Dirt Eaters

Work, Food, and Communal Transformation

(from the frontlines of a hopeful revolution)


Wendell Berry finished his talk, and the room rose to release a flood of deeply-held applause. Alongside his daughter Mary, the famous writer and ethicist had spoken for over 90 minutes. He had meandered from boyhood fishing stories to land-grant universities to living on the margins of a bad economy to the qualities of a good farmer. He sounded like my grandfathers, pausing and listening and dropping lines of wisdom seemingly out of nowhere.

Years before, he had inspired many of us to devote our lives to sustainable agriculture, to thrift, to local economies. Now, he had swept us off our feet.

We were all hungry, 300 of us sitting in the gorgeous main hall at Stone Barns, ready for dinner at the end of a long conference day, a dinner now an hour late. But we were full of so much love for all that brought us together, brought us to that exact moment, that we didn’t quite notice. Led by two farmer-musicians from Maine, Edith and Bennett, we belted out a worksong, “Thousands or More,” filling the rafters with appreciation, and at least a bit of harmony.

And then we ate dinner. And then we moved the tables aside and had a contra dance.

Safe to say, it was an inspiring week.

2013-12-06 16.10.48.jpg

I got the chance to go to the National Young Farmers Conference, and there was so much to take away that I don’t know where to start. I went to workshops on raising pigs and leasing land and rotational grazing. I got tips on how to set up electric fencing systems, how to build fertility in my soils, and how to creatively finance my operation through social media. I met fabulous young farmers from Wisconsin and Maine and Pennsylvania and Tennessee. I wrote down 30,785 pages of notes, and have 54,084 new topics (all numbers approximate) that I want to research and study in depth.

But most of all, I took away a feeling of arrival, of belonging, of home. It was weird, it was wonderful.

I don’t know if I can explain it.

I’ll try though, and Wendell Berry will help. In his talk, he said, speaking of our education system, “We only have one major, and it is called Upward Mobility. We need another one: Homecoming.”


Ever since I was made aware that injustice and inequality exist in this world, I’ve been uncomfortable with Upward Mobility. It felt selfish, it felt cynical, it felt empty, it felt wrong. But it proved impossible to avoid. For one, material comforts are nice, and financial security is an increasingly precious commodity. For another, even my justice-themed education pushed me toward careers of ambition, of prestige, of accomplishment.

For yet another, I think all that’s okay.

So I accepted it as the way of the world, that you build a good life while doing what you need to do. I still think that’s true, but something was missing.

That something was a feeling of home, a place to invest in, a place to commit to. If it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, if it’s brutal and ruthless, if we have to fight for what we believe in and protect those we love, then home is necessary. Home is the antidote.

Home is where we have a community of support and solidarity, where we embrace the imperfections of those around us, where we accept the limits the world places on us, where we revere the small and seemingly insignificant. Home is what we work our butts off to improve and revive and prolong. Home is what we love, in all the complicated meanings of that word.

Of course, I don’t know where I’ll be in one year, or five, or twenty. I’m the product of a transient society, of a globalized generation. I don’t have a home, not really.

But sitting in that conference hall, watching the contra dance, chatting with an unending stream of good people, learning over and over again that I don’t know anything at all, I realized that I had found my home. I realized that these are the things I want to work on, these are the people I want to surround myself with, forever. I felt a newness, a clarity, a freedom.

Like I said, it was weird.

Of course, the conference ended and I said goodbye to those good folks and I drove through terrible traffic and rain and snow back to the good folks at Maggie’s Farm. Back to chores and classes and community living, back to chopping wood and feeding animals and planning next year’s crops. Back to the grinding process of transforming myself.

But I know now, that this is right. This work, this life, this community of people, is home. I knew that before, I think, but knowing new things, new life-changing things, comes in steps. It’s a process all its own, I suppose.

All I’m saying is: It was a good conference. Let me know if you want to see any of my notes.


To see the rest of this week's pictures, which weren't numerous because I was busy taking notes, click on the "Photos" link at the top of the page.

2013-12-04 14.43.49.jpg