Two thousand sustainably oriented farmers gathered in State College last weekend for the 22nd annual Farming for the Future Conference. A major theme throughout the event was the handing of the torch to the younger generation of farmers. When the idea of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) first took root 22 years ago, those first forward thinking farmers were laughed at amongst the agricultural community for thinking there were other ways to farm that would promote sustainability and create better quality foods. Now, that same generation is heartened to see an ever expanding, enthusiastic crowd of young farmers prepared to pick up the torch and run forward into an environment in which “local,” “green,” “organic,” and “natural” are the catch words of the food industry. There was a sense of relief amongst the old guard that their efforts and struggles of the past have not been in vain, that they are no longer on the outskirts of public sentiment, but at the forefront of a movement to provide nutritious food while caring for the land in a responsible manner. They are no longer the weirdos with strange ideas, but pioneers who are ready to pass on their vast knowledge to a new generation of enthusiastic growers and producers.
I fall into that new generation category and was fortunate enough to sit beside a retired dairy farmer at the conference’s banquet dinner. This gentleman had been attending these conferences since the very beginning when just a few folks were in attendance. We talked dairy animals—his cows, my sheep. I was blown away to learn he used to farm 600 head of cows over several thousand acres. My ten sheep operation on three acres is a mere drop in the bucket in comparison—a laughable drop in the bucket. I expressed my sense of being overwhelmed from the breadth of information learned during the day’s seminars. In fact, the day’s education had reasserted some of my genuine fears of trudging through the numerous licenses and regulations required for a dairy operation. I was feeling rather defeated actually, that the path I’d chosen was impassable. I ran into my new friend the next day at a seminar about udder health. He said to me, “Make sure you keep going. It will all work out. The first cow I milked kicked me, and I thought, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’” This was the true purpose of the conference: to pass on the experience and faith of the older generation to the next and provide support for the newbies in the face of seemingly insurmountable hurdles and a long road of hard work.