Roads Taken and Not Taken: Michelle A.T. Hughes '15
Hughes is working to make farming an accessible career for those new to the field through the National Young Farmers Coalition and the United States Department of Agriculture.
When I arrived at Haverford and joined a community of students that was incredibly intentional about what they planned to study, I felt like a bit of a late bloomer. I had spent my high school career trying to be good at everything, in the hope that a liberal arts college like Haverford would notice how well-rounded a student I was. But when it came time to make decisions about college classes and my major, I had no idea where to focus my attention.
I spent my first three semesters taking courses across a variety of topics, developing interests in too many subjects to make a decision to pursue one over the other. Ultimately, I decided to study abroad during the spring semester of my sophomore year to try to figure things out away from the pressures of my family and society in the United States. I spent the following semester and summer in Siena, Italy.
Studying abroad allowed me to release some of the pressure I had been putting on myself since middle school to be nothing short of perfect. Siena gave me space to recharge, and being in such a new space pushed me to discover what I liked and didn’t like about my life there. I brought some of that liberation home with me and returned to Haverford my junior year as a major in Italian with a plan to complete the required courses for veterinary school.
I always had a passion for animals, people, and the environment, and working in farm animal medicine seemed to live at the intersection of a few of my areas of interest. After graduating in 2015, I started an internship at the University of Pennsylvania working with pigs. Before I knew it, I was living the life of a hog farmer—waking up before light to check on newborn piglets, organizing piglet sales and pickups, and of course, cleaning up manure.
When it came time to apply to veterinary school, though, I found myself wanting to explore farming as a career more than veterinary medicine. I felt drawn to farming because of the animal husbandry element, as well as the bond farming can create between animals and the humans stewarding land in community with them and the environment.
As my internship came to a close, I decided to try to farm in my own right, outside of my university position, But it didn’t last long. The adventure that is farming for a living is hard and complicated for more reasons than this essay has the space to explore. To put it briefly, farming as a Black, queer woman is a rare occurrence in an industry that is nearly 96 percent white, so I wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. That cultural difference was coupled with the reality that farming is a capital-intensive endeavor that has historically been supported by generations of family wealth, farming knowledge, and connections—none of which was accessible to me.
I started looking into organizations that advocated for farmers facing the same issues I faced, and graduate programs that would provide me with a bigger picture and a critical analysis of the food and agriculture system. Over the succeeding three years, I obtained a master’s in food studies from New York University and secured a full-time position at the National Young Farmers Coalition, which advocates for federal policy change on behalf of young farmers—in hopes that I might be able to help solve some of the structural barriers that prohibited me from farming.
Since I started at Young Farmers, I’ve worked to become a senior leader at the organization. Additionally, I now serve on the United States Department of Agriculture Equity Commission, Agriculture Subcommittee. In this role, I work alongside federal policymakers and revolutionary leaders to provide recommendations to USDA on how to better serve the next generation of working farmers. And I feel closer to my mission today than I ever have.
If you told me when I was a Haverford student that I would be sitting in a room with the president and CEO of the NAACP, the president of Dairy Farmers of America, and the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture before my 30th birthday, I wouldn’t have believed you because I didn’t see a clear road to this point when I was in college. But today, I look back proudly at my unpredictable path because it was values-driven and intentional. My values and intention—not my planning skills—created a path I couldn’t have predicted to the position of power I hold today. I plan to use that power to make a life in farming more realistic for me when I do finally decide to return to that dream, and to make farming a possible career for others like me nationwide.