I've been meaning to write for some time about an article that appeared in the New York Times several weeks ago, in which I discovered that I now fit into a box. Apparently, there is an influx of liberal arts majors, English majors, in particular, who are choosing to abandon their books and potential Ph. D.'s (at least temporarily) and search for a "real experience" working on a farm.
Armed with copies of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," the article tells us, internship-seeking students offer farms little more than the educated and impassioned where what the farmers really need are "farm hands". I take farm-hands to mean folks who know how to work hard and fast with little complaint and whose intentions are to do a good job for a day's wage. Conversely, it seems, these liberal arts students are interested in pursuing a Pollanesque ideal. Clearly, the article sets up a certain tension that looks like there's a world of "real farmers" and a world of "wannabe farmers".
It's true: there are many saber-rattlers in the organic/local/ethical food movement who have raised the battle cry for good food and who have made eating into a political act (and rightly so). The present young and educated, like their 1960's counterparts, are perhaps the most prone to answer this call. But, the fact of the matter is that farming is more than politics and ideals. It's a lot of sweat and sleepless nights. People like Michael Pollan and Barbera Kingsolver are not farmers. They are writers. It is their job to use words to convey ideas and ideals that are meaningful and important that fall into our logical framework and that pull strongly at our own pathos. And yet we wonder why English majors are suddenly attracted to food and farms?
But I also wonder about the farmers themselves; those folks who break their necks making ends meet. . . the folks who get sweaty and dirty not for the experience, but because they have to; because it is their lives and livelihoods (to say nothing of the success or failure of this movement towards sustainable agriculture) on the line. But are these farmers not themselves idealistic? Something the Times article simply does not address is how is it that the farmers themselves came to farm. Sure, many farmers inherit their farm, they grew up doing the work, and maybe for some it was the only option. But not all. Some folks choose to farm. Indeed, every farmer out there made the choice to do the work he or she does on some level, and no choice is ever purely practical. There is inherent, incontrovertible romance in the desire to farm. If there weren't, why on earth would we keep doing it? We would all own vast acres of corn and soybeans in Nebraska if it was simply about putting calories on American tables. Put plainly, it would be a job. I don't believe that farming is just a job. No good farmer would ever tell you that. It's a vocation, it is something that must be done for our survival and so a desire, a calling to do it must occur.
It seems from the increase in interest among the young and educated that Pollan has propagated, that there are some who are being reacquainted with this fundamental call. And yes, “these are kids who are not used to living in a small trailer or doing any kind of work. . . most of them are privileged and think they want to try something new. They need structure." Indeed, they need to be taught. They need to learn what it is to work hard and get dirty and, moreover, they need not "trade poetry books for sheep." Liberal arts students, perhaps, are better prepared to be farmers than the agro-economy student. These English majors have minds that are prepared to make the link between poetry and that which creates poetry: experience. These students need to learn how to use their understanding of poetry to better understand sheep and worms and poop, sweat and sore bodies. They need to be taught the hardest lesson; that poetry comes from suffering, it guides us and shows us how to do things better and helps us to understand why we do them at all. Once a student can marry the suffering of life with thinking about the suffering of life, the world will get a worker and a farmer more willing and more capable than any merely working for a wage.
It seems that some farmers who hire interns expect free labour. But you get what you pay for. Students are passionate, but unskilled. If a farm needs farmhands, hire farmhands. Pay them a good wage and expect them to work hard and achieve results with little input. But an intern is a different thing all together. It seems that some farmers think that the work itself will provide the experience. It will, but not without creating tension on the farm. It is the job of the farmer who puts interns on his or her farm to turn the students' desire for experience (perhaps born as much from the poetry they read as from the saber-rattlers) into a desire for education, and then to fulfill it.
I worry that this lack of distinction between "farm-hand" and "intern" is driving a wedge in this new agricultural movement. There is a tendency to shun the young and enthusiastic intern who would, "report her organic farmer for using antibiotics on sick sheep" rather than to teach her and to use her passion for the benefit, rather than the detriment of sustainable farming. Indeed, if education is how we best preserve our culture, and we, as farmers and as eaters want a world with good farms and a culture that values our work, we must use the flames that Pollan has ignited and direct that passion (and sometimes cool it down a bit). We do this through teaching.
I know this all sounds like one more thing farmers have to do; teach a bunch of spoiled, inflamed kids about farming; but honestly, the work of the farmer is just this. Farming is about more than the cultivation of crops; seed to table, though an ambitious and difficult goal in and of itself, is not enough. It is about the cultivation of people. Farming is not only science, it is not just botany, biology, chemistry, and economics; it is an art. It is the interplay of all disciplines of knowledge and is a singular tool for teaching and learning. And these interested young, willing workers with their liberal arts degrees are a valuable crop too few farmers are cultivating.