By Carol Ann Sayle
Photography by Jen Reel
As the truism goes, “there is a season to all things. . . .” Weather, plants, animals and humans alike change as the year goes by—and as the years go by. It’s the summer season here and, no surprise, it’s hot out there. Since most of us on this farm are in the second half of our, ahem, personal “seasons,” we quit field work at noon, or by one at the latest. Veteran farm workers often exhibit something called “common sense” and aren’t out to prove they’re above a heatstroke.
Once the daily quotient of vitamin D has been had, we sensibly move to the shade chores like sorting tomatoes, washing harvest tubs, fixing the tiller or performing farm-business work (taxes and communications) in the farmhouse office. That kind of work has to be done too.
According to recent surveys of farmers, 58 is the new average age of those who till the soil—down from the previous average of 62. I don’t know why the demographic experts frantically monitor and report about farmers getting old in the first place. If we’re lucky, we do—perhaps even outliving the number crunchers, as a lot of farmers continue to farm well into their seventies and eighties! This may be because we’re too old to start a new career, but I think it’s more about farming being what we know and all we care to do. Larry tells me that when he gets “really old,” he just wants to keel over in the field after taking a bite of a juicy, ripe tomato (hopefully it’ll be from an heirloom variety from tall vines so he can pass on to the unknown in the shade).
Increasingly though, younger people are entering the field—especially in the niche area of small farms like ours. It used to be that most young folks couldn’t wait to get a city job, make lots of money and do it in air conditioning with their feet propped up on a big desktop. But nowadays, more and more twenty-somethings are dreaming of farming—a romantic notion probably charged by the contrast to what their parents call careers mixed with the desire to help create a new paradigm of local farms feeding local communities. They want to grow real food—food that doesn’t carry an ingredients list—and this is a noble cause.
The desire to farm has also hit other, not-quite-as-young folks in the past few years—people in their forties and fifties. It’s an odd turn, but it’s what we did in our mid-forties before it was fashionable. I—suddenly older than the average farmer—must get at least three inquiries a day from folks wanting to get their hands dirty and intern or to be employed on the farm. They want to get outside and learn this business, and if they can’t afford to learn it on their own farm, they think the next best thing is to learn it from an old-timer. I wish Larry and I had known a codger or two to tap into for advice when we started farming twenty years ago. We learned from our mistakes, continued to experiment and gained a lot of knowledge. But we’re not done, as there is so much more to learn.
Regardless of entry age, the wisdom of this work must be passed on one way or another. Perhaps the number of old farmers we have knocking about to do this is a more relevant statistic than how old they’re getting. Data collectors should be celebrating longevity and acknowledging the fact that, like antiques, seasoned farmers have value and worth.