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Small farms pay the price

What will become of Generation 'Next'?

Every generation likely faces the same fate but it's the children growing up in agriculture who seem to be enduring the most heat.

OK, Boomers, listen up. It's a long-standing tradition you're honoring; congratulating yourself on your excellent management of life in general and then weeping and wailing about the lack of respect shown by generation 'next,' whatever their title might be. X? Millennials? Whatever.

"We've worked long, hard and honorably," us older folks say. "Why can't generation 'next' be as hardworking, diligent and God-fearing as we are?"

Of course, our complaint is followed by observation after limited observation about how those youngsters are toting themselves in a poorly constructed handbasket straight to hell.

The only problem with those observations is that each succeeding generation of ne'er-do-wells always manages to escape that handbasket just in the nick of time. It might be just a step or two before they've plunged themselves into one of Dante's nine rings of hell but they always do it.

I'm sure every generation of kids suffers the same fate but, from my perspective, it's the children growing up in agriculture who seem to be enduring the most heat. They're selfishly leaving the business, they don't appreciate the lifestyle, they lack the work ethic (feel free to add your favorite complaint here).

Believing most of those kids will be all right, regardless of the self-righteous comments so many older people might make about them, I surveyed the generation that's almost here, almost ready to take the shaky reins we're holding and continue forth. I found lots of them.

Step one for finding the best of ag kids, by the way, is to check into groups like 4-H. There are more than 6 million of them between the ages of 5 and 21 and almost to a boy or girl, they're all good. Or you could try what I did - look around your neighborhood for friends and family who just might be all right. Want to feel good about handing off stewardship of Planet Earth to the generation that will carry on, keeping the best of what we've done and maybe improving on it more than just a little bit?

Yeah, those kids are out there. I asked Jonah, my nephew's daughter, a wise-beyond-her-17-years young lady, to write about her thoughts growing up on a very small farm. Read it and you'll feel much better about leaving everything, sooner or later, to generation 'next.'

Jonah writes, "Growing up, I've been immersed in the mindset of life on a small farm. Our farm is something my parents and I do on the side, but it is more than a "hobby farm" to us. It is our whole way of life.

We keep chickens, milk goats, a milk cow and a small vegetable garden because we want to have a hand in the production process of some of our food. We get to have the experience of raising animals and plants to provide ourselves with some of our eggs, meat, milk and vegetables.

Producing some of our own food like this has caused us to become more conscientious about where we get the foods that we don't grow ourselves. We produce a lot of what we consume but sometimes have to supplement with products from other sources. We try to support locally grown food and have developed many relationships with small, local farms and farmers in the area. These people generally farm at a bit bigger scale than we do, but their farms would still be considered "small stakes." They don't grow food for grocery stores, only selling locally to friends and at farmer's markets.

What we share with these small farmers is gratitude. We have gratitude for the land that produces vegetables and other crops for us and for the animals who produce milk, meat and eggs for us. Because we are this close to the production of our food, we get to feel like we are working in partnership with the land. We are tending our plants so that they will give us the food we need. We are caring for our farm animals in return for what they produce for us.

One of the special things we've discovered through the relationship we have with our animals and with our land is how synergistically they work together. Since we have goats, chickens, a cow and a garden, there is a whole permaculture cycle that takes place: The animals' manure enriches the quality of our soil. The manure is then worked into the soil almost entirely by the chickens, who also get bugs and seeds out of it. Finally, weeds from the garden can be fed to the goats and cow, with the resulting manure repeating the cycle.

We have the privilege of observing this cycle because we are so close to the means of production of our food. We get to tend our vegetables and watch them as they grow. We get to see, in our pasture, the cow and goats that give us milk.

I think that raising our farm animals has opened my eyes to the importance of that proximity. As I've gotten to know our animals more and formed very personal relationships with them, I've become more of an animal welfare activist. Large-scale farming operations often seem to make animals into mass production machines, which bothers me. Smaller farms lie in contrast to that style of farming. Small stakes farming lets you raise your own farm animals or have a relationship with the person who does.

With our small farm, I feel that I have a deep connection to my food and to the sources of my food because I get to spend so much time with our animals and our plants. For instance, I have had an intimate relationship with the whole process of getting milk from our cow. I trained her when she was a calf. I've fed her and played with her by racing across the pasture and getting her to chase me, ducking quickly behind a tree so she wouldn't run me over. I've watched her give birth, and I've hand milked her. I see her as so much more than just an animal that will produce milk for me if I feed her. She is an individual with a character all her own.

I did similar things with one of our goats, as well as with many of our chickens. I had a particularly close relationship with our first goat: often when I spent time with her, I would put out my arms for her to use as a ladder. She would jump up, putting her front legs on them so she was tall enough to reach fresh leaves in trees. She and I also played hide and seek, where I hid behind our cars while she walked around them looking for me. Our chickens, however, probably got less enjoyment from my eager and persistent efforts to train them to balance on my bicycle handlebars while I rode up and down the driveway.

I think that's what's lacking in many of the relationships between people and the sources of the animal products they consume. There is so little connection when people who consume something are not involved in the process of its production. When we aren't a part of the life of the animal or of the production of our food, we rarely see that animal as more than a machine that can be manipulated or exploited to produce a food product for us, disregarding animals as living, feeling creatures. Being a part of life on a small farm, whether our own or someone else's, can give us a deeper respect for the animals and plants that produce the food we eat. I am grateful to have grown up with that."

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