The students filed into our living room and took their places at our big table, all of them sustainable agriculture majors at Unity College in Maine. Some had long dreadlocks, and all were casually dressed, with women slightly outnumbering the men.
Groups like this often visit our household to talk about small-scale farming, and this time I asked them a question that is often asked of my husband and me: “Why do so many young people today want to farm?” Not all of our visitors did, as it turned out, but most intended to work somewhere in “the food system” and were passionately involved in agriculture as a branch of knowledge.
Many said they had been initially drawn to the subject by their mistrust of the nation’s food supply and a desire to be independent from it. “There is no more important work than feeding people,” one said. “It’s meaningful work.”
Others praised the way small farming creates a sense of community, or simply the way the soil feels to their hands. They are undaunted by hard work, and growing food makes them feel happy. I often hear home gardeners talk the same way.
I ask the young people who apply for jobs with us why they want to be farmers, and they speak with one voice about the “disconnect between food and people in this country” and how they want to repair it. They talk about a “real” or “authentic” farming lifestyle.
Perhaps they’re fed up with the virtual, digitized experience, the economics of imaginary money. It’s not that they’re Luddites. They’re just looking to make something tangible and meaningful. I wonder if Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s 1950s antihero, disgusted with the “phonies” he found everywhere, would today wind up apprenticing on an organic farm.
Above all, the young want a challenge, an exercise in problem-solving. “I could swear,” one applicant wrote to us, “farming makes us use a larger percentage of our brains.” Does your son or daughter want to grow potatoes after he or she gets out of of Yale? You’re not alone.
Meanwhile, what’s happening in the other world of conventional agriculture? According to an article in USA Today, enrollment is increasing in big-university agriculture programs with students lured by the prospect of employment. As the population grows, there will be lots of jobs feeding the world. But, in some of these schools at least, students sound a bit like the renegades who show up at our door. “Better health through local foods and farmers markets appeal to them,” writes the newspaper’s Jens Manuel Krogstad.
One of the last students to speak, as we finished up the homemade blueberry muffins they had brought, looked a little bit different from the rest, although he led in the condemnation of such factory farm practices as overcrowding poultry barns and feeding corn instead of grass to cattle. “I want to be the next Joel Salatin,” he said proudly, evoking the well-known, innovative Virginia farmer/author — a Christian libertarian who marches to his own drum. “As a short-haired conservative white guy, I’d like to change the face of organic agriculture,” the student said, to much hearty laughter. And who knows? Maybe he will.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”
April is the month for reviving potbound houseplants. Remove plants from pots to examine root systems. In stubborn examples, run a knife between the inside of the pot and the soil to lift. In extreme cases, cut plastic or break clay pots to free the plant. Tease or score roots to open them out, and repot the plant in a container slightly larger than the old one. Use fresh potting soil and begin a fertilizing routine for the growing season.
— Adrian Higgins