Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and our Future
Edited by Martha Hodgkins
Princeton Architectural Press, 2017

If you are young (or young at heart) in the food movement, and long for wisdom and guidance from wise and weathered elders and leaders, this collection of essays compiled by Martha Hodgkins of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture is for you. The cast of contributors includes well-known writers such as Bill McKibben, Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollen, Wendell Berry, Raj Patal, and over 30 other farmer-foodie-activist writers you may already know or are due to discover.

The book propped up in a field.
Photo: Raj Patel

In the book’s 1928 namesake, Letters to a Young Poet, R. M. Rilke addresses a wannabe writer, saying, “I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.” In similarly poetic and prophetic ways, the writers in this treasury offer both encouragement and a tempering realism to young farmers. Tying together the mix of gratitude, stories, sage advice, and political perspectives is an overarching message: Agriculture is in a state of disrepair. It needs you—but only if you are up to the difficult tasks ahead.

The letters detail the ecological, financial and social challenges young farmers face, and also how those challenges began. America’s agricultural history is told from the mouths of those who have worked in the field for decades, sometimes longer in the case of Indigenous writers and those from farming lineages. The injustices and wrong thinking that led to the displacement of Indigenous peoples, the Green Revolution, and degradation of the land, not just at home but in places where America has spread its policies and chemicals, provide context and encourage the young to take up the task of transforming and healing the broken system through grassroots political action.

The writers provide real and practical advice on everything from how to holistically graze cattle and balance the books to how restauranteurs can support their local farmers and educate their market. While many authors acknowledge the long, solitary hours of grueling physical and mental labour farmers undertake, they also remind young farmers to balance their personal and work life so as to avoid burnout, the fate of many idealistic agriculturalists. Above all, the letters repeat the sense of fulfillment that comes from overcoming these challenges over and over again.

You can open this book anywhere and take a bite, but devoured whole it will feed you in the way of a manifesto, providing direction and momentum for changing the course of food and agriculture. You don’t have to be young or based in the U.S.A. to appreciate this rich resource—it’s for anyone who cares about the history, present, and future of farming.

— Trina McDonald

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