Is Farming a Waste of Talent?

Nov 28, 2017 by

By: Franz Klein

In my years as a seminarian, I encountered the label “Father What-a-Waste.” Women applied it to good-looking young priests or priests-to-be who would make great husbands. How could they possibly give up the chance for marriage, a family, and success in the world? With my dashing good looks, I’m sure that the title was often applied to me during my seminarian years. No matter that I never heard it in reference to myself in my seminary years, but still… surely…

More to the point, I was thinking about that silly old label in regard to a few comments I’ve gotten since quitting my full-time teaching job at a prep school last spring to try my hand at farming. Am I sure that I will be able to support my family? Am I using the talents that God gave me? What about writing? What about teaching? How can I give it all up to shovel manure and pull weeds?

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Farmer ‘What-a-Waste,’ I guess. Ironically, a few of the more worried queries have come from priest-friends from my seminary years. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

To emphasize, this is not a paean to my abilities as a writer or a teacher. I’m sure that there are many former students of mine out there with ready complaints about my heavy-handed grading and often scatter-brained, tangential lectures. But the fact is, I did give up a secure, salaried position in a profession that I loved in order to throw myself upon the vagaries of an unstable climate, a heavy-clay soil, and the fickleness of the free market.

Oh, there are the practical responses that I’ve used to deflect these queries in the past few months: We returned to the support of family back in Wisconsin. I continue to teach part-time, and I’ve easily found free-lance work writing and translating, just as I had expected. Really, it’s not as radical a transition as it sounds, and I’m continuing to use my talents, whatever they might be.

But I wish that I would cease and desist with these practical responses. At least implicitly, many people view farming as something one gets stuck with when nothing else pans out. In my own family, on my father’s side, after emigrating from Poland my great-grandfather farmed for a few years in rural Hull, outside of Stevens Point, before raising enough money to open a hardware store in town. My grandfather continued the hardware store, and my father is a lawyer–with nary a farmer in sight.

Given the farm crash of the ’80s, it is understandable that many people understand farming to be a last-resort profession. Financially, it has become impossible to farm as past generations have. A 35-cow conventional dairy farm, as the farm my wife and I have inherited from her parents once was, is now a financial impossibility. Yet for those who remain, farming is not, per se, an impossibility.

A few of my farmer-neighbors thrive by buying up shuttered small farms and increasing the size of their operation. Personally I’m not a fan of mega-farms–but that’s a subject for another post. Other farmers–Rosemary and myself included–have embraced the organic label, where premiums are higher and the market continues to grow. We firmly believe that there is a future in organic farming as people become more educated and concerned about their food, where it comes from, and how it was grown.

So, there is a practical response to be had as to farming being an exciting, cutting edge profession. Part of my hesitation in offering the practical response, though, is that people get lost in its complexity and detail. But another pat of my reluctance comes from the fact that it’s not really the main reason I switched professions to farming.

The main reason, put simply, is the search for contemplatio. It’s not that contemplation is impossible in other ways of life and other professions. But I am convinced that living close to the land and elemental things–the raw, inexorable life-force of plants and animals; the life-giving richness of the soil; the harsh embrace of brisk ridgetop air– is especially conducive to thinking deeply about the ends of things more broadly. What are things for? What are we for?

Whatever it is, it isn’t to be exciting or cutting edge. It isn’t to be rich, or to make a lot of money.

I was thinking about all that the other day, during deer hunting, as I sat shivering in my stand and looking over my fields. There is an impermanence to the alfalfa that has browned and died with the hard frosts of the fall, an impermanence that matches the impermanence of life. It was deeply humbling to think over the failures that occurred in those fields–the frustration of constantly broken machinery; the banality of mulching hour after hour, day after day; the meager squash harvest that barely covered expenses.

To be sure, there is a humbling helplessness to throwing oneself upon the land. But vagaries–that’s the word I used before–is perhaps not the right word after all. The right word, rather, might be providence, which is an altogether different thing.

Whatever it has been, it has been quite the first growing season. I’ve learned a whole lot, and I’m grateful to God, for the one thing that I’m more sure of than ever is that it has not been a waste.

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1 Comment

  1. Bob

    What an excellent post–thank you for it. And my new title–Bob what-a-waste. It’s good to have a name that fits. Although those who know me put it up to stupid luck, I did get my bachelor’s summa cum laude and got my master’s from Notre Dame. (I missed the good looks, though.) So I’m asked: What are you doing in a tiny town just getting by as a part-time paper-pusher–and getting up at 5 am to gather eggs, the profit from which just barely pays for the feed? And I say: Have you ever felt a warm, moist egg just laid by your chicken? Don’t you see how happy the widow next door is when I give her some of those eggs? When’s the last time you saw a shooting star? My wife says I go to my little farm uptight and come back happy. Payment enough until the Lord sees fit that I get a wage from the land. If He does at all.

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