In 1996, fresh out of college, I dreamed of returning to my family’s farm and becoming a farmer. After decades of eroding cattle prices, our Shenandoah Valley farm was barely hanging on. My parents had almost given up, taking jobs in the city just to keep the bills paid. I would be the seventh generation to work the land, dating back to the American Revolution, and took it upon myself to keep the farm alive.
As my friends headed off to graduate school, I pointed my dusty pickup toward the farm. My college advisors shook their heads with well-meaning disapproval. “Go ahead,” they admonished. “Get your hands dirty for a few months. But when you’re ready to decide on a career, the real world will be waiting for you.”
But this is the real world, I insisted. It’s a world of sunshine and rain. It’s a world of physical toil and sweat, and the sweet satisfaction of nurturing life from the earth. After a few weeks back on the farm, I was sunburned and filthy… and utterly blissful. Most importantly, I was certain that I had made the right decision.
I projected our bills for the coming winter, and knew that we needed ten thousand dollars in the bank to carry us into spring. That summer, we planted the farm with corn and soybeans, abandoning our traditional cow pastures for the quicker financial return of grain. The meadows were killed off with herbicide, and the rolling hills cultivated.
In October, trucks whisked away our glittering corn and soy. I was so proud of what we had accomplished: We had saved our family farm. Later that week, I received our paycheck and tore open the envelope.
Staring at the check, I felt my knees buckle. The harvest hadn’t brought in ten thousand dollars. It hadn’t even cleared a thousand. After expenses, five truckloads of grain had made us a profit of eighteen dollars and sixteen cents.
How could this be? How could so much corn bring in such a pittance? Humiliated, furious, I nearly tore the paycheck into bits. At that instant, I realized how utterly broken our family farm was. I made up my mind that, somehow, we were going to fix it.
Seventeen years later, after triumphs and heartbreaks, our farm is stronger than ever. We now raise organic, grass-fed meats, and sell our free-range eggs at bustling Washington, DC farmers markets. Each weekend, I personally interact with hundreds of customers, answering questions and educating about our farming practices. Decades of debt is finally paid off. From where I stand, the future of farming has never looked so bright.
But our farm’s story remains the exception more than the rule. Today, high-yield industrial agriculture dominates the field. Only 1% of the country still lives on a farm, down from 50% just two generations before. If we’re going to save more family farms, we must rewrite the old story, and do it quickly.
It’s time to ask ourselves: What do we value? Do we believe in transparent farming practices, humane treatment of animals, and providing our producers a living wage? It’s easy to sit in ivory towers, dismissing these issues as glorified talking points. But when you’ve stood on your family’s farmhouse porch, and are handed eighteen dollars for an entire year’s worth of work, you begin to understand how truly desperate the situation can be.
People are ready for their farmers to become heroes. Who can blame them? The world needs heroes, those who believe in something greater than themselves. A new wave of farmers can live up to these ideals, and sustainable agriculture can be the story of our time. The shopping choices we make today have the power to alter the landscape for generations to follow.
His book "Gaining Ground, A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm" was named a Top Read by Publishers Weekly, The Washington Post and NPR’s The Splendid Table. He's currently at work on a second book, slated for release in June 2015 by the Lyons Press.