Growing Young Farmers

Ever have one of those phases where something not really in your consciousness suddenly pops up repeatedly?  Like when you buy a new car, and suddenly everyone seems to be driving the same model?   It’s been one of those times for me.

I had a leaning on the tailgate of the truck kind of conversation with a farmer friend a couple of weeks ago. About our farms, our friends, our families. Same old. Except that day he was not his usual optimistic self. He is a full time farmer, has been since he was 15, when his Dad died.  He loves what he does, but that day he expressed worry about whether he could keep it all going. He touched on the fact that all three of his kids are in college, planning futures that will not depend on farming as their livelihood, even though they all love the farm and are more than happy to help out as needed.   He also has a bevy of young lads who work for him throughout the summer season, loyal followers all, some of whom work for him sporadically through the winter as well.  He sees as few do around here, the need to inculcate the possibilities of future farming in the minds and hearts of young people, to show them that it can be done, in a huge variety of ways and scale.   He has a gift with young people, a kind of natural leadership that makes them keen to keep working for him.  He empowers, trains, builds confidence, builds skills, and generally grows these teenagers into responsible adults.  Will they be farmers, any of them?  He hopes so, so do I, but it’s hard to know.

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That was a couple of weeks ago.  Last week, our eldest daughter began discussing with us the possibility of starting a farm enterprise or two of her own, using the resources our farm can provide to save her some costs.  Now, I’m the antithesis of my tailgate friend.  I’m a micromanager, naggy kind of supervisor.  Ask any of my Navy subordinates – I have a t-shirt one class of trainees made for me that says “Mother Wren” across it.  Wren is an acronym from the Royal Navy short for Women’s Royal Naval Service, and it was at that time part of my rank designation, Master Wren (my male counterparts who were Master Seamen), and thus the shirt slogan was an allusion to my tendencies to mother hen them too much.

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I’ve done all right as a mother; my characteristics fall into the “typical” category for the role. But as a mentor of a young adult?  I’m not most people’s first pick.  So I did what I’ve learned to do best as a mother of teenagers. I breathed calmly and thought before I spoke (this takes practice).  I remembered Salatin’s advice in Family Friendly Farming.  And I said, “Sure, absolutely, how can we help?”  More or less.  I’m a work in progress.  She has a lot of ideas, but the most immediate are that she wants to start a layer flock of her own to sell eggs, and she wants to raise veggies to sell at our roadside stand (which is currently a seasonal egg stand, but we’re talking future tense here).   From us she needs space for winter housing for her flock of 20 birds, and permission to run a chicken tractor on the field during the warmer seasons.  We’ve offered a third of our veggie garden space plus a little more in an unused flower bed for the veggies she wants to grow to sell.  It’s not a bad plan.  I don’t know if it will last, but she’s full of passion about it.  My job is not to throw any cold water or criticism or to say that she’s not doing it my way (the right way, obviously), but instead to be like my friend above.   Will this exercise grow a farmer?  I have no idea.

Skipper's Canyon near Queenstown, NZ

Skipper’s Canyon near Queenstown, NZ

Recently, our youngest daughter went to an awards ceremony at Government House.  She and two friends had been involved in a local initiative called Vital Youth through the school, wherein their team was given the responsibility of finding a local charity deserving of a $2500 donation.  They had a list of criteria the organization had to meet, and quite a bit of legwork in narrowing down to their best choice.  It’s an interesting concept, and I invite you to check out this link to learn more.  However, the point I want to make is that these three girls, after several weeks of work determined that a group called Growing Young Farmers was their favourite choice.  How cool is that?  Not one of these three girls is likely to be a farmer- two intend to pursue careers in the medical field, while one is a musician.  But at 15 and 16 years old, they recognize the work this awesome organization is doing and it’s importance for the future.

And then finally, I was catching up on emails after a nasty bout in bed with stomach flu and noticed that a blog I follow written by a young farmer in PEI, who has not been writing for the last six months or more had suddenly posted.  This is Barnyard Organics (For Love of the Soil in my sidebar), in the western part of PEI.  They are a young couple with 4 kids under the age of 8, one a newborn.  They are certified organic, grow grain, raise chickens, both layers and broilers, hogs and lamb, have recently built an on-farm, inspected poultry processing facility and do all this on a farm originally owned by Mark’s Dad, who still helps out a lot.  Sally, the blogger, is as passionate as they come in the Maritimes (which is pretty passionate), articulate and willing to speak her mind about what she believes in, all of which makes her a popular speaker at local farming and/or organic conferernces.  This particular post is one of her best, an excerpt of a speech she recently gave.  Here’s the link for you to read it yourself, which I urge you to do, because her topic is the Family Farm, and she focuses of course on growing young farmers.

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clearing blackberries from future farmer’s future chicken house

In the week since I began drafting this post (this is clearly why my recent posts are so long, I’m writing them over several days :)), things have moved quickly.  My eldest is now officially on payroll, and has the sunburn and tired muscles to prove it and has taught the piglets to fist bump (they use their snouts).  My friend from the tailgate session is up to his ears in making hay, thanks to the 5 day run of sunny, warm weather.  He’s in full gear, running morning till night, making hay while the sun shines.  He’s got no time to think beyond the next weather forecast, let alone ponder the fate of future farmers.  But they’re out there with him, driving tractors, stacking bales, getting sunburned and building muscles.

All you can do is plant the seeds, nurture them as best you can and practice a lot of faith.



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.