Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Retirement of a Generation of Farmers

**I wrote this short essay as part of our farm's CSA newsletter this week. I thought it would be best to share it on the blog since the gravity of it's contents is something to be considered among a broader audience than just our CSA. Maybe you agree?

Yesterday, I was once again reminded that farming is a very special career choice. I openly admit to getting frustrated at least once or twice a summer (maybe 3 times!) with the workload and lack of time off. Willy is much better at coping with it than I am and he certainly takes the brunt of the work upon himself. Often, he is at the farm literally from dawn until dusk with me arriving at a more civilized hour and leaving before it is time to make dinner. He really, hardly, ever complains. He loves his work and feels an almost parental attachment to the fields and the crops. While most people enjoy a few days off every week (that little thing known as a weekend), Willy may take off a 1/2 day now and again but never, ever more. The idea of leaving the farm for an overnight (or 2!) does not cross his mind. Indeed, he has told me regularly that he doesn't feel like he has to go to work when he gets up in the morning. Farming to him isn't work, it has become who he is.

So it is with great sadness yesterday that I was reminded that more than a handful of very dedicated farmers in our area are retiring this season with no one stepping in to replace them. This isn't the type of job you advertise for. There rarely is that one special person who wants to step in and 'buy the farm'; accepting the responsibility, long hours and low pay that come along with this commitment. Farming as a career choice makes very little sense; it is a lifestyle choice, or nothing.

To put our predecessors lifetimes into perspective, Grant Gibbs just celebrated 40 years of farming on his homestead in Leavenworth. 40 years of fighting the weather, building the soil, scrambling to find help, and persisting against all odds. Those farmers who are retiring are some of the pioneers of organic agriculture in this region. Watershine Woods, Jerry Pipitone, Ken Toevs... (and across the state Terry Carkner, Nash Huber and others...) they have all decided that it is time to move into the next phase of life. An entire generation of farmers who's time has come and gone. The gap that they are leaving behind makes me feel nauseated and humbled. Farming is a career built on experience. Year after year an accumulation of knowledge increases one's skill and chances of success. Those who have spent a lifetime in the soil hold a wealth of knowledge greater than any doctorate degree can decree and broader than any book can hold. So who is left to turn to for advice and support when these scholars are no longer available?

'We are all counting on you now.' was the message I was left with yesterday after discussing this situation with my dear friend Kim Lohse (another pioneer in her own way as she, in her retirement, continues to champion for local food) 'But no pressure!' she says with a smile. And isn't that the truth of it? One generation retires and the next must step up and try and fill their shoes. But I don't nearly feel ready to lead the charge. Somehow, an entire generation gap has presented itself between those who are retiring and our younger generation who are still learning the ropes. Where are the farmers who come in between? An entire middle-age missing from farm life.

I sincerely hope that our generation and the one following us can pick up the slack. I don't really know if we can, but I know that we will try. I am continuously inspired that there are people like my husband who find that their place in life comes with calloused hands and dirty work clothes. With any luck, there will be more choosing this path behind him.

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