Over the course of the last few years I have purchased quite a few books about farming, all written by “successful” farmers and ranchers, people who these days write more books, speak at conferences, appear in a lot of “trade” magazines (from Mother Earth News to Hobby Farms to…), some have successful Youtube channels.
It occurred to me that I never quite found out how they got started in farming - something that is very pertinent to a lot of people these days, people who are itching to get a piece of land and make a living off it, but can maybe not afford to do so. It is a kind of a “catch 22” situation, really, as a lot of the successful “farmer turned writer and speaker” folks never quite reveal how they got their start, yet they make at least part of their income telling others how to go about it all.
As it turns out, when we do get to find out how these folks got started - it was either they bought the land a long time ago (when it was much cheaper) or they inherited it from family (which is a nice gift to have).
For example, Joel Salatin is a legend among the “wanna-be” farmers today, he speaks at almost every farming conference around Virginia (at least), has sold many a book, writes for Mother Earth News, so on and so on. One has to wonder what the breakdown of his income is these days - does he make more money farming or does he make more money from the written word and appearances? In addition to all that, I do not think we ever quite found out how much he paid for his farm to start out - to my knowledge (and I apologize if I missed any pertinent details!), he purchased the land from his father, for an undisclosed sum of money. This is all fine, however, one has to wonder about all the secrecy - if Mr. Salatin paid a market price for the land, great - it speaks more to his farming acumen to make it in the “biz” with a mortgage on his back! After all, Mr. Salatin writes books where he discusses ways to start out with nothing. If he started out with nothing, why hide the fact?
There are others out there who are in the same boat. Recently we saw the movie - “Biggest little farm” - about a couple who purchased a 200 acre (!) dilapidated farm one hour north of Los Angeles. They apparently did it to save their dog, when they were about to be evicted from their L.A. apartment, due to the dog’s incessant barking (how many Americans can just up and leave a coming eviction by paying California real-estate prices on a 200 acre farm?!). While the story itself is nice and heartwarming, the only finances they disclose is that they found “investors” to help them buy the land. Watching the movie and the scale and scope of investment in the property (tractors, trees, worm composting facilities, home, fencing, animals, sustaining losses for years, on and on), it becomes apparent that whoever invested in this place was rich - we must be talking millions of dollars!
Sometimes, the person writing the book discloses that they started out on land sold to them for a very small amount of money - Eliot Coleman comes to mind here. He purchased his land from Scott and Helen Nearing (of “Living the Good Life” book fame). Scott and Helen (and Eliot today) served as an inspiration to many generations of poor folks wanting to go back to the land and start a farm. However, we do not really know what Scott and Helen came from in terms of finances - we do know that Scott Nearing grew up wealthy, however. How about Eliot? After all, even if one manages to buy the land for cheap, there is the fact that a farm takes a few years to get established and in those years someone has to pay the bills, not to mention the fact that a lot of the cheap land is in very rural areas, areas that do not have the professional middle and high-middle class of customer base necessary to sustain a small, organic farm of today.
I could go on but by now a pattern seems to emerge - there seem to be no good guides and books on the market today detailing the road to being a sustainable and financially self-sufficient farmer for someone who is starting out in the city, someone quite possibly living the “American dream” fueled by car loans, education debt, mortgages, credit cards, etc. etc., something that fits most Americans’ situations. It is an odd paradox, the folks “teaching” the way to modern farming in the hope of educating the public about the need for the ordinary Joe Shmoe to go back to the land - all came from money or were gifted the land? Does someone like Mr. Salatin really have the moral right to write a book instructing someone poor or in debt about the path to acquiring land and running a successful farm, if he had never done so himself? Should we be looking up to Scott and Helen Nearing when thinking about the “good life” on the self-sufficient farm, if Scott and Helen came from a trust fund?
At the end, it may turn out that (sadly), the field of “going back to the land” is yet another American industry where the wealthy folks “reject the system” because they can and then try to sell that story to the poor who desperately want out of the system as well, but cannot afford to do so - yet another bridge to nowhere to be sold to some “unsuspecting fool”. The conclusion is and always has been - beware of who you take your advice from. Youtube and conference farm stars may be nothing more than used car salesmen in disguise.
Finally, an even more important question comes to mind - is the future of farming on Facebook and Youtube? Does the farmer of tomorrow have to spend more time on social media or writing books than actually growing food? If so - for many of us who went back to the land to escape the stresses of modern life (or because we happen to believe life was better a century or two ago) - it is something that could very well end the story before the story even had a chance to begin.