Farmers Today

Farmers Today

by Stephen Bishop of Shelby, NC

Two farmers. Two paradigms. One questions everything. The other values tradition. Robert Frost wrote “Mending Wall,” the poem that captures the interchange between two very different, but neighboring farmers, in 1914. He could easily have written it in 2014. The fact is two types of farmers and farming still struggle to coexist.

Take John, for instance, the conventional farmer. He’s lived in the same place his whole life. Everybody who lives around him is kin. He participated in FFA in high school, showed cows at the county fair, and started farming after he graduated from high school. He knows the price for a bushel of soybeans or corn, how much rain fell yesterday, during the last week, month, or year, and how many days till the winter wheat is headed. He can fix just about every piece of farm machinery himself. He worries about the weather religiously, the mortgage, and whether or not Tyson will give him enough batches of chickens this year.

Then there’s Jane, the non-conventional farmer. She grew up in the town, loved being outdoors, and fondly remembers visiting her grandparents in the country. She attended a private college and majored in philosophy and minored in biology. She read Thoreau and Wendell Berry. She volunteered on an organic vegetable farm during her summer breaks. She truly cares about the environment. She dreamt big, worked hard, and bought a piece of land for her own 3 acre vegetable farm. She grows just about anything and slaughters and processes her own chickens. She wakes up at 3:30 AM every Saturday morning to get to the farmers’ market. She tries not to worry about what her family will think of her career choice.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if farmers, like Jane and John, lived beside one another — if they shared a fence. In my current and previous jobs, I’ve had the opportunity to work with farmers of both types. Of course, stereotyping isn’t good practice, but John and Jane aren’t meant to be negative stereotypes. Both are typical of the farmers I’ve met. And I’ve learned to appreciate both of their value systems, even if I lean more toward Jane’s. In my experience, both John and Jane are hard-working. Both take pride in providing food for their community. John values family, which is often his community. Jane values community, which becomes her family. John loves the land. Jane treasures the environment. John values practicality. Jane dreams big.

I think we often don’t see, or acknowledge, the other’s value system. Both sides, and the special interests that represent them, do a great job bad-mouthing the other. Conventional farmers are just corporate pesticide pushers and animal abusers. Non-conventional farmers are trust-fund babies and hippies. Agriculture becomes just another example of people fighting people instead of what it’s meant to be: people feeding people.

Once I asked an organic vegetable farmer his thoughts on the selling at the regional farmers’ market in Charlotte, NC, expecting him to rail against the conventional farmers and “pin-hookers” who resold produce and drove down prices. His answer surprised me. He said that at first he resented them. But then he realized that people who regularly visited their booths occasionally visited his and vice versa. He realized that, even if they didn’t have the same farming philosophy, they worked just as hard to prepare for the market every Saturday. There’s camaraderie in that.

Camaraderie is a wonderful thing. I share a half-acre garden with my wife’s poppaw. He grows tomatoes and watermelons, and I grow beans and cow peas. In “Mending Wall,” the old farmer has a saying: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Poppaw’s saying is something like “Sevin dust makes good gardens.” He dusts his tomatoes routinely. He always advises me to dust the beans, and I always tell him I will. But I never do, and so far my beans haven’t been the worse for it. Explaining to him why I don’t would be pointless, like the narrator in “Mending Wall” trying to explain to the farmer why fences (on a metaphorical level) don’t make good neighbors. Each spring we do, in fact, jerry-rig a one strand electric fence, plugged straight into the 110, around the garden to keep out deer. Looking for deer prints in the morning that stop at that single strand, there’s camaraderie in that.

The point here is that once we have mutual respect for the other side, then sometimes our similarities overwhelm our differences. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to work with conventional farmers. After stepping into a poultry house, I’ve honestly wondered if the practice of raising broilers crammed in a Salatin-style pen on pasture is really much of an upgrade. Or I’ve wondered if unpaid interns on organic farms are much different than seasonal migrant workers — except cheaper. Still, I wonder if farming for Tyson or Butterball was really so profitable, why don’t those companies buy land and build their own poultry houses instead of expecting farmers to mortgage everything they own to build them? And is planting corn year after year and treating every single corn seed with a soil-lingering insecticide linked to honeybee loss really wise or necessary?

Maybe there’s no easy answer, no perfect paradigm. There’s certainly room for improvement in both camps. Nowadays, I wonder if the fence is so high between the two neighboring farm paradigms, between conventional vs. non-conventional, that we’ve forgotten who our neighbor is — in fact we haven’t talked to the guy in years, if we ever met him.

Stephen Bishop is an SFJ contributor and writes about agrarian antics from Shelby, NC. You can find more of his farming misadventures at or follow him on Twitter @themisfitfarmer.