When daffodils steal from their bulbs and the days become longer than the nights, I begin to dream of bountiful food—the crisp sweetness of peas, the moisture of lettuce, the fullness of tomatoes—all the vegetables that the warming soil and the abundant sunshine will grow. But each year, as I plan my summer garden, I confront the same hard truth: I will not be able to grow all the food I will need this year. Though I will work hard to grow more than last year, I know that to grow and preserve 365 days of food in a harsh northern climate, even for two people, approaches a full-time job. And although growing food in fields to put on our dinner tables is a fundamental human action done by hundreds of millions of people around the world as a necessity every day, it is something many of us are able to take for granted: We can buy fresh, nutritious food at anytime of year. This alone is a fundamental privilege and one that is only made possible by the tireless, back-breaking work of the farmer.
“To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd,” lifelong farmer and sage cultural critic Wendell Berry has said and indeed the two must go together—food cannot yet be imagined into being as it is on the Lost Boys banquet tables in Peter Pan. Every ingredient of every sumptuous meal—vegetable and animal alike—has been grown from the soil. Living in Missoula, I am fortunate enough to know many of the people who grow my food. Some are the farmers I visit on many Saturdays from May through October at the Clark Fork Farmers Market. Others are friends who run Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms that provide families with wholesome veggies throughout the summer. All of them have one thing in common: They do not make much money from farming.
Henry David Thoreau once said:
“Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor.”
Farming is far from a profitable venture, especially in its non-industrial, unsubsidized form. And yet, despite the poor pay, farmers are among the most hardworking bunch of people I know. Why do they spend all the hours of the day planning, weeding, watering, and harvesting a crop that will soon disappear into our bellies for a meager price? Most local farmers I’ve talked to cite three main reasons:
- They believe the health of a community lies in the wholesomeness of its food; a community eating homegrown, nontoxic food will be physically, mentally, and spiritually stronger.
- They believe that the growing, selling, sharing, cooking, and eating of food has the ability to draw together and foster this strong and healthy community.
- They love the act of growing, of using their labor and the sun’s rays and the aquifer’s water and the soil’s nutrients to produce essential nourishment for all of us.
Each year without fail, the farmers around Missoula and Montana not only grow the food that feeds us, but steward the health of the soil so that it will keep providing for us. We who eat their food are indebted to their hard, humble work. The subtext to the now common green “Know your farmer” bumper sticker should read: “Thank you, farmer.” They are always deserving of it.