It helps when a beginning farmer is young. We can only sit back and hope that the truth doesn't grind them down.
These days, when a young man or woman makes the decision to farm for a living, it’s usually with the intention either to go with the flow or swim upstream against it. That’s the way it is. Young farmers must use the focused power of agribusiness riding the current like a surfer snug in the curl or like salmon that preserve their species by opposing the current.
When I first heard of Eric Herm’s book Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth I was set to read a synopsis of Eric’s first year in the curl. Most likely, I thought, the book would take us through the ag loan process at the local bank, discuss the high cost of commercial seed, and bemoan crude oil led prices of fuel and fertilizer.
I was wrong.
Eric points out that not even a conventional farmer is assured success. Simply owning a stable of large machinery and taking huge swaths across the land isn’t fool-proof, but Freedom to Farm, the farm bill, made it easier for them and harder for the likes of Eric. Harder too for independent dairy and livestock growers who no longer own crop land enough to feed their animals as land and grain prices have risen sharply.
In this unforgiving climate of ever-bigger farms, beginning farmers are as endangered as wild salmon or Grizzly bears. Eric has as much in common with predators of salmon as with salmon themselves. There will always some willing to feed on young farmers, or skin them if they get the chance.
Having worked off the farm for a time, Eric had already developed a successful career. It was that experience that allowed him to perceive agriculture from a distance, a perspective those of us more closely positioned don’t have.
Like blind men who feel the elephant, we who are already in the business only relate to the part nearest us. Eric has it all in focus. So his book is not solely about the struggles of Eric Herm, farmer, but about the corporate-driven form of agriculture and forgotten ethics of food.
Eric writes about soil erosion and genetically engineered seed and markets. He sees the elephant in the room. Farming is not so much about growing food as it is about selling something…anything…and profiting.
Growing food for hungry people is what Eric wants to do. His father has misgivings, probably because at one time some of Eric’s viewpoints were his beliefs as well. His father may even have handed some of those thoughts off to the son as the boy turned slowly to ride with the rapids. Like any good father would, he watches, encourages, and probably prays for his son’s success even though he may not himself believe success is possible.
Anyone who’s ever tried to grow for local markets knows that big merchandisers are tough competitors. When Eric figures out how much he needs to sell his crop at a profit, the first thing he hears from buyers is that they can get it cheaper from Cysco or Wal-Mart. That highlights part of the problem Eric faces. Food systems and lifestyles have been devised that make fast food mandatory. In this bustling world of dual working parents or single parent homes, who has time to search for ingredients or to cook?
Eric writes about water waste, herbs, earthworms, and HAARP, a device capable of altering weather that’s controlled by our military. He worries about the consumer-driven economy of country (ours) whose citizens consume more than any other people on earth. His beliefs are guided by his own conscience and intellect rather than peer pressure of neighbors and the government. Most of what Eric thinks about agriculture is tough for neighbors, conventional farmers, to accept.
Those of us who have built our lives and fortunes around such conventional farming see peril for idealists who would try change public perceptions in our world. Deep down inside, however, we know the truth. We walk softly so as not to waken the giant, hoping to protect those like Eric. But we know the truth of the giant just the same.
We were all young once.
As one of those formerly young people, I see Eric’s youth in his writing. I remember the ideals my father shared with me, those I once held and shared with my own son. Son of A Farmer, Child of the Earth is a little bit of that sharing, a little bit of a reference book for those curious about anything to do with food, and a little bit about the endangered species, like Eric Herm, who go against the flow.
Richard Oswald is a fifth generation Missouri farmer and the author of the Letter From Langdon in the Daily Yonder.