To others (seeing an opportunity to shorten or end the conversation as quickly as possible), I say that I farm because I like good food. "Can't argue with that," they say, thankfully.
To a third group of people, usually those most interested in farming, I explain that when I was younger I made a list of jobs I could imagine myself enjoying. I tell them the list included "small-scale organic vegetable farmer" and that I somehow fell into it. I add some esoteric, overly idiosyncratic items to my fictional list of self-actualizing professions in order to make them laugh or to distract them. I say that besides farmer, on my list were rapper, astronaut, lonely graduate student, writer, playwright, lonely history professor, and lonely Civil War reenactor. I explain this maniacally, with eyes wide, until whoever asked the question starts talking about himself or loses interest.
To the fourth group -- those with whom I'm most honest -- I shrug and sadly mumble something about not knowing what else to do. "I could probably be a good janitor, maybe," I say, almost inaudibly, "but I don't know what else I'd be doing. I'm not really good at anything."
I grew up in somewhat urban New Jersey, about 20 miles outside of Manhattan, and didn't have a lot of interaction with nature. My dad kept a small vegetable garden in my aunt's backyard until I was nine or 10 and then he stopped. I remember helping him in the garden a few times and liking it.
I ate a lot of processed food. I liked Toaster Strudels and Pop-Tarts. I liked bread. I put ketchup on most things. Most of the time I felt really awful. I wondered why my stomach hurt so much. In high school I went to a digestive specialist, who gave me a cup of high-fructose corn syrup to drink. I got sick almost immediately. He told me I had an HFCS allergy and "probably irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's disease" or something. It seemed that most of the food I was encouraged to eat was poison to my body. I was frustrated by my stomach and, though I didn't realize it then, by the food system I was trapped in.
Being sick showed me that there's a lot wrong with the way things are set up and maybe, I thought, if we do things differently, there's a chance we could get it right. I discovered subculture. I learned that there are alternative ways to eat, which, it turns out, is how most people in history have eaten. Sometimes I wished I'd been born 100 years earlier.
After college, I left New Jersey to become a farmer. Through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), I discovered a farm about six hours northwest in the Finger Lakes region of New York. The farm, where I still live and work, is called East Hill Farm. It's a project of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, an intentional community of craftspeople and farmers who have lived together in Middlesex, New York, since 1967.