Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

By March 23, 2021Book Reviews

This book isn’t new but deserves much more attention. It’s a collection of short pieces by farmers about things they learned as new farmers that they want to pass on, to save newbies (greenhorns) making those mistakes. Because it is personal anecdotes, this is easy to read, despite the seriousness. Greenhorns presents thought-provoking material, so you can usefully read one piece in a spare minute, and then think about it while you do a routine task. It’s a good companion volume to the more technical books on starting to farm.

There are fifty different short pieces, clustered into topics such as Money, Land, Body/Heart/Soul, Purpose, Beasts, Nuts & Bolts, Ninja Tactics, Old Neighbors, New Community. The resource section is a tad old, but still contains good stuff.

This book is written for the people who are willing to “jump high hurdles and work long hours to build a solid business” around the love of farming. Severine quotes Thomas Edison “Opportunity is missed by many because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Some of the messages are encouraging: you will get stronger with practice using a hoe and working outdoors all day, and you can learn diligence, courage and resilience. Don’t expect to be perfect from day one! Especially if you are making the big transition from an urban, less physically-active lifestyle. On small budgets of money and time, it is important to take care of your health, including sanity.

You do not need to struggle alone! Look for opportunities such as incubator farms, where experienced farmers are nearby as mentors, and you rent land, greenhouse space and some equipment. “I laugh every time I stop with a hoe in my hand to text the other farmers to see if a tractor is free”, says Meg Runyan. Beginner farmer programs are another source of support.

Some of the stories act as reality checks, including this from Jeff Fisher: “Cut, cracked, and bleeding fingers are just the start of the physical hardships of farming.” “At the end of each day I was left with aches, pains, cuts, cracks, blisters, infections, stings and sprains.” Not all of those, every day, I want to add! Farming is a very physical lifestyle, so invest in maintaining and strengthening your body for a long career.

“I feel so alone sometimes. It’s overwhelming to have every decision weigh on me. . . Why did I choose to farm alone? I just wish I had some company. Frustrated and full of self-pity, I finish the lettuce in a huff. . . As I work, my tantrum begins to subside.”

You need a sturdy sense of your own worth. How will you deal with a potential customer complaining about your prices (and by implication down-valuing your work? Will you get defensive? Crumple into tears? Go on at length about your own self-doubts? Admit you are new and slower than an experienced farmer? Such issues can lead to Imposter Syndrome (chronic self-doubt despite external proof of your competence).

It can be helpful to learn how to reframe a situation and celebrate the half-full glass. Learn to appreciate rural life. Learn to make friends with neighboring farmers, for what you share in common, setting aside the differences. Listen to their advice, accept offers of help when you can. Build community, a wealth of human connections. How important is it to you to look different? As Vince Booth points out, “This project of finding common ground with people who voice conservative ideals would be a lot more daunting if our agrarianism wasn’t an honest attempt to embody the most fundamental of conservative tenets: There are limits to everything. Given that, I believe local farming can be a rallying point for those on the left and those on the right . . .”

Josh Morgenthau shares his realization that reality can crowd out the ideals (which are the root of the disdain some farmers have for the organic movement). He grew fruit without chemical sprays, but was he prepared to lose his whole crop and go out of business rather than spray? How great a benefit to humanity would that be? “Even from an environmental point of view, running tractors, fertilizing with organic fertilizer, and putting untold other resources, human and otherwise, into growing an organic crop, only to lose it on principle. . . well, that just didn’t seem reasonable.” “Getting today’s customers to accept apples that bear more physical resemblance to potatoes than to fruit turns out to be even more challenging than is growing them organically in the first place.”

Those with romantic notions about working with horses will find Alyssa Jumars’ story sobering. Ignorant bliss, obstinacy, passion and ambition are not the way to go. She learned that they had unwittingly taught their draft horses to throw a fit or act terrified, so the people would take away the work, talk soothingly and stroke their necks. This big problem split apart the farm partnership.

Some of the tales are cautionary. Teresa Retzlaff and her partner leased farm land from very nice people they knew. “Be sure to put everything you are agreeing to in writing. Be explicit. Then have both a lawyer and a therapist listen as everyone involved explains exactly what is being agreed to. And still have a backup plan in case it all goes to hell.” She doesn’t cast blame or say anything nasty, but clearly she speaks from experience.

Be realistic about your finances, consider loans and debts carefully. Have a backup plan, and regularly compare your daily realities with where you need to be financially. Don’t dig deeper into a hole. You’ll be putting your hearts, souls, energy, time, family and livelihood on the line when you take out a loan. Don’t rush to own and lose sight of your actual goal of farming. Bare land with no infrastructure is going to be hard to wrest a living from if you have no money left over for building the farm!

Luke Deikis advises walking the land before sitting down to discuss details with sellers (saves time drinking unnecessary cups of tea!) Even better, get a map and do a drive by before scheduling a meeting!

Ben Swimm writes about losing tools as part of a chaotic spiral that’s especially dangerous for new farmers. It’s connected with being over-ambitious, spreading yourself too thin, getting flustered and disorganized. This can lead downwards to a state of demoralization. Adding to the challenge is the seasonal nature of farming. It gets too late to fix a problem this year – you need to move on from this year’s mess and do something different next year. Triage is as valuable in farming as in hospitals.

Sarah Smith writes about farming while raising two young children. As a farmer-mama, “there are no vacations, Saturday gymnastics classes, or afternoons at the playground.” Sure, the kids thrive in the outdoor air, learn math making change at market, and develop good social skills by being around so many different people, but “on many days, all this comes at a cost to our family.” Being a farmer and a mama are both full-time jobs and among the most difficult in the world.

Evan Driscoll combined an unpaid 20 hour-a-week farming internship, 40 hours a week earning money, and childcare. He thought that was reasonable, on his way to becoming a farm owner. He hadn’t realized that having his partner in law school meant he’d be the primary caretaker for their child. That’s definitely something to clarify before you get too far down the road.

Maud Powell was shocked to find herself in the conventional women’s role on her farm, after her children were born, while her husband did the fieldwork. The couple apprenticed on a farm together, doing all the types of work interchangeably. She imagined continuing this way on their own farm after her first child was born: farming with the baby strapped to her back. Like many pre-parents, she underestimated the amount of energy and time breastfeeding and childcare would take. She also underestimated the love and devotion she would feel for her child, and how her focus would move from farming to mothering, and taking care of the household.

After her second child was born, her struggle continued. For efficiency in their time-strapped lives, they let their gender roles become more entrenched. This changed when they started growing seed crops. Preserving the fruits that contained the seeds increased the value of the kitchen work. Maud later branched out into community organizing around shared seed cleaning equipment, farm internships, and a multi-farm CSA. She became the one “going out to work” while her husband stayed home on the farm.

Farming includes many aspects we cannot control, including the sometimes devastating weather. Unexpected frosts, floods, hurricanes. As farm-workers, we learn to work outdoors, where the weather is a matter of personal comfort. But it is only as farm-owners that the weather affects our livelihood. We learn to do our best to prepare where we can, surrender when we must, and pick and up and rebuild afterwards.

Kristen Johansen says, after Hurricane Ike destroyed their chicken housing in the night, “It was our first year farming, and the learning curve was steeper than you can imagine. It was demanding, stressful, frustrating, exhausting, dirty and beautiful at the same time. When we took the leap into farming, overnight we became responsible for several hundred tiny little lives, and the weight of that responsibility was heavy.”

Climate change is undeniable; we must develop resilience. Ginger Salkowski says, “A successful new farmer in today’s (and tomorrow’s) climate has to have a serious package of skills. You have to be able to live with less. . . get very creative with very little money and time in order to make your season happen. You have to thrive on uncertainty. . . You need to be strong in body. . . You must be strong in mind . . . You must be strong in spirit: In times of high stress, there is grace to be found in pausing to observe the first sweet-pea blossom . . .”

Farming is mostly an exercise in managing chaos, as Courtney Lowery Cowgill points out. She shares her twin defeat of seeds that would not germinate and a hoped-for pregnancy that wasn’t happening. Proactive people make good farmers, and yet we must remember we can’t make everything turn out the way we want. We must learn not to blame ourselves for things we could not control or predict. While also getting better at predicting. “Farming in an ecologically responsible way involves good timing, and when we need to get something done, we git ‘er done!” (Paula Manalo)

Some of the stories describe unconventional (risky) ideas that helped the farmers get through a tough patch, like using a credit card with a year of zero percent interest rate to finance the first year of farming! Or getting a farm loan that didn’t allow for earning any off-farm money (very hard while starting up), followed (when that didn’t work out and they had to get off-farm jobs) by a home loan that didn’t allow any farming! “The irony of having to quit farming so we could finally get a loan to buy the land . . . was made even harder to swallow when we had to provide written assurance to the lenders . . . that although we had indeed spent five years running a ‘hobby farm’ we . . . now had nice safe real jobs, and only wanted to buy eighteen acres of land zoned agriculture-forestry so we could continue to live a ‘rural lifestyle’” “I can’t say I recommend lying to your bank as a road to farm ownership.”

Don’t feel a failure if you need some off-farm income to make the good life good enough. It doesn’t make your farming any less “real”! Casey O’Leary surveyed neighboring farmers and found she was not alone in needing some off-farm income. There is no shame in doing paid landscaping work two days a week to fill the financial gap. By embracing the part-time nature of your farm, you may be able to increase your dollar per hour, as Casey discovered. Focus on the best-paying farming and walk away at the end of the day. “My relationships with my lover, friends, and family have improved because of my ability to keep my farm in a part-time box.”

Some passages are about why we farm. If your goal is to grow nourishing food with and for those with limited access, while also meeting your own needs to farm fulltime, then don’t focus on making money from farming. Find other sources to support your financial needs. Douglass Decandia had a dream of this sort, and found paid work with a Food Bank. “Most of us don’t need to search for meaning in our lives, because we see it every day. Thankfully, the work itself propels us on to the next task.” (Tanya Tolchin)

Jenna Woginrich is an office worker by day and “a farmer by passion”. She attributes her happiness and success to two things: “I always believed I would (not could, not might, but would. 2. And because I wrote it all down.” Only 2% of people with goals write them down, but of that 2%, 90% achieved their dream.

Emily Oakley and Mike Appel write about their decision to run their 100 member CSA of 50 crops on five acres, with just the two of them. It’s their full time job, and they designed their farm to fit this preference. Their goal is to be as small as possible while still making a living. What a refreshing perspective! Bigger means more responsibilities, more worries, and not necessarily more money. Their farm can be smaller because they are not paying anyone’s wages. Why pay for more land just so you can grow more food, so you can pay employees? Staying small also meant they can have an off-season break. The limitations are that there are no sick days; it can get lonely; it can put strains on the relationship.

Farming may not be easy, but it sure isn’t boring. Sustainable farming includes some pioneer spirit and also giving back/paying forward. Respecting other farmers, customers, neighbors. Mentoring newer farmers, sharing tools.

Some stories share the magic and the sense of connection with past farmers. Sarajane Snyder says: “Farmers, understand what you’re doing in the context of interconnectedness, of caring for multitudes of beings. Take refuge in the care you are generating and the sustenance you are providing, for humans and bees and microorganisms, for gophers and spiders. Our dirty work is good work.”

Ben James describes the day he realized the rusty spots on the right fender of the John Deere he’d recently bought were caused by the palm and fingertips of the previous owner twisting in the seat to see the row behind the tractor. He shares his realization that “Time on the farm is not static, it’s not a given. It’s not like a ladder with all the rungs evenly spaced. Rather it’s a substance, a material we try to manipulate just as much as we do the tilth and fertility of the soil. How many tomatoes can we harvest before the lightning storm arrives?”

Jen Griffith writes about watching the sunset towards the end of her year as an apprentice living in a tent, watching a great blue heron twenty feet away, swallow a gopher whole.

Don’t miss the bonus flipbook in the bottom right page corners. Watch the seed germinate and grow. Use it to distract that young child while you do your accounting! Or for yourself to wind down and cheer up after a hard day.

Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers, edited by Zoë Ida Bradbury, Severine von Tscharner Fleming and Paula Manalo, Storey Publishers, 2012. 250 pages, $14.95.

Book Review by Pam Dawling