Returning to the Farm

tractor harvesting crops

Two years ago, I moved from San Francisco — a city I love, a city overflowing with quirky entertainment and constant distractions — to a city across the bay for land. Not for a bigger house, or a garage space, but for land, pure and simple. I had this deeply-rooted desire to grow my own herbs, tomatoes, heck, maybe my own beans. The possibilities seemed endless when we signed that lease. I’ve since discovered that I may not have the greenest thumb, but you know what they say, where there’s a will…

Last night, I attended a discussion between award-winning author Sarah Elton (Locavore, and her latest book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet) and Nigel Walker, owner of EatWell Farm. The event, hosted by CUESA, was held in the San Francisco Ferry Building, where shoppers can find conscientious farmers peddling seasonal goods three times a week. I used to go to these events much more frequently when I worked in food sustainability, but I’m embarrassed to admit that it had been awhile since I’d gone to one. Before, I’d go and passionately discuss the usual topics:

  • Can organic food feed the world’s population?
  • Why aren’t people up-in-arms over GMOs?
  • How do companies get away with abusing labor laws?

You know, the usual. But this time things were different. In all honesty, I was a little bored to hear the same broken record still playing years later. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in and support the good fight, but I had read the books; followed the blogs; watched the Hangouts. I didn’t want to hear the same questions followed by the same speculative answers. However, something had changed since I last attended those $1k-pat-yourself-on-the-back conferences of the past. I got engaged to a farmer. OK, technically he’s not a farmer, but The Man does come from a multi-generational farming family. His family’s farm is everything you romanticize a farm to be: rustic, pastoral, unforgiving, yet comforting. There are only two problems: they sell commodity corn and the men are all aging out of their jobs. Where are the kids? They’ve moved on to other things.

We’ve all heard about the young under-30 crowd anxious to escape city life rushing back to the farm, but I wonder how many of them are really rushing back. I know there are incentives for young people to start new farms (loans and grants to buy land, classes to learn how to grow crops, care for livestock, and run the business side of things*), but are the children of farmers assuming the trade? This is a real crisis for farming families today. Who will take the land? What will they do with it? I, personally, fantasize about turning the family farm into an organic CSA, where I could host visiting farm-to-fork chefs, and invite local school children to learn about their food, but would The Man and I move back? Would we want that life? The Man watched his father live that life for thirty years. He saw a man wake up at the crack of dawn to get out the door by 4 AM, spend an entire day filled with back-breaking work, only to return to his family after dark. And while The Man respected his dad, he certainly didn’t envy him.

So, here we are with our 9-to-5’s and a failed potted tomato garden 3000 miles away from the farm. And, yet, that miserable excuse for a tomato plant speaks volumes, doesn’t it? Last night, while listening to the polite banter between a farmer and a food journalist, I had only one question on my mind, just one solitary thought: Would I move for land, again?

Would you?

toy tractor

*Interesting in farming or food sustainability? Here are a few resources to check out:

Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture

“CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs.”

The Center for Land-Based Learning

“The Center for Land-Based Learning is dedicated to creating the next generation of farmers and teaching California’s youth about the importance of agriculture and watershed conservation.”

Urban Permaculture Institute

“We design our training to meet the needs of people that live in dense urban settlements that want to learn more about permaculture with emphasis on applying permaculture design to cities. While the theme of our training is urban in nature, the design skills learned are applicable anywhere in the world.”

Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (Information on loans and grants can be found here)

“The Alternative Farming Systems Information Center (AFSIC) focuses on topics related to sustainable and alternative agricultural systems, crops and livestock. We work to implement the NAL mission of ‘advancing access to global information for agriculture.'”

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