Farmers Talk About the Books that Inspire Them | Civil Eats

Farmers Talk About the Books that Inspire Them

Scores of books depict farms as little slices of heaven on earth, where venison is smoked and butter is churned, and things seem perfect. But today’s farmers are far from unrealistic dreamers, longing for a Little House on the Prairie-esque pastoral ideal. They’re socially conscious doers. And when asked about books that inspire them, they cite writings that are practical, at times poetic, and that beckon them to rescue the land.

Here are some of the books that farmers are reading and getting inspiration from today.

The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry. “I had spent  seven or so years of my life as a ‘punk’ growing up in the the central NJ suburbs of NYC, disgruntled and disillusioned and looking for real meaning and ways to be in the world, and [Berry] was someone seemingly so disgruntled and disillusioned, yet incredibly intelligent and coherent, with a posited solution of sorts…. Challenges [were] laid forth to take full responsibility for our lives and to truly push against what our culture is feeding us, to move towards a society built around community, equality, a new free culture, and a cooperative economy in which we all work satisfying jobs in support of each other; ideals I cannot imagine any human being would deface. Farming could embrace these challenges and reconnect us with the land and each other like no other, I was convinced.” — Anthony Mecca, Great Song Farm

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. “I read The Good Earth when I was a child, I think I was ten or eleven. I read it again in my 20s, and again in my 30s…. It’s an inspiring novel about building a dream, perseverance. I think the best line is at the end of the novel when it says, ‘without land, you’re nothing.’ It’s a quote my father and mother used to repeat to us kids all the time. So that book always meant something for many reasons.” — Alexis Koefoed, Soul Food Farm

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. “I read it as a freshman in college. This was kind of a critical treatise in the ecological movement. It was not only a cry of protest, but a teaching document about the basic principles of ecology. [Carson] was drawing connections between the different layers that make up the environment… how the chemical sprays in the ground migrated into the trees. The book had layers—one layer was science, one was critique, and one was art—the art of protest. It was also very poetic—what do we cherish more than the sound of birds in the spring?And I thought the fusion of those things really appealed to me as a young woman, and guided what kinds of actions I would take in my life. “ — Severine von Tscharner-Fleming, farmer and founder of The Greenhorns.

How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons. “My copy of this one is missing its cover and several of the front pages and the binding has been chewed up by a dog. I like that John explains a complete farming system that minimizes the use of commercial and outside inputs that will work nearly worldwide.  He even looks at the calories produced, and includes fruit trees, and compost growing areas as part of the garden design and process… I wanted to farm because it is good honest work and it provides something that people truly need.  John Jeavons is telling people all over the world how they can farm and produce the food they need with very few tools, little money and fertilizer, and using open-pollinated seeds.” — Brenton Johnson, Johnson’s Backyard Garden

The Contrary Farmer by Gene Lodgson. “I read The Contrary Farmer about eight years ago.  I think this book really helped me formulate the idea about what it meant to be a farmer.  Lodgson painted a beautiful, yet realistic picture of the farming lifestyle and the sacrifices a farmer must make.  It brought me to the conclusion that I could achieve this lifestyle for myself and my family.” — Jacqueline Smith, Green Dirt Farm.

Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon by Pablo Neruda. “Judith [Winfrey] and I really did not come to farming in a direct fashion. Early on in our relationship we fell in love with food, travel, revolutionaries, ecology, and community.  The decision to farm seemed like a natural way to wed most of these fascinations… Neruda is amazing in all of his words, but his Odes really resonate with people who love food and its power to create interaction.  We still read “Ode to the Onion” once a year.” — Joe Reynolds, Gaia Gardens/Love is Love Farm.

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Alternative Urban Futures: Planning for Sustainable Development in Cities throughout the World by Raquel Pinderhughs. “What motivated me most was that Raquel conveys a vision using practical models from around the world. She was my inspiration to take what would have been just a house and a garden and work to transform it into a living renewing system.” — Esperanza Pollana, Pluck and Feather Farm.

It’s a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life by Keith Stewart. “This book provided a lot of inspiration while I was starting to farm … Not because it’s a perfect book, or because I agree with everything the author did or believes, but because it provides a very interesting story of becoming an organic farmer (with warts and all). The guy hadn’t farmed before and showed what he went through in setting up a farm and carving out a niche.” — Fred Hempel, Baia Nicchia

We Didn’t Have Much but We Sure Had Plenty: Rural Women in Their Own Words by Sherry Thomas. “I was originally inspired to farm because of the farms I grew up around in Skippack, PA.  But as farms left my community, I was left thinking it wasn’t a good career to get into.  Many things re-inspired me to start growing my own food in my early 20s, but [this] book stands out. it was a bunch of stories of women who worked their land as a job and for personal consumption. Most were very poor, but were able to tend to their nutritional needs because of farming/food preservation. It reminded me of the importance of simplifying life and just how vital feeding yourself from your own garden can be.” — Barbara Finnin, City Slicker Farm

The New Organic Grower: a Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, by Eliot Coleman. “I got my first farming book back when I was 25 yrs. old in 1988, and [Coleman] continues to revise the book to stay current.  This is a basic how-to organic farm book, but it’s very inspiring and gives great information for the modern day gardener.  Elliot himself is an amazing grower, who invents unique farming tools and is always looking for new/better ways to grow vegetables.  This book is still my “go to” reference book and I use it to turn people on to growing food. Since I’m a New Englander and he is part of the Maine growing community he’s always appealed to me.” — Simon Richard,  Sonoma Farms (Bi-Rite Farms)


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Cynthia Salaysay blogs for the East Bay Urban Agriculture Alliance and Hidden Bird, and is the San Francisco editor for Poor Taste Magazine. She lives in Oakland, CA. Read more >

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