Brain-Intensive Farming: On becoming an intellectual farmer

By Andrew Bahrenburg

Andrew BahrenburgAndrew Bahrenburg is a student in the UVM Farmer Training Program. In this post, he reflects on how his thoughts about the intellectual aspects of farming have evolved since starting the program.

In the summer of 2012, seeking a career change, I resigned from my job as a legislative aide in the United States Congress. Six months later, I applied to be a student in the University of Vermont Farmer Training Program.

A dramatic (possibly insane) move, but one I made with conviction. Only, when I tried to explain to friends, family, and colleagues just what the hell I was doing, I’d find myself fumbling. 

In part, I was accustomed to the professional pissing match that is Washington, DC, a land where interns and chief executives alike tattoo their resumes to their own foreheads. And so, in a small crisis of confidence, I would relay the more cerebral aspects of the program—the business training and the soil science classes and the rotational crop planning—and downplay the most central one: “I’m going to learn how to farm.” It was annoying, this sort of intellectual insecurity about the path that I’d chosen, heading home to Vermont to farm sustainably. Like I was folding a good hand and walking away from the table. Trading my brain for a pair of work gloves and a scuffle hoe.

When did we decide that farming was for simple folk? Admirable and masculine, sure. And certainly romanticized. Yet somehow relegated to the kids’ table of Great American Professions.

Now, more than four months into the program, I no longer feel that insecurity. In fact, I feel guilty for having ever felt it. I no longer describe my training as anything but what it is, and here’s why: organic farmers are intellectuals. They’re problem solvers and engineers; shrewd business owners and entrepreneurs. They’re stewards and mentors. Tough as nails, too.

To farm sustainably, I’ve learned, is to operate in a system vastly more complex than the industrial order we’ve come to expect from American big agriculture. There are no shortcuts here. Herbicides and fertilizers and genetically-modified seeds are scientific quick-fixes—plant this, spray that, then harvest. An organic farmer replaces chemicals with intimate knowledge. He or she must try and understand what’s happening in his or her soil, how a single input might affect the entire ecology of the farm, how each crop responds to changes in climate, the natural rhythms of pest cycles.

After each class or farm visit we take, I walk away thinking, “holy hell, that farmer is a genius.”

I’m more convinced than ever that this is the field that I will make my career. This is my movement. And, in my opinion, there’s no battle that’s more important for my generation to suit up for than this one. Making food more sustainable lies at the intersection of nearly every far-reaching public policy concern facing this country (and, increasingly, this planet): the obesity epidemic and its grave public health implications, climate change, corporate greed and malfeasance, disappearing labor rights, income inequality, food insecurity, rising energy costs, and national security (yes, national security. Over 9 million Americans of typical recruiting age are considered “too fat to fight” by our military), to name a few.

I went to Washington, DC, to pursue a career in public service. Here at the University of Vermont, I’ve found one.  With the average age of the American farmer just south of 60 years old, and with our nation losing over 1 million acres of its best farmland to development every year, this country needs its young and talented, its best and brightest, to get to work rebuilding our food system. Our futures depend on it.

That’s why I’m learning how to farm.

Posted in: Economic, Environmental, Health, Social.