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As I’m sure most of you know a whole new generation of young people unsatisfied with their urban trappings are packing up and moving to a rural residence. For some that means a larger yard where they can grow rows of vegetables and maybe keep a small flock of egg-laying hens, for others the intention is self-sufficiency to be obtained by running a small family farm.
I herald these persons for desiring to take a different approach and wanting to work the land and relish the sense of accomplishment that only comes from days spent doing near backbreaking labor. Young people who want their children to grow up being able to see the night sky and understand the meaning of every hard-earned dollar. People who want to eat varieties of apples and carrots not sold in modern supermarkets, honey sourced from hives in the backyard, and eggs fresh from a nesting box in the coop out back.
That some are learning how to farm by doing, apprenticing, and classes while facing major obstacles like access to land and money gives someone like me hope in our future. Sure some are paying others to do it for them, but hasn’t that always been the case?
The only time hip urban dwellers intent on controlling the food they eat is not a good idea: DIY slaughter without proper training (as in assisting someone like Hans Sebald who I can personally vouch for). No, no, no leave that to the people who know what they are doing (so no I’m not a huge fan of Novella Carpenter or Jenna Woginrich).
As someone who moved to Maine, intentionally removing myself from a high stakes highly glossy career path, and purchased an old farmhouse with a barn and land and keeps chickens and bees and gardens I get it. Last night while standing outside staring up at that gorgeous supermoon (did you see it!?!) I was so grateful I had “opted out” – or had I actually opted in?
All this brings me to Portland, Maine based writer Joe Conway and his first book Get Back Stay Back: 2nd Generation Back-to-the-landers – about people who set out in search of a better and simpler life in a place beyond the hustle and bustle of modern life. The stories of 13 families in the pastures and backwoods of Maine play out in two acts — parents dropping out of society and into extreme self-sufficiency and experimentation, and their kids who are now leading the charge to see what sustainability, local food and organic agriculture can do for the communities into which they were born.
I’d so enjoyed reading his book that I posted notes scrawled with “YES!!” to several pages. When finished I asked Joe to coffee so we could talk about his book. It is both a response to so many conversations being had about farming in Maine today (who are these young farmers, what is happening to the knowledge earned by the older farmers … ) and all those glossy articles on “rock star” farmers and the idyllic rural lifestyle (note Williams Sonoma’s $1,500 chicken coop and run) being marketed to the general public.
Following is an excerpt from our Q&A (for the rest go here).
I would think your connection to Maine’s farming community and food has greatly changed as a result of writing the book. How has writing this book changed the way you eat?
As someone who loves to cook, I’m been pretty invested in supporting farmers and eating food that doesn’t travel a long distance to my plate for a while. I mean, I’m a writer, and my wife is an artist, and we’re not people of means – so I feel the pain of the $5/pound tomato fully. I definitely have a greater appreciation for why things cost what they do now though – food is just very expensive to produce, hardly anyone gets rich by doing it and it’s incredibly hard work. I subsidized the research phase of writing the book by working on a mussel farm and in a restaurant kitchen, and the margins are the same across the board – paper thin. I also grew up driving past dairy farms all the time and never understood that where ever there are milk cows grazing, there’s someone in a nearby house who gets up to milk them at 3:30AM every… single… day. “The cows don’t know it’s Christmas,” as they say. That some people choose to also go the long way around, and produce food for us in a way that’s not only good for us, but good for the land that they’re working and their community, I think is especially laudable – and certainly deserving of a lot of my hard-earned dollars every week.