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.