Piscataway Voices, Part 1 of 3
written by Chris Newman; Choptico Band, Piscataway Conoy; General Manager, Sylvanaqua Farms
Chris Newman stewards the land as a Native farmer. Photo by Sylvanaqua Farms.
“Haha, no I don’t think so.”
This was the lighthearted but decidedly serious response of a good friend of mine when I suggested to his five-year-old son that, one day, he might be a farmer. The little boy did what all little boys (and little girls) do when they visit an old-school livestock farm: he fell in love. A warm summer sun, the sweet smell of grass, and a shade tree to lounge under while watching animals happily cluck, oink, quack, and grunt in the fields and forests… those things produce a sense of peace and satisfaction that invades your bones and infuses your soul with an elusive kind of happiness. Most people in America will toil away for a lifetime under fluorescent lights, squirreling away a nest egg in the hopes of one day, in the twilight of their years, reclaiming the inner peace of a toddler.
A recent volunteer at our farm made a very salient point. “You say you want to farm for a living, and you might as well say you want to paint oil canvasses for a living. People look at you the same way.” Young farmers, like young artists, are widely viewed as self-indulgent millennial hipsters avoiding real work and adulthood. Their line of work is one where success is possible but highly improbable; where Picasso and Polyface are impossible economic outliers. The common logic says it’s much better to be “realistic,” which today means taking on six figures in student loan debt to enter a Thunderdome of a workforce; one where Ph.Ds claw one another’s eyes out competing for jobs paying $20 an hour. Parents like the one that visited my farm will tell their kids, “go to college, get a job.” Farming is a hobby best left for your golden years.
That attitude is a whole pile of nonsense. Stewarding the land is the future – economically, ecologically, and socially. This is particularly true for young people of color, and perhaps most of all for young Native people.
Too many writings on Native American Heritage Month are about the past: ancient traditions and historical figures and bold pronouncements about being the ‘first Americans’ and cathartic waxings on Caucasian depredation, all distilled into an anthology – equal parts depressing, enraging, and yawn-inducing – about how exciting it is that our culture isn’t quite dead yet. So let’s instead talk about the future, why young Native people should look for it in the land, and how freaking awesome that is. And while we do, let’s close our ears to our well-intended doubts, fears, prejudices, and projections, even if just for this little while.
Farming is profitable as long as you start small and in the space you already have access to. There are people grossing $80,000 a year in 1,000 square foot greenhouses selling organic microgreens. You can sell produce to practically any upscale restaurant at any time. Literally all of your neighbors would rather buy salad mixes from you than the grocery store. Have you seen the price of basil and mint? You can grow basil and mint, right now, anywhere: on your balcony, on your walls, in your basement, in your yard, on your kitchen counter, in your garage. You can grow herbs in your bathroom and, if you’ve got a bathtub nobody ever uses, you can grow daikons or carrots in it.
Despite what you may have heard, farming does not necessarily mean uprooting your life, buying a hundred acres and pieces of heavy equipment in the middle of nowhere with an ungodly amount of debt, leaving your friends and family, and praying for rain. What it more likely means is this: you start by growing as much stuff in your own home as possible, and sell it to your neighbors until it’s profitable. Then you expand to maybe your yard, or someone else’s yard, or an abandoned city lot. You sell that stuff to more neighbors and maybe a restaurant or two. You keep socking money away. Then maybe you add a few other things that do well in urban settings, like egg-laying hens or bees. Sooner than you realize, you’ll find yourself making a living farming without an acre of land or a single tractor to your name.
Maybe, and ideally, you’ll get to the point where you decide to move further out, building acres of food forests and pastures to feed people, restore the land, battle climate change, and give your family and friends an idyllic place to live and work. There’s no higher calling for a Native person than to return to our lands – to the blood and bones of our ancestors – and restore them to health along with those whose faces remain above the ground. And given the enormous demand for this kind of food relative to the tiny amount of it being produced (this is what happens when most of the supply is coming from “prudent” retirees in their golden years), the economics of smallholding will be sound for decades or longer.
Young people that want to farm this way will be entering a business that involves almost no debt, can become profitable in a single year, and has an insatiable demand for a product that can never become obsolete. It’s a workplace with no commutes, no cubicles, no status meetings, no performance reviews, and no office politics. It’s a lifestyle that involves constant physical activity, time outdoors, no need for gym memberships, less need for drugs and doctors, the best food in the world, and the greatest work-life balance of any industry. For the life of me, I can’t understand why parents don’t aggressively insist their children become farmers.
Take time during this month to remember what’s come before. Remember and honor the old ones, our traditions, our values, and the events – good and bad – that have shaped who were are as a people. But ultimately, our past, present, and future are all wrapped up in the land, as they’ve always been. Today, the land and the ancestors dwelling within are calling for us. It’s time to come home.
Pasture-raised hogs at Sylvanaqua Farms near Charlottesville, Virginia.