Farming once again has a future.
Someone snarkily observed that had the United States been settled from west to east, New England would have been a national park. Most us who are lucky enough to live here kind of feel that way despite the fact that things obviously are not so. We have tried mightily to preserve our heritage, preserve our rural landscapes and have felt a bit self-righteous about it along the way. After all, weren't we the ones who sent our seasoned and ambitious sons and daughters west to farm the deeper soils of America's bread basket?
In fact, we did some years ago send forth our farming progeny in the interests of developing a less visceral economy based on brains rather than brawn. We let our farms go fallow and told the best and the brightest to go plow their fields in other areas of endeavor. Short-sighted or otherwise, the landscape in this most precious corner of America has been degraded, our food system cheapened and we have little to show for it. Until recently.
As you may have become aware, New England is beginning to enjoy another agricultural renaissance. One might argue that the earlier back-to-the-land resurgence in the late 60s has begun to bloom again and it is not simply thanks to an eager battalion of disillusioned twenty-somethings who forsook their sheepskin for a hair shirt on some desolate back road. What has happened is those who went back to the land then are now at the forefront of a new agriculture that is not as introverted and escapist but rather has developed an inclusive social conscience.
Due to the deteriorating economic condition and our regional isolation, we have come to understand that, as farmers, we have a responsibility that extends beyond our doorsteps to the neighborhoods heretofore unable to grow their own food. There is an enormous spark of entrepreneurship that marks this new coterie of agrarians. Although the New York Times ballyhoos the youthful resurgence of getting down and dirty in the lettuce rows, many who outlasted the 60s are engaging with the world around them and taking the farm and its enormous potentials to our universities, to our churches, to funding sources in the local, state and regional bureaucracies to the benefit of us all.
Every land-grant college in New England is drilling down on not just appropriate technology, but integrating the academic departments to focus on the role and productivity of our farmers and examining how best to streamline research, marketing and the reach into our under-served communities (food systems). University of Massachusetts is developing a new Center for Agriculture under the guidance of Dr. Stephen Herbert which will give under-graduates hands-on field training to complement class time. Professor Ruth Hazzard already is running organic field trials. There is an on-going wheat trial to develop locally sustainable high-harvest cultivars for the burgeoning interest in artisanal breads and pastas. Appleton Farm on the North Shore has put in place their own Center for Agriculture which trains interns and, with the Farm-Based Education Association (which works with educators) and EMASS CRAFT (Eastern MA Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) which trains young farmers who are already on the land but lack certain skills perhaps, seeks to enhance the economic and real-time effectiveness of entrepreneurial agriculturists coming into the field. In MA, The Governor’s Food Policy Council is studying ways to make the production and distribution of the local food resource more effective and efficient. Public and private foundations have gotten the message and are also beginning to fund both the production aspects (Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture) and the food resource aspect (The Kendall Foundation, Wholesome Wave, Eos, et al.)
For a change, there is broad support for agriculture as America becomes ever more acutely aware that the balance of food availability is tipping precariously in the wrong direction. Could farming become noble again? Probably not in the United States. But thanks to the ever-increasing interest in and understanding of the local and regional importance of food systems, intelligent food policy and dietary concerns arising from giving control of our dietary options to bureaucrats and the nutritionally ignorant, farming once again has a future and it may become sustainable.
John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston's last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children's program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.