By Ethan Johns
America is the land of self-determination, self-sufficiency, liberalism, rugged individualism. Founded on the ideals of the yeoman farmer and grown by concepts of frontier-oriented manifest destiny, land ownership and stewardship was the original marker of a citizen in America. While the nation has accepted that land-owners are not the only citizens entitled to an opinion, remnants of a greater agricultural past remain in the consciousness of many citizens. The idealism of the farm is purveyed with images of red barns and songs of Old McDonald as urban and suburban children formulate misconceptions of where their food comes from.
Outside in the real modern agricultural world, small family farms continue to exist. Sometimes there is a red barn, but more likely the red barn is replaced by a CAFO as small farmers must ramp up their scales to stay afloat in a food economy that is increasingly concerned with quantity and speed. Old McDonald now rides a John Deere spraying machine that resembles more an original Wright brother flying machine than a tractor. Yet even as times remain tough, the agricultural legacy remains an active part of the farming mindset, with landowners wishing to hand down their land (which has sometimes been family-owned for a century or more) to their children.
I personally have often romanticized (perhaps justifiably, perhaps not) the childhood of my father, which was spent visiting his mother’s family farm in Mississippi. On vacations, he would pick beans, make ice cream from fresh, unpasteurized cow’s milk, grind dried corn to feed chickens, and go pole fishing in the river. Every year, pigs and a cow were sent to the town butcher in Booneville to be slaughtered and broken down, their meat then stored in his uncle’s deep freezer. Quite different from my summers spent playing four-square in the driveway with my neighbors.
By idealizing my father’s experience, I display my longing for this agrarian past that I myself was not able to experience. I have no doubt that others of my generation may feel that something similar was missing from their suburban childhoods. Perhaps this longing for an archaic “simplicity” is what has influenced some young people to buy land and begin their own small operations. Sometimes these operations are fulfilling and successful, yet sometimes they are not, and these young people find that Joel Salatin’s You Can Farm might have misled them into mounds of debt.
For city folk, urban agriculture can be a mode of adapting this agrarian urge to a specific location. Yes, urban agriculture may have its aims to feed and to nourish in a local manner; but more often than not, the difficulties of starting a farm in a city makes it seem that these projects speak more of the somewhat self-indulgent desire to get back to nature and the earth than they do to the task of sustainability and nourishment. This being said, perhaps self-indulgence is one of the purposes of the urban farm. By creating a workable outdoor space in which time can be spent with other similarly-interested individuals, communities are formed around specific parcels of land. If connection to the land is a result of traditional farms, then it would seem urban agricultural systems act in a similar way.
In the case of the NYU Urban Farm, educational programs connect students, faculty, and children to a piece of land that has been set aside specifically for the purpose of growing food. Through common cultivation, assignment of responsibilities, and shared harvests, these programs give us the opportunity to realize our desires to feel a connection to the land. Though it is small and shared by many, the rewards of participating in its stewardship are tangible. Even after one or two days spent pulling weeds and turning compost, I have felt comfortable enough to point out “our farm on Houston Street” to friends and family as we walked by and peered in at the sprouting turnips and potatoes.
Maybe it is the case that agriculture has become embedded in the collective memory of Americans. Or maybe urbanites just wish to brag about the fact that they are growing food in places where soil itself has been banished. Either way, between the dirt lodged under my fingernails and the celebration of the NYU Urban Farm’s bounty at the harvest festival, for a few hours at a time I am able to be my own, old-school Old McDonald, pitchfork and all.