Besides the obvious answer to the title query–because we need food–I ask more fundamentally why would anyone in this day and age would want to farm. Recently we’ve seen yet another measurable loss in farm acreage in the Hudson Valley; the average age of the American farmer continues to rise; fewer young people are staying with their family’s farming tradition. It seems the only people actually getting into farming these days are retirees looking for a post-retirement hobby (boy, are they in for a surprise) and visionary folks looking to undo the industrialized, petroleum dependent food treadmill we’re currently on. Well, there are a few folks that just like to grow food you can actually taste.
But the simple fact is that farming isn’t as lucrative as many other occupations, and it probably never will be. Agriculture does not generally attract folks looking to make a career out of farming. There’s more money to be made elsewhere. That’s why when one does make a commitment to farming, it is deep and it is long-term. It is about a connection with the soil beneath their feet, the ecosystem they participate in each day, the germinating seeds, and ripening fruit. It is about more than money. The rewards from farming come from someplace other than the cash register.
And yet farmers need to make a living, too. But society has put such a huge emphasis on making LOTS of money, that farming gets lost in the shuffle. Agriculture is considered an expendable commodity. And with it we lose open space, clean air and water, and farmers. The only solution I can devise is to reinject some balance into the system. Sure, farmers do get a lot of breaks. Yet the developers still come knocking with suitcases full of money and promises of long Caribbean vacations for the farmer. And our food supply gets pushed further away to places most people will never visit and grown by farmers we’ll never meet. We need to invest money in protecting farmland and encouraging new farmers the way we invest money in the stock market and new technology companies. We need a model for an economically and ecologically sustainable agriculture in regions where farms are losing ground to McMansions.
Despite the public’s current love for local food, we still lose farms not because of any kind of lack of demand of local farm products–in fact, demand here at my farm far exceeds supply–but because of a lack of farmers. There are lots of little CSAs and hobby farms popping up all over the place, but these hardly have the ability to feed the 20 million people in the NYC metro area. We need to commercial agriculture close to our population centers.
While I am very much in favor of population control–negative growth is best–the fact is if we do not figure out how feed the masses with good, healthy, safe, local food, then we put our society at risk. Food, like oil, becomes a bargaining chip in global politics. Even now, most people don’t know where their food comes from, and they should. Local farms and farmers can and do keep this ever increasing void from expanding too rapidly, but society needs to make the choice. The value of farmland and its farmers comes in forms more important than money. It is the underlying intrinsic value of local farms, farmland, and local food that society needs to embrace.
For me it is about walking out into the orchard early in the morning with the steam rising off of the lakes, hearing birds wake up, and eating that first fresh apple of the day. It is about the memory of my grandparents’ farm and the lasting impression it made on me that probably planted the seed that allowed me to take up a career in farming. Other people need those experiences, especially while young, if farming in the US has a chance to reverse its trend of losing farms and farmers. That’s why I anticipate launching a farm and food education center that allows to people learn about and experience the wonders of great food from the soil up. Maybe some will decide to take up farming, but all will understand and appreciate where their food comes from. It really is about that first apple.