by Helen Grant
If you’ve ever harbored daydreams of working a small organic farm and selling goods and produce locally, then “Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement” is your book. While this collection of essays provides a glimpse into the hardships new farmers endure, it’s not all toiling over fields in the broiling heat or racing against a frost before it destroys your crops. There are plenty of lighthearted stories that range from finding love, raising families – in addition to produce and animals, along with other triumphs. Despite a myriad of view points, one theme unites these personal essays: the dedication these farmers feel for sustainable and ethical farming.
The book is sectioned into chapters methodically. Chapter 1 “Body-Heart-Soul” is a series of essays about the physical nature of farming, parenting and farming, accepting that which is beyond your control, such as natural disasters, and young farmers navigating new relationships. I readily enjoyed this chapter because even though I’m not a farmer there was a time where I had many garden beds both in the front and back of my house and to some extent I could sympathize with the hardships faced by these people.
The essay entitled “Farmer Mama” by Sarah Smith especially struck a chord. The parallels between growing a family and tending the land were the same kinds of observations I’d made when I’d been pregnant with my second child, which is when my oldest daughter had been a toddler. My husband and I bought our first house together. I was around 6 months pregnant, but that didn’t stop me from promptly digging out the first of many gardens and planting tomatoes, vegetables, herbs, and melons. During this first season of tending my own garden, I told the midwife I was seeing for prenatal care that the watermelon would be ripe around the same time my youngest daughter was due. In this digital age of instant gratification, it feels kind of weird to stop and realize the development of fruit can serve as a personal calendar of sorts. Even so, I readily sympathized with Smith’s account of trying to mother small children and work her farm as well as not being satisfied in seeing her life become boxed in by traditional gender roles and coming to terms with these issues.
The other chapters include essays grouped by themes such as “Money,” “Land,” “Purpose,” “Beasts,” “Nuts and Bolts,” “Ninja Tactics,” and “Old Neighbors, New Community.” In “Money” there is a wonderful essay about a set of farmers who set out to purchase a small farm, but are denied loans by various institutions. They’re not even able to apply for aid from government agencies that offer new farmer programs. The hang up? They aren’t setting out to run a big agriculture operation so what they’re doing is considered a “hobby.” So what is a would-be-farmer to do? Apparently when you apply for your “home” loan you say you are keeping your day job and promise not to farm on your land. Once your loan is secure and you’re moved in then you farm on your land. “Money” and “Land” could have been condensed into one chapter in a lot of ways. There are things about both that overlap and bring to light issues a new farmer faces. Chiefly that small sustainable farming is not an easy business to just start up. There are a lot of options to consider from leasing land to purchasing it. Both routes have their advantages and disadvantages. And this, folks, is just the start. Then there are the costs for equipment, seed, soil amendments, and beasts. You are also treated to a few essays about people who left behind their steady urban jobs to pursue this challenging work.
The chapter on “Purpose” starts of with an essay from Nesya King. She left a PhD program to farm. In “Purple Flats” she writes about tending to some last minute farming in a pair of dress shoes because the opportunity to till the soil wet and plant new seeds, which will better germinate given there’s a predicted rainy weekend in the forecast. This is the kind of opportunity that may not readily present itself again in an otherwise arid Texas climate. She does this right before attending a reception given for alumni from the University of Texas. King takes us through conversations had later that same evening. She is somewhat reticent in admitting to former professors and peers that she left academia for farming. Towards the end, however, she concludes that her work is of equal value even if it is different.
“Beasts” is about the nature of raising animals. From animal shenanigans to the grim reality of slaughter, this chapter contains both levity and a touch of sadness. There’s also an essay about farmers, processors, and consumers not letting themselves “off the hook” in regards to how animals are treated and slaughtered. Essentially if you’re going to eat meat, be a responsible carnivore. “Nuts and Bolts” shows off the DYI spirit of these small farm entrepreneurs. When hobby gardening tools aren’t up to task, but industrial tools are too large for small scale farming, these farmers construct their own equipment, and in some cases they recondition “outdated” equipment to aid them in their work. There was one essay about a turn of the century potato digger being torn from the woods and weeds that caught my attention. This would-be worthless piece of junk was restored and would later play a vital part in expanding the farm’s ability to grow and harvest potatoes for their local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). People purchase shares in advance of a crop, thus allowing farmers to buy supplies, seeds, etc, and when harvest comes each shareholder’s return is parceled out in goods and produce in accordance to however much they invested.
“Ninja Tactics” acknowledges the nimble maneuvering farmers of the new movement must learn. In addition to making friends with those who may not understand why someone would bother to farm without chemicals or farm the “old fashioned” way, it also details the challenges of farming during serious climate change, when farmers are seeing record highs and lows as well as powerful storms. But the farmers who pen the essays in this chapter remain resolute that while it is difficult, their goal to reduce their impact on the environment and by extension provide a stable and secure food supply is a worthwhile endeavor.
The book concludes with “Old Neighbors, New Community.” OKC.NET contributing writer Samantha Lamb has an essay, “The Farmer’s Table,” which describes her comical, but sincere, attempts to approach the older generation for good tips on farming as well as learning that no farmer is infallible from making simple mistakes.
The last essay, “Coming Full Circle: The Conservatism of the Agrarian Left” by Vince Booth, has a great story about a town hall meeting during the national debate on health care reform. I could sum it up quickly, but I believe this small vignette within a vignette provides a much more entertaining scene:
“Our district’s town hall meeting fell on a hot day and dry day in early September. We wanted to look like upstanding citizen, so they three of us cleaned up, trimmed our beards, and put on some decent clothes. We arrived twenty minutes early. The large venue was already approaching capacity and rang with animated exchanges. We found seats in a sea of red shirts and star-spangled accessories. I sat beside a woman who, after we had settled in a bit, looked me over and said in a tone so distasteful that I thought she had to be joking, ‘You look like a liberal.’
I responded hesitantly and through a weak laugh, ‘Yes, I suppose I am.’ She let out a disgusted harrumph and moved to the next seat over.
I had to defend myself and my alleged liberalism from such immediate and damming disdain. My disbelief at her contempt quickly became anger and soon I found myself threatening to slap her. (She was the lunatic; she!) She proudly offered her cheek, disparaging liberals for always being victims. I groaned.
After five minutes of this – ‘Barack and all his czars. What more evidence do you need?’ – our vehemence wore us out. I asked the woman if she kept a garden. She did, out of concern for Big Brother. Did I? Yes, because of my concerns for health and food security. Oh. We both let out a great exhale. This other person isn’t a complete lunatic.
In agreeing upon the goodenss of an action in the pursuit of this shared value – autonomy, differently formulated – our many contrary conceptions about the world feel to the side. After a few more minutes of talking about gardening I invited her back to her old seat and she accepted. Democracy in America was saved and I won a medal.”
While I was lightly researching this book, come to find out there’s a feature-length documentary about it too called “The Greenhorns,” I noticed some readers complained that the farmers, while enthusiastic about farming, were not particularly good writers. I dismiss this as a preference of style. I do not need essays that could have been penned by Walt Whitman or Ralph Waldo Emerson to enjoy the collection of narratives found in this book. I might feel otherwise had this collection been put together by writers educated in a variety of literary styles, but it was not. It was put together by ordinary people who share a grassroots dream.
Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches from the New Farmers’ Movement is available in paperback and e-reader.
Speaking of grassroot dreams, I leave off with a Portlandia skit. You know you’ve arrived as a movement when someone is parodying your ideals in addition to the stereotypes that surround them.