The Rise of the College Educated Farmer

 

Young farmers on an educational farm tour.

On Monday, this N.Y. Times article brought attention to an emerging trend: young college graduates are seeking a connection with the land, and many of them dream of becoming professional farmers. For most of these students, this is not a ‘reconnection’ with the soil; getting their hands dirty will be a first-time experience, something new and unexplored. After a half a century of suburban living, an entire generation (or even two?) has become fully disconnected from agriculture. Strip malls and Jersey walls have barricaded millions from the story of America’s family farms, and the resurgent opportunities these farms present as a career choice.

How do you acquire the skills to drill into concrete, install automatic watering troughs and become educated about the drinking habits of 1500 pound cattle… all in one morning? Better come ready to learn.

Now, a new generation appears to be turning their backs on the concrete and steel landscape of the 20th century. They are embracing a future of dirt, physical toil, impossibly long hours and ⎯ in all likelihood ⎯ modest pay. Perhaps most noteworthy of all, many of these young people have spent four years in college pursuing degrees that were intended to elevate them to a realm of intellectual pursuits, not manual labor. A college degree has historically been a passport for higher wages, positions in management, and the eventual prestige of the fabled corner office on the 40th floor. Now that sheepskins are being traded for… well… sheep, it begs the question: what in the world is going on here?

I can certainly empathize. Sixteen years ago, I came home from college, laced up a pair of work boots, and have been farming ever since. I was a double major at a respected university, and the world was supposed to be my oyster. But instead of polishing my resume and arranging interviews in the city like my friends, farming spoke to me so clearly that I felt little choice but to answer the call. My degrees gathered dust as my fingernails gathered dirt.

Beyond college, education must continue. We offer a year-long apprenticeship on our farm, and graduate two new farmers each year. Details on our homepage.

My parents were nervous. My grandparents were disappointed. My friends good-naturedly assumed farming was a temporary experiment. After all, in 1996 ‘grass-fed-free-range-organic food’ was far from trendy. All I really knew is that I wanted to raise livestock, repair barns and fences, and use my body for something more than typing. Years later, the rewards of farming have exceeded all my dreams.

In hindsight, a college degree was instrumental for my own modest successes on the farm. To me, college is intended to do one thing: train graduates to become effective problem solvers. Sure, we can specialize in Biology or Theatre or Foreign Policy. But the common denominator is that, over the course of four years, college throws a ton of mental choices at its students. How will they budget their study time? How will they get that term paper finished, while they’re supposed to be reading The Sound and the Fury? Can they make it to their friend’s Sunday night party, while still waking up for an exam at 8 o’clock on Monday morning?

Learning about compost from experienced farmers.

Of course, I understand that these examples might sound a bit juvenile, or even silly. But stick with me. As humans, we are constantly learning, improving, problem solving. When I came back to the farm, I knew next to nothing about agriculture. I had no roadmap, no guidebook, and certainly hadn’t taken a three-credit college course that taught everything I needed to know. In certain ways, the information I learned in college was useless to me in my daily farming operations.

But it was the intellectual training I received in college, the rigorous daily challenge of forcing my brain to make logical, thoughtful choices, that I now find invaluable. I was never a particularly good student, but I always showed up for class, turned in my assignments on time, and read everything I was supposed to. After four years, I could simultaneously process new information, budget my time, and live a fun, rewarding life. In short, college trained me to become competent at daily, non-stop problem solving. I can’t overstate how useful this is for daily farm life.

There’s no substitute for just getting out there and doing it. Our bodies were meant to do this kind of work. It feeds the soul, as well as the chickens :^)

Who wouldn’t want our farmers to be college educated, even if their degree is not specifically in agriculture? A broad education can only help the next generation, as a career farming comes with a never-ending stream of information that must be processed. Without college, could I have eventually adopted these skills on my own? It’s entirely possible. But I know for a fact that I didn’t have these abilities coming out of high school. Ironically, it might have been college’s intellectual training that ultimately gave me the tools to appreciate a life of physical toil.

Much like there was for me, there will probably be plenty of doubters out there expecting these ‘college kids’ to fail at farming. A friend sent me this article, a snarky, shoot-from-the-hip analysis that seems to miss the greater point. Successful farming requires intellectual firepower, and lots of it. Just like anything else in life, nobody wakes up one day and becomes a great farmer, not even those born into a life of agriculture. For a new generation⎯ a generation with no farming experience at all ⎯ what better way to begin than by having a courageous spirit, a strong back, and a mind that’s been programmed to problem solve?

To paraphrase The Who, the kids are going to be alright.


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Check out my book, just named a “Best Read for Summer 2013″ by Publishers Weekly!

 
Forrest Pritchard

Forrest has been farming professionally since 1996. His book Gaining Ground: A Story Of Farmers Markets, Local Food & Saving The Family Farm is now available from Lyons Press. Click HERE to order.

14 responses to “The Rise of the College Educated Farmer”

  1. Frank Gazdzicki

    I am so happy to see young kids interested in farming; Ive seen too many of my friends leave farming, and friends losing their farms over the years. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK !!!!!

  2. Sherene

    Been my daughters plan since she was three. She even has a savings account for her future farm.

  3. Big Onion

    (FYI: I’d likely read your memoir, since you seem to be a bit more grounded than most!)

  4. Keri Foster

    This article hits right at home. It shocks me daily how nobody notices how quickly the average American life has changed and how farming has all but disappeared from our day-to-day. Thanks for having the bravery to jump into farming, and for writing this essay.

    I’m still using my body for typing right now but I’m dreaming of chicken coops and cornstalks…

  5. Bree Abel

    Speaking of local farmers markets you should visit on your tour… we’d love to see you at the Old Colorado City farmers market in Colorado Springs, CO!

  6. Mary

    Thanks so much for stating (to me) the obvious. College isn’t always about becoming a doctor, lawyer or other “high ranking” job.
    I think college is a place to stretch your wings, learn about yourself and to create critical thinking skills. Not everyone needs to go to college but every child should have an opportunity to grow in this way.
    Your blog is right on the mark.

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  8. Lauren

    I concur with both Mary and Keri (I’ve wanted chickens for a decade!). If you’re up for it, the Waterloo Farmer’s Market and Stockyard could prove a good audience – the Mennonites are leaving after being treated like a tourist attraction for too long and a generation raised on real, local food is wondering where to turn.

  9. ms.garcia

    I’m an 18 year old senior with a great gpa, sat score, and have had several club leadership positions, but even as I get accepted to the colleges of my choice I find myself wondering if a degree in agriculture is really necessary. Why can’t I just spend the next 4+ years apprenticing and interning for succesful CSAs that are running the business of my dreams? I feel like I’ll be wasting time and money in college when I could be getting hands on experience right away, and the reasons I’m getting aren’t good enough because no one I ask has the life I want. I want to be a farmer, and I don’t want debt, or a lot of money, I just want to care for food and animals, and give my friends and family good wholesome food. I dont care for vacations, I care for routine and the authority to give myself tea time anyday, not chew my nails for the next christmas break. Sorry fir the long comment, I just really need input from a person who makes sense to me. I need a good reason for going or not going to college.

  10. Dan

    Forrest you just made my decision to stay in college a lot easier. Thank you

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