Young Agrarians: Digging The Future


Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

Our economic contractions have given birth to a new demographic--the "frugalistas." The rise of thrifty hipsters who get their thrills from no-frill living marks "a re-emergence of thrift as a value," according to the New York Times. From secondhand shops to homegrown crops, penny pinching's taken on a new luster.

Chasing dollars, on the other hand, appears to be passé, thanks to the fiascos that tanked the banks and tarnished Wall Street's image:

Today, the financial crisis and the economic downturn are likely to alter drastically the career paths of future years...

...And early indications suggest new career directions that are tethered less to the dream of an immediate six-figure paycheck on Wall Street than to the demands of a new public agenda to solve the nation's problems.

We need to "make banking boring again," as Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning New York Times columnist, declared last week. His fellow columnist Frank Rich chimed in with a Sunday op-ed bemoaning the fact that our culture of greed siphoned off "gifted undergraduates who might otherwise have been scientists, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, artists or inventors."

Or farmers, perhaps? We need to make growing food a prestigious profession again, as it was when our country was founded. Thomas Jefferson believed that "Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens...As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else."

What Jefferson couldn't foresee is that we'd convert our farmers to fossil fuels. As Bill McKibben writes in Deep Economy:

The number of farmers has fallen from half the American population to about 1 percent, and in essence those missing farmers have been replaced with oil. We might see fossil fuel as playing the same role that slaves played in early American agriculture--"a natural resource" that comes cheap.

Of course, that "cheap" energy doesn't seem like such a bargain if you factor in all the disease and pollution that can be traced to our current system of industrial agriculture. But guess what? It's not more efficient, either. As McKibben discovered:

According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture, smaller farms produce far more food per acre, whether you measure in tons, calories, or dollars. They use land, water, and oil much more efficiently; if they have animals, the manure is a gift, not a threat to public health.

But in order to take the petroleum out of our food chain, we'll have to repopulate the farms. To switch to sustainable, small-scale agriculture will require millions of newly minted farmers. Can we accomplish such a seismic cultural shift? Young people are certainly showing a renewed interest in farming and gardening that bodes well. As Twilight Greenaway noted on Culinate last week:

If you're a young person eager to get into farming in the U.S. these days, you can choose between 68 different colleges and universities offering classes and degree programs in sustainable agriculture.

But, adds Greenaway, the young would-be farmer faces numerous obstacles, two of the greatest being low wages and the high cost of land. Greenhorns director Severine von Tscharner Fleming, the filmmaker/farmer who's out to recruit a new generation of farmers, told Greenaway:

We would like to live in a world where it is possible to go to school and then do a series of apprenticeships and on-the-job trainings and eventually become an owner-operator of your own farm.

The current reality for young farmers is more uncertain, as von Tscharner Fleming points out:

...It's not by any means a predictable trajectory, like from high school to college to grad school to, say, medical school to internship to professional salary."

We are at a critical juncture, here, with profound implications for our future. Defenders of industrial agriculture would have you believe that advocates of small-scale farming are luddites who'd drag us back to an era of drudgery and deprivation. In fact, while sustainable agriculture is based on tried and tested methods of growing food and building soil, it welcomes ecologically savvy innovation. As Bill McKibben notes:

The new farming technologies are perhaps the most exciting new "inventions" of our age--more important, in the long run, than the iPod or maybe even the Internet.

Here in New York City, there's an unprecedented interest in urban agriculture, from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's Food In The Public Interest policy initiative to the Community Agriculture Club at New York University to Just Food's chicken-keeping workshops and petitions to bring back composting and legalize beekeeping. There are frequent permaculture workshops at community gardens, and field trips to farms.

This Thursday, April 16th, there's a Youth Forum & Expo at Hostos Community College in the Bronx, on Food, Farming and Active Living. Sponsored by the Baum Forum in collaboration with the NYC Food and Fitness Partnership, the Youth Forum & Expo is aimed at youths from ages 15 to 24 and is intended to "inspire young people to engage with the kaleidoscope of important issues surrounding food systems and healthy lifestyles, and to empower them with the tangible resources necessary to become active change agents in and around New York City."

And that's just a taste of the real food revolution that's brewing in New York City. Beyond our five boroughs, there are similar events and organizations in communities all over the country geared towards inspiring young people to become engaged in food production, as well as nationwide campaigns such as The Real Food Challenge.

The RFC, a network of college and university students, is campaigning to bring food that's local, fair, ecologically sound, and humane to their campus dining halls, while organizing and training the next generation of food justice activists. As the RFC's Northeast Regional Coordinator, Sam Lipschultz, told me recently:

We're helping to empower young people to take a stake in their food system and in their future by demanding that their schools divest from the dominant industrial food system that has been exploiting workers, communities, land and sea for centuries, and invest in a real food economy that is not just about local food, not just about organic food, but about a food economy that respects the dignity of all workers, that supports ecologically produced food, and that will nourish our communities for generations to come.

Move over, Masters of the Universe. Here come the Saviors of the Soil.

great ppost