Time, Soil, and Children - Author's Synopsis

Time, Soil, and Children

Time, Soil, and Children
Conversations with the Second Generation of Sustainable Farm Families in Minnesota


By Beth E. Waterhouse

Self-published by the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, July, 2004.

The blue eyes of a happy, muddy baby shine on the cover of this little book. Ariana Lentz Andres is playing in the soil of her Grampa's farm one warm summer day, and she looks to be enjoying every minute.

"I remember when I was quite young playing in the dirt near the garden while my parents worked. Later we weeded and we were always helping out," Brandon Rutter remembers growing up in southeastern Minnesota. The author, Beth Waterhouse, wondered if such memories of the hard work sustainable farms demanded were motivators or if they served to spoil the relationship to land. What had happened to the young people on those farms that became sustainable farms? Did hard work burn them out? Were they ever so glad to leave the farm or were they called to return to this lifestyle? What has influenced their lives? As adults, what do these farm children carry away from that particular family experience?

What Waterhouse did with her questions can now be read in a 52pp book called Time, Soil, and Children (2004). In 2003/04, she interviewed fifteen young people, all second generation to those Minnesota farm families who made the shift from conventional practices to sustainable farming in the 1970s and 1980s. Beth has also added her own voice exploring such topics as the meaning of work, the power of leaving home, the importance of direct experience, the impact of beauty, and the motivation that comes from your own children.

"First things that come to mind about growing up in our family are all the chores we had to do," remembers Connie Carlson, daughter to Carmen Fernholz, grower of hogs and organic grains. It's true that the first recall in nearly every interview had something to do with chores-putting up hay, feeding sows, weeding strawberries. Connie's brother, Craig, probably wins the prize in this book as the youngest boy to do daily barn chores. Craig remembers that he pretty much ran the barn the year he was nine. "The hardest thing was to guess when to bring the pregnant sows in… you had to closely watch them." Later Craig admits, "I actually did come to hate it. I dreaded going out there every single day." Yet Craig Fernholz also details the ways in which this particular youth has left him the exact kind of person he is-a young man who loves to figure things out, loves to work with his hands, loves to gaze at stars.

Time, Soil, and Children does not tell you all the answers, but with the voices of fifteen young people, you surely get to hear many good stories. Waterhouse heard from young people who know what it's like to be rebels in farm country. She recorded the stories of those who now clearly know their own desires and who will likely be leaders in their own fields-be they diverse farm fields or diverse fields of interest. One theme was the power of leaving home.

"When I graduated, the last thing I ever wanted to do was anything with agriculture or the farm," recalls Amanda Bilek. "It took being out of that environment to appreciate the value of the farm. You come to college in St. Paul and are around all these kids who don't even think about where their food is coming from." It was natural for Amanda, after slaughtering chickens on Saturdays as a teenager, to want to know the source of her own chicken sandwich!

Perhaps the biggest surprise to Beth Waterhouse as she sifted these stories, was the power of the third generation. "I figured the parents must have influenced the children," remarks Waterhouse in retrospect. "What I didn't understand is how the new baby, the child in arms, motivates parents even before they can talk or walk."

There is a sense of longevity and beauty in the focus that this book brings on three generations. Here you get to meet fifteen children of well-known and active sustainable farm families, but here you also meet some of their children. As Beth says, "I met Madeline Carlson, Connie's daughter and Carmen Fernholz's granddaughter. There is Ian MacKimm, grandson to Dwight Ault and son of Melissa. There there are Hazel and Arlo, children of Malena and Mike, little ones who call Audrey Arner 'Grandma.' Or you hear the names of Jacob and Andrew Van Der Pol or Nicholas Minar, and realize we are talking about active boys growing up inside the same strong families, inside the same strong values." And in this knowing, hope is born.

As Waterhouse comments, "It becomes apparent that each generation puts its hopes in the next one, and not so much on specific behaviors or dreams of that next generation, but simply on their presence. Even operational changes on their home farmsteads are made in the name of the next generation. In the Van Der Pol clan, this seems to be true. I remember Jim standing in St. Paul in the Minnesota Project office one day in 1997 or so, saying that if he hadn't gone into diverse and sustainable operations, Josh might not want to come back to the farm. Now Josh does not so much talk about the opportunity for himself as he speaks of the opportunity to have his own children with him. 'When Jacob was born,' said Josh Van Der Pol, 'I wanted to give him the life I'd had.'"

In its final aspect, this small book is a book about hope. Beth Waterhouse asks these young people what they hope for. And as she looks back on those stated hopes in her epilogue, Beth sees this: "This group of people have been handed a deeper-than-ordinary knowledge about the land and its ills and losses. This knowledge could have buckled the knees of these young lives, yet it did not. To a person, they meet their knowledge with enthusiasm and resolve."

Then she lists off eleven elements of life that this second generation calls for in their own hopes for the future. You'll read that they hope for such things as citizen awareness about food, a clean environment with a good mix of energy, children who can live without fear, land as a living entity that is free to heal itself. No small list, comments the author, and she calls the list, "guiding principles behind a hundred potential policies in agriculture, education, and environmental protection." Waterhouse ends with the voice of the young, but only after she reflects one more time on their collective wisdom. "These are solid, sustainable hopes for a better world, spoken at a time when young people could very easily become hopeless. They have not, and therefore we should not-there is work to be done and now is the time to get deeply into it."

Time, Soil, and Children can be purchased from the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, St. Paul, Minnesota. Contact (612) 625-8235 or (800) 909-6472 or misamail@umn.edu. $6.00 each, multiple copy discount available. Beth Waterhouse works as writer and editor, and lives in Excelsior, Minnesota.