By Returning To Farming's Roots, He Found His American Dream : The Salt David Fisher's farm is a kind of American Dream. Not the conventional one of upward economic mobility. This is the utopian version, the uncompromising pursuit of a difficult agrarian ideal.
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By Returning To Farming's Roots, He Found His American Dream

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By Returning To Farming's Roots, He Found His American Dream

By Returning To Farming's Roots, He Found His American Dream

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Over the next few months, we're going to hear from people who are in pursuit of the American Dream through the most basic part of life - food. Sometimes, the American Dream involves getting ahead in the world. Today's story isn't like that but, it's still a traditional American Dream. Think of the Puritans or the Shakers or the Amish - the uncompromising pursuit of a high ideal. Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: On this day 18 years ago, David Fisher was in western Massachusetts, near the small town of Conway, visiting an old farm there. But nobody was farming that land.

DAVID FISHER: And I remember walking out at some point on New Year's Eve and in the moonlight, and it was all snowy and, you know, it was kind of like a blank canvas, right?

CHARLES: On that blank canvas, his mind painted a picture of what could be there alongside the South River.

FISHER: And I could just see horses working the fields and children, you know, running around.

CHARLES: Today, it's all there - Natural Roots Farm. To get to the farm, you have to leave the motorized world behind, cross the South River on a swinging footbridge. And there in front of you are acres of growing vegetables, neatly laid out in rows. It's early in the fall on this day. The hillside beyond the field is glowing with red and yellow leaves. It's idyllic, almost magical. There's a woman checking on the fields, Anna Maclay.

ANNA MACLAY: I came originally as an apprentice in 2002 and totally fell in love with the land. I just thought, I want to live here.

CHARLES: Her wish came true in a way she hadn't expected. She and David Fisher fell in love, got married. They now have two school-aged children, Leora and Gabriel. It's a harvest day on the farm today. David and Anna and a neighbor and two apprentices who are living and working on the farm for a year are filling a wagon with spinach and beets and cauliflower. About 200 customers have bought shares in this farm's harvest, like Maggie Potter. She arrives with her children to pick up her produce.

MAGGIE POTTER: It's not only just having the vegetables and the good nourishment for our own bodies, but it's creating a really great community, meeting friends along the way.

CHARLES: But it's not all peace and happiness here at Natural Roots Farm. The more I talk to David Fisher, the more I realize he is a very driven man. He's driven in part by a desperate need to find some hope in the world. He grew up in the suburbs north of New York City, in Westchester County. He spent summers at a rustic camp in the Adirondacks.

FISHER: You could only get there by boat. You couldn't drive there, no electricity, you know, bathe in the lake, live-all-summer-in-a-tent kind of thing.

CHARLES: And then, at the end of every summer, he'd get on a train back to Grand Central Station. And it would hit him.

FISHER: Noise and, you know, steel and concrete and lights everywhere.

CHARLES: The year when he was 15, that end-of-summer paradigm shift was more than he could take.

FISHER: And I was just like, this is craziness, you know, just the whole thing. You know, civilization, as I'm seeing it, is absurd. You know, the way that human beings are living on, consuming and destroying the Earth is absurd. And basically the only thing I could see to do is to pack up and flee.

CHARLES: He tried to drop out of high school. His parents forced him to get a diploma. But then, Fisher got as far as he possibly could from houses and highways and smokestacks. He hung out in the West, went skiing, backpacking. And then, one day when he was 20 years old, he was back on the East Coast, visiting a friend at Hampshire College here in western Massachusetts. And he wandered into the college's small organic farm.

FISHER: Autumn leaves raining down and the lush fields of vegetables and cover crops. You know, open the barn door and the tables are lined with this abundance of earthy, healthy, you know, vital produce. And I was like, wow.

CHARLES: He felt like he was seeing for the first time a way to live immersed in the natural world and also be productive, make a living. He started to learn to farm from other farmers. And then, he found this land near the town of Conway. You could call this farm utopian, if utopia's a place where you work extra hard and live very frugally so you can grow food in harmony with nature. For instance, Fisher devotes half of the land every year to crops that he won't sell. They're just there to protect and nourish the soil. Also, there are no tractors at Natural Roots Farm. Fisher farms with horses. Two of them, Pat and Lady, are pulling the wagon of vegetables. Kyle Farr, one of the apprentices, is holding the reins.

KYLE FARR: Whoa, over, G. Over, over.

CHARLES: David Fisher is committed to horses, partly because it makes the farm more self-sufficient.

FISHER: It's so direct, you know? The fuel is right there. It's growing in the form of grass. And the power is right there in the form of these live animals.

CHARLES: But also, he says, horses force you to work at a more natural rhythm. Horses take care and feeding every day, though. It's time-consuming. Fisher learned this past year that two of his former apprentices who had been using horses on their own farms have gone back to using tractors. It bothers him. He's not changing, though. Over breakfast that day, I had asked David, are you a perfectionist? He started to deny it, but Anna cut in. Yes, she said. He and Anna both tell me David's driving ambition to build a better farm has led to conflict between them.

MACLAY: This is the longstanding disagreement because I always think we need to take on less, you know?

CHARLES: But she seems at peace about what they have taken on.

MACLAY: There's not a lot that's easy about living this way, but most of it feels pretty right. And I guess that's turned out to be more important for me.

CHARLES: Those are the words they often use talking about their choices. This small, alternative American Dream just feels right. Dan Charles, NPR News.

SIMON: And you can see photos of what life is like on Anna and David's farm on NPR's food blog, The Salt.

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