Washington, D.C. When the autumn leaves no longer fall and the bitter chill of winter encroaches on the snow-covered fields, another farming season has come to a close. On the farm, when one season passes, preparation for the next one begins. During these winter and early spring months, however, I find myself in Washington, D.C., of all places, plunged into the world of politics and public policy. It’s strange to think that this metropolis is part of the same country as the family farm I grew up working at and now help steward.
67 years ago, in 1955, my grandfather, Russell Carter, moved to northern Minnesota and planted the first Carters’ Tomatoes. The same soil is still cultivated today. I hope, in another 67 years, that is still the case. Yet constancy—preserving what we have been given and keeping it for those who come after us—is incredibly difficult. Instead of fidelity and rootedness, novelty and mobility are upheld as the prized values. The younger generations are expected to leave so they can “make something of themselves.” But what about the home that is left behind? What about the farmer who remains in his rural community to care for the land and preserve family ties and local traditions?
Instead of insisting the Millennial and Gen-Z generations leave their town or farm to “achieve wealth and success,” we ought to place a greater emphasis on fidelity to our familial and local roots. And for those of us who are uprooted, we aren’t excused from being faithful to the good we have, either. We may be the ones who have been tasked with planting ourselves in a new place and regrowing roots for our neighbors and posterity.
I started working on my grandfather’s farm when I was eleven. By that time, my uncle Tony was running day-to-day operations since my grandfather was getting on in years. I remember planting pumpkins in the mud and rain, sweating in the hot sun while baling hay, and pulling weeds in the strawberry patch for hours on end.
As I grew a little older, I sensed my peers were wondering whether I was going to leave or not. People were so accustomed to young folks leaving for the city the first chance they got, never to return—except perhaps to visit their family on a holiday. This past summer, when I explained why I returned to the farm after finishing graduate school, many friends were baffled. Why on earth would a twentysomething come back here? Returning to the family farm seemed foolish, something that a guy like me would only do if he could not succeed elsewhere. As the farmer and poet Wendell Berry observes in The Long-Legged House, there’s a certain assumption that “the life of the metropolis is the experience, the modern experience, and that the life of the rural towns, the farms, the wilderness places is not only irrelevant to our time, but archaic as well because unknown and unconsidered by the people who really matter—that is, urban intellectuals.” People like me are supposed to “prove themselves” in the city and only return to the small communities they came from to flaunt their accolades or to retire. Why must it be that way? Why is it that people who move away from the family farm are viewed as “escaping” and not “abandoning”?
Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who came to observe American democratic society in the antebellum period, noticed the inclination of Americans towards novelty and mobility. He observed that “a man carefully builds a dwelling in which to pass his declining years, and he sells it while the roof is being laid…he clears a field and he leaves to others the care of harvesting its crops…He settles in a place from which he departs soon after so as to take his changing desires elsewhere.”
It was perhaps in spite of these tendencies that my grandfather devoted his life to the working of the land. He was the yeoman farmer that Thomas Jefferson declared the ideal citizen of a self-governing republic. My grandfather was a pastor, WWII veteran, school board member, mailman, and more, but stewardship of a farm and its routines and practices, to him, was the highest calling. He saw farming as a sacred way of life, for its origins lay in the Garden of Eden.
My grandfather and Jefferson would have agreed on many things. As Jefferson remarked, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds.” Grandpa Russell and Grandma Maxine Carter had seven children (my dad right in the middle). It was a great system to have five sons help with the field work and two daughters to help with the household work. But the thriving of a small-scale family farm requires deep communal bonds as well. The local farmer, schoolteacher, banker, and mechanic must have a sense of shared purpose—the pursuit of the common good of the community—for the farm to carry on. A family farm cannot exist in isolation from the broader community. If the local restaurant is unable to get produce from a local farm, and instead ships it in, the communal bonds begin to fray. When Amazon and Walmart become the primary options for the food market, the local market withers away.
The farm needs a steward that is not just looking for ways to turn a profit, but also for ways to honor what he’s been given by not turning aside to the path of liberation from familial and local fidelity. If uprootedness prevails, the family farm is not the only thing that is destined to decay but also the cultural memory and traditions of neighborhood and nation. We are not born merely to climb the social ladder but to strive to be good and faithful, serving one another in love—especially those who have been placed next to us.
Tocqueville observed that Americans also tend towards discontentment, never being satisfied with their lot. Tocqueville’s observations were nothing if not prophetic. How can we preserve a self-governing republic, as John Adams challenged, if we cannot even conserve our family history, local communities, and religious traditions—if we trade away what gives us meaning and stability in the first place?
As Tocqueville wrote, “It is rare that an American cultivator settles forever on the soil he occupies…a field is cleared and resold and not to be harvested; a farm is built in the anticipation that, as the state of our country will soon change as a consequence of an increase of inhabitants, one can obtain a good price for it.”
I hope our family farm never reaches the point when it is sold to the highest bidder. It’s where my family has gathered for weddings, anniversaries, holidays, and common work. We ought to realize that having a deep respect for our roots and the working of the land is a strong foundation for order and stability, meaning and identity. These are the elements of human flourishing and the good life.
As much as we are bombarded with propaganda from tech giants that would like to persuade us to enjoy fake experiences in the metaverse, we are not born in a simulation where we get to choose everything we want. That should not bring us frustration but great joy and contentment. All of us, whether we are farmers or not, have a responsibility to preserve what we have been given—memories, traditions, ways of life, and, in some cases, physical places (whether rural, urban, or in between)—by those who came before us so that we may pass them on to posterity. My father, a handyman whose calling was to be a theatre director and English teacher, made a point of telling us about our family history, and instilled in us not only what hard work is, but how important it is for fostering integrity. Moreover, he was deeply encouraging when I decided to return to the farm, always ready to hear of developments and offer wisdom collected from his experiences on the farm.
This brings me back to Minnesota. Many family members have moved away or have gone off to college. It is uncertain how many will settle down near the farm. Two of my dad’s six siblings remain near the farm, while two others are there seasonally. Other siblings regularly visit, as do many cousins. I left for two years for graduate school, but last summer, when my uncle Dwight began to oversee farm operations, I knew that I could either return to help in the time of transition or decide to go my own way and pursue my dream of being a history professor, trusting that it was the responsibility of other family members to preserve and maintain the farm. When I worked on the farm this last summer and fall, even though I have never worked so long and hard in my life, I have never felt so fulfilled, and so proud of my family.
Nevertheless, the question remains: Who in my generation will steward the farm for generations to come? I do not know if that person will be me or someone else. I am beginning to hope that perhaps I could both teach and farm.
While in my current brief stint in D.C., I am often given a puzzled look when I tell someone that I am going back to the farm: “You’ve made it to D.C., haven’t you? Why would you go back?” I’m going back because the farm and all it means are more important than anything I can do or want to do here. It is more meaningful to go to a place that has claims on you, for that is where you can best serve and live the good life.
The ordinary rhythms of farm life inspire a certain serenity: discussing where to plant crops and what to bring to the local farmers’ market while walking the grounds; having time for personal reflection while hoeing in the field; or conversing on literature and history while picking sweet corn or asparagus with cousins and friends. One does not have to leave the farm to think about history, literature, or philosophy.
This past September, as we prepared for the first day of our annual fall festival, I stepped out of the farmhouse and headed towards the corn maze to make sure the paths were properly cleared. As I walked, I noticed my aunt and uncle arranging flowers, straw bales, and pumpkins to make the entrance look pleasant and welcoming. Then I saw my uncle Tony tinkering with one of the many game contraptions he has constructed over the years, making sure it was working well. In the field, I saw my uncle Dwight picking squash to be sold in the morning. Finally, I noticed yet another uncle and a few of his children mowing and trimming grass around the buildings. It was truly poetic. No one was doing it to get a paycheck or out of a sense of personal gain. These were people I have known my whole life, and even though they had their own respective lives, they had come to help because they shared a love for the farm and our family and wanted the community to take part in that experience as well.
It was a rainy evening a few weeks later when a couple dozen family members and friends congregated at the farm for a pig roast. The hard work of preparation had cleared the way for a time of revelry. As we finished our meal, one cousin suggested that we have a dance. I remember thinking that the corn crib, a building that we’d transformed into a live stage, was the perfect place. I recruited several boys to help clear the floor. They gladly sprung to action. As soon as the music came on, the dancing began. Aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and friends were there, laughing and dancing into the night. It all came together so seamlessly. The dance was a manifestation of our hard work, traditions, and familial bonds coming together in this physical place. It was an evening to remember.
We often hear that we should “create our own destiny” or “change the world.” But these phrases are meaningless without maintaining the good we have been given. “Constancy,” Grace Olmstead writes in Uprooted, “matters as much (if not more) to our world as audacity and daring.” What if we dare to have fidelity to our roots? Just because something requires settling in place does not mean it is less worthy of respect. In today’s world, it is far easier to go somewhere that tempts us (when life gets hard), but might we instead consider what may be asked of us where we are already placed? And for those who come from families or communities that are fragmented or cut off from their roots, there is an opportunity to find a place where they may settle and put down roots anew. Our family farm is still operative today because several family members chose to stay—some for several years and certain seasons, and some, like my uncle Tony, for decades.
What might be possible if we cultivated a greater sense of fidelity and rootedness to our places, wherever they are? Novelty and mobility only get us so far, but retaining a healthy degree of gratitude and pride in our own traditions and way of life will get us farther. They are traditions for a reason. As a descendant of farmers, my grandfather understood this.
The first tomato seeds have been sown in the farm greenhouse for this summer’s crop. I can’t wait to plant them when I get back.