11/01/2013 08:57 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Real Stuff of Farming as a Way of Life

I have gone to several conferences on farming and the environment. Each conference resurrects hopes for a better future. Eloquent speakers denounce injustice and paint a picture of what we had and what we still can have.

At first I thought it strange there was so much emphasis on practical matters, especially when the conference focused on farming. There would be speakers on growing crops, managing dairies, orchards, organic food, borrowing money, and on sustainable and profitable agriculture.

The appeal was to those starting farmers, giving them the moral and technical push to engage in the difficult but important task of raising food as a way of life.

After all, since the 1970s, we have witnessed the collapse of America's family farm and the rise and dominance of large farms and giant factories in the field.

Much of the corn makes gasoline rather than food for people and cattle.

Walmart alone earns the profits of millions of farmers -- if only those farmers existed: Walmart sells one-fifth of America's food. Big Ag, made of the likes of Walmart, is in the halls of Congress and government, drafting the farm bill.

It takes courage, luck, and grit to think of agriculture and, actually, farm.

Conferences reenergize those with an agrarian dream. These new farmers are everywhere. They include women, ethnic minorities, and twenty-somethings. They exclude African-American farmers, however.

Black farmers were all but wiped out by racism and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which, for decades, discriminated against them "in the provision of farm loans and other program services."

The "new" farmers who survive the rigors of "getting started in farming" are always in risk of failure and extinction. They have to have or rent land. They must be able to navigate all the obstacles Big Ag has put in their path. But these are passionate farmers determined to make it. They know the country needs them.

"I want you to farm. I want you to take care of the land, the animals, the wildlife, the people while making a fair living for all of your efforts," wrote Rebecca Thistlethwaite, author of Farms with a Future (Chelsea Green, 2012). Thistlethwaite addressed her appeal to the emerging small family farmers.

"I want you to last -- physically, mentally, and financially," she said to them.

Thistlethwaite speaks from experience. She has been farming for years. She learned valuable lessons in her "bumpy" road to farming. She did some things well and she prospered. But she also overextended her business by 430 percent in six years -- and failed.

Failure led her to the classroom of other farmers. She traveled all over the country and interviewed several beginning and successful farmers (in California, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington, Minnesota and Virginia) in order to discover the magic of what makes farms have a future.

The right stuff of farming includes more than hard work. According to Thistlethwaitte: "The farmers and ranchers who are working to balance their own economic viability while providing good jobs, benefits to their communities, and reducing their environmental footprint, all while nourishing people with tasty, clean food -- these are the farms with a future."

Thistlethwaitte is an exemplary citizen. She is also a farmer who wants to spread her good message widely. She knows the perils of agribusiness. But she knows even more the blessings of working the land with respect and knowledge. "Organic, ecologically based farming is the future of agriculture," she wrote.

Farms with a Future is primarily a how-to book for beginner farmers. It introduces the reader to many of the economic, agronomic, social and political opportunities and difficulties the farmer is likely to encounter in raising crops, fruits and vegetables.

Farms with a Future is also a well-written passionate and beautiful book about farming as an uplifting, reforming, and vital responsibility of a democratic society.

We need to buy our food from those beginning farmers who put all they have to give us healthy food -- and maintain farming as a way of life.

I recommend Thistlethwaitte's book very highly.