Picking up the Ploughshare

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Picking up the Ploughshare Picking up the Ploughshare
Environment

Picking up the Ploughshare

by Ben Jervey

January 23, 2009

How young farmers can save America's food supply

There are, right now, more Americans behind bars than there are working our nation's farms and fields. Farming-once the backbone of a Jeffersonian ideal for a self-sufficient society-has fallen so far as a typical profession that it's no longer even a category in the national census. Those who do still take to the land are getting on in the years. Today, the average American farmer is pushing 60 years old, and more than a quarter of them are over 65. A mere 5.8 percent are under 35. As 29-year old Oregon farmer Zoe Bradbury writes, "More and more, our collective knowledge about growing food is housed in nursing homes, and in another twenty years, today's average-aged farmer will be dead."Trust me, this matters. While champions of Big Ag, or contemporary industrialized agriculture, may dismiss the small, family farm as quaint or-worse-inefficient, they're neglecting a crucial factor in their calculus: oil.Big Ag is built on the back of oil. From the fossil fuel-chugging tractors to petro-based fertilizers and pesticides to the 18-wheelers that cart the average American salad 3,000 miles from farm to fork. Considering the healthy helpings of diesel served up on our plates, the prospects of global oil production peaking (and even the typically staid and conservative International Energy Agency warns that it's happening) and costs of fuel certain to keep climbing, our national food system starts to feel like a precariously balanced house of cards. Factor in carbon emissions, water shortages, soil depletion, chemical pesticide proliferation, and E.coli spinach scares, and there's plenty of reason to hope that labor-insensitive industrialized agriculture is but an odd and ill-advised chapter in the history of American food production.You'll find more established, empirical reasons for hope in the small-but-burgeoning movement of young farmers connecting across the country. While the long-term numbers are down (30 years ago, nearly three times the percentage of this country's farmers were under 35 years of age), the past few years have revealed a very promising trend of younger folks choosing dirt over desk jobs. See, for instance, the Times' story of Benjamin Shute and Miriam Latzer, which tells of their move from Brooklyn to the Hudson Valley to start their Hearty Roots farm (though it also features one of the most infuriatingly snarky ledes I've ever read). Or this magazine's coverage of 24-year old Ben Dobson's Atlantic Organic produce enterprise.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming is a 27-year old farmer and food activist based in New York's Hudson Valley who could be described as "proud, strong, tough, and a little bit nuts."  Not so coincidentally, those are the very adjectives she chooses to define the subculture that she's capturing in her documentary about young farmers, The Greenhorns. The film's website-and accompanying blog-are perhaps the best living testaments to the vitality of this emerging movement, collecting stories from the field, offering advice and resources and inspiration to others interesting in picking up the ploughshare. Fleming has spent the better part of seven years exploring the world of sustainable agriculture, getting her hands dirty in small farms across the world. She writes that during that time she realized, "We young farmers are an emergent social movement. We exist. There are a lot of us from coast to coast, and all sorts of unexpected places between-all over the world. We are serious, and if there were about 20 million of us, we could probably feed the whole United States."To get that many young folks farming, a lot of things would have to happen: policies that target a new generation of farmers rather than conglomerate agribusiness interests, better school-based training programs, easier access to credit for small-scale food producers, the further expansion of marketplaces for local and regional growers, and so on. And a whole lot of grassroots organization.  Like what the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture started doing last December, when they hosted an event that could well be remembered as a watershed moment in our nation's agrarian history. The Young Farmers Conference: Reviving the Culture of Agriculture offered young and new farmers the chance to connect with leaders in the field, to network with peers and learn the skills needed to start producing-and selling. From start to finish. Workshops dug into the buying and leasing of land, financing a greenhouse, beginning poultry, cultivating relationships with chefs and restaurants, and a whole bunch of other focused, and crucial, elements of raising and growing food.If we're ever going to meet the demand for good, safe food that isn't entirely dependent on a dwindling, carbon dioxide-laden fossil fuel, we need a new generation of producers, a strong, conscious and hardworking class of growers in both urban and rural settings. We need these young farmers.The Greenhorns trailer:[
/youtube]Photos of the Young Farmers Conference by Chelsea DeWitt/EatWellGuide
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