"Vote with your fork" is a wonderfully simple mantra: we should opt for sustainable, organic, local, and ethical food whenever possible. But we're not going to be able to "chew the right thing" if there's no one growing it for us. Demand for SOLE food is way outstripping supply, and the gap is only going to increase unless a lot more young people get into farming.
Sadly, American farmers are a gray-haired bunch, and they're getting older every day. According to the 2002 census, the average age of farmers was 55, the oldest average to date; just 6 percent of farmers were under 35, reports the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Unsurprisingly, the number of farms total continues to plummet too, as farmers retire and — unable to interest their kids in stepping into their hardworking, non-remunerative boots — sell their land to developers.
There are encouraging signs that the trend might be shifting. Farming is cool again, even sexy — check out this story or the May 2007 Elle magazine, which has a photo spread on hunky farmers. (It's not online, but Tana over at I Heart Small Farms has more.) The Universities of Florida and Washington have begun offering degrees in organic agriculture; Mother Earth News had a good article a few months ago with further resources for those considering a career in sustainable agriculture.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a peripatetic activist in her mid-20s, intends to help this trend along through a documentary, to be called "The Greenhorns," that should raise the visibility of young farmers by presenting them as the rock stars they actually are. Here's how she describes the project:
Our aim is to valorize the role of younger growers who continue to refine farming practices, to innovate in new markets, and to reclaim new land under sustainable management. With this film we hope build the case for those considering a career in agriculture, to embolden them, to entice them, and to recruit them into farming. The farmers in our film will speak about their motives, their lifestyle and background in farming. The case studies are a way of showing newcomers to the field that they are not alone, sharing the stories of farms that are thriving.
I first met Severine last year when she was at UC Berkeley. I thought she was just the take-no-prisoners, Mario Savio-like leader the food movement needs, and I still do.
A transfer student from Pomona College, where she helped start a student organic garden, she had taken three years off to work on farms in Switzerland, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and elsewhere before coming to Berkeley. Once at Berkeley, she immediately founded the Society for Agriculture and Food Ecology (SAFE) student group. For SAFE, she launched a speaker series, called "Future Food Careers," in which she arranged for 23 female speakers — farmers, authors, ethnobotanists, organic vintners — to come to campus. In her spare time, she cooked local, seasonal foods to serve at the reception of a few Michael Pollan events and put together a pretty comprehensive website for "organic entrepreneurs"…all part of her master plan to recruit other young people for this "regenerative movement, to validate these professions and show students there are all these different avenues" to make a difference in the food system, as she told me last fall. Now, she's just returned to Berkeley from a farm-cum-cooking school in Ireland.
In short, she's the sort of impressive, super-energetic, driven, passionate young person that makes those of us over 30 feel like banana slugs trying to cross a freeway. (Or is that just me?)
Right now, Severine is just getting "The Greenhorns" off the ground. Its website should be live very soon. She has the necessary equipment, a few hours of taped interviews, an experienced director on board, and a treatment. Here's what she needs from us: nominations for under-40 farmers of all kinds, all across the United States — community farmers, commodity farmers, organic farmers, livestock farmers, wild-crafters, specialist restaurant farmers, CSA farmers, urban farmers, ethnic/immigrant community farmers. She's particularly looking for leads for farmers in the Midwest and the South. If you fit the bill, or know someone who does and might be willing to be interviewed, e-mail contact information to Severine directly at seve...@pixiepoppins.org.
"The Greenhorns" is also going to need funding, and I'll be back with more information as to how you can help once she's got a donation mechanism in place.
Image credit: "A reworking of Walter Crane's 1898 comments on monopolists and grain speculation" from the SAFE website. View larger image >