Longtime advocates of sustainable agriculture join with new voices for a comradely take on the challenging future of farming.
Edited by Stone Barns Center communications director Hodgkins (editor: The Field Guide to the Nature Conservancy, 2003, etc.), with illustrations by Wormell, the title is a riff on Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. The anthology features contributions by a host of professional and nonprofessional writers with close ties to, or an abiding affinity for, the land, and many of the pieces read rather like a special section of Mother Jones, with a characteristic political slant. The core of the book is an ode to agricultural landscapes and heritage that registers concerns about “feeding people, fostering community, sustaining livelihoods, restoring soil, sequestering carbon, protecting natural systems and reconnecting us to the land.” It is also shot through with cautionary tales about the folly of large-scale corporate farming, misguided government programs, the graying of the American farmer, and the precipitous decline in their numbers. But the warnings are balanced by plausible strategies for reforming our food system, practical advice, and optimism regarding farming's future in this noble, difficult field. If occasionally the optimism smacks of wishful thinking, its tenets still may be pivotal in dealing with global ecological change. Some writers rail against the use of chemicals and high-productivity farming that depletes the soil, while others recognize that us-versus-them rancor serves no one and that educated, demanding consumers as well as small-scale farmers can help the big boys see the light (and the rest of us eat more healthily). The themes of the collection make repetition inescapable, which can get tiresome, though many of the less didactic pieces are lovely—e.g., Mas Masumoto's lyrical letter to his farmer daughter. Other notable contributors include Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, Alice Waters, Temple Grandin, Michael Pollan, Rick Bayless, and Marion Nestle.
Though the book may scare off almost as many prospective farmers as it encourages, the contributors argue their cases with an effective polemical tenor.