I’m new to northern Michigan, but not to rural life. Growing up 30 minutes south of the shack where Aldo Leopold pondered his land ethic and his masterpiece, The Sand County Almanac, I had always been familiar and comfortable in the natural world, a place where muddy trails replaced sidewalks and moonlight through trees guided my steps instead of streetlights.
The terms rural agriculture and natural world don’t necessarily mean the same thing by any means, but for the midwest of America, the terms usually aren’t that mutually exclusive. Whether you’re driving through cornfields of Nebraska, the dairy pastures of Wisconsin, or the rolling hills of cherry and apple orchards in northwestern Michigan, the harvest of the land always feels close to home in at least one part of the grocery store.
Taking a job as an Americorps VISTA with the Food and Farming Network of Northwestern Michigan, a network of community leaders, farmers, conservancies, food pantries, business owners and much more, I didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to be a part of something with hope and promise, where people shared my interest in a love of the land as much as making a living.
In my time here so far, I’ve got to meet a lot of amazing individuals. I’ve noticed while meeting with local farmers and other community leaders is how truly positive and prideful agriculture is, and how a focus on small, local, diversified and sustainably managed farms brings a focus to rural life I think is incredibly valuable in American culture.
The huge increase in urban population in the past 60 years is no secret. The draw of big city economic and cultural opportunities can be very enticing, especially for younger adults. While it’s great to pack your bags and search for new opportunities in exciting places, often droves youth migrating to cities leave rural areas starved of diversity and new talent for the workforce. This drain of youth is nothing to ignore, especially in the agricultural world. According to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, the average age of US farmers hit 58.3. This statistic is concerning when you couple it with Heart of the Lakes’ Michigan’s Eroding Farms (2016) report, which states in northern Michigan 83,000 acres of farmland (the equivalent of 110,000 football fields) is expected to change hands within the next ten years. A large pool of young, talented farmers will need to step up and continue the great agricultural traditions present in this corner of the country.
Whose stepping up to the plate? Websites like Farmer to Farmer (www.f2fmi.com) provide an excellent opportunity as a digital platform of land succession through listings posted for available farmland and jobs. A shift in agricultural traditions to smaller, local farms brings needed demographic back to the land. Young people are drawn to what they’re passionate about, and it’s a belief in farming for community, environment, and human health that’s igniting a new romanticism for rural life that was more present in pre-1950 America.
This love of the land is never better summarized that by the man I grew to love reading so much:
“ What more delightful avocation than to take a piece of land and, by cautious experimentation, to prove how it works? What more substantial service to conservation than to practice it on one’s own land? ” -Aldo Leopold
People focus on treating the land with respect because, in some shape or form, they have an inherent love of the land. With long, hard working hours, little vacation, and often marginal monetary success, it’s a love for the land that will attract new farmers to a career in growing, raising, and responsible land stewardship.
I had the privilege of attending the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference at the end of this January both for fun and for work, and was astounded by the energy, enthusiasm, and knowledge that was present at every part of the event. Whether geeking out over sustainable growing methods, eagerly waiting for a chance to snag some local seeds at the seed saving bar, or networking passionately over everything under the sun in sustainability, the farmers and community leaders filled me with a heightened sense of pride and interest in agriculture, a sense that almost wants me to dispel all my previous plans for a nonprofit career and start up my own plot of organic Kale.