Few things make me happier than drinking coffee on the broken tailgate of Jake’s pick-up while the summer sun rises over the farm. Cutting heads of lettuce with one perfect, clean stroke is one of them. Picking wineberries from thorny bushes until the marginal cost of bloody hands catches up to the marginal pleasure of their sweet, tart taste is another.
The type of happiness I derive from these things is an intoxicating brand of exotic pleasure. Read the first sentence of this article again. Tell me it’s not weird. Tell me you didn’t roll your eyes. An Ivy League millennial—let alone an Indian boy from New Jersey—shouldn’t engage the farming idyll. And maybe that’s why I do. Farming is the closest I’ve gotten to a cocaine addiction. It makes up for years of absent teenage angst and rebellion in a guy whose badassery had been limited to talking trash at his third grade Field Day.
This forbidden and unordinary value that we—that I—place on agriculture attracts fewer people to the field than an increasingly insatiable America needs. Around this time of year in 2010, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack aimed to increase the number of American farmers by 100,000 by now. Instead, the volume of new farmers has plummeted by 20 percent. Naturally, this means the country has a disproportionately old (read: dying) population of farmers, only six percent of whom are 35 or younger.
There’s a problem here—one that should be addressed with policy. Many young prospective farmers give up on careers in agriculture because of high start up capital costs, which are often compounded by the burden of student debt. The federal government created the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program as an incentive for young people to enter careers that provide public good by subsidizing or forgiving their outstanding loans. The program currently comprises budding teachers, doctors, and other obvious do-gooders but does not recognize farming as a public service. The National Young Farmers Coalition and other organizations are advocating on behalf of young farmers whose careers are obviated by the contents of their wallets to try to change that. Young farmers are serving our most universal, most fundamental need: the need to eat. They are true public servants even in the strictest sense.
But policy can only do so much. The real issue at hand is educated America’s exotification of agriculture. At this critical juncture, where an aging and conformist class of farmers is being phased out, farming must be rebranded to turn those with the skills and passion for innovation into a new generation of sustainable, forward-thinking agriculturists. They don’t need an agriculture degree as much as business savvy, social capital, and a desire to learn. Most importantly, they need the moral courage and foresight to get over educated America’s allergy to a profession that may not have the glamour of the finance-consulting-law school trifecta, but has far more utility. It’s time to retire the myths that make agriculture foreign and third-class. You don’t need to wear a John Deere hat to drive a John Deere.
Consider agriculture. Join this food job opportunities email list. WWOOF somewhere. Or at the very least, don’t dismiss a friend who does any of this as an irrational soul-searcher overcompensating for an absent cocaine addiction. He might be one, but whether he cares or not, there is great social and intellectual value in producing our nation’s food supply—no matter what Mom, Dad, or OCS says.
Shubhankar Chhokra ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Apley Court. His column appears on alternate Fridays.