• Matteo De Vos

Life Lessons from Farmers

What the Oldest Profession of Humankind has taught me about being a Social Entrepreneur

Originally published 23 July, 2018 in Rank & File Magazine - "Cultivate: What the Oldest Profession of Humankind has taught be about being a Social Entrepreneur"

Imagine if the weather was your boss. At times, forgiving, even kind; other times, unpredictable and merciless. Appearing as rain, she chooses on a given month or year to be your best friend or your worst enemy — boosting productivity or battering your business. In the form of frost, she may strike far too soon or much too late and cripple cash flows, ridiculing the very idea of what seasons are supposed to be for. Let’s just say that this boss likes to keep you on your toes. You can plan, forecast and hedge against her behavior, but in the end, she always has the last word.

I look to farmers for what it takes to be(come) a social entrepreneur. As the oldest profession of humankind, farming teaches us profound lessons of what it means to battle the elements, keep financially afloat and do purposeful work. A successful career in farming asks nothing less than complete devotion to the soil, the animals, the climate and our ecosystem.

In a farmer, you will find an agronomist, a microbiologist, a soil scientist, a meteorologist, a mechanic, an accountant, an engineer, a veterinarian and a computer scientist. In the cautionary words of novelist Barbara Kingsolver, as a farmer, “you are still a student; your homework will never end.”

I know the feeling, Barbara. I’m soon to be 27 and just finishing school. Worse yet, I have no background in farming, and have no aspirations of becoming one. I have chosen a different path. Like Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet, I dig with my pen. I humbly choose to do my part by highlighting and championing farmers who I believe have the most important job in the world.

Farmers are the custodians of our soil; they tend to the skin of our planet that holds all past, current and future life. Farmers are the bedrock of our food system; they uphold civilization by providing communities with sustenance.

I can thus proudly pronounce that I am doing the second most important job in the world. We can’t all be superheroes, after all.

So, all this is just to tell you that I’m a writer? Yes, and no.

My journey into social entrepreneurship is an ongoing process. My writing is a part of that process. It is my way of learning more about our food system and the growers that sustain us. It is the channel through which I learn to understand the purpose I serve and my role within it.

My journey began in January 2017 with the For Food’s Sake podcast. I had no particular “aha” or eureka moment that I can recall that triggered me to start creating content. Rather, it was more a gradual response to what I felt was an increasingly polarized, unhelpful, binary divide emerging in the debates around food and sustainability.

As in our politics, the gray areas in food and agriculture debates are being silenced by the noise of the extremes. Nuance seems to have lost its appeal; it’s not sexy enough. It offers no silver bullet solution. It’s not newsworthy.

So I choose to engage with farmers, activists, entrepreneurs and thought leaders of the food movement. I have conversations, or “down-to-earth dialogues,” determined to bring the importance of nuance back.

My passion for food and sustainability was never something that I saw as a revenue-generating activity. If you’re familiar with podcasts, you might have noticed that they’re typically free for the listener. Without additional support from established radio networks or ad sales, the promised land of consistent revenues from a podcast alone are a pipe dream.

Like in farming with its seasonal nature of expense forward and sales after business, my journey too has begun with a list of expenses. Balancing them with revenues from other sources made sense at first, but over time, it began to play tricks on my mind. If I’m still not making money, I must be doing something wrong. What once felt like a pure purpose-driven mission, suddenly feels different. Money can be a great motivator and confidence booster when it’s flowing because it somehow legitimizes what you’re doing. When it’s not, it can cast an ugly shadow of doubt that puts into question everything you’re doing and working towards. Profit is seen as a stamp of approval and success.

Herein lies one of my biggest continuing struggles, accepting and believing in the idea that I am a social entrepreneur when I currently lack the revenues and financially sustainable business model to support such a claim. The “imposter syndrome” can be suffocating. Like many farmers who depend on the weather, the year and consumer demand for their crop, I am also figuring out what to grow, how to grow it, how to market it and for whom.

For farmers, a deflated market price or an unforeseen weather event can transform profits and bountiful harvests into crop failures and heavy losses. In the blink of an eye, a moment of misfortune or a short spell of bad luck, profits become losses. But when that farmer fails to “break even” that year, he or she is still a farmer. That seems obvious enough because we accept that his or her devotion through continuous practice ultimately counts.

It’s the gung-ho attitude, the ready-at-the-break-of-dawn determination, the faith that next year will be better, that truly matters. I try to take this lesson to heart. I tell myself that the same goes for budding social entrepreneurs like me — It’s our devotion to a cause that will ultimately make and shape us.

A final lesson that I take away from farmers seems counterintuitive, but it is the most powerful of all. Sometimes you have to ignore the demands of the customer to do right by your cause. The customer is not always ‘right.’

Farmers grow buckwheat, barley and millet, not because they are the most lucrative or the most in demand (they are certainly not), but because they are soil-building crops.

What is good for soil fertility is not always what chefs and supermarkets are asking farmers to produce. Farmers sideline short-term profits for long-term soil health. In the long term, we all benefit from that stubborn investment in the soil, which makes our food system more resilient, nutritious and productive.

I think that social entrepreneurs have a duty to do the same.

For me, I believe that I have as much a responsibility to break even as I do in shaping the market in which I share my content.

I already know what boosts numbers and website traffic — clickbait, sensationalist articles and bite-sized solutions. But I also know that we gradually lose all nuance, understanding and compassion when we reduce debate to either-ors, good or bad, and dos or don’ts. I also believe that I have a responsibility to farmers who cannot afford to see black and white as they learn, adapt and interact with nature. Staying true to my mission means staying true to their stories.

Podcasts are admittedly a niche product that cannot alone sustain my journey into social entrepreneurship.

Dialogue is only a first step, but it is a foundational step on which more can be built.

The next step, I am proud to announce, is already in the making. This summer, For Food’s Sake in partnership with Enviedo is piloting The Original Foodies, a documentary series that explores what it takes to farm today by sharing the stories of farmers determined to beat the odds and do things better. Far away from the hustle and bustle dream of city life, these farmers are planting, plowing and plotting a silent revolution.


As you find your way in the journey of social entrepreneurship, try to remember and learn from those practicing the oldest profession of humankind, farming.

1. Respect and value devotion, but take heed not to romanticize it.

2. Measure your success through your determination and commitment to your purpose-driven mission, not only by the ebbs and flows of profits.

3. Be proud and stubborn in your duty to help shape and serve new markets, because as a social entrepreneur you recognize the need to replace, not replicate, the current failing ones.