Future Farmers

Joel Salatin & Michael Ableman

For some time now, I’ve had simmering in the back of my mind a comment Michael Ableman made when he was introducing Joel Salatin in the workshop I attended in June. I didn’t write down his exact words, but the gist of it was:

You always hear that if you want kids to grow up to be farmers, you have to raise them in town.

Michael’s adult son, who grew up on the farm, has gone on to do other things with his life, and his younger son is only 10, so it’s hard to say what he’ll do.  One of the things that Michael found most interesting when he heard about Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm is that Joel’s son Daniel grew up on the farm – and stayed there.  Daniel now runs the daily operations of the farm and is as passionate about holistic farming as his Dad.

Michael disguised it with a grin and a laugh, but I think there was a tinge of envy and wistfulness in this remark.

And it’s made me wonder ever since:  how true is the truism? My own children have no desire to farm.  They”ve lived here most of their lives.  They enjoy country life to an extent, they can see themselves having veggie patches in their backyards when they’re adults.  But not chickens or livestock.  No anxieties about crops getting rained on or parched dry.  No fence mending.  Definitely no mucking out.  They want to be able to go camping spontaneously, travel without worry.  No egg washing or late night chicken butchering.

And yet…an old schoolmate of mine is a third generation farmer, and his son is just back from Ag college, full of plans for local grain harvesting and raising turkeys on the side.  Fourth generation farmer at the age of 19.  Cool.  A classmate of my older daughter (17) lives on a 40 acre sheep farm with his family and owns part of the flock with a view to building his own farming enterprise.  Another classmate, in the poultry 4-H club for years, has begun a breeding business, raising quail and partridges, and is “raking it in” as his buddy told me at the feed store the other day.  The son (age 25) of a friend of mine is a third generation farmer, and is leasing 2 acres to grow organic raspberries and raising a half dozen hogs, while helping his mum with her berry farm.

So why these kids and not Michael Ableman’s son?  Why are my kids not interested, but yours are?  I know there are a number of factors at play, not least among them farming practices, finances, the high value placed on post secondary education, and of course parenting styles.  There’s also the whole nurture vs nature thing – some kids are just not wired to want to grow food, some kids are.

Am I disappointed my own children are not interested in farming?  Not with them.  Truthfully, we did a lot of things in terms of modelling and training and exposure that pretty much guaranteed that they would lean in a different direction.  A little disappointed in us as parents, perhaps, that we didn’t get on the same page about this kind of thing early enough.  That’s more about us than them.  And it’s OK, really.  They understand what goes into creating food, what it takes to grow good meat, and that’s important.  It will make them the kind of consumer that supports farmers.  And maybe they’re wired to for something else entirely anyway.  Besides, my brother grew up yearning for an urban life and now owns a John Deere, has twice the number of layers than me, and is president of the local Agricultural Society. Seeds can lie dormant for a long time and sprout when you least expect them to.  Whatever path my children end up taking, I hope that they find fulfillment and challenge and satisfaction in it.  And if, like my brother, they come back to the land later, well, that’s good too.

I think it really comes down to vocation.  Many of us, in my generation at least, were encouraged to quell any sense of vocation and instead pursue “practical” paths – most of us were pushed in the direction of post secondary education or trade school, our ticket to financial security.  Something our parents didn’t have available to them.  It’s natural to want a better life for your kids.  But I think it’s wrong to view vocation as unimportant.  I think it’s our job as parents to give kids permission to listen for their calling.  Of course we cannot but help shape their experiences by our own lifestyle choices, but within that, we must give them room to discover passions and interests, to explore what makes them eager to get out of bed every day, what makes them feel like they really accomplished something good.  We have to watch for those little sparks, those lights in their eyes, when they suddenly switch on.  It doesn’t take 10 different sports or clubs to find those glimpses of interest and passion.  No, it’s true, your child growing up in the woods may not discover his or her innate talent for surfing.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I mean the thing they’re going to do out in the world that is their contribution, their part of the greater whole, how they make their way.

Even if we’re the best kind of parent raising kids on the best kind of farm, they might not be hearing anything that calls them to nurture the land specifically; instead they might be hearing something that tells them they love to build, or heal animals, cook good food, manage a forest, fix machinery, paint pictures, care for people.  Or not.  They might really feel a call to grow plants for food, raise animals, improve soil…you know, farm.

12 thoughts on “Future Farmers

  1. I think some of it is because mom and dad are reluctant to hand over the keys. Maybe I’m too eager. My 9 year old is apprenticing to entirely take over management of the 150-bird layer flock. I’ll just be her deilvery driver.

    Also, maybe there’s a sense of been there, done that. Jesus may have started going to work with Joseph early enough to have been a carpenter for 20 or 25 years before changing careers to full-time ministry.

    My final thought comes from The Millionaire Next Door series. Stanley finds that the majority of entrepaneurs’ children are not entrepaneurs. Mom and dad work their tails off building a business, going without and fearing a sudden change in the market or in gov’t regulation could shut down their business immediately. They encourage their children to become accountants, lawyers, doctors and vets and pay for their children’s schooling. The children are encouraged to pursue a career without an inventory, without physical plant…a career using their entirely portable and borderless minds.

    I was raised in town…

    • I crack myself up. I can’t spell entrepreneur correctly to save my life. I always put a pan in the middle of it. French words…

      • :). My kids have been in French Immersion all their school years. They both have a tendency to throw a lot of ‘e’s into their English spelling, usually at the end of the word, because in French, that’s what you do when in doubt.

    • I agree reluctance to pass over the keys might be a factor – the current batch of older farmers owning land (many baby boomers) probably consider the farm to be their retirement fund. They really can’t just hand it down to the kids, or they won’t have anything to fund the RV or the old age home. Salatin talks about this in “Family Friendly Farming”, and he comes from the viewpoint that family farms should be multigenerational, young ones looking after old ones, etc.

      Jesus went through career changes for sure, lol. This one made me laugh – my Dad grew up on a farm, became a sailor, then a farmer, then an Anglican priest…I grew up on a farm, became a sailor, am farming now, don’t know how far I want the pattern to repeat, lol.

      And your last thought: I think it’s part of our cultural heritage to think that our kids should take on the family trade. You know, shoemaker’s son learns to make shoes. But our culture hasn’t been like that for a few generations really. I read a couple of the “Millionaire Next Door” books, and I got a slightly different view on the pattern – that kids who grow up watching their parents work that hard, run as far as they can in the opposite direction; that it’s the kids themselves who want a less physical/blue/all consuming way of earning a living. I think there’s a sense of entitlement at play to complicate things as well. What if things come too easy?

      I think Kiyosaki would say that entrepreneurs are by definition careerists without inventory or borders, but with portablity – I don’t agree with all he says, but I think his point is valid that if you can start from scratch once you can do it again. Donald Trump.

      I spent my teen years in boarding school, supposedly learning to be a lady. Didn’t work – I joined the Navy. I did get a degree, but I’ve never used it. And look at me now.

      • so…pinky up or not?

      • not, of course. Was that a test? 🙂

      • I think it’s important to note that Salatin’s mom still owns Polyface…or did when Lunatic Farmer was published.

        Stanley goes out of his way in the book to say that many of the MND business owners he interviewed actively pushed their kids into high-paying professional careers away from the family business. That was why he emphasized so strongly that they paid for medical school for their children.

        Maybe Caeser had the right idea naming Augustus his heir. Maybe his own children wanted to be senators…

        I’m not sure Trump ever started from scratch. I’ve yet to see the evidence that Kiyosaki ever started anything but he wrote an inspiring book that changed my life for the better. I have to give credit.

      • Yes, I think you might be right about Mrs Salatin – when he spoke in Duncan a couple of years ago, he mentioned the legal wrangles they were working through to figure out how to minimize the tax thing on transferring ownership. Don’t know how that works out for Daniel. I read the MND several years ago, so maybe I’m misremembering, or maybe I saw what I wanted to see. Robert Kiyosaki started a company that made velcro wallets, that I think eventually folded, or he sold. He’s had reversals through his real estate ventures too. He also started his educational company and also created the board game Cashflow.

      • I read that stuff in Kiyosaki’s book too. He’s been difficult to verify though.

  2. wvfarm2u says:

    I visit a lot of farms for the WVFarm2u blog and the Wild Ramp market blog. I usually start the dialog by asking how they got to the farm they have. Of those that grew up on farms 100% had decided to do something else….and had gone to college and gotten degrees in other fields. But somehow, the land called to them. So not all kids who grow up on farms end up farming, but many return.

    • Interesting. That would include me too, of course, which I didn’t really think about when I wrote the post, believe it or not. I was thinking more that even though I and my parents knew that I wanted to farm, I was definitely encouraged to go get a degree first, as in they offered to pay my first year tuition, but not anything towards any farming enterprises (though I could have used the land rent free).

  3. tbnranch says:

    Great post… love this blog! 🙂

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