Last Saturday, the New York Times published an op-ed entitled, “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers” Small farmers everywhere are responding. My take: the tone is whiny, and I really couldn’t disagree more. Operating a small business of any kind often means accepting financial insecurity. The freedom of self-employment comes with a price, and only those who are the most lucky and the most talented manage to get rich while doing what they love. The author writes, “Laden with college debt and only intermittently able to afford health care, my partner and I have acquired a favorite pastime in our house: dreaming about having kids. It’s cheaper than the real thing,” then goes on to suggest that there should be student-debt forgiveness for those choosing the path of small-scale farming. There are millions of people in this country who lack options and are struggling to make ends meet, so I won’t try to pursued you that we, the young people who are privileged enough to obtain college degrees and forgo relevant careers, should be subsidized to do so!
The author is right that small-scale farming is an almost absurdly unprofitable enterprise. The reason Bending Bridge Farm began in 2009 and still exists five years later is that a) we had land and equipment to use for free and b) we had start-up capital from both of our families to help purchase equipment and infrastructure. We are unbelievably lucky. And yet, last night over dinner, we sat staring at the to-date profit and loss report. We’ve both worked 50-80 hours per week all year, and yet we are a couple thousand dollars in the red at the moment. If no other catastrophes strike, we should be able to finish up the season with enough income to cover our taxes and living expenses. But that doesn’t leave anything for retirement savings, additional debt pay-off, or investment in the growth of the business.
Cameron thought aloud, “we could make twice a living working real jobs. why are we doing this to ourselves?” We’ve taken turns asking this question many times over the years. It was my turn to try to assuage his doubts.
Then this morning over breakfast I read a young farmer’s response to the NYT op-ed entitled, “Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers” Surprisingly, I found myself crying as I read these words aloud to Cameron: “Let them challenge themselves to be forever resourceful and endlessly clever… Let them commute down a winding path with birdsong instead of a freeway’s constant growl. Let them be bold. Let them be romantic. Let them grow up not having to ask another adult for permission to go to the dentist at 2 p.m. on a Thursday. Let them get dirty. Let them kill animals. Let them cry at the beauty of fallow earth they just signed the deed for.”
We often find ourselves overwhelmed with anxiety. The weather is too cool, the peppers aren’t ripening, the late blight is coming. The kids aren’t working fast enough, the tiller is broken, the squash bugs are multiplying. All of a sudden, at dusk, I realize it was an extraordinarily beautiful day and I missed it because I was too busy re-writing to-do lists and lamenting my latest mistake. I remind myself: the worst that can happen is we fail. All of our dreaming and striving could be in vain. Sort of…but not really. Because the dream is realized every time we stop and feel the stillness, bite into a sweet warm tomato, or behold the ridge against the crisp blue sky.