In October I had the opportunity to attend a beginning farmer’s conference in Frankfort, Ky. The meeting began early on a Saturday morning, and when I arrived shortly after sunrise, the parking lot was already filled to the brim with vehicles of eager to-be farmers ready to learn and long-time veteran farmers willing to share from their years of experience on the farm.
Although the backdrop was a serene university research farm in the middle of Central Kentucky, the day was full of indoor sessions devoted to the business side of farming with topics such as proper record keeping, land-access issues and available capital opportunities for new farmers. Community farmers were on hand to discuss the benefits and drawbacks of selling crops via retail versus wholesale or what it actually costs to raise grassfed livestock these days. Buyers were also there to network and connect with those whose goals are to sell produce or meat one day to community markets and restaurants.
As the sessions continued through the morning, interspersed with a home-grown meal and networking, I kept thinking what a great opportunity this was for beginning farmers to learn about farming from those who have done it and know it, and maybe most importantly, love it. After all, the average age of farmers is 57 years old, as one speaker pointed out, and over the next decade half of the farming population will retire to be replaced by beginners.
That means there is a great need for knowledge sharing in the farming community now more than ever, especially for those who didn’t grow up on a farm like their parents or grandparents did, and for those who dream to turn their hobby into a self-supporting farm operation, but don’t feel equipped yet with the right amount of know-how to make it happen. Experienced farmers have a huge role to play in sustaining farming for tomorrow and I was happy to see them taking on this challenge. What I learned most from the conference speakers is that farming is not about knowing everything there is to know before you start—it really is a game of trial and error—but as long as you’re seeking to learn and have a plan, then you’re off to a good start.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait for a conference to glean knowledge from your community farmers or, on the other hand, wait to be invited to speak at a formal meeting to share your ideas and hard-learned experiences with newbies. There are plenty of informal opportunities all around us, from chatting up the vendors at our local farmers’ market to stopping on the way home to talk to the farmer who sells tomatoes at the end of his driveway. I’ve always learned that people who are passionate about what they do are always eager to share their tips and advice and maybe even a secret or two.
As the writer and politician Jean-Nicolas Bouilly wrote, “Whatever we possess becomes of double value when we have the opportunity to share it with others,” and this doesn’t just mean food, shelter or material possessions, but our time and knowledge, as well.
Think about the ways you’ve learned about farming over the years. Was it from a family member, from magazines or in your 4-H club? Now, think of how you share your farming knowledge on a daily basis. Have you shown your children the proper way to milk a cow, or has your knack for math allowed you to teach a family member the more mundane chore of keeping farm records in order? No piece of advice or instruction is too small—it will live on from one generation to another.
When I think back to the beginning farmer’s conference, I was impressed by the knowledge-thirsty young people with eager hands raised to ask the next question from the speaker, and equally impressed by the more experienced farmers who were ready and willing to tell things like they are—that starting out won’t be easy, that failing will certainly happen, but that success does follow with persistence. And beyond than that—sharing advice on how we can avoid the mistakes they made so we don’t have to learn the hard way every single time.
Today let’s think of what we have to share with others or what we need to learn to sustain farming for future generations.