Your other books have dealt with life on the farm. What made you decide to write about your family, and their relationship with the farm?
The way we farm has always been highly personal. So this book, much of it focuses on the relationship between my father and myself. It was, in a way, the most organic step of the story. Initially, in my early books, I talked about the peaches that we grow and some of the family farm history. It was inevitable to take it that next step and to drill down even deeper into that relationship, the relationships that occur on a family farm and in this case that specific relationship between a father and his son.
What do you think are the major threats currently facing small family farms?
I think the main things are a question of continuity and longevity. The title of this book, “Wisdom of the Last Farmer,” in a way symbolizes the notion that my dad, at one point, thought that he was going to be the last farmer on this land, because I, when I was young, did not intend to return to the farm. After I returned to the farm after college, I thought for many years that I would be the last farmer. Wonderfully, my daughter has made plans to return, but this is very rare. In most family farm situations, the current farmer does believe that they’re the last one. So issues of continuity and longevity are raised, of who will take over these farms and who will be farming our land.
What do you think causes the children of these farm owners to leave?
I think it’s twofold. One is economic. It’s a tough, physical, hard-working life, with not a lot of economic promise in return. So in many ways, I don’t blame farm kids for leaving. On the other hand, I think there’s a cultural shift that occurred and the best way to describe it this – when I started college, thirty-five years ago, you sort of whispered you were from a family farm because it wasn’t necessarily something that other people thought much of. The difference is when my daughter finished college a few years ago, her experience was the exact opposite. She went to college, told her peers that she was from a farm and they thought it was cool. I think that’s a wonderful outlook towards the future, that perhaps there is a cultural shift in terms of how the public values farming and farmers.
What do small farms offer our society in the modern age?
I think there’s that direct personal link to the foods that we eat. Part of the trade of a small family farm is that they live on the land and they work the land themselves, and I think that helps a strong connection between those who grow food, and how they grow it, and people who hopefully are enjoying that food.
What are some of the differences between the peaches grown on your farm and those of a larger factory farm?
I like to think that there’s much more what you would call ‘personal hours’ put into it. Obviously, because it’s a smaller scale, I’m able to develop a very personal relationship with all of our fruit. I think it makes a difference in terms of management structure and also the type of operation we could do. We could clearly work on a ‘just in time’ management style, we could work on one that’s very responsive to nature, and one that, if anything, works with nature, as opposed to trying to control nature.
Do you feel like the small farm is dying out?
To a certain extent, yes. Because of both pressures economically and in terms of that cultural frame that I alluded to before. I think there’s some hope for the future, especially with the newer types of marketing that’s occurring, be it organic or local, and a renewed interest in food. At the same time though, if you look at it statistically, farms continue to grow larger. There is, on the other hand, a re-growth in very small operations and I think I find a lot of affinity with those smaller operations.
What do you think can be done to save the small farm?
I think there are different programs that can help reduce the barriers between the small farming operation and the end consumer and user, and that ranges from a continued support of farmer’s markets, programs such as organic and buying local, and in addition, the ability to look at issues ranging from food safety or land use and understand the difference between a small farm operation and a larger one.
How has the current economic situation affected small farms?
It’s like everything, there’s going to be a separation of those that have been either overextended or undercapitalized. But at the same time, in this recession, from what I sense in talking with other small operations, people are still eating, which is wonderful. A lot of the farming operations have been collapsed, such as the collapse that we’ve seen in the housing and the finance industry. In many ways, the public, I think, has been forced to slow down and question what are the things that they value, and one of the things that I think the public is saying is that they still value food and those who grow it. I sense this renewed interest and support, even financially, in terms of pricing structures. It hasn’t collapsed like the auto industry. As a result, most small operations are struggling, but they’re doing okay, despite this recession.
What messages do you hope to impart to the reader with this book?
I think it’s that further connection of putting a face behind the foods that we eat. In this specific case, it’s this relationship between myself and my father and understanding those challenges that occurred to it. This book revolved around a stroke that he had and the paradox between trying to grow something as perfect as we can and the hard work and sacrifices that it requires and takes.