guest essay: millennial farmers
By Allie Beth
Millennials. The generation raised on Disney songs, social media self-aggrandizement and the phrase: “You can be anything you want to be.”
As a kid, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, but stories in Little House on the Prairie of total crop annihilation via hail, fire and drought were harrowing enough to sear into my memory a mental note from my nine-year-old self:
Never, ever, ever become a farmer.
There were clearly some income security issues that even a fourth grader could calculate, and so I went to college with an open mind about any future career path, except one. Farmer.
Like many millennials, I chose a creatively stimulating but completely impractical liberal arts degree, the kind meant for students going on to get a masters or a PhD. I had planned on getting an advanced degree, but my heart was set on first marrying my best friend, Justin. There we were: in love, about to graduate, and just four months from ditching our college town and taking on the world.
Then, the stick I peed on had two lines.
I traded my grad school application for job applications, well aware that being pregnant put me in an unusually desperate position next to my peers who were also struggling to find jobs directly out of school. I spent a frustrating summer incubating a human and a growing realization that my degree wasn’t an automatic ticket to a good job. The economic setting into which Justin and I graduated was still in shambles after the crash in ’07-’09 they’re calling the “Great Recession.” Job growth was still sluggish, and many entry level positions across the country were already filled by older, more experienced workers who had lost their jobs in the recession. According to Pew Research, 44% of my fellow millennials are underemployed, working in low-wage, minimum-skill jobs like retail or food service. I can name at least twenty classmates from my private university who worked at Starbucks after graduation. Some of them had over $50,000 in student loans.
It would seem that my career plan was as vulnerable to the environment as Laura Ingall’s sad, hail-flattened corn field.
The baby came, I stayed home while Justin worked as a nurse’s aid, and we ate things like canned soup and beans to keep chipping away at our $20,000 of student debt. For dates, we would get a tiny Lil’ Ceasers $5 Hot N Ready pizza and sit in front of our virus-ridden laptop to watch The Office. I remember feeling like I could handle the obnoxious management of Michael Scott if only I could have benefits and two weeks vacation.
The turning point in our story is an embarrassingly stereotypical millennial cliché. We were converted to ethical eating through a documentary. Michael Pollan’s Food Inc. had images of factory farmed chickens and swindling biotech corporations that deeply infuriated us, resonating with every part of our disenfranchisement. But more powerfully, the appearance of Joel Salatin and his beautiful, integrated farming lifestyle promised a type of prosperity that I had not considered. Prosperity earned from the land with our own two hands.
Aligning our lifestyle with the ideals of Food Inc. certainly hiked our grocery bill, but we found other ways to cut back. We swapped disposable products like paper towels for more permanent, re-usable items. A $3 can of mint blue paint from the mis-tint section at Home Depot refreshed many pieces of Goodwill furniture and Craigslist supplied us with all the tools and household goods we needed. I stocked up on sale cuts at the locally-sourced butcher and canned huge volumes of produce from u-pick farms. These little victories were deeply empowering, and slowly I realized that I didn’t have to wait until we made more money to make the kind of life I wanted.
The winter of 2012, Justin came home from a night shift of wiping poopy residents at a retirement home and announced that he wanted to stop pursuing a medical career. He wanted to be a farmer. Justin paced the kitchen floor reminding me of Joel Salatin’s rolling hills, simpler life and fresh food. He turned to me, saying, “By the time people are getting to me in the medical field, it’s too late. I don’t think I can be a part of a system that provides palliative care to symptoms of obesity while feeding those same patients shelf-stable chocolate pudding.”
What could I say? The lure of the conventional 9 to 5 income still had a powerful grip on me, but Joel Salatin and all the Disney princesses in my head were telling me to let it go. Even then, I made Justin promise to get his masters degree. He could do it in something farmy. Anything.
For the next few years Justin pretended to apply for graduate assistantships and secretly amassed a large collection of seeds and farming books. I pretended to be annoyed with farming and secretly began to learn about making my own bread and raising fiber animals. We had several kitchen gardens and a few ill-fated flocks of chickens, but slowly the returns from our handmade efforts began to pay off. In the summer of 2014 our garden harvest of heirloom vegetables and grains actually made a dent in our grocery bill. Justin was a tower repairman and I was a church intern, but that summer we ate the best fresh, organic produce and pasture-raised meat like a couple of CEOs.
Finally my stars aligned. After moving for the sixth time in four years to be nearer to Justin’s dream school, he successfully landed a graduate assistantship in an agriculturally-related masters program, complete with full tuition and a stipend.
At last, I thought.The ticket to a real job.
But before school even started, Justin got an email that his program had lost some funding and had to drop several grad assistants. For me, this tremendous blow forced me to accept the reality that job security is never truly secure. All jobs are threatened by changing circumstances, a shift in the market, or a sudden loss of physical ability to work. Anything can happen. In a changing economy and shifting sociopolitical landscape, all jobs are vulnerable; as fragile as corn in a hail storm. Farming has many challenges, but the hours we have spent farming have quite possibly earned us more food than the hours we’ve spent at any other job. My life has been one grand irony, in which the career I most feared turned out to be my most secure resource.
We decided to part ways with the typical path to upward mobility, at least for now. We bought a little flock of Icelandic sheep that we sheared, milked and came to love as friends. Over planting and weeding, Justin and I debated business ideas and the kind of land we want to buy someday. We showed up, bright eyed and eager, at the local farmers market with our soaring ideals and a comparatively minuscule stack of veggies. To our great shock, we learned that despite our low supply and crippling imposter syndrome, people wanted to buy our food. Every week, we sold out of most of our produce.
This fall, our harvest was plentiful enough to supply both our family and my in-laws with enough produce, pork and lamb to give us many well rounded meals. Farming has given us the freedom to eat like kings while staying true to our budget, and more importantly, to our values.
Despite all of this, I didn’t actually call myself a farmer right away. It felt a little disingenuous since I had been so reluctant. Then things got serious when my little side project to raise 30 heritage turkeys turned into a full-blown farm debacle as one by one, the baby birds started dropping dead. I was beside myself, checking them every hour, feeding the dying with a dropper and crying when their tiny bodies lay still. I tore apart the internet and spent hours chatting back and forth with turkey experts on Facebook. Finally, I found a turkey breeder in Arizona who helped me isolate the problem and save the remaining 15 turkeys. I’m a farmer, not because I’m extremely knowledgable or skilled, but because I truly busted my ass to raise food for real people.
On paper, Justin and I are still a statistic. We don’t have good jobs to subsidize our farming startup, we have two kids and we live paycheck to paycheck. We’re feeling the struggle that 44% of our generation experiences, but we still eat fresh, organically-raised food every single day because we’ve taken our food security into our own hands.
I wish more millennials had the same opportunity. I’ve browsed dozens of blogs and articles offering advice about how a millennial can get by in a tough economy, and most of these sources advise young people to cut corners. Eat cheap frozen foods, they say, take advantage of coupons that cheapen already low-quality products and if you’re feeling really fancy, treat yourself to the dollar menu. These unsatisfying options make it seem like prioritizing your morals and your health are only privileges of the upper class.
Thankfully we don’t have to let economic hierarchy dictate our eating if we can learn how to turn the soil and keep a few animals. And if there’s no access to land, there’s always a windowsill, a rooftop, a neighbor’s yard, or a community garden where you can can exchange a little effort for nutrient dense food. Millennials have the tremendous advantage of being young, looking toward a lifetime of seasons to learn how to feed ourselves.
A few hailstorms can’t knock us down for long.