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Plowing It Alone: The Difficulties of Farming in the Modern Age

When individualism reigns, generational agrarianism struggles.

With the locavore movement rapidly expanding, many urbanites are seeking a farming lifestyle. But as Whitney Light points out in her Monday Narratively feature, these aspiring agrarians may find their new vocation harder than anticipated. She tells the story of married couple Dan and Kate Marsiglio, who left their teaching jobs in 2005 to start an organic farm. The couple has made great improvements over the years—but like many, they’ve found the idyllic pastoral life more evasive than hoped:

In mainstream food magazines and agricultural journals alike, tales of city kids and hedge fund managers trading suits and ties for overalls have many forecasting a future of yeomanry in America. To be sure, new farmers remain hopeful that moment will come. But they’re also the first to report that in beginning farming, the honeymoon period is brief. It is almost a matter of course that regardless of how mentally and physically prepared a new farmer is for long, sweaty days of toil and winters of debt, farming will deliver more stress and heartache than expected.

Eight years after they launched their farm, the Marsiglios now have 30 cows, 25 sheep, 150 chickens, four pigs, a vegetable garden and greenhouse—but they’re still barely breaking even, and all thought of retirement remains in the murky unknown. Meanwhile, the gritty everyday work of farming grows more wearing with every year.

Out of all the young people and urbanites seeking out agricultural lifestyles, many will probably become disillusioned with the trade. The work is long, grueling, and often unprofitable (at least for a time). Those who hope to make a profit must, as a retired farmer tells Light, have “a sound business plan.”

But even more difficult, our age’s individualism greatly decreases a farm’s chance of long-term success. In historical America, the farm was a family-run enterprise. It was more of a generational lifestyle than a “full-time job.” Land was a highly coveted commodity, and a farmer’s children were expected to carry on the work after their father or mother was too tired or old to continue.

But today, children are no longer expected—nor are they usually encouraged—to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Children are not, modernism tells us, to be saddled with the burdens of their forbears. What does this mean for modern farmers? Simply that, unless one of their children takes a liking to the tedium of farm work, today’s agrarians are on their own. They must conjure up a successful, fruitful farm in their few decades of limber life, or else content themselves with a frugal, arduous future.

Of course, some farmers solve this problem by making their farms into large, capitalistic ventures. Wendell Berry wrote of these types in books like Remembering or Jayber Crow: he believed these individuals spoiled the land through their swelling greed, and poisoned small communities with their insatiable thirst for expansion. Small farmers, in his books, needed the next generations to survive: thus the old and wizened farmer Athey Keith in Jayber Crow tries to teach his farming methods to his son-in-law and grandson. While his son-in-law rejects such old-fashioned methods, Athey’s grandson Jimmy respects and loves his grandfather. It is Jimmy who cares for his grandparents when they grow too old and frail to care for themselves. He’s the one who tends their land and animals. Without him, they would not be able to survive.

What of the Marsiglios? They’re making do; they have combined their traditional farming with urbanite-catered events, and are thus diversifying and expanding their business. Perhaps these sort of ventures will help other modern farmers survive: by building up various sorts of modern salesmanship, they can make the old-fashioned art of farming profitable enough to live on. But if plans fail and retirement funds dissipate, there will always have to be a Plan B. Perhaps they will find a Jimmy.



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