This Week in Jewish Farming: The journeyman’s journey

About two weeks ago, I was one of three farmers in the state accepted into the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s Journeyperson Program. Run with help from a United States Department of Agriculture grant, the program aims to help beginning farmers develop their skills by pairing them with a mentor and providing stipends for educational expenses and business planning.

The notion that farmers need formalized training might not seem peculiar, but the growth of such programs — If you don’t believe me, Google “new farmers” — signals a real problem for the organic movement. In addition to the obvious challenges entailed in starting a new farm, things like accessing land and finding start-up capital, is something more fundamental: Beginning farmers have a serious deficit of know-how.

Until relatively recently in the history of agriculture, farmers learned their trade the way most human knowledge was passed along — informally, by doing it, often at the foot of a more experienced practitioner. If you were a farmer, chances are your father was a farmer and his father before him, a multigenerational legacy of practical experience, leavened by memories of crop failures and other disasters, distilled over time and handed down — the kind of knowledge different in quality, not just quantity, from what can be acquired in a classroom. Talk to someone who grew up on a farm and you’ll encounter a wealth of practical wisdom, an amateur’s knack for fixing stuff and an intuitive sense of the land that is not quickly or easily taught.

(Cara Paiuk)


(Cara Paiuk)

But in the decades of American migration from farm to city, much of that knowledge has been lost. Today, about 2 percent of the U.S. population lives on a farm, and less than 1 percent claim farming or ranching as an occupation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. A century ago, more than half of Americans derived their incomes from farming. That’s a lot of lost knowledge.

The result is that bumbling city folks like myself are scrambling to figure out how to do this thing we believe to be so important. And I’m not just talking about handling plants. Beneath the placid surface of the supposedly bucolic farm life is a welter of highly technical and specialized systems.

Earlier this week, I spent several hours on the phone with an exceedingly patient salesman for an irrigation company in Pennsylvania. Reducing bushings, camlocks, poly nipples, mini wobblers, layflat, goof plugs. Before I knew it, I had racked up a $1,300 order, virtually none of the components of which I can identify. It’s gonna be an interesting day when the UPS truck arrives.

So thank you Connecticut NOFA. I might look like a competent farmer in that highly stylized photo I sent you for my program bio — a bio that looks utterly silly with its list of professional qualifications and degrees from brand-name institutions, all of which are completely useless to my current occupation. Really I’m just another city kid audacious — or foolhardy — enough to think he can do this.

Veteran JTA journalist Ben Harris is chronicling his new life as a Connecticut farmer. Read more of his weekly dispatches here.


From the annals of Jewish farming: In 1933, a JTA correspondent visited a Minnesota “Hachshara” farm that was training pioneers for kibbutzim in Palestine and described how one participant, a former Chicago stenographer named Miriam German, “pledged herself to the ideals of the Chalutz (pioneers) and no amount of milking at dawn or hoeing in the hot sun will shake her faith in them.”

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Ben Harris is JTA’s former associate editor. In his seven years with JTA, he reported from more than 15 countries. His writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, New York magazine, among other publications.