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Sep. 26, 2014 11:11 am

Commentary: Please Let Kids Be Farmers

Series Intro: This series, titled Thoughts on a Movement, is intended to explore the philosophical implications and systems changes that are made possible by our society’s shift to sustainable practices. The author hopes to offer thoughts, opinions, and analysis on issues and innovations in the sustainability movement that inspire readers to both connect with and […]

Series Intro: This series, titled Thoughts on a Movement, is intended to explore the philosophical implications and systems changes that are made possible by our society’s shift to sustainable practices. The author hopes to offer thoughts, opinions, and analysis on issues and innovations in the sustainability movement that inspire readers to both connect with and critique sustainable practices.

In an opinion article in the New York Times last month, Long Island shellfish and seaweed farmer Bren Smith gave this counterintuitive advice to the proudly intuitive Times readership—Don’t let your kids grow up to be farmers. Although I imagine that the affluent urban and suburban readers would probably agree with this charge for their own children (some probably having dealt with the strife of a son or daughter who took a semester off from law school to declare that they wanted to grow organic wheat grass or breed ducks in the Hudson Valley), I’m sure some of those same parents would still consider farming a good and noble profession for someone else’s kids.

But Smith argues that being a farmer is not really good for anyone, economically speaking. He says, “The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, they head out to their second and third jobs to keep their farms afloat.”

Ninety one percent of farmers live this way, according to Smith.

As someone who has worked on farms and still grows food in the city, I can commiserate in many ways. But Smith’s article made me focus on a part of the issue that I had previously given little attention to.

It’s not that people don’t care about food. Smith was quick to point out the change in thinking that has happened in the last generation around local and natural food. He also takes care to thank the activists and academics that have brought this consciousness to the masses. But as he explains in the article, farmers led the major food movements of the 1880s, 1930s and 1970s.

That is not the case in the current movement, where farmers are too often an after thought. Some people may be able to cite times where they’ve visited a farm, or admired a farmer for her lush produce. But farmers can’t survive on compliments at the farmers market. Even when we are supporting farmers with our choices, we aren’t supporting them enough.

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Even with Smith’s nod to academics and activists, he’s still frustrated by their place in the food movement. There’s something wrong when an academic at a university or an activist with a nonprofit can make a good salary plus benefits talking about food, while Smith and his fellow farmers can’t make ends meet actually growing it.

He also points out the inequality of having to compete at farmer’s markets for sales with nonprofit farming operations that subsidize their operations through grants and philanthropy while he leverages loans from the bank to cover his costs. I’m sure that some Wall-Streeter will say that this is because Smith and his fellow farmers are just not savvy enough to make small-scale farming viable.

Small, independent operations, however, rarely fail because the producer is not smart enough, but more often because an entire system is stacked up against them in favor of industrial agriculture.

As we have seen in food, a diversity of crops leads to healthy land, and a decentralization of production improves our national farming regions and reduces our dependency on fossil fuels. So if we want and need food that is produced outside of the Central Valley in California or flat prairie land of Iowa then the [small producers] must band together to advocate for why this needs to happen. And at the very heart of these movements should be the people who grow our food because one day I want to be able to say to my son, “Sure, you should become a farmer.”


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Nic Esposito is a writer, novelist, urban farmer and founder of The Head & The Hand Press. His forthcoming book of essays Kensington Homestead is due out November 2014.

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