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 truly 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, as well as the resurgent opportunities these farms present as a career choice.
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 these kids are trading in their collegiate sheepskins for… well… sheep, it begs the question: what in the world is going on here?
I can certainly empathize with how these new graduates might be feeling. 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 with two bachelor degrees the world was supposed to be my oyster. But instead of polishing my resume and arranging interviews in the city like all of my other 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.
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’ wasn’t exactly a trending phrase. 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 really only do one thing: train its graduates to become effective problem solvers. Oh, 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 to (hopefully) talk to that cute girl, while still waking up for an exam at 8 o’clock on Monday morning?
Of course, I understand that these examples might sound a bit juvenile, or even silly, but stick with me. Whatever career we end up choosing, we all have to start somewhere. At one point in our lives, none of us even knew how to drink from a sippy cup, much less write a senior thesis. 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, 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 make a pretense of living 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 the challenges of daily farm life.
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-edning 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 an mind that’s been programmed to problem solve?
To paraphrase The Who, the kids are going to be alright.