Buying the Farm

My windowsill garden

I didn’t know it at the time, but I’ve wanted to have my own farm since I was a little girl. I planted a peach pit in our back yard near a big Doug fir and dug it up nearly every day to see if it was turning into a tree yet. I baked my own bread and painted my face with blackberry juice.
I didn’t really know about farms then, or where my food came from, really, but eventually I would figure it out. Where I started was with an insatiable love of the outdoors, of things that grow. Although I had no idea what was actually edible out there – and neither did my city-born parents – I pretended it all was anyway. When I grew up to learn that humans were expected to spend most of their lives indoors, I followed along with the plan briefly but soon found myself joyously yanking weeds in the mud of the University of Oregon’s Urban Farm.

I’m 27 years old now. Recently, I received an email from a young woman named Erin. She’s about to graduate from engineering school and was seeking advice on entering the field of sustainable agriculture. She felt that she could make a positive contribution.
I sent a couple of links to apprenticeship programs but she pressed for more information: What path had I taken, she wanted to know. What mistakes had I made, and what experiences were invaluable?
I think what she really wanted to know was, is this really possible? Can an idealistic young person really go into the crusty world of tractors, almanacs, fruit fly breeding cycles, pressure canning, agricultural zoning rules and Carharts and make it as sexy as designing green buildings or a more fuel-efficient car?
There is a huge chasm in agriculture today, but maybe it’s always been there. It’s the difference between our romantic view of cuddling baby lambs, and hosting potlucks in our rustic farmhouses and the reality of growing enough food for the planet’s 7.5 billion people and making it as cheap as possible. Today, the romantic view of farm life has grown to include an expectation that changing the way we grow, distribute and consume food can actually save the planet. So, can it?

I have to admit that I lied a bit in my responses to Erin. I didn’t tell her that no farmer I’ve ever met has actually recommended that I follow in their footsteps, go into debt for a large piece of land, and spend the rest of my life tied down to it. I didn’t tell her that most of the early 20-somethings I met just out of college who, like me, worked a variety of low-paying but highly satisfying farm-related jobs, are now settling down to earn real money and buy their food from the grocery store like everyone else. I failed to mention how incredibly thankless it is to be a farmer, that no matter how much people in your community seem to embrace the idea of buying locally and building regional food security, you will still meet people at the farmer’s market who will fail to understand why your apples are more expensive than those at Safeway. That’s when you smile and try to be nice, and you don’t try to explain that the old expression “he bought the farm” means he died, because when you try to live off the land that’s the only way you do live.

I left these things out because I still believe that the baby goats are worth it, and that, as Alice Waters said, we really do vote for the kind of world we want every time we choose what we eat. Maybe this is why there are still farmers in the world, why there continue to be young farmers even though the average age of a farmer in America is now upwards of 60 years old. The trend of college grads going back to the land may have hit its peak at the height of the recession in 2009, when I graduated from college, but there are still Erins out there, and there are still people like me and Hannah, who just can’t seem to settle for a nine-to-five job under the protective roof of a building in town. There’s a smidgen of boldness and a bit of stupidity there, too – no matter how many farmers we’ve met who barely scrape by, we seem to think we can do better. Maybe, just maybe, we can have it all.

Now that we’ve settled in Southern Oregon, we’re taking a look around, feeling the soil and watching the weather. We have friends who want to invest here, too, noting the influx of Californians and the popularity of local vineyards. Land isn’t cheap, but it is only getting more expensive. The farmer’s market is a busy place here. Perhaps there’s room for one more pair of crazy young people with a table full of the ripened labors of their love. Once we get it going, I fantasize, we’ll let the local college know that we’re seeking interns. We won’t pay much, but they’ll never be the same once they go for a walk through the fields in the early morning, taste the first ripe tomato of summer, and see a baby goat take its first shaky steps into life.

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4 Comments to “Buying the Farm”

  1. Good luck …. I sincerely hope you make it. I too always wanted to be a farmer, and my life pretty well parelleled your “truth”. Raised on a farm by Grandparents … Dad killed in war, Mom, a camp follower. Ag major in college, married, family, no money for farm, wife with no desire to live that simply, ended up being a long haul trucker. Worst thing I could have done health wise. Recovered my senses after my wife died, got my health back in my 60’s, now I excersize, garden, and though I still buy much of my food from the supermarket, I try to look for healthier items. Something must be working ….. I’m 71 now and rode my bike over 5000 miles so far this year, I feel great, and have my weight down to a reasonable level …..and have maintained it there for nine years now.

  2. Hi Tuula.

    Regarding “Buying the Farm”, it’s a sweet piece of writing, and a nice idea. Well, everything except the “buying” part. Let me explain:

    Land prices in America have an extremely tenuous relationship to productive value, and the relationship that remains only applies to large commercial agriculture. As for young people seeking to engage in growing food and living a bucolic lifestyle, I suggest the necessity of a paradigm shift: don’t think about buying land. That doesn’t mean don’t think about farming, but the necessity to actually own land is not part of the new reality of progressive American agriculture.

    Personally, I rent a number of rural lands for grazing, mostly from elderly folks who can’t quite keep up with their homestead chores any longer. It often takes a bit for them to understand or at least accept modern grazing practices on their land, but after a while, most land owners appreciate the results and actually want to help out. Renting is a possibility for young farmers.

    In terms of growing vegetables and chickens and living on the land, I think the future of young farmers may lay in seeking philosophical partners who also want to change the world, and those would be people who have a bit of money. I have friends who run a CSA farm on land owned by a “gracious benefactor”. Recently, I saw an add on Craig’s list seeking young farmers to come share a place and help the owner change the landscape and also change the world.

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of the alternative farming movement, I think young farmers should be extremely hesitant to buy into the model presented by Joel Salatin. Joel shouts loudly about how much profit there is in a diversified, intensive production and direct-marketing operation. My personal experience tells me that most of the people that jump into that model fail horribly and eventually quit. Their misery tells us a simple lesson: farming is a business. If we are going to save the world via growing food, we have to have a sound economic model to parallel our ecological model. Fundamentally, that appears to preclude actually buying land: the mortgage will simply be too high.

    Young farmers should seek inventive, unique situations to pursue their farming passions, and those situations will probably be based on human relationships.

    Thank you for thinking and writing,

    John Marble
    Heart Z Ranch
    Crawfordsville, Oregon

    • Hi John,

      We would absolutely appreciate your advice on asking landowners to lease out their property for farming/living purposes. That’s the route we’re hoping to take right now with the Tiny House project. Our hope is that by avoiding paying high rent for a house for the next couple of years, we’ll be able to save for a down payment on our own piece of land.
      I don’t like the solution of allowing others to provide the land in the long term for a few reasons. One is that depending on other folks for the space under your feet can be a very iffy proposition. Even if the relationship is built well on mutual respect, situations always change, and the land can be sold out from under you, or your right to it can simply be revoked at any time.
      As far as Craigslist ads go, they sound ideal until you’re faced with the reality: Most of these folks assume they can have the labor and the idealistic energy of young folks for free, if they teach them a few farming skills and give them food and shelter. Those situations might work out for many people – and they’ve worked for us in the past – but we’re getting to a point where we want a little more happening in our lives.
      Another concern is that it’s hard for a landowner to say yes to other people wanting to live and raise crops or livestock on their property. There’s the liability issue, and the relationship of owner/tenant isn’t always one anyone wants to have in their backyard.
      Don’t worry, we have no ambition to jump into a farming operation as our sole source of income. We love working in town and happen to have great jobs so we’ll keep them as long as we’re able. As a part-time pursuit, growing some of our own food and sharing it with others will pay off in non-monetary ways.
      On the other hand, if we did have dreams of becoming full-time farmwives, we hear that medical marijuana pays the bills nicely.
      Thanks for your comments – Tuula

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