Human beings, by nature, seem to create idols. We’re drawn to those who know more, do more and accomplish unusual things, especially those who share themselves openly. In my relatively quiet, mostly television-free daily existence, I manage to stay mostly out of the fray of pop culture and its never-ending cycles of celebrities rising to and falling from stardom. In my choices of music, I like to think I support lesser known artists, but I waiver. Just a couple of nights ago, I reveled in the sweet sounds of Natalie MacMaster’s fiddle. A star, by any definition.
Even in the world of food and farming, where the popular sentiments of the day are all about everybody planting a plot (or a pot) of vegetables of their own and buying locally, celebrities arise. Stars are born. Fans soon follow.
Why this should come as a surprise to me, I’m not sure. It could be that I harbor some romantic notion of a quiet, humble farmer, one who is working too hard in the field to take time out to engage in activities that might lead to stardom. One who isn’t impressed by celebrity, but is practical and driven only by the rhythms of daily life on the farm.
Like any other profession, successful farming—especially organic farming—depends on expertise and information. Farmers like Joel Salatin and Pete Johnson have embraced the unique challenges of organic farming by achieving a level of expertise that sets them apart from the rest. Of course there are other farmers—young and old, male and female—who have become role models and teachers in their communities and beyond. If the notoriety that these individuals achieve can be called celebrity or stardom, it is hard-earned and well-deserved.
Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia hosts regular tours and has become a destination for farmers and others eager to learn. He has authored several books and often speaks publicly at events and on the radio. He was on his way to celebrity even before Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma made him a household name (for many of us). Salatin’s passion and commitment to wholistic, interconnected farming practices makes perfect sense, even to non-farmers. He’s a fascinating and charismatic speaker.
Pete’s Greens farm and CSA is a model for farmers throughout New England, and beyond. Tilling the soil in Zone 3 of Craftsbury, Vermont, Pete Johnson harvests tender greens in the coldest months of the year in a greenhouse fueled by waste vegetable oil from local restaurants. Pete’s Greens “Local Eats” CSA customers enjoy winter squashes, brassicas, onions and root vegetables, long after many farms have depleted their storage crops, thanks to Pete’s careful management of storage processes and facilities. Every vegetable is stored at precisely the temperature and humidity needed and stacked in shallow crates with plenty of air flow to create lasting freshness and quality throughout the winter.
I became a Pete’s Greens fan first by shopping at the farm’s wonderful farmstand while exploring the Northeast Kingdom. But, my fan status really took off when I tagged along on a farm tour a couple of weeks ago, during the area’s Kingdom Farm and Food Days.
I was in awe of the farm’s attention to every detail, from the chickens at work cleaning up the second-year strawberry fields, to the amazing system of (unheated) movable greenhouses (each 35 feet wide by 200 feet long), ready to be winched into place soon over newly-planted beds of greens, to the farm’s progressive employment practices. (While most farms in the area hire only seasonal help, Pete’s Greens is able to employ year-round workers, because of the farm’s commercial kitchen and very successful year-round CSA.)
Farmers along on the tour, as well as gardeners and foodies like me, were in awe as well. Pete Johnson shared his knowledge freely. His enthusiasm for growing food was contagious.
The vitality of the farm’s crops said it all. Row upon row, field after field of healthy produce. Greens are what made Pete famous; their layered colors in the field were pure art.
Farmers like Joel Salatin and Pete Johnson have so much to share. They deserve what celebrity they’ve attained, and thank goodness they’re so willing to share their expertise freely.
By no means are they the only farmers with knowledge to share. There’s nothing new about farmers and gardeners sharing information and resources. Nor is there anything new about some achieving notoriety by developing special expertise or unique philosophies. Eliot Coleman, Alice Waters, J.I. Rodale, to name just a few.
Closer to home, I’ve tapped into my CSA farmer’s knowledge on more than one occasion to avert disaster in my own garden. Larry Pletcher, of the Vegetable Ranch in Warner, New Hampshire, is always happy to share advice; he even gave up an evening in June (is there a busier month for New Hampshire farmers?) to speak with the Capital City Organic Gardeners about pests and diseases in the organic garden.
Belmont, New Hampshire farmer and blogger Maggie Crawford shares not only knowledge but inspiration and joy by writing about life on Maggie Mae Farm. I’ve picked up many tips and recipes from her blog and developed a deep understanding of her commitment to ethical farming practices and a healthy food system, not to mention a vividly realistic picture of what life on a small farm is really like. Where a busy farmer finds the time to blog, I can’t imagine, but I’m grateful.
I’d argue that even the most novice of gardeners has information to share that would be of value to other gardeners. I’ve learned so much on Twitter from gardeners who share their successes and challenges; no question is too complex or too easy for the cyber-gardening community. It’s likely that you know something I need to know about growing better vegetables, fruits and herbs. When I share what information I have, I feel richer for having done so. It’s a vibrant community.
Sharing knowledge and building connections among farmers, gardeners and consumers is one of the most powerful ways we can contribute to rebuilding our ailing food system. I believe that farmers who enjoy a connection with the people whose lives are enriched by their farm’s healthy, nutritious, fresh food are also enriched and energized themselves. Those of us who share the joy of gardening with other gardeners not only build our own skills and increase our enjoyment of gardening, but are strengthening our community’s ability to feed itself.
Rebuilding our country’s food security depends on actions big and small, and on people working together to change the way we eat.
Although at first surprised at the notion of farmer celebrity, I’ve come to realize that these individuals represent a positive change that’s happening all around us. No longer is organic farming a fringe enterprise. It’s mainstream and its most successful practitioners deserve whatever notoriety and celebrity they achieve, especially when they are teachers as well as farmers.
Celebrity, after all, in its simplest sense, means “the state of being celebrated.” Let’s proudly celebrate the individuals in our community who know more, do more and accomplish unusual things in the name of bringing good food to the table.