Organic farming is so much harder than just getting stoned and picking tomatoes
Arlo Crawford’s memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, is an inside look at one of the iconic organic farms that sprang up in the 1970s, Pennsylvania’s New Morning Farm. I spoke with Crawford about his unique perspective: He grew up in the middle of the back-to-the-land movement, but never felt compelled to join it. Here’s a condensed and edited version of our conversation.
Q. Where did the title come from? A Farm Dies Once a Year — I was worried right up to the end that the farm was going to fail.
A. Well, it will one day, but don’t hold your breath. That title came from the first essay I wrote about the farm. I just wanted to get across how much you struggle, how much of yourself you pour into a farm. And ultimately the farm dies. Ultimately there’s only so much you can do. Because I’ve watched my dad my whole life completely invest all of his being into this farm, and every year it dies on him. And every time he’s sort of shocked, like ‘Oh my God, really? It didn’t all work out somehow?’
There’s a lot of books about farms that aren’t by farmers, and a lot of the time the farmer has the least voice. You go to Whole Foods and see these pictures of farmers, and these people have struggled their whole lives to put vegetables on your plate. The farm shouldn’t be put aside by the marketing.
A lot of the books about farming have the same kind of line: ‘In the spring a farmer puts his hands in the dirt and feels the earth breathing through him.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s an important part of it, but that’s never really been my experience of the farm.’ My experience of the farm was always like, ‘Shit, our backs are up against the wall, this farm is teetering, what are we going to do?’ That was why I chose that title.
Q. That reality really does come across in the book. When you are telling the story of how your parents started the farm it just sounds miserable. They are camping out in this crumbling old house and their first year is pretty much a total loss — they were only able to survive because their costs were so low. And I think there is a real disconnect: Eaters see just these happy images of farmers, and so we say, why can’t we all just have cheap organic food?
A. There really is a refusal to appreciate the day-to-day struggle and hard work that goes into it.
I have a friend whose little sister just moved to rural Virginia and decided to start a farm. She’s never been an intern on a farm, she has no experience, she’s literally showing up with a shovel. It’s like saying, ‘I want to be an electrician’ and showing up with a pair of wire cutters.
My dad is a very methodical, driven person. He decided to make this business his living and he’s always been practical. Though, obviously, there is the romanticism too, and that’s what brought them to it.
Q. So would you advise people to start out with an internship before buying a farm?
A. I don’t even think that’s advice — I think that’s just an absolute necessity. The good thing about this agriculture system that my parents are a part of is that it really is designed to bring young people in and to teach them. My father has always called these young people apprentices and demanded that they be called apprentices, because they are learning a trade.
Q. You wrote a piece for The Atlantic about your father helping out at the Obama garden. And I was a little sad to see that there were some compromises of the integrity of the farm for the sake of the spectacle. Your dad could understand, but he was also frustrated. Do you think he could also empathize? Do farmers have to sometimes make compromises for marketing that they wouldn’t make if it were simply about flavor and ecology?
A. I mean, sure, there’s nothing in life where you’re not making some compromise, but the thing about the farm for my father is that it is his own kingdom. He can be an absolute dictator. And one of the things about his personality that drew him to this profession is that he’s in a place where he controls everything. He’s not a compromising person — to a fault.
My dad is like the only person in the world who could be unhappy about being asked to participate in a garden at the White House. It was interesting to watch him struggle, trying to say this plot of land is like my farm, when it’s not: It’s the country’s farm.
Q. You ended that essay with a great line: “My dad made his decision a long time ago about what was really important to him. Politicians run the world, but a farmer’s first loyalties are to a smaller patch of dirt.”
A. You are committed to those few acres, it’s true — there’s no where else for you to go.
Q. There’s this mystery embedded in your book: You end up investigating a murder. This man killed a family friend, Burt, who had also moved out to the country and started a farm. And in one way it seems totally meaningless — just a crazy, angry man with a gun. But I wonder if you think it was also a symptom of something bigger: this resentment toward elite urbanites moving onto the land and into agriculture, and changing it.
A. That story gets at a current of something I felt there. We were always outsiders. And even if people weren’t actively angry at us they always thought, ‘Oh, those people are just growing pot back there at the end of the road.’ It was the hippies showing up in the country and western bar. My parents are integrated into that community now, but I never felt like I belonged.
Burt was the opposite personality of my father — if he was still alive today he would be one of those spokesmen for organic farming. He was very much an outward-facing, extroverted kind of person. My father could always be under the radar, but Burt was like, ‘I’m going to go out and change these people’s lives. These people need education, they need to understand that the world is different than they think.’ He was a rabble-rouser, that’s what he did for a living –he was a political rabble rouser before he became a farmer.
So on the one hand, the reason George Robb killed him was just because Robb was a fucking drunk. The community was like, ‘Well, we all figured Robb was going to kill someone sometime.’ But it shouldn’t be ignored that Burt was a target for a reason. Robb was like the last gasp of rural failure — he’d failed at everything he’d done in life, and now this guy shows up who is going to be a success. It was just gasoline and fire. This is a real tension that exists in the world. There is an old guard of agriculture and they are threatened, understandably. They are hurting. All the farms around New Morning Farm are gone now. When I was little, the guy right next door had, I think, 50 Holsteins, and he made a living at it, and you can’t do that anymore.
Q. Do you see any way to bridge that gap? There’s so much that these separate groups — whether it’s organic and conventional, or liberal and conservative — could teach each other when it comes to farming. But the culture clash …
A. It’s hard. You know what’s amazing, though, is our experience with the Amish. The Amish are the oldest of the old guard, but Burt, my dad, and a few others started this cooperative called Tuscarora Organic Growers — in Pennsylvania, it wholesales mostly in Washington, D.C — and the Amish are a huge part of the organization. The Amish don’t attach any ideology to it. They aren’t saying, ‘This is how I use pesticides on our tomatoes because that’s the right way to do it.’ They just say, ‘How can I make money doing this?’ And they’ll grow fucking anything. They’ll go find a patch of weeds and say, ‘You know, I could pick this, and call it purslane, and sell it.’ And so in a weird way they are willing to be the avant garde. And they are also uniquely set up because they haven’t spent a lot of money on a huge sprayer or something.
Q. Right, they aren’t committed to a technology because of debt. They have flexibility. One of the things that I learned from your book was just how much food gets left in the field. You write about harvesting zucchini, and after all this work has gone into making a beautiful crop, everything that’s not quite the right size just gets tossed. That was kind of shocking to me.
A. Well, zucchini is kind of unique. As everyone who has a garden knows, it always seems to produce more than you can eat. It happens less with other crops. But to get at something you said earlier, that is where compromise happens. The market cannot accept a box of zucchini that is everywhere from nine inches to two inches.
If you spend time around certain farmers you see how obsessed they are about keeping clean fields, keeping things mowed, and keeping land lines straight, and how much they bank their self respect on opening a box of zucchini and having it all look uniform and perfect.
People don’t realize that the USDA publishes a 20-page booklet on this. You know, the tomato on your plate has had 80 different metrics applied to it: Is it sunburned on the shoulder, is it sunburned on the bottom … It just makes you realize how huge agribusiness really is. When you enter a tomato into that system it’s almost like you are entering a new drug into the FDA system. There’s a huge amount of bureaucracy and scrutiny on the supply chain.
Q. I’m sure, but as a reader I was sitting there thinking, isn’t there some kind of on-farm processing that could happen? Turn those into zucchini bread?
A. Oh man, we’ve tried. They made a huge batch of ketchup from plum tomatoes they couldn’t use, they’ve tried everything. And we give a huge amount to food banks too, but they can only take so many boxes of zucchini.
It’s frustrating, and it’s amazing to come behind the wagon and see this carpet of zucchini that’s been left behind.
Q. So people keep saying that the average age of farmers is north of 60, and that we need young, innovative farmers. What does the fact that you have no desire to take over your parents’ farm mean in the bigger picture?
A. I think it’s a really hopeful story, actually. We’ve always had a crew of apprentices, and it was always a struggle to pull these people together. When I was little, it was kind of hippies who were interested in dropping out and hanging out on the farm for a summer. And then, for a few years, my dad could not find apprentices. There was no way to do it.
But now it’s totally changed. It used to be like a school scrounging for anyone, and now it’s like getting into fucking Harvard. They will have studied sustainable agriculture in school, and these university programs that were designed for Big Ag are catering to people who are interested in this different type of agriculture.
It’s amazing to see how much professionalization has happened. The apprentices now are amazing farmers because they have really committed to that being their profession. Instead of it being like, well I’m 22 and I don’t know what I’m going to do so I’ll just go get stoned and pick tomatoes. There’s still some of that, too, thank God.
Q. Ha, glad to hear it.
A. My mom really misses that so much. For her it used to have this summer camp feel, and now it’s much more of a business.
I’m not sure exactly how it will work, but my parents, for years and years, have been thinking about how they are going to do it. Probably the ownership will slowly be transferred to the apprentices. If you put New Morning Farm out on the market as a business, there would be a significant pool of people out there saying, ‘I can run that and I’m committed to running it in the way it should be run,’ and that’s really hopeful. It means success. It means what they started doing in the ‘70s, these farmers, they’ve made it. I mean, think about the rise of farmer’s markets. When they started it was just them out on a corner with another farmer, who really did just grow pot — and a few tomatoes on the side.
Next: A Grist editor’s reflections on leaving the land — and the contrasts between the food movement and the mid-size farms she grew up on.