I grew up on my family's turkey farm.
According to the mythos of today's pastoral idealization, that means I ought to have grown up with a knowledge and appreciation of where my food comes from, the values of hard work and responsibility drilled into me from an early age as I helped raise the turkeys that would keep my family fed and send my brothers and I to college. I should have come away with an identity, a sense of place in the world, a source of strength that would help guide me through my future endeavors.
Did my experience resemble this ideal? In a word: no. Because this is rural Nebraska, and aside from values such as hard work and dedication, we were also raised with the values of sexism and hierarchy embedded deep within our psyches. While my brothers helped check barns, cull sick birds, and load grown flocks onto trucks to be taken to the processing plant, I helped infrequently, and only when forced. I resented being stuck out in the middle of nowhere, with hundreds of acres of empty land around me. I missed the neighborhood in Lincoln where I had spent my early childhood. I dreaded the taunting from kids at school when the wind blew the stench from our manure piles into town. Besides, we lived in a farming community; practically everyone lived on a farm or had a family member whose farm they worked on. It was not unusual, or even interesting, to be a farm kid. Everyone was.
In all my years growing up here, I learned only that turkey farming generated mountains of poop, and that it stank. When I finally left for college, I wanted nothing to do with this place. I wanted to move to a big city, to be someone important, and clean, and cerebral. I wanted to be an academic.
I still do; that part of my dream has not changed. What did change, though, during my years at school, was my perspective. Suddenly, my seemingly scant knowledge of the workings of rural America became a trove of information for fellow students who had never lived on or even been to a farm. My work ethic, internalized through years of living and working alongside dedicated farmers, began to seem out of place amongst a generation of constantly connected, over-stimulated peers who had grown up surrounded by so many distractions they never had to think for themselves, let alone work through their problems alone. I was surprised to realize that not everyone was a 'farm kid'; in fact, very few people around this country truly are. I barely qualified, and even my minute experience was far beyond that of my peers, who didn't even realize until I explained to them that the vast fields of corn we ran past every day in cross country practice were in fact field corn, grown for feed and ethanol, and would be fairly inedible to a human digestive system. They were shocked to learn that the huge cornfields they saw everywhere were not feeding humans. I was shocked to learn that they had spent the past eighteen to twenty-two years obligingly oblivious to this knowledge.
Since those days, I have had many adventures in conservation and farming. But for now, back home at my parents' kitchen, looking out at the barns where our most recent flock of babies has just bedded down for the night, I simply feel lucky to have been welcomed back to the family farm, this time as an employee. I love the cyclical nature of the work, giving us the chance to do better every time until the system is either perfected or abandoned for something different (example: replacing the standard antibiotic feed system with probiotics). I love the curiosity that bubbles up as we run tests of our manure and vaccines to find out how they're interacting in our waterways. I want to learn more, do more.
I want to find out how we can change the way we 'do' farming. How we can use it as a force for positive change, both socially and environmentally. It's a huge task. But I am just one of thousands who see the potential for farming to support healthy livelihoods and a healthy planet. We need academics on our farms. We always have; I just had to grow up to realize it.