Editor's Note Spring 2016

The Robinsons' dog Trump enjoys the apple orchard in bloom.
Dairy farmer picking up potatoes on his farm near Fairfield, Vermont, September 1941

Written on

February 09 , 2016

Last fall I was an intern on a Vermont sheep and fruit farm, and over the course of three weeks I used parts of my brain that I tap so rarely they might as well be located in my elbow. Normally I spend my days as a writer and editor, working with words, and like most of us I don’t tax my thinking beyond what my chosen line of work asks of me. My brain is narrow. It is used to doing one or two things well.

On the farm, though, I was forced to think spatially when I had to set up new pasture fencing in anticipation of moving the lambs. I had to think mathematically when juggling the numbers involved in making sheep’s milk yogurt (time, temperature). I had to engage in a bit of systems thinking as the farmer explained all the factors influencing the health of the apple trees. I was compelled to understand basic genetics when the ram was brought in and the breeding plan was (literally) put in motion.

Thinking in such a variety of ways brought home to me that farmers must indeed be multi-skilled. A successful farmer doesn’t just “grow plants” or “raise animals”; they must also, to some extent, be a biologist, a chemist, a carpenter, an electrician, a machinist, a chef, and an accountant. If they raise animals, they must also be a veterinarian, a geneticist, a pharmacist, and an animal behaviorist. If they sell their own products directly and have employees, they must also be a marketing expert, a salesperson, and a human resources manager. I’m sure there are plenty of other skills I’m leaving out.

Farmers may not be experts in all the fields they touch on, but they have to know the basics. Can you imagine a farmer not knowing anything about animal genetics, the chemistry behind food safety, or how an electric fence works?

Culturally in America, farming is still seen as being second to a college education, and farmers are often assumed to not be very smart. How wrong this is. Farming may actually be the profession that requires the most knowledge of the most topics and the most engagement with the most skills. This kind of wide-ranging wisdom strikes me as a greater guarantee of a satisfying and self-sufficient life than the intellectual specialization that renders so many of us incapable of such basic things as feeding ourselves or understanding the weather.

The next time you’re at a farmers’ market, wincing at the price of what is sold there, think about all the knowledge that went into the making of that product. And realize that the farmer who brought that product to life through his or her smarts was probably self-taught over many years. Isn’t it fitting that human knowledge is said to have come from an apple tree?
                —Caroline Abels

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Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape ties into larger questions of sustainability and the future of our food supply.