This morning at church I was chatting with one of my parents’ acquaintances and he asked what I do for a living. I told him I am a farmer.
He hesitated for a moment before smiling and saying “Oh, a pharmacist!”
“No,” I replied, “A farmer.” To which he managed a bewildered, “You? Why?”
He wasn’t questioning my physical ability to farm, but why a college-educated young woman would willing choose a life of farming. In short, he couldn’t reconcile the articulate person in heels and pearls standing before him with the country bumpkin farmer stereotype so many Americans hold.
I don’t begrudge him for it. I know many people think the same thing when I tell them what I am doing. He was just bold enough to actually say it. As a society, we don’t esteem our farmers. When you hear “farmer,” what comes to mind? Sadly for most, farmers are uncultured simpletons at best. At their worst they are narrow-minded rednecks. Either way, we assume farmers are farmers because they aren’t capable of doing something else. If they were, surely they would have left the farm long ago for a comfortable middle class suburban existence, right?
Farming is more than just driving a tractor and harvesting corn. Real farming is as much an intellectual pursuit as it is a physical one. Yes, you need strength and stamina to perform the necessary tasks, but you also need to understand chemistry, biology, meteorology, animal anatomy and physiology, and so much more! Chemistry covers things like soil composition and fertility. Biology deals with the symbiotic relationships between the soil and various animal species. Understanding and predicting weather patterns are key to planting and harvesting. If you work with animals, you need to know how to recognize, treat, and (ideally) prevent illness. On top of all of that, you need business acumen to successfully market your product. And, of course, you have to be resourceful and inventive.
Anyone can contract with Monsanto to grow corn or soy. It doesn’t take a lot of skill or intelligence to drive a combine and take a load of grain to the local grain elevator. Spraying chemical fertilizers and Roundup doesn’t require a lot of knowledge. That isn’t farming. Not really.
A real farmer knows how to keep the soil healthy through proper grazing and composting. A real farmer understands the importance of rotating crops and allows pastures to lay fallow from time to time. A real farmer knows how biodiversity can control pests and diseases naturally.
A real farmer looks at nature and sees a beautiful and functional design. A real farmer works with those natural systems and harnesses them to his benefit rather than trying to one-up nature with a bigger and better system. Nature doesn’t need humanity to keep her going. (Most extinct species were doing just fine until we got involved…except maybe dinosaurs…) She has her own way of keeping things growing – both plants and animals. If we try to fight nature, we will lose. Every time. But if we are wise and work along side her, stewarding her resources with care and caution, she will reward our efforts.
Let’s change how we think about farmers. Let’s forgo the “Deliverance” and “Beverly Hillbillies” stereotypes and celebrate the likes of Joel Salatin and Wendell Barry. We should rank farmers with doctors. After all, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, famously said “Let food be thy medicine.” The more real farmers we have, the fewer doctors we’ll need.
“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1785. ME 5:94, Papers 8:426