Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Open Letter to New Farmers, Part I

Blue dots show an increase in number of farms, 2002-2007.
Happy New Year to all, and especially to the new farmers who have recently begun to reverse the very long decline in the number of farms and farmers in parts of the U.S., while also starting to counter the continually rising median age of farmers (a sobering 57 nation-wide in the last agricultural census).  The growth of organizations like the Greenhorns and programs like CRAFT and countless other formal and informal mentoring and apprenticeship projects reflect the numbers of newer, younger farmers in heartening ways. You’re smart, you’re strong, you like good food, and you give me hope that we might actually be building real networks that can help us collectively to withstand the various environmental and economic shocks that continue to come our way.

While I’m in this New Year’s mood, I thought I would frame my next two blog posts as an open letter to the new farmers of the past decade or so, to ask (with apologies to John F. Kennedy) both what historic sites might do for you and what you might do for historic sites. Let me start with the first of those.
  • The first thing to know about historic sites is that many of them have land—maybe not much, but it’s often land that was farmed and/or gardened in an earlier incarnation, and that might be farmed and/or gardened again, if it isn’t already being cultivated. My Links page includes examples of the growing number of historic sites that already partner with working farmers, but I know there are lots more out there that could try the experiment.  Usually, historical organizations have all they can do to raise enough money to keep their facilities open and their (often minimal) staffs paid. Don’t tell them I told you, but most of them are, in fact, as financially strapped as you are. They don’t generally have the time, personnel, or expertise to cultivate fields and gardens as well. So think about whether there are sites near you that might welcome a proposal to revitalize a big kitchen garden or pasture some livestock. There are legal and logistical issues to be worked out, but also synergies to be discovered.
  • Some of those synergies have to do with the collections that are stored and the historical knowledge that’s produced at historic sites. Particularly if the site in question focuses on pre-20th century history (and most historic sites do), there’s a strong likelihood that its history includes some connection with farming somewhere along the line, even if that’s not its main reason for being preserved. A lot of historic sites work hard to show that they’re relevant on more than a purely local scale, but really, they’re all about localness as well.  They can tell you a lot about who farmed what here, when, and how. You might have to get them started with some specific questions that are of interest and use to you, and you might end up helping to dig for the answers yourself in the slow season (warning: this can be surprisingly addictive). The payback: you deepen your own sense of what’s possible on the land you’re farming and what kinds of networks of exchange that farmland has been part of over time.
  • And finally, there’s another way that I’d love to see you using the kind of historical knowledge stored at historic sites. I admire and applaud you, new farmers, but I also worry about you, because we’ve been here before, and the combined creative energies of agricultural reformers and back-to-the-landers in the 1970s, and the 1910s, and the 1820s, for that matter, weren’t enough to withstand the juggernaut that is industrial capitalism. I want the good demographic news about the growth in new farms from the 2007 agricultural census to show up in the 2012 data as more than just a blip, and to keep getting stronger in 2017 and 2022 and so on. And I think that if that’s going to happen, you’re going to need to know about the successes and—more importantly—the failures of earlier attempts to keep rural places vital and small-scale farms afloat.
So if and when you start talking with local historic sites and perhaps even cultivating some of their land, make sure to ask them about that, okay? You may find—as I found when I investigated this kind of question at Martin Van Buren’s old farm estate in Kinderhook, NY—that the same kinds of reformers who were trying to fix rural life and keep young people down on the farm were also involved not only in the creation of the kinds of model farms that we now often visit as museums, but also with historic preservation and land conservation efforts as well. There are things we can all learn from their experiences, and those of other, less elite reformers, that might help make this latest reinvention of the farm economy a more lasting one.

Next week: How you can help with the hacking of farm history.


  1. Cathy- Great post. The map is pretty depressing, though, for those of us in central New York State.

  2. It just shows that there's lots of scope to be doing good things! :-) It does seem that Columbia County is ahead of the pack on this, at least so far.