When I was 11, my parents moved our family from a tract of raised ranches to a 20-acre farmstead. My father was a former fresh-air boy from Queens who, at 40, longed for a farm. My mother loved animals. And we had our share of them: chickens, sheep, cows, turkeys, guinea hens, pigs, geese. I won't lie. At that tender age, I struggled to adjust. At one point the hens multiplied into a flock of nearly 300. Getting in and out of that coop required great skill and courage, while herding sheep called for agility and concentration while carrying a pail of feed at least three yards ahead. Most lessons were learned by trial and error, like the lazy day I relaxed my gaze from the flock, tripped over a boulder and tumbled all the way down to the barn -- dozens of hooves parading over my body.
Since then I haven't kept my own farm animals, but I've grown food on and off in one manner or another for well over a decade. My first bona fide vegetable garden was sown with great purpose and harvested with equal passion. Its footprint, well exceeding that of my small home, was ambitious even for an experienced gardener. After a childhood of raising, caring for and eating farm animals, the craft of producing my own food was deep in my blood.
Today I live on a farm of sorts. Each year, for the past eight years, I've grown a range of fruits and vegetables on a plot of land that just about matches the square footage of my home. My one and a half acre property is surrounded by a 200-acre family farm -- one that produces mostly hay for the small herd of cows and horses they breed and sell each year. From them I procure my weekly stash of chicken eggs and the manure for my garden beds. A few property lines down, another neighbor makes maple syrup and grows and dries enough garlic to keep a small village in Umbria stocked for the winter. Another, who starts a multitude of vegetables in his elaborate system of hothouses, always offers me a few hearty nightshades just in time for planting. While the parameters of my property end at the road, the pastures and the garden, the sense of farm extends well beyond the boundaries of law and responsibility.
This is my farm life.
But over the winter, restless and dreaming of spring, the sight of seed packets and the smell of the near empty root cellar failing to chase away the blues, I shamelessly established an alternative farm life on FarmVille.
FarmVille is Facebook's most popular game application, which enjoys an earned reputation for inciting addictive behavior. And I quickly learned I was not immune. By mid-February I'd become one of the herd, tending to virtual land and animals with an embarrassing vigor. As I garnered a greater yield of soybeans, morning glories, grapes, chicken eggs, swan feathers, goat milk and truffles, I fell further and further into a kind of heady trance. My mind raced toward getting to the next level and the next level and the next, toward FarmVille success -- which was pretty much always guaranteed as long as you stayed in the game. A bevy of instant gratifiers awaited me at each morning's log-in. I fantasized about having enough FarmVille dollars to buy that fancy Provencal Barn I'd been eyeing in the FarmVille market, or getting to Level 30 so I could purchase the greenhouse, or being gifted some bricks for my horse stable, or combing just one more kitten to win the blue ribbon.
In no time it became clear that FarmVille was, in fact, nothing like real farming.
But at first I couldn't help applying my real-life farm thinking to my FarmVille farm. I planned each planting, coordinated each harvest, and fretted over the welfare of my stock. Were my FarmVille animals free-range enough? My crops too monoculture? My stalls overcrowded? One day I commented to a FarmViller friend how I thought it was inhumane of him to provide inadequate shelter, fencing and room for his animals. When I finished my rant, he leaned in and brazenly whispered, "FarmVille: It's not real."
Indeed, he was on to something.
When Bill McKibben warned of technology's sneaky ways, of how it gets us to lose sight of all sorts of things that once made sense to us in the natural world, I doubt pink cows producing strawberry milk was what he had in mind. But for fear I might be losing my senses, I turned away from my quasi-ethical concerns. Besides, none of it mattered in FarmVille anyway.
In FarmVille, the only real threat to one's farm is the occasional withering crop. There's no concern for soil composition, compost, crop rotation, weather patterns, irrigation or infestations. Horses, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, swans, kittens and turtles nestle together and thrive with no derision. While animals are born on the FarmVille farm, they never die. There's no blood or decay, for in FarmVille no animals are ever harvested for food, and ugly ducklings that wander onto the farm are later transformed into swans.
FarmVille farming is a kind of unfarming -- a model farm fiction. And that, in a nutshell, is its lure. Seduced by the instant gratification and daily success of a well-organized, weedless world with no suffering, I played with uninhibited abandon. And my FarmVille farm grew. But the shift into spring made living these two farm lives -- one real and one not -- weighty and palpable. Because FarmVille was hardly a parallel universe, playing it in juxtaposition to my real farm life of mud, late frost and tender seedlings only exacerbated the inherent dangers of such substitute and secondary spaces that carelessly mask vital work that needs to be done.
It's hardly news that since the Great Depression the small family farm, both locally and globally, has been on the decline. Those like Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva and Michael Pollan have criticized the replacement of the family farm with the monoculture factory farms of today, ones that drive methods of food production and consumption that are killing the planet. Given the additional concerns that only 1 percent of the population is responsible for growing food for the other 99 percent, and that the average age of farmers nationwide is 57, it's vital that we look for new ways to inspire folks, young folks in particular, to engage in the work of farming.
Deep in the midst of my FarmVille farming, the Poughkeepsie Journal ran a story about a recently retired agricultural educator for the county's Cornell Cooperative Extension and his effort to do just that. To my surprise it read: "Facebook seen as tool for reaching tomorrow's farmers." FarmVille, he assured, had the capacity to inspire the young to return to the land, as it was "an incredible educational tool," and with the number of FarmVille farmers to real farmers at 60-to-1, they needed to find a way to "tap into that ... to get the youth off the couch and get them to play farm in the real world." But the gap between the game and the gate to that subtle dance of earth, air and sky is unfortunately too wide and deep to hold out hope that the key to resolving such problems can be found online. Learning what a farmer actually does requires elemental immersion into muck, manure, worms and pests, being in the presence of the ongoing balance of birth and death, discovering a new world each day and night and coming to find one's place within it. The relationship between our hands and the land is complex, and even the most accomplished and skilled of farmers wouldn't claim to understand it completely. While linear movement anchors FarmVille and its move toward greater progress -- more points, more dollars, more space, more stuff -- real farming is bound to a cycle of uncertainty whose success is measured in sustenance, one we are threatened with losing if kept to our old ways of food production, and one that the orderliness of FarmVille can't possibly assist in undercutting.
If there's anything salvageable about FarmVille for the lessons of real farm life it's that it, too, is fueled by an economy of neighbors, one that the old world of agriculture could not do without. My FarmVille friends gift me trees, nails, chickens, sheep and newborn calves. They help me raise barns and fertilize crops, and they share with me stashes of eggs, fuel and flowers. And I reciprocate without being asked. Such reliance is a reminder that one's farm is only as strong as the commitment and involvement of the community within which it is embedded.
Wendell Berry has noted that local economies "rest on only two principles: neighborhood and subsistence." "In a viable neighborhood," he says, "neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another ... Neighbors cherish and protect what they have in common." In FarmVille, what we farmers have in common is the desire to keep the farm game going, and so we circulate our goodwill for each other's interests. While our virtual survival doesn't so much depend upon it, our farms ultimately do better. But in real farming it's more complicated, because in a local farming economy producing food for community is always, in the end, about survival.
That's why facing the challenges of a deteriorating agricultural industry will take more than teaching the basic trilogy of plow, sow, harvest to kids on the computer. But because local economies are not the dominant means by which most of us acquire what we eat, there's no imperative to think about our role as neighbors as tied to subsistence. If push comes to shove and if we have the means, we can always make our way to the nearest, and cheapest, supermarket.
While the clarion call of buying locally has been central to fighting for a healthier food system, the principle of neighborhood has more expansive potential. In my real farm life, I both use and share what I grow and my neighbors do the same. Our gifts are not equal -- they can't be measured in terms of the standard economy. While I don't have my own chickens, a good portion of my kitchen scraps are fed to my neighbors' flock. When, in late summer, I'm overloaded with elderberries I gift them to another neighbor who has a deep love for the jam. And her husband's plow is indispensable for the years that a new garden bed needs tilling. A quart of wild blackberries on my stoop midsummer is a reminder to bag up some greens, beans or early tomatoes to hang on their mailbox in the morning. My winter's supply of garlic comes from a good neighbor up the road, not in return for anything in particular -- maybe it was the emptying of a maple syrup bucket, the helping out with a yard sale, or the tasting of some cookie entries for the fair. It's not a quid pro quo economy, but its viability "rests on what we have in common" -- producing and then sharing what sustains us.
As those at Cornell Cooperative Extension and others concerned with the fate and future of our farms work to elicit interest in tending to the land, it would do us well to remember the tie between neighborhood and subsistence. FarmVille may be made up of a generous group of worthy folk, but the gifts sent and circulated are in the end good for sustaining nothing much at all. Farming will only come alive through getting to know the work and imagination of real grass-roots growers all across the U.S., those whose work represents the knowing that our neighbors are tied to our survival. From community gardens to yard sharing, from CSAs to co-ops, from intentional communities to homesteading, from edible school yards to urban farming, these folks are right now challenging the way we grow and distribute animal, vegetable, mineral.
The sheer number of CSAs has multiplied within the last 10 years fueled in large part by the work of young farmers who are driven by the value of a local/neighborhood economy. Both community gardens and yard sharing have also emerged at increased rates in both rural and urban areas, challenging in unforeseen ways how we think about the terrain of soil around us, while also expanding our sense of farm. While the hardship of unaffordable farmland has challenged many young farmers, it's also forced a rethinking of our relationship to property itself. As stewards of the land, some young farmers are drawing upon the goodwill of established farmers, wealthy landowners, and/or the work of land trusts in order to work the earth. Such creative maneuverings, as demonstrated by the support of the land based nonprofit the Greenhorns, are indicative of the hope and veracity right now fueling the movement and the real farmers who are defying the odds as they carve out space for local subsistence.
These farmers and their movement are our best educational tools, teaching us about our reliance on the land as well as each other. While I haven't yet given up my virtual farm, I know that it's in the sun-kissed faces of such folks where the true rewards of farm life can be known. It's also where the future of food can be found and where I, too, can find my own parallel universe.