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March/April 2010 – Reliability a precondition of farming

A commitment to the long-term is needed to make leasing work

If you’ve attended a farm meeting or conference lately chances are you’ve seen an earnest young man or woman stand up and complain that the price of land is keeping them from farming. Their point is valid, but only if ownership of land is considered an essential prerequisite of farming. As Treena Hein points out in her article in this issue, there are other ways of getting into farming, including co-ops and leasing.
Our farm is composed largely of leased land. I’d also like to see these (usually) smart, strong young people become farmers. So I think it only fair to add several comments that Treena and her sources may have been too polite to mention.
There seems to be a sense of expectation, even entitlement, in young people that there should be a system for accessing land much like they access health care, or a passport. I find this worrisome because a.) it suggests an overreliance on governments/systems to provide for their needs/wants and b.) hints at a sort of unrural impatience: it is as if they are saying, “I want to farm and I want to farm now!”
Leasing land is complicated and, no matter how many details are written into a contract, still relies on a kitchen-table kind of trust. I lived in this community for a decade before I was able to lease land of any acreage. In retrospect, I think the landowners needed to see that I was reliable, and was going to stick around. The biggest impediment to young farmers accessing land in this area seems to be their desire to be both of the land and of the planet, to be local and international. You can be a sturdy Wendell Berry kind of farmer with a deep affinity for the land. Or you can be the kind of Worldly Person who digs wells for tribes-people in West Africa one month, and the next month is clashing with cops at a climate change conference.
You can not be both.

From the I-wish-I’d-said-that department
If you were looking for a one sentence summary of the strange world farmers are selling into, you could do worse than the remark by Ontario lavender farmer John Murrel that “People are buying our products because of what’s not in them.” (p 39, italics mine.) Gosh—there’s something profound in his comment; think of the marketing around what food is “free” of: trans-fats, gluten, genetic modification, pesticides. Meat is marketed as cruelty-free, chicken is hormone free. And, if a food isn’t free of something, it has less in it, like salt, or calories. Gosh again—marketers have us paying for what isn’t there!
A thousand years from now historians will look at this time—when we were so full that we paid to have less—and declare that it was at this point that we either finally started looking after ourselves, or began the long ascent back into the trees.