Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The last of the family farmer

Yesterday, David Masumoto was on our local NPR station discussing his book, Wisdom of the Last Farmer: Harvesting Legacies from the Land. During the radio program he discusses returning to his family's farm to take over the land.

In the interview they cover:
America is no longer a nation of small family farmers. Small–scale farming has become rare, and the average age of those remaining farmers is 57. What wisdom are we losing as these farms disappear? When parents no longer pass their farms and knowledge of the land onto their children, what do we lose as a nation? What does it take to be a family farm in this era of large–scale corporate agriculture? David Mas Masumoto is a third generation organic peach and grape farmer. He is also a third generation Japanese American. How do these two things overlap? Masumoto joins "Weekday" to discuss what wisdom can we glean from our farming history.

David argues that it takes years, decades even, before you can master farming. That it takes repetitive, hard work and the understanding of what that means. Even mastering weeds takes years to be able to distinguish which ones are problematic and which ones are prevalent in certain parts of the field. It's all part of the experience of working the land for years.

He also explains the difficulties of organic farming since there's no magic bullet to managing pests. It takes a lot of managing the fields, trial and error and taking notes about what works where. There are also issues with deciding when to pick the fruit so that the fruit is perfect when it reaches the consumer. Since he works mostly with soft fruits (peaches, nectarines and grapes), he is constantly trying to supply perfectly ripe fruit.

If it is picked too late, even a day or two, the fruit will be bruised by the time they reach the seller. At that point, the farmer pays back "adjustments" since a certain percentage of the product arrives damaged.

David farms 80 acres in California. This book is his seventh book about farming. If you are interested in farming, check out the interview and/or his books.

If you have done any farming or have experience with farms, do you agree with the author that it takes decades to master farming? Do his statements about farming scare off potential younger farmers or is it an accurate assessment? That the knowledge and wisdom of farming is hard earned and takes years to master?


Robj98168 said...

Both sides of my family farms the Northeast area of North dakota. I must say there was no encouragement to a young Rob to take up farming. And watching over the years no interest in my generation to follow in their footsteps. Partly because it is a hard life, partly no interest from the older generation to teach the younger. Too bad.

Farmer's Daughter said...

My dad's family has been farming the same land since the 1640's. My mom's family farm (one town over) just celebrated 100 years a few years ago. I absolutely agree that farming takes decades to learn. In our families, the elderly are cherished and respected, because they've seen and survived more than the rest of us. My grandfathers and grandmothers always have a big say in what's done on the farm.

In my experience, the physical labor of farming takes a toll on the body. Since there are no days off on a farm, there's really no break and vacations are rare. All the farmers I know look much older than they are, simply from the wear and tear of everyday life. Their hearing is bad from the loud equipment, their backs ache, and their hands are rough. My dad has a skin disorder on his hands from years of farming and construction, a combination of all the chemicals he's handled throughout his life. The skin on his hands was literally peeling off in big chunks. With treatment, it's much better now. He's also had Lyme Disease, advanced stages and didn't know he had it until sitting in a vet's office reading a pamphlet about it. Again, with treatment he's better. He's got terrible back problems, but he's so scared of the surgery and being accidentally paralyzed that he won't get it fixed. But he loves farming.

When I was growing up, my brothers, cousins and I all worked on the farm. That's the thing about young farmers. Even at the age of 20, they've probably already got about 20 years of experience! So farmers just starting out on their own often know quite a bit.

Still, it's hard to make a buck. My parents always encouraged us to do well in school and encouraged us to get other jobs. My mom's a teacher, my dad has his own construction company, I'm a teacher, one brother went to college to be an engineer and now works in the construction business, and one brother works in the construction business right out of high school. All my cousins have gone to college/are going to go to college and have gotten other jobs. The farm is the place where we all come together to work together, but we all really knew there was no fincancial future for us there. We love it, but it can't support us.

Sorry for the long comment... guess I could post this on my own blog :) I have a lot to say because the loss of family farms breaks my heart, and I hate to think what will happen to our farm in the next generation.

Greenpa said...

"do you agree with the author that it takes decades to master farming?"

He's in the right ballpark, anyway. Then there's that word, "master". Maybe ten years to journeyman status, and 30 to master.


It CAN be discouraging, but thank goodness, most young people going into farming are pretty oblivious to this kind of advice. They're sure they know what they're doing- until it's too late to get out. :-)

So, this farmer wins THE lottery.
The press asks, "So, what will you do with the $200 million??"

The farmer replies, "oh, I'll just keep farming, until it's all gone."

Anonymous said...

Lol@Greenpa. Yup. My family did all they could to discourage me from farming, with the end result that I'm in my 40s and only beginning on this, my second career, and in an entirely different climate than my forebears farmed.

I agree that it takes decades, which you can either see as discouraging or challenging. Just because one hasn't mastered it doesn't mean there's no recompense.

Crunchy Chicken said...

Abbie - Your comment wasn't too long. It was perfect. Thanks :)

Laurie in Mpls. said...

The only bit of wisdom/knowledge I can share is this: it's taking me *plenty* of time to learn how to garden my tiny little plot of urban yard. I can only imagine that it takes MUCH longer when you are looking at a bigger scale, and crops with more precise needs than a few tomato plants, a few pepper plants, and some herbs. (The periennals (sp?!) are left mainly to their own devices.)

Correne said...

I agree with Laurie. I've been gardening in my backyard for 5 years, and I played with the garden at my old house for 5 years before that, and I only feel like I am STARTING to get the hang of it.

I can imagine that it would take decades to actually become GOOD at farming, and then how much of that is transferable? If you move across the country, how much of what you know needs to change due to climate, soil, weeds, pests, etc.?

Anonymous said...

Yes. Decades, preferably farming the same land year after year.

My family had small farms back in Indiana, and of course gardens all over the Midwest. All of that knowledge and experience is lost to me for two reasons: one, because most of them are dead, and two, because I moved away and now live in a climate where much of what they had to teach is not very helpful.

I voraciously devour any information I can find regarding Native American farming techniques relevant to my area, because it's really the only farming teaching I can find that works with the natural landscape rather than at odds with it. I also do incorporate technology and experience from other areas that seems to be adaptable (Elliot Coleman's winter gardening for one). But it's not easy. I have as many failures as I do successes.

When I was a kid I wanted to be a farmer, and I loved our farm. But my cousins couldn't wait to get off the farm.

Julie said...

Absolutely it takes decades. I'm another farmer's daughter and I'm so sad that no one in the family has been able to carry on the tradition. In spite of how difficult the life is and how hard on the body, my Dad, in his 70s still would love to go back to farming! It's some kind of terrible addiction I think!
We've found some land of our own to love and work. It's been 7 years here and I get a little smarter about it every year. But I'll be long gone before I ever really know this land!