Letters to an Elder Farmer: Britt Embry

Posted by Dana Penrice on April 05, 2018

“May those who are hungry be fed.”
– Tess Taylor, Work & Days

Dear elder farmer,

My partner, Justin, and I farm five acres of organic fruits, vegetables and herbs in southwestern Manitoba on the La Salle river — a slow-moving river that widens and narrows throughout mostly agricultural land before emptying into the famed Red River in Saint Norbert.

Our land is good, but not ideal for vegetables. When Justin went to discuss how to amend our soil with a soil scientist, his advice was: “Consider moving.” (Were this a letter to an older soil scientist, my first point would be: Dont say that.) We still live on the land with the generation that farmed it before us, so moving to another farm was never a consideration. Justin is the fourth generation to farm here; its home.

So, older farmer (if I may call you that), thank you for farming. Thank you for stewarding the land, doing the work, remaining hopeful, but still telling us not to farm (thus ensuring we would).

Thank you for listening and mentoring, even though the way we farm may be different than the way you did. Keeping an open mind about new ideas is key. However, hearing, “that will never work,” is as good incentive as any to do it anyways, so dont abandon that line.

We are innovators because you were an innovator just like the farmers that come after us will have to be. The tools look different, but the work is mostly the same. Dont be so quick to assume new technology has made our lives infinitely easier than yours. The abundance of information, marketing avenues, and communities accompanying new technology come with challenges of their own. The technology is expensive, it creates more work, and we still do most of our research from books (so please keep writing). For example, Instagram is a wonderful tool for marketing produce, showing your farm to your customers and connecting with other farmers. However, using it thoughtfully takes more time than youd expect. There are numerous steps to taking and posting a picture: taking a picture that reflects and showcases the work; editing it to bring it to its full potential; writing and editing a caption that is meaningful and will hopefully resonate; and then finding the time to respond to the questions and comments that it will generate. And all this work is sometimes lost to the almighty algorithm that decides your post isnt as important as a picture of a puppy (which brings me to my first and only Instagram tip: always include an animal — even if its a picture of broccoli).

Remember language matters. One term I hear a lot is “hired man.” Perhaps youve used it because the hires have always been men. But by saying men, you are not making room for the possibility of working alongside women. Would your hired man ever be a woman? If not, why? There are women coming up right now who need that representation — its critical they see themselves in those positions and hear themselves in the language. If not, we risk continuing the gender imbalance in farming — an imbalance most obvious in positions of power. Many people from different communities and cultures are farming, but they are often not the ones making decisions about the landscape of the industry. Make room on farms for farmers who are not white and male, and make room on boards and committees for diverse voices. I know these moves will benefit farming communities, policy-making and the future of this profession.

As I mentioned above, we live on an intergenerational farm – a blessing 90 per cent of the time. Having folks in-house (well, on-farm) who we can go to for advice is an incredible resource. People who have seen this land through floods, early frosts, and late starts, yet farmed through it all. We are incredibly lucky. Make room in your life and on your farm for young farmers, whether literally or, more likely, figuratively. Fewer young farmers are coming from farming backgrounds, and they need your mentorship and knowledge. Our first year farming was a hard one and its difficult to imagine how much harder it would have been had we both been first-generation farmers. At the start of our first season, we had immense difficulty working our Osborne clay soil. Justins dad had tips that hed learned from trying to work the same soil and they helped us get into the fields. Without his knowledge, we might still be out there, trying to broadfork packed clay.

So, thank you. Youve kept us all well-fed and the torch well-fuelled. Please keep stewarding us as we steward the land — theres always more to learn.


A young farmer

britt-embry-letters-to-an-elder-farmerBritt Embry, 32, and Justin Girard, 33, have been operating Hearts & Roots, a small organic vegetable farm near Elie, Manitoba, for three years. Before heading back to Justin’s family farm, Britt worked as a copyeditor and library assistant, and Justin was pursuing a career in academia. Britt says her favourite thing about farming is: “Firing up the greenhouse in March and starting all over again.” Justin? “The seasons, the hope, the drama and the food.”

Inspired by Stone Barns Centre for Food & Agriculture’s recently published book Letter to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming and Our Future, Young Agrarians invited young farmers to write Letters to an Elder Farmer. As young farmers, we walk in the footsteps of those that have come before us caring for the land and cultivating a community that values organic and ecological farming. You may have noticed too, that as young farmers have also been blazing new trails to adapt to our changing society and changing planet. We hope, like Letters to a Young Farmers, that the stories in Letters to an Elder Farmer provide some food for thought and create conversations across the generations.