As I take note weekly of stories about agrarianism that works – urban farming, farming in education, organic and local food victories, the rise of young farmers – it occurs to me that I was drawn to an agrarian life because I needed this kind of joy. And hope, and energy, and community. I wasn’t finding it in traditional academia. I certainly wasn’t finding the holistic approach to body and soul that I craved, and which I needed especially as a person suffering certain physical limitations. To my frustration, and probably to my advisor’s frustration as well, I found I needed to slow down my studies considerably to make time for lots of physical exercise to prevent muscle seizures in my neck and shoulders. If ignored, these seizures and spasm have me bent over like a frail lady of 95, unable to hold even a book or a pen. Doctors were puzzled, but even they had to admit there was nothing they could prescribe that would work as well as lots of aerobic exercise.
And then there was the mental drain, the sense, every so often, that I simply had no more to give intellectually. I instinctively imagined it as overworked, overploughed, exhausted earth, and I imagined the cure as “mental composting.” I needed to spend time with others’ words, nonacademic words – novels, poetry, news stories that gave me hope, inspirational sermons and memoirs. I needed to refill the nutrient content of my brain, to be passive and receptive for awhile, especially while writing my dissertation.
In the seven months since I finished grad school, I have had lots of mental composting time. While I was initially excited to start revising my dissertation for publication, I got distracted by the sheer amount of time I had (while volunteering and looking for paying work, of course) to read. For the first time in years, I wanted to read “serious” nonfiction, wanted to do creative writing. I got to the point where I was mentally composting as I was mentally growing, where my mind’s energies were being fed at the same rate as they were being used up.
Today I read this story on NPR’s food blog, Salt. It is dirty-minded (by my definition) in the extreme: young people learning farming, learning traditional farming work songs, and learning contra dancing, a traditional rural form of entertainment. From my point of view as a newcomer to a community where folks sum up their qualifications for town office by reminding each other that they’re fifth-generation farmers on family land, I am heartened to see this new crop of farmers, most of whom do not come from farming families, coming to the field. They are heeding a vocation to the holy priesthood that is responsible agrarianism. They are led by their passion, by a vision of the wholeness of human life and the relatedness of human life to the larger world. Brian Bates asked himself, “how can I have the greatest impact in my life in the world? And the thing that I kept coming back to, that everyone connected to, was food.” Though he does not use the phrase, Ben Shute speaks of his vocation as a form of tikkun olam (Hebrew for the “healing of the world”): “It’s all well and good – and important – to have political opinions, and protest, and things like that. But when you’re farming, you get to live your values, and farm the world that you want to see.”
If it sounds like they’re romanticizing farming, maybe it’s because farming needs a little romance. Small farmers have been marginalized, abused, and neglected. They don’t have much of a safety net, and now some of them have to deal with nonsense like raids from the USDA, all while agribusinesses escape many forms of oversight despite causing widespread threats to the public health. What’s needed is not to scare people away from the agrarian life, but to make it more feasible, better able to weather, well, the weather. Better able to connect to individuals, markets, and coops. CSA (community supported agriculture) helps, by having members pay for a share of the farm’s vegetables at the beginning of the growing season. The risk and the bounty are shared by farmers and members alike. The proliferation of farmer’s markets helps, too, as does the growing awareness that food should taste good, and that most of the stuff you can get in a supermarket doesn’t, whereas an heirloom-breed tomato, picked just this morning, tastes fantastic. But we need policies and incentives and protections for young farmers, especially in a world that cannot continue to grow food with methods dependent on plentiful petroleum. We need more farmers, and we need them growing for local markets. And that means we need to give farmers the respect they deserve.
Farming isn’t the only way to connect to people, or to live your values. But if prostitution is the oldest profession, then farming is the world’s oldest vocation. It is the calling to partner God and earth in the project of bringing forth food. It is the beginning of all sacred feasts, whether Seder, Eid ul-Fitr, Solstice, Vesak, Thanksgiving, Diwali, or Eucharist. None of these can happen without the work of farmers, most of whom we may never have met. Mindful agrarianism is a powerful way to envision the ecological web that we are part of, on which we depend for life, and which encompasses the whole world.