Toward  A New Farming Image


A Ron Chast cartoon in a recent New Yorker shows a food store scene with a display of vegetables under a sign that reads: “Locally grown by a guy with a Masters Degree in Philosophy.” That’s funny in more than one way but it also suggests one of my fondest dreams. It is becoming quite common for food production to be an artful, artisanal activity done by master gardeners and skilled professional agronomists with extremely sophisticated biological methods of growing food with improved nutrition, taste, and natural resistance to disease and pests. What if this continues to the point where food farming is indeed a highly respected profession on a par with all the other higher professions in arts and sciences. What if “farmer” suggests  to everyone the same kind of regard or esteem as musician, or astronomer, or  doctor? This should be the way it is of course because what profession is more important than the one that keeps us, literally, alive.

Historically (but unbelievably to me) producing food has often been a despised human activity. In fact most of the food in centuries past was produced by slaves of one kind or another. Or by peasants, sharecroppers, hicks, hayseeds, all terms of derision. If you wanted respect you got out of food production. As a result, economics practically forced farming out of an art form and into a technological industry where the main idea was to find ways to escape the labor and increase the quantity without increasing the labor. So we have monster farms today with guys driving tractors who do not know a really enriched fertile soil particle from a lump of radioactive ash. Instead of encouraging quality in our food, which also means encouraging sustainability of our food supply, this attitude (make the slaves do the work) encourages quantity and industrial “labor saving” (the fewer the slaves the less the cost) and  justifying that approach by claiming that it is the only way we can keep growing populations from starving to death.  This attitude is absurd for in truth the only way to keep up an ample food supply is for more and more people to get into the action.  It takes brains to grow truly good food. It takes brains to handle a hoe properly, for heaven’s sake. I like to think the young people coming along are realizing this and understanding that being a clodhopper is a laudable occupation. (Even that term, clodhopper, tells the story. In good artisanal farming, there are no clods to hop.)

Is it happening? More than I ever dreamed it would. Even here in rural Ohio where change comes slowly, I see examples of young people shifting out of the industrialized, centralized economy into communities of small local businesses, not only in farming but especially in farming.  Look at the sweeping move linking the farmer directly to the restaurant, the supermarket, the farmers markets and even food trucks that can go almost everywhere. Look at the growing amount of so-called urban farming going on. In fact, ironically, the new image of the farmer is rooting down more in urbanish areas than out in the country.

Okay, so I’m a wishful thinker. Okay, so this is something I’ve dreamed about and written about all my life. But is it not entirely logical and practical that it could happen? Sure food farming is always going to need sweat, blood, tears, manure, stinging insects, lots of physical discomfort, lots of disappointments, all of which we once tried to push off onto slaves and sharecroppers, but honestly, with modern devices to help out, this kind of discomfort comes nowhere close to what all professionals endure, like cramming all night to pass a qualifying test next day. I would much rather fork manure all day (at a leisurely pace)  than have to endure the pressure of working for a politician or being a doctor, or bored out of my mind having to deal with, say, a bunch of pointy-nosed religious ministers who are often honored far beyond their worth. Every respected profession has its agonies. Farming agonies, even practiced without new labor saving devices, are not as tough as being a firefighter or a police officer. We just have to scrape away the prejudices of centuries and keep insisting that a nation of small landowners who are sophisticated agronomists as well, is our salvation.


@Daddio7, I was doing pretty good till that whole mandated health care thing came along. Then I had to get a off farm job.
And once I made the switch from IT job to farming, my heath improved to the point I did not need health care.
@Kristine, I mob gaze. Every two days I have to move the goats. Some days I have to hustle and it takes 30minutes. Other times I will say to the goats, “Come on guys! Lets go on walk about!” And we will walk around the fields for 20 or 30 minutes looking at the fields, what is growing, wildlife, while they munch on stuff.
Some days are long, hot and sweaty. Others are in fact leisurely. I do not own a tractor so my work is radically different than my neighbors with tractors. But I dont mind. A little physical labor(within reason, not slave labor) never killed anyone.
Now, sitting in a cubical, staring at a computer screen for 8hrs a day, that will dang near kill you! I know!
Sure, some romanticize farming. It is hot, sweaty, work. But no one ever romanticize cubical jobs.

Most of those fatalities resulted from tractor roll-overs or other big machinery accidents which might be less of an issue with smaller-scale artisanal farming. Also, I’d guess that many deaths involved seasonal or migrant workers subjected to less-than-ideal working conditions.

Great post by the way.

Agreed. And try doing anything on a farm at a leisurely pace. This piece is quite romanticized. I feel for your family, we’re struggling but not on the streets yet.

You had me until you spoiled the whole piece by glorifying the psychopathic murderous gang in blue.

Roz. It’s Roz Chast. And she’s a genius.

Its far easier to be a wage slave you never need to worry beyond the pay check which comes with regularity , you dont need to worry about buggs eating your crop , weather destroying the crop, what the price will be of the crop , you are not up at 3 am with a dificult calving or wondering wether the wormer you used is working , the myriad of other things you run into or foul of in normal every day life as a farmer , as a wage slave you have one job , farming requires far more , from genetacist to welder and everything in between , jack of all trades and master of most of them !

Gene, you and Wendell Berry are my heroes! I check your blog daily because I need your dose of good sense and good humor daily!! I live in N. Fla. on a 5 acre “homestead” since retiring 15 yrs. ago. Have chickens, goats, garden and very sandy poor soil. The animals (and people) all help with soil building. Loved Holy Shit! It really changed my thinking – tho my husband is not quite on board yet. I often give away surplus vegies and eggs but now will have them properly labeled – grown by a gal with a Humanities degree and a Master Gardener Certificate. Vicki in Crawfordville

What you are talking about a the trend towards a cottage industry workforce where skilled specialized producers compete in a niche market. Growing these varieties does take special knowledge in gardening and marketing. It really isn’t for everyone.

Due to the almost complete collapse of industrial america and the reliance on imports from everywhere, much of labor force is either on welfare or has shifted to the service industry. This trend you are witnessing is really an extension of the service economy and enables the highly motivated and skilled to make a living doing something they enjoy.

You and Wendell Berry have encouraged this movement for years.. and hopefully this will move faster and involve many more people… as well as replace the general perception of a farmer as an ignoramus to the truth of a farmer being a complex mix of botanist, agronomist, meteorologist, historian.. etc… Very different from having a job where following orders and procedure is the rule…

dear Chris
i wish it were not too ooptimistic; jusy finishing “$2.00 a day” by Kathryn Edin which has another scenario playing out right now.

“Farming agonies … are not as tough as being a firefighter or police officer.” I saw the other day that the on-the-job death rate for farmers is higher than for either of the latter two.

I like that view, Chris.

Read the July/August issue of the Atlantic, The End Of Work, by Derek Thompson. Then, imagine a bunch of those people displaced by technology, but with a minimal income stipend, deciding to become Farmers. It could happen. Politically, the vast number of displaced workers will have a maintenance level of income and healthcare (you cannot let them starve in the streets-socialism or not), and they will have the freedom to do what their talents lead them unto. This is the optimistic view of the coming loss of jobs (which is already here-many jobs are never coming back after the late Recession).

sageywoman, of course you can use my stuff.. Gene

Dear Gene,
Here in Central Ohio (Fletcher) is a wonderful couple Lee and Jennifer Ruff. They started End Of The Road Farm five years ago. They’ve been working to transform the farm into a sustainable homestead. They’ve used Your book “The Man Who Created Paradise” as part of the vision for their farm.
The Ruff’s produce sorghum syrup, whole spelt flour, 40 varieties of heirloom vegetables, pastured eggs, chickens, and pork. They use draft horses for the majority of the field work, including squeezing the sorghum cane into sweet syrup. They sell at local farmers markets and run a CSA from their farm.
They are proof that this way of life is possible. The newest piece of farm equipment they own is from 1962. I hope any of your readers in this area will consider supporting this very deserving couple.

Your last sentence is channeling old Tom Jefferson’s vision for the Nation he helped birth. Wisdom for the ages.

I Gene am the choir you are singing to . Can I share this on my facebook page? I have had articles written on my work of 40 years such as the “Art of gardening “. in a local paper . I truely believe it is what will Save Us if anything can and I am not speaking of growing hydroponics in cities . There are a few that”Get it” just as there were a few that Got it 20- 30- 40-50 years ago .”When will they ever learn” as the song goes . The machine increasingly rules society and few are awake/aware enough to see the connnections BUT some are .
As I spent my day in the gardens and hung out caring for my horses and other critters today, I thought “I really want to send my time with people who get me – and not spend much time with those that don’t.” I wanted to start a local garden program that taught people how to use a pitchfork ,push a loaded wheelbarrow ,save seed .grow their food and put it up. I only wanted 10-15 people at my age-late 60s as I grow my own food and don’t want a buisness but still require work and $. I have not found those close enough to DO it even though it is I think a needed thing and a wonderful opportunity . The mindset is just not there …YET . I love this post . Thank you for your words :)Sharon

Daddio7, no you cannot afford these things in our current society. by forking manure–whether you do it conventionally or sustainably. That does not mean it isn’t something that we should not aspire to–and many of us are. Because you didn’t make it is not proof that it can’t work, only more proof that it has to! Modern life, whether in agriculture or in manufacturing, does not need as many workers as it once did. Robots and machinery can make a lot of people obsolete. The robber barons can siphon off profit and leave the rest of us destitute. What happens to all those side-lined people? They cannot be ignored. Hungry, desperate people have a way of making their presence known–open a history book. Gene is proposing an artisan lifestyle–more local, based more on barter, on a more sustainable model of being in the world, outside of the machine and of Wall Street. We are not there yet, but I for one think it’s our future. All of the young people now forsaking the machine are his evidence that this may be the hope for our future.

Can you afford medical care forking manure? How about educating your children? If you borrow money to put in a crop what happens if you have a crop failure? Are you and you family put out on the street when you can’t pay your mortgage. I know I was.

Spot on, Gene! Well said.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s