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Farming as rehab

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The current issue of Modern Farmer, if you can overlook the Winter Gift Guide pedaling $300 dollar blankets and $125 mugs, contains some of the most riveting food journalism I’ve seen in years. Among its fleet of captivating stories on topics ranging from iceberg entrepreneurship to agroterrorism to the ubiquity and fragility of refrigeration is a piece on farms as rehab centers.

San Patrignano, which I discovered through an Italian food businessman who supports it, is a drug treatment center in Rimini, Italy, offering harbor for recovering addicts who choose a vocational path from cheese-making to horse training to award-winning wine production.

According to writer Molly Birnbaum, “farm rehab is not just for drug addiction… The oldest therapeutic farm program in the U.S. – 100 years and going – is for those with mental illness. Gould Farm [is] a 650-acre working farm located in the hills of the Berkshires.” Its founder William Gould “believed ‘that people need meaningful work in order to know who they are in the world.’”

This Examiner, steeping in Yerba Mate and Modern Farmer through Hercules last week, got to thinking: perhaps Gould’s belief could extend to all of us.

Books like Kristen Kimball’s The Dirty Life do an excellent job of laying plain the grueling, often overwhelming, inclement weather clad, up-to-your-knees-in-the-mud (and worse) character of farming alongside its tandem joys.

A senior at UVM last month introduced himself with: “Food is my preferred medium.” Beyond questions about food-system trends and entrepreneurial opportunities, he wanted my recommendations on where to WOOOF. “Definitely right after college, I want to farm. I’ll volunteer, I’m open to anything. I need this for my food education.”

The U.N. declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, and hyper-local opportunities to get our hands dirty will abound. With the passing of Article 89, we’ll no doubt see a bounty of rooftop and ground plots hatched across Boston.

Getting closer to our food, be it over soil or stove, is an increasingly popular maxim for health. And it’s true: the closer we get, the fresher, brighter and more transparent our foods become.

But farming, and its cousin cooking – for so much of human history both fairly assessed as sheer drudgery – have been repackaged (for the lucky comfortable among us) as activities that do our souls good.

In an increasingly unreal world of “social” love, video clips, fast money, and apps eager to munch up what’s left of the minutiae of everyday life, farming and cooking remain real things – things we can put our hands on, know with all five senses, and that keep us fastened to the earth.

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