the reflective and expectant season it is intended to be, but for the next few years, I’m sure it will be as busy as any other season. This winter we have a daunting to-do list: fencing and treeline management; weaning calves; building our grain cleaning and processing facility; developing expertise in grain cleaning and dehulling and establishing a business around it; beginning to market our flour and grain to bakeries, restaurants, distillers and brewers in the region; and creating a grain and flour CSA to reach our own rural community (shameless plug: send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll be sure to keep you in the loop about how to get our flour). Oh, and we’re expecting our second child in February.
We also have a year’s worth of hay and forages to market, a farm full of equipment that needs maintenance before spring, a new crop year to plan for, conferences to attend, grants to participate in, taxes to do, bookwork to maintain… the list continues. These are all amazing opportunities for learning and self-improvement, but it is more than a little frightening when you wake up in the morning with six different projects tugging your brain in six different directions, knowing your body can, at best, only move toward one, maybe two.
Halee and I often openly fantasize about a more stable future where the tasks ahead of us are more about maintenance and improvement and less about creation. Building a pasture system from scratch—fences, waterlines, paddocks—is far more work than mending fences or patching pipes in the springtime, and certainly building a house and a driveway is far more of an undertaking than keeping the stove full of wood and the driveway plowed. We’re confident that we’ll get to that place, but in order to make our way as farmers, maintenance isn’t enough to make ends meet. We’re committed to farming without off-farm income, which sets the bar high. However, if we can’t make a living as grain farmers, then how do we expect to help any of our peers see the value in this amazing and endangered way of living, working, and being in the world?
Beginning farmers face such daunting challenges when they strike out on their own, buy a piece of land, and get a business up and running. Increasingly, young farmers get started without family support, as the number of children growing up on farms has fallen precipitously. Halee and I are facing all of these challenges, but there are also many factors that have made our entrance into farming substantially easier. We have the support of family and mentors and access to machinery, land, credit, and expertise, and we still occasionally feel as though we are just keeping our heads above water. Without those things, we’d still be working off-farm jobs and hoping for our farming opportunity to come along.
Land access is critical to our generation’s success at farming, but I see the skills gap as equally, if not more, challenging. As a society we’ve determined that we’ve outgrown practical skills, resigning only those who “couldn’t cut it” in college to fill the ranks of carpenters, plumbers, farmers, and the like. This is the kind of shortsighted thinking that distances us from our environment and perpetuates the silos of specialization that have left us polarized and isolated. People who are generalists by disposition could be farmers, if our schools and communities would place an importance on the career. I’ll readily acknowledge that I’m coming from a privileged position in saying this—I went to college, a fancy one at that, and could have kept working in the white collar world, vaguely unhappy, for the rest of my life. Many of us are pushed in that direction, and while farming isn’t for everyone, there is a large group of people in all income groups and from all backgrounds who would rather be living a more self-reliant and satisfying life.
If I could say one thing to other aspiring young farmers who are interested in farming “at scale,” I’d say stop looking for land, and start looking for a job. Get to know the older farmers in your community, and start channeling your inner sponge. What we need first is not our own patch of dirt, but an ability to learn the trade from an experienced operator; we need to first be apprentices (paid a fair wage, of course). We need to encourage older farmers to see the value in hiring young people, passing on their knowledge, and creating systems to connect the two.
When a farmer retires, sells all of his equipment at auction, and the land as well, everything gets parceled up among the neighbors, and the land is generally absorbed into one of the larger, conventional cash-grain outfits in the area. That land, almost without exception does not go to a beginning farmer. Each time that happens, an opportunity to create a new career in farming is lost.
As hard as I’ve probably made farming seem over the past few months, I’d like to reiterate that, yes, it is difficult; the hours are long and unpredictable. On the other hand, it is also the only job I’ve had where I could find peace, where I contentedly envision myself spending the rest of my life in this one place, doing this one job.
Farming is certainly not for everyone, but I know that there are incredible numbers of young people in this country who would make good farmers, and that they’d be happier and healthier than they are now. The trick is finding them, helping them realize their passions, and finding them an experienced farmer and a community with the openness, patience, and dedication to help mold them into the farmers the land so desperately needs.
About this series: The National Young Farmers Coalition and King Arthur Flour present Heart and Grain, a new blog and film series profiling three pioneering young grain farmers. While all farmers face challenges, the high start-up costs associated with grain farming can make it an especially difficult field to enter for new and young farmers. Learn more about the series here.
About our series sponsor: Farmers are at the heart of baking. That’s why King Arthur Flour proudly supports the National Young Farmers Coalition and its mission of empowering the next generation of grain growers. As America’s appetite for sustainable food increases, King Arthur Flour is dedicated to helping farms grow with demand and strengthening people’s connection to real food.