[As I mentioned on USFR, I'm getting calls and e-mails from young farmer-wannabees. This re-post seemed timely.]
We farmers are famous for loving our work. "All I ever wanted to do is farm", we hear younger generation say, and we smile with approval. While that sadly has passed for sufficient job qualification, it ceased being enough long ago. Wanting to farm, like wanting to play pro baseball is simply not enough. The odds for the ball payer may actually be better, as well.
But where does this intense love of our work arise? Part of the answer may be in the physical nature of farming. It is part artisinal, or craft. Physical work, which has become a secondary goal of our education system may have psychologically important benefits that fill our lives with pleasure.
Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge workplace is now supposed to act like an “intrapreneur,” that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job. Shop class presents an image of stasis that runs directly counter to what Richard Sennett identifies as “a key element in the new economy’s idealized self: the capacity to surrender, to give up possession of an established reality.” This stance toward “established reality,” which can only be called psychedelic, is best not indulged around a table saw. It is dissatisfied with what Arendt calls the “reality and reliability” of the world. It is a strange sort of ideal, attractive only to a peculiar sort of self—gratuitous ontological insecurity is no fun for most people. [More of a superb essay]For farmers, there is uneasiness as the craftsmanship of our profession is absorbed by technology, allowing fewer and lesser-skilled operators to compete effectively. While this certainly constitutes an economic challenge, it also presents a social and psychological upheaval especially hard on veteran producers.
It could be that farming is becoming a service, rather than a craft: we provide landowners with production services. That too, is a leap from where we have been and where we think we should be.
The upshot is many young farmers may be coming back for disappearing virtues of a disappearing life. And they may not be all that well prepared to change either. We would not be the first profession to undergo this painful transition (think auto mechanics), but we may be one of the most vulnerable.