Losing (And Finding) Farmers

Photo: Tom Bech/Flickr

Eloquent words, below, on the historical changes to our food system, and why we need to change back.

Alex Loud
Slow Food Boston 

In the days before WWII, farmers were not particularly difficult to find. Even if you lived deep in the warrens of the biggest cities, the nearest farmer was likely not very far off. (New Jersey, after all, wasn’t called the Garden State for nothin’.) For most of human history, in fact, this was the case: urban centers grew up and fed off a surrounding infrastructure of agriculture. And farmers, as such, were within easy reach.

Since the advent of industrial scale centralized agriculture, however, farmers have become a bit more scarce in all but the rural Midwest and Central Valley of California. Here in eastern Massachusetts, I suspect it is far more likely that your grandpa pushed a desk at Digital Equipment Corp or Wang, rather than a plow in the verdant fields in Marlborough.

Heretofore, this hasn’t really been a problem. Tearing up the old farms and centralizing the country’s food production unlocked extraordinary economic benefits for three generations. There’s no doubt that a middle manager at DEC in Littleton pulled down a larger and far steadier paycheck than any farmer ever did in that town. Furthermore, the promise of limitless ready-bake frozen entrees dulled us into a sense that nothing was really being lost: our supermarkets still featured bushels of apples and tomatoes. Indeed, there were more fruits and vegetables than ever before as notions of seasonality died away with the farms. The tomatoes simply came instead from California or Peru (that they sucked was beyond the point).

These days, as we’ve discussed before in this space, things are changing. Americans of all stripes have begun to realize that maybe food isn’t a purely nutritive input. Maybe there actually are some costs to this relentless push into the warm light of prosperity. And many people would like to do something about it.

The problem is that we’ve effectively changed the ecosystem in which we live. The open spaces are gone — replaced by office parks and housing developments — which means the farms are gone. Which means, of course, that the farmers are gone. You could walk for many a mile in the suburbs around Boston and not find more than landscaped office park plantings and backyard gardens. So what’s an aspiring farmer to do? After all, Grandpa might know how to code FORTRAN, but that doesn’t help when one wants to grow two acres of turnips.

One possibility for the would-be agrarian is to reach out to the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (NESFP) at Tufts University. Originally started in 1998 to help immigrants learn the ins-and-outs of commercial farming here in the U.S., the project offers a host of programs that teach (or, you might say, re-teach) the business of farming to a new generation of start-up farmers. The courses encompass everything from a “should you really be doing this” overview to hands-on field work at NESFP’s own training farms. It may be one of the few programs anywhere in which you can learn about writing a marketing plan in the morning and killing potato bugs in the afternoon. The program also runs a CSA off it’s training farms and works to provide food to low-income communities.

To my mind, the sum of these programs make New Entry one of the single most important food organizations in New England, if not the country. Every time I have had a chance to interact with the people from the project, or with its director, Jennifer Hashley, I have come away hugely impressed with both the breadth of the program and its vision. There’s a lot of talk these days about building a better food system (example #1 right here) but NESFP is really out there on the front lines constructing it, one farmer at a time.

The simple fact is that so much of the food system we would see reconstructed rests on a need for more small-scale producers. Without a new generation of farmers — and beekeepers and cheese makers and, yes, consumers — the whole idea of “slowing down” the economy to a more human-scale speed will fail.

How can it be otherwise? We can all decide that local strawberries are the best thing in the world (because, dammit, they are) but if there’s no one there to grow them, well, then really there wasn’t a point in any of this. The memories will fade, the knowledge will be lost and something fundamentally human and utterly joyful will gone.

What can you do? Well, hopefully that’s obvious. Support NESFP and similar organizations, and keep eating those local strawberries every chance you get.

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