Sometimes you start at the end. In the final pages of Letters to a Young Farmer, celebrity grower, Mas Masumoto, speaks to his daughter about the harvesting craft, the same talk he received from his father. His ironic epiphany, “A new crop comes in every season, every harvest, every generation,” is the soul of this brilliant book compiled by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.
Farming is hard work, but while bending your back, your mind is free to contemplate. Thoughts may be full of planning the next season, where to sell, fixing the tractor, but the solitude of farming also allows for introspection.
Between the rows, there’s a meditation and that connection to the work can be as nourishing as any harvest. A sense of grace permeates these pages as well. If you aren’t a farmer, you’ll start thinking about growing—no matter your age—to tap into that calm in these frenzied times.
In Letters to a Young Farmer, three dozen farmers, chefs, writers, professors, immigrants, gardeners, scientists, activists, Native Americans, and even a Congresswoman, share their stories and lessons. No dry litany, these are passionate voices deeply connected to the earth. With an eye to the future, the letter writers’ hands are full of soil, necks brown from working in the elements or foreheads lined from incessant negotiations about farm issues. There’s no other compilation with such a breadth of knowledge, deep traditions, and forward thinkers involved in raising the food we eat.
The independent farming population age is, on an average, just shy of 65. They are handing the shovel to the next generation with urgency. They’ve been so busy farming, as Ecumenical Franciscan Brother, Gary Paul Nabhan, says apologetically, “they’ve failed to look into the future while making a living and reminding the young that farming’s a spiritual calling as much as a profession.”
The urgency is not completely unselfish. The communal desire is to farm better and to sprout opportunities that might otherwise lie fallow. For example, the “manufactured contest” of big versus small farms, us versus them, is cratering as consumers demand fresher, locally grown, more unique harvests than agribusiness can provide. Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree finds hope in the voices of consumers who pelt her office with concerns about farm legislation. Across the country, people vote with their wallets. And farmers, even large farm operations, are paying attention.
Revelations circle through each chapter. Young farmers must be, as Humanities Professor and author Raj Patel suggests, agronomists, veterinarians, microbiologists, soil chemists, geneticists and meteorologists. But, in between the rows, there’s also time for dreaming about new ways of doing things as San Diego’s own Cyclops Farms founder, Luke Girling, has discovered. His urban farmstead on borrowed acres in the midst of Oceanside is profitable, building new connections between chefs and the community and raising awareness about eating native vegetables and fruits. Alice Waters, Chez Panisse founder, cookbook author, and food activist, would approve. She writes that, “Taste will truly wake people up and bring them back to their senses and back to the land.” Letters to a Young Farmer is full of that awakening and we need it more than ever.