The American imagination has a certain romantic vision of a childhood spent on a farm. I think it sounds to people like an impossibly pure thing, a deeply American thing, the pinnacle of mind and body health. Far from an environment that (for example) produces ever-alarming statistics on obesity (17% of 2-19 year olds are obese) and magazine articles about how to ween your kids off junk food, a farm seems like it would be surrounded by a force field, keeping out an avalanche of negative influences. It’s also extremely rare – making it all the more alluring – in this world of shrinking farmland (over 4 million acres lost between 2002 and 2007 alone) aging farmers (40% are 55 or older) and very little financial incentive for new ones (average income is less than $20,000/year).
I had all this on my mind a few weeks ago as I watched the Thomet girls prance barefoot around their 28 acre playground: the farm Next Step Produce in rural Maryland. They leisurely snapped peppers, beans, and figs off the vine and nibbled them down to the stem as they introduced me to the fields and orchards. I got a mini-lecture on composting while they dug in a huge, long pile of dirt to let the steam rise up from it into the hot August evening. They engaged themselves in the business of tomato sorting (more on this here), examined the progress of the kiwi trees, plunged their hands into huge sacks of seeds, rode the tractor – all in a very second-nature sort of way. That night, I watched them tuck into a ultra-fresh dinner of a cucumber salad and ratatouille-like veggie stew with millet.
Farming has its hardships, let’s not forget. But surely, the experience of having such an intimate knowledge and trust of the land bred into you from day one is priceless. I left thinking that a childhood on a farm – in the traditional sense – may just deserve the pedestal that society has put it on. One more reason to protect farmland and farmers.