A Good Farmer

A Good Farmer

Making the connections between food, family and the health of the earth.


Sometime around my fortieth birthday I began an earnest study of agriculture. I worked quietly on this project, speaking of my new interest to almost no one because of what they might think. Specifically, they might think I was out of my mind.

Why? Because at this moment in history it’s considered smart to get out of agriculture. And because I was already embarked on a career as a writer, doing work that many people might consider intellectual and therefore superior to anything involving the risk of dirty fingernails. Also, as a woman in my early 40s, I conformed to no right-minded picture of an apprentice farmer. And finally, with some chagrin I’ll admit that I grew up among farmers and spent the first decades of my life plotting my escape from a place that seemed to offer me almost no potential for economic, intellectual or spiritual satisfaction.

It took nigh onto half a lifetime before the valuables I’d casually left behind turned up in the lost and found.

The truth, though, is that I’d kept some of that treasure jingling in my pockets all along: I’d maintained an interest in gardening, always, dragging it with me wherever I went, even into a city backyard where a neighbor who worked the night shift insisted that her numerous nocturnal cats had every right to use my raised vegetable beds for their litter box. (I retaliated, in my way, by getting a rooster, who indulged his right to use the hour of 6 am for his personal compunctions.) In graduate school I studied ecology and evolutionary biology, but the complex mathematical models of predator-prey cycles only made sense to me when I converted them in my mind to farmstead analogies–even though, in those days, the ecology department and the college of agriculture weren’t on speaking terms. In my 20s, when I was trying hard to reinvent myself as a person without a Kentucky accent, I often found myself nevertheless the lone argumentative voice in social circles where “farmers” were lumped with political troglodytes and devotees of all-star wrestling.

Once in the early 1980s, when cigarette smoking had newly and drastically fallen from fashion, I stood in someone’s kitchen at a party and listened to something like a Greek chorus chanting out the reasons why tobacco should be eliminated from the face of the earth, like smallpox. Some wild tug on my heart made me blurt out, “But what about the tobacco farmers?”

“Why,” someone asked, glaring, “should I care about tobacco farmers?”

I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t form the words to answer: Yes, it is carcinogenic, and generally grown with too many inputs, but tobacco is the last big commodity in America that’s still mostly grown on family farms, in an economy that won’t let these farmers shift to another crop. If it goes extinct, so do they.

I couldn’t speak because my mind was flooded with memory, pictures, scents, secret thrills. Childhood afternoons spent reading Louisa May Alcott in a barn loft suffused with the sweet scent of aged burley. The bright, warm days in late spring and early fall when school was functionally closed because whole extended families were drafted to the cooperative work of setting, cutting, stripping or hanging tobacco. The incalculable fellowship measured out in funerals, family reunions, even bad storms or late-night calvings. The hard-muscled pride of showing I could finally throw a bale of hay onto the truckbed myself. (The year before, when I was 11, I’d had the less honorable job of driving the truck.) The satisfaction of walking across the stage at high school graduation in a county where my name and my relationship to the land were both common knowledge.

But when pressed, that evening in the kitchen, I didn’t try to defend the poor tobacco farmer. As if the deck were not already stacked against his little family enterprise, he was now tarred with the brush of evil along with the companies that bought his product, amplified its toxicity and attempted to sell it to children. In most cases it’s just the more ordinary difficulty of the small family enterprise failing to measure up to the requisite standards of profitability and efficiency. And in every case, the rational arguments I might frame in its favor will carry no weight without the attendant silk purse full of memories and sighs and songs of what family farming is worth. Those values are an old currency now, accepted as legal tender almost nowhere.

I found myself that day in the jaws of an impossible argument, and I find I am there still. In my professional life I’ve learned that as long as I write novels and nonfiction books about strictly human conventions and constructions, I’m taken seriously. But when my writing strays into that muddy territory where humans are forced to own up to our dependency on the land, I’m apt to be declared quaintly irrelevant by the small, acutely urban clique that decides in this country what will be called worthy literature. (That clique does not, fortunately, hold much sway over what people actually read.) I understand their purview, I think. I realize I’m beholden to people working in urban centers for many things I love: They publish books, invent theater, produce films and music. But if I had not been raised such a polite Southern girl, I’d offer these critics a blunt proposition: I’ll go a week without attending a movie or concert, you go a week without eating food, and at the end of it we’ll sit down together and renegotiate “quaintly irrelevant.”

This is a conversation that needs to happen. Increasingly I feel sure of it; I just don’t know how to go about it when so many have completely forgotten the genuine terms of human survival. Many adults, I’m convinced, believe that food comes from grocery stores. In Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow, a farmer coming to the failing end of his long economic struggle despaired aloud, “I’ve wished sometimes that the sons of bitches would starve. And now I’m getting afraid they actually will.”

Like that farmer, I am frustrated with the imposed acrimony between producers and consumers of food, as if this were a conflict in which one could possibly choose sides. I’m tired of the presumption of a nation divided between rural and urban populations whose interests are permanently at odds, whose votes will always be cast different ways, whose hearts and minds share no common ground. This is as wrong as blight, a useless way of thinking, similar to the propaganda warning us that any environmentalist program will necessarily be antihuman. Recently a national magazine asked me to write a commentary on the great divide between “the red and the blue”–imagery taken from election-night coverage that colored a map according to the party each state elected, suggesting a clear political difference between the rural heartland and urban coasts. Sorry, I replied to the magazine editors, but I’m the wrong person to ask: I live in red, tend to think blue and mostly vote green. If you’re looking for oversimplification, skip the likes of me.

Better yet, skip the whole idea. Recall that in many of those red states, just a razor’s edge under half the voters likely pulled the blue lever, and vice versa–not to mention the greater numbers everywhere who didn’t even show up at the polls, so far did they feel from affectionate toward any of the available options. Recall that farmers and hunters, historically, are more active environmentalists than many progressive, city-dwelling vegetarians. (And conversely, that some of the strongest land-conservation movements on the planet were born in the midst of cities.) Recall that we all have the same requirements for oxygen and drinking water, and that we all like them clean but relentlessly pollute them. Recall that whatever lofty things you might accomplish today, you will do them only because you first ate something that grew out of dirt.

We don’t much care to think of ourselves that way–as creatures whose cleanest aspirations depend ultimately on the health of our dirt. But our survival as a species depends on our coming to grips with that, along with some other corollary notions, and when I entered a comfortable midlife I began to see that my kids would get to do the same someday, or not, depending on how well our species could start owning up to its habitat and its food chain. As we faced one environmental crisis after another, did our species seem to be making this connection? As we say back home, Not so’s you’d notice.

If a middle-aged woman studying agriculture seems strange, try this on for bizarre: Most of our populace and all our leaders are participating in a mass hallucinatory fantasy in which the megatons of waste we dump in our rivers and bays are not poisoning the water, the hydrocarbons we pump into the air are not changing the climate, overfishing is not depleting the oceans, fossil fuels will never run out, wars that kill masses of civilians are an appropriate way to keep our hands on what’s left, we are not desperately overdrawn at the environmental bank and, really, the kids are all right.

OK, if nobody else wanted to talk about this, I could think about it myself and try to pay for my part of the damage, or at least start to tally up the bill. This requires a good deal of humility and a ruthless eye toward an average household’s confusion between need and want. I reckoned I might get somewhere if I organized my life in a way that brought me face to face with what I am made of. The values I longed to give my children–honesty, cooperativeness, thrift, mental curiosity, physical competence–were intrinsic to my agrarian childhood, where the community organized itself around a sustained effort of meeting people’s needs. These values, I knew, would not flow naturally from an aggressive consumer culture devoted to the sustained effort of inventing and engorging people’s wants. And I could not, as any parent knows, prohibit one thing without offering others. So we would start with the simple and obvious: eschewing fast food for slow food, with the resulting time spent together in the garden and kitchen regarded as a plus, not a minus. We would skip TV in favor of interesting family work. We would participate as much as possible in the production of things our family consumes and the disposal of the things we no longer need. It’s too easy to ignore damage you don’t see and to undervalue things you haven’t made yourself. Starting with food.

Meal preparations at our house, then, would not begin with products, like chicken tenders and frozen juice concentrate, but with whole things, like a chicken or an apple. A chicken or apple, what’s more, with a background we could check up on. Our younger daughter was only a toddler when we first undertook this enterprise, but she seemed to grasp the idea. On a family trip once when we ate in a Chinese restaurant, she asked skeptically, “What was this duck’s last name?”

What began as a kind of exercise soon turned into a kind of life, which we liked surprisingly well. It’s enough to turn your stomach, anyway, to add up the fuel, money and gunk that can go into food that isn’t even about food. Our gustatory industries treat food items like spoiled little celebrities, zipping them around the globe in luxurious air-conditioned cabins, dressing them up in gaudy outfits, spritzing them with makeup and breaking the bank on advertising, for heaven’s sake. My farm-girl heritage makes me blush and turn down tickets to that particular circus. I’d rather wed my fortunes to the sturdy gal-next-door kind of food, growing what I need or getting it from local “you pick” orchards and our farmers’ market.

In making the effort to get acquainted with my food chain, I found country lanes and kind people and assets I had not known existed in my community. To my amazement, I found a Community Shared Agriculture grower sequestered at the end of a dirt road within walking distance of my house, and he helped me fix an irrigation problem that had stumped me for months. I found others who would help me introduce a gardening program into my children’s elementary school. I befriended the lone dairyman in my county who refuses to give hormones to his cows, not because he’s paid more for the milk he sells to the cooperative (he isn’t) but because he won’t countenance treating his animals that way. I learned about heritage breeds, and that one of the rarest and tastiest of all turkeys, the Bourbon Red, was first bred a stone’s throw from my hometown in Kentucky. I’ve come to know this bird inside and out, and intend to have my own breeding flock of them. I’ve become part of a loose-knit collective of poultrywomen who share tools and recipes and, at the end of the day, know how to make a real party out of harvest time. All in the house that good food built.

There is more to the story. It has come to pass that my husband and I, in what we hope is the middle of our lives, are in possession of a farm. It’s not a hobby homestead, it is a farm, somewhat derelict but with good potential. It came to us with some twenty acres of good, tillable bottomland, plus timbered slopes and all the pasture we can ever use, if we’re willing to claim it back from the brambles. A similar arrangement is available with the seventy-five-year-old apple orchard. The rest of the inventory includes a hundred-year-old clapboard house, a fine old barn that smells of aged burley, a granary, poultry coops, a root cellar and a century’s store of family legends. No poisons have been applied to this land for years and, we vow, none ever will be.

I’ve never loved any earthly thing so much. It seems to my husband and me that this farm is something we need to work hard to deserve. As a former tobacco farm, it had a past without a future. But now that its future is in our hands, we recognize that it ought to feed people–more than just our family and those who come to our table. Precisely because of tobacco’s changing fortunes, we’re now situated in a community of farmers who are moving with courage and good cheer into the production of a regionally distributed line of organic produce. This economic project may be small in the eyes of global capitalism, but it concerns us greatly, for its success or failure will be felt large in our schools, churches and neighborhood businesses, not to mention our soil and streams, as these farmers make choices and, I hope, remain among us on their land. My family hopes to contribute to the endeavor as best we can, as producers as well as consumers, though with regard to the former we acknowledge our novice status. For several years now we’ve received from each other as gifts, on nearly all occasions, such books as are written by Gene Logsdon, Michael Phillips, Elliot Coleman, Carol Ekarius, Vandana Shiva, Wendell Berry. Some other wife might wish for diamond earrings, but my sweetheart knew I wanted Basic Butchering.

Our agrarian education has come in as a slow undercurrent beneath our workaday lives and the rearing of our children. Only our closest friends, probably, have taken real notice of the changes in our household: that nearly all the food we put on our table, in every season, was grown in our garden or very nearby. That the animals we eat took no more from the land than they gave back to it, and led sunlit, contentedly grassy lives. Our children know how to bake bread, stretch mozzarella cheese, ride a horse, keep a flock of hens laying, help a neighbor, pack a healthy lunch and politely decline the world’s less wholesome offerings. They know the first fresh garden tomato tastes as good as it does partly because you’ve waited for it since last Thanksgiving, and that the awful ones you could have bought at the grocery in between would only subtract from this equation. This rule applies to many things beyond tomatoes. I have noticed that the very politicians who support purely market-driven economics, which favors immediate corporate gratification over long-term responsibility, also express loud concern about the morals of our nation’s children and their poor capacity for self-restraint. I wonder what kind of tomatoes those men feed their kids.

I have heard people of this same political ilk declare that it is perhaps sad but surely inevitable that our farms are being cut up and sold to make nice-sized lawns for suburban folks to mow, because the most immediately profitable land use must prevail in a free country. And yet I have visited countries where people are perfectly free, such as the Netherlands, where this sort of disregard for farmland is both illegal and unthinkable. Plenty of people in this country, too, seem to share a respect for land that gives us food; why else did so many friends of my youth continue farming even while the economic prospects grew doubtful? And why is it that more of them each year are following sustainable practices that defer some immediate profits in favor of the long-term health of their fields, crops, animals and watercourses? Who are the legions of Americans who now allocate more of their household budgets to food that is organically, sustainably and locally grown, rather than buying the cheapest products they can find? My husband and I, bearing these trends in mind, did not contemplate the profitable option of subdividing our farm and changing its use. Frankly, that seemed wrong.

It’s an interesting question, how to navigate this tangled path between money and morality: not a new question by any means, but one that has taken strange turns in modern times. In our nation’s prevailing culture, there exists right now a considerable confusion between prosperity and success–so much so that avarice is frequently confused with a work ethic. One’s patriotism and good sense may be called into doubt if one elects to earn less money or own fewer possessions than is humanly possible. The notable exception is that a person may do so for religious reasons: Christians are asked by conscience to tithe or assist the poor; Muslims do not collect interest; Catholics may respectably choose a monastic life of communal poverty; and any of us may opt out of a scheme that we feel to be discomforting to our faith. It is in this spirit that we, like you perhaps and so many others before us, have worked to rein in the free market’s tyranny over our family’s tiny portion of America and install values that override the profit motive. Upon doing so, we receive a greater confidence in our children’s future safety and happiness. I believe we are also happier souls in the present, for what that is worth. In the darkest months I look for solace in seed catalogues and articles on pasture rotation. I sleep better at night, feeling safely connected to the things that help make a person whole. It is fair to say this has been, in some sense, a spiritual conversion.

Modern American culture is fairly empty of any suggestion that one’s relationship to the land, to consumption and food, is a religious matter. But it’s true; the decision to attend to the health of one’s habitat and food chain is a spiritual choice. It’s also a political choice, a scientific one, a personal and a convivial one. It’s not a choice between living in the country or the town; it is about understanding that every one of us, at the level of our cells and respiration, lives in the country and is thus obliged to be mindful of the distance between ourselves and our sustenance.

I have worlds to learn about being a good farmer. Last spring when a hard frost fell upon our orchards on May 21, I felt despair at ever getting there at all. But in any weather, I may hope to carry a good agrarian frame of mind into my orchards and fields, my kitchen, my children’s schools, my writing life, my friendships, my grocery shopping and the county landfill. That’s the point: It goes everywhere. It may or may not be a movement–I’ll leave that to others to say. But it does move, and it works for us.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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