Brian Donahue dropped out of college in the 1970s to learn to be a farmer, and in 1980 was one of the co-founders of Land’s Sake Farm in Weston, Massachusetts, a non-profit community farm. He also worked as Director of Education at The Land Institute in Kansas. When he eventually returned to Brandeis University, he focused his research on the New England farm landscape over time, producing careful studies of the Concord area that became not only a multi-award-winning book–The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord (Yale University Press, 2005)–but an important component of planning for the restoration of a Revolutionary-era agrarian landscape at Minute Man National Historical Park. He currently teaches American Environmental Studies at Brandeis.
An excerpt from our interview with Brian:
Sometimes I think organizations that are working with farmers want the farm to pull its own weight economically, and the farmers do too and so it’s kind of backwards from the way we often think about it, but there’s kind of an expectation that if the farm is somehow subsidized that it isn’t real, that the real farmers out there make money… Well, most of the real farmers aren’t making it as a business. The history of American farmers is farmers exploiting themselves and most of them going out of business in order to provide cheap food for this larger industrial economy. It’s never benefited farmers, and a lot of them have just stayed in it by self-exploiting or by some kind of subsidy…
So that I guess what I’m coming around to is that if you look at the commercial part of the farm enterprise and the educational side and the interpretive side as kind of one enterprise where there’s going to be a bunch of different income streams and we’re going to acknowledge from the beginning that yes, we want the farm enterprise to be run in a businesslike manner and to be as economically successful as possible but we don’t have false expectations that it’s going to make it. Because then we set up a clash between these farmers who are driven by that imperative and all the other stuff you want to see happen. You want it to look a certain way, you want it to not make noise at certain times, you want it to not smell, whatever it is, if you’re going to put these things together then you’ve got to support it and subsidize it and that’s not a bad thing. We haven’t made it fake when we do that.