By Scott Hertzberg, (otherwise known as my awesome husband), and originally posted on his blog the Jewish Farmer
Farming continues to attract surprising numbers of young Jewish Americans. Frequently I see articles in the Forward or elsewhere about a recent college grade deciding to take a big turn on to an agricultural path. Some seem to be making the shift with ease. For others being attracted to farming leaves them torn in some major ways.
Most Jews I’ve come across who are interested in farming seem conflicted between a desire to live both in the city and the country. The city has the conveniences, professional employment, social and religious life. The country of course means an escape from the tiny community garden plot and ample land to plant your agrarian dreams.
My wife and I relate all too well. We have lived for a decade on a farm on the outskirts of metropolitan Washington and become well versed in the pros and cons of living outside the city. Now that we have two small children, the cons have grown as we are really in need of a congregation closer to us. All types of country people can find themselves wanting to be both in the city and country. The promise of town after all has forever stirred farm boys. Yet I think Jews may be more prone to this conflict. Our agricultural yearnings are ancient but are inclination to live close to one another in a centralized place is just as strong.
Sukkot, the wonderful holiday we just celebrated, may offer a solution for some of us. While sitting back in our sukkah, a guest went over the ancient origins of the hut for us. She explained that back in the day, ancient Israeli farmers lived in towns or villages and worked fields a good distance away. During the fall, the farmers were so busy harvesting grapes and other summer crops and simultaneously planting winter grains that they simply did not have time to commute every day. Their solution was to build the temporary shelters in their fields to spend nights until everything was harvested and planted. After that they could return to the village to relax in time for the football season to heat up.
Living in the city or suburbs and working a remote field like those ancient Israeli farmers may be a good choice for many aspiring Jewish farmers. Walking out your back door to your field is great but the trade-offs might not be worth it. In or near town, you will be closer to friends, Jewish life, public transportation, and employment for your spouse/partner or both of you. Odds are at least one person in a farm couple will need to work off the farm. Considering that farming is seasonal, neither of you will have to commute far to work during the winter. Not having to drive about during the off season in what’s left of the American countryside may be the biggest benefit. Because of sprawl America outside the beltway is full of traffic. There is not a clean break between the city and country like in most other countries. Everyone is out in the former country driving with the farmer.
This choice will also free you up from having to purchase land. Good farm land near cities for rent is much (or double much as my son Ezra says) more plentiful than good land for sale. Rents average $50 to $120 per acre per season (Not per month!). Finding a long term lease on “preserved” land that cannot be sold to housing “developers” is also not that difficult.
If there are times during the season when there is just so much to do you can’t spend time driving, then put up that Sukkah and spend the night. Settling in an outer suburb that still is connected to public transportation is ideal. Silver Spring and Greenbelt near Washington come to mind. Rent or sale prices will be lower and you will be closer to your fields.
I suggest looking to rent in the counties closer to the city first. You will be surprised how much decent land there is to rent in counties like Montgomery MD, Westchester NY, and where we are in Prince George’s MD. Contact the local agricultural extension agents, local land trusts and try to keep the commute from your village to Sukkah under an hour.
This option will not work for everyone. Some will be happier living on the farm but the Sukkah Scenario should work for the many aspiring Jewish farms torn between city and farm who are not moving forward with their plans of getting their hands in the dirt.