The Next Generation of Small-Scale Farmers

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My grandson feeds a range cube to the newest herd bull on the farm.

My love of small-scale farming revived in me when I was still in my thirties.  As much as I enjoy and am energized by hands-on farm work, I have discovered that I can do the most good for small-scale farmers by working full time as a pastor with churches to create local markets where small-scale farmers sell what they grow.  My aim is to farm part time and use the influence I have as a full time pastor to make small-scale farming viable again so when I retire from pastoral ministry I can farm with the expectation of earning a respectable income from it.

In the opening chapters of The Land That Calls Me Home, I recall living on, moving from, and returning to our small farm in Lineville, Alabama.   The stages of both leaving and returning to the farm were gradual but the lifestyle difference at each stage was drastic.  Each step away from the farm was downhill because it involved less physical labor and more leisure.  Each step back into small-scale farming, from farming as an avocation toward farming as a life vocation, has been uphill, requiring harder and more time-consuming physical labor and the sacrifice of much leisure.

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Sandy helping me haul hay in 2009 when I could not find any day laborers to hire. Oh, and we’re still married after 39 years.

Given the trend of ever larger industrial farms growing food for expanding global markets, the prospects of working harder and living on less than their parents does not appeal to a generation schooled to accomplish and achieve.  One of my biggest supporters read my book that announces the revival of small-scale farms and said to me, “I disagree with the conclusion that there can be much of a comeback of small scale farms considering the size, power, and tools of Big Ag.”  Industrial agriculture tells us we can have it all, that 99 percent of us can leave farming to the 1 percent who will get bigger with bigger equipment, more land in cultivation and pasture, stronger chemicals, and a greater variety of genetically modified organisms.  That will allow even the 1 percent who farm to carry on lives with as much wealth and leisure as the 99 percent who no longer have to farm.  Or at least that is what the equipment and chemical manufacturers advertise.  How big is big enough is a question like how much income is enough.  Those who have a lot are seldom satisfied but are constantly under pressure to have more.  Therefore, they have little leisure.

A revival of small-scale farms in America will be accompanied by a spiritual revolution that discerns the deceit in the cult of upward mobility, of working less for more, a revolution in which people are set free from the spirit of ease and privilege that comes with upward mobility.  In the case of large-scale farming, the cult of upward mobility is nothing more than a pyramid scheme where money lenders and oligopolies of processors, manufacturers, and distributors are on top getting enormous profits even when the producers below them in the pyramid are losing and going deeper into debt.  I raise beef cattle.  Currently, cattle producers are enjoying record profits from a high world demand for beef that has outpaced the supply.  Small-scale farmers who opt out of global markets and grow instead for and sell in local markets directly to the consumer are either crazy to refuse the lucrative profits promised by the pyramid scheme managers or they have been set free from the lure of easy financial gain.

What can set any of us free from the lure of having more with greater leisure to enjoy it?  I believe that the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them infused the soil of the earth with the divine power by which the earth was created.  The very soil beneath our feet contains the energy, when combined with the light and heat of the sun and rain, to produce all the food we need not only to survive but to thrive.  When you and I introduce a child to the soil and that child participates with us in partnership with God to grow the food he or she eats, we open up a channel of divine power that alone can cast out the spirit of consumerism and the greed that fuels the cult of upward mobility.

If you are living close to the soil, or in fact getting your livelihood from it, you are on the front lines of inspiring members of the next generation to get closer to and live off the land.  If you live apart from the soil and depend totally on others who work it, you owe it to yourself and to your children and grandchildren to know farmers in your area who sell at local markets and buy as much of the food you eat from them as you can.  And when you buy it, bring the youngest members of your family with you to learn what you are learning again, that the very best food you or they will ever eat is grown from the soil beneath your feet.

Will my grandson be a farmer?  That is not for me to decide ultimately, but for him.  What I can do is work to ensure that he is not ensnared by consumerism and the cult of having more from less effort, and I can expose him to the divine power at work in the soil that keeps him free to choose to be a farmer if farming is what gives him life, purpose, and joy.

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My grandson at his first birthday party showing me the raised bed garden he enjoys with his mother and father.

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