by Marisol Pierce-Quinonez and Jeff Hake
The burgeoning new farming movement in the US is characterized by a bevy of young farmers, craftspeople, homesteaders and combinations thereof. It has been labeled by some as a trendy flash in the pan, little more than a path for hipsters that “don’t know what to do with their lives.” Critics declare that the frivolity of youth combined with twentysomethings’ inability to grow up makes for a horrible match with the laborious commitment required of farmers. Indeed, it is fair to wonder if the current farming fixation will die out in a year or two in favor of the Next Big Thing, given that these sort of movements have a reputation for dissolving. While it is difficult to imagine the movement’s heightened level of media attention as a permanent feature, an analysis of historical ebbs and flows can reveal to us what will happen to the current wave of food and farming fanaticism. By this measure, your CSA next door is likely there to stay.
An agrarian spirit comes and goes
America has a strong agrarian tradition with roots in the principles of its founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson, a farmer himself, famously believed that a nation of self-sufficient small farmers was the purest route to a functioning democracy. This belief was carried out in future American policies through the Homestead Act, a law that granted 160 acres to individuals willing to farm it, and the Morrill Act, a law that established public funding for agricultural research. Early agricultural policy was aimed at developing farms’ production power, but as the economic might of the manufacturing industry began to eclipse agriculture in the late 19th century, policy aimed at agricultural development lost popularity and the number of farmers began to drop.
The number of farmers and farmworkers in the US has continued to drop over the course of the 20th century, from 41% in 1900 to under 2% by 2007. Meanwhile, farmers’ average age has risen close to that of retirement, with the fastest growing age group being those 65 and older. However, periodic surges have occurred that have thrown the curve and brought agriculture and gardening back into the public consciousness.
One of these periods was during the early 20th century, when World Wars I and II called for contributions from all Americans, including those on the homefront. World War I saw the cautious birth of the War Gardens movement, and the successful implementation of these gardens of service lead to a national-scale revival of the movement just 12 days after America entered the Second World War in 1941. Rebranded as Victory Gardens, these plots and small farms grew about 40% of the vegetable needs of the US in 1944. However, this massive effort was a patriotic response to crisis, and with the end of the war, the gardens became unanchored and slowly declined. Although a few Victory Gardens remain today (including one here in Boston), the post-war economic and technological boom increased the industrialization of agriculture and America no longer needed an army of patriotic farmers and gardeners.
In the late 1960s and 70s, farming again took the role of cause as many young people dropped out of mainstream society to join farming communes and intentional communities. The idea of forsaking society in favor of a simpler life was not a new idea[i], but in this instance fuel shortages, continuing wars, the corporatization of the American way of life, and a general dissatisfaction with the options available in cities and suburbs pushed young people to the countryside to pick up a pitchfork. Communes attempted to be self-sustaining and to live off the grid. However, when interpersonal relationships soured or convictions faltered, the communities often failed. Several of these attempts live on today[ii] but still more hippie farmers left their attempts at utopian ideals and reengaged with mainstream society.
Critics of the modern farming movement often point to the dissolution of hippie homesteading and the disappearance of victory gardens as evidence that the modern iteration of back-to-the-landism is fleeting. However, there are a few marked contrasts that distinguish the today’s movement beyond a mere reaction to crisis. Instead, it has strived to learn from the missteps of the past and now bases itself on the principles of sustainability. This is understood as the triple-bottom line of “people, profits and planet”. A sustainable world means one should not only look out for the health and well-being of ourselves and our environment, but that one should strive to make a living at it at the same time.
Much of the new farmer movement has intended to create profitable farms. Mission-driven farms have sprung up as a part of the modern movement as well, but even many of these are focused on education of the public or of those who wish to become farmers (the Friedman School’s own New Entry Sustainable Farming Project is a perfect example of this). Farming has become an option for young people who are interested in becoming stewards of the land while also earning a living.
It should not be surprising that people are attempting to build a career in farming: present economic conditions are ugly and show little sign of recovery. The national unemployment rate rose as high as 10.6% in January 2010 and is currently hovering at 9.5%. The unemployment rate for youth aged 16 to 19 is even worse, at 23.9% as of February. In the past a decent education offered a clear path to career success, but GOOD Magazine published a report last fall detailing the plight of well-educated young Americans who are finding that Master and Doctoral degrees are sometimes little more than a Ponzi scheme of escalating investment.[iii]
By choosing both pitchfork and spreadsheet as their tools, young farmers are finding that they can not only fend for themselves, if modestly, but that their actions can have a transformative effect on the local economy. Two of the most common marketing outlets for small-scale farmers today are farmers’ markets and community-support agriculture harvest share programs (CSAs). The number of markets in the US has steadily risen from 1,755 in 1994 to over 6,100 last year, and there are now over 4,200 CSA farms in the US. These outlets for selling farm fresh and sustainably grown foods allow communities to keep dollars circulating internally. In addition, the raw product of these farms feeds into the work of neighboring artisans and processors, who add value to products and create diverse, complete and independent local economies. And beyond what could be viewed as tenuous or small-scale relationships, organizations like Red Tomato and the Real Food Challenge are working with the growing network of small- and mid-scale farms to optimize distribution networks and to incite institutions like schools and hospitals to source food from local growers and processors.
…and transforming agricultural practice…
Of course, today’s young farmers recognize that earning a living and supporting local economies is an important goal, but environmental concerns still enter in to daily farm operations. We are now at a critical point that some describe as “peak everything”, where the resource drivers of the global economy are approaching their finite capacities. Modern industrial agriculture is powered by and structured around cheap supplies of oil, phosphorus, nitrogen and water. The underlying objective of most new farmers in the US today is to maximize productivity of limited acreage while reducing the amount of inputs, such as fertilizers and fuel for machinery, brought onto the farm.
This calls for a spirit of innovation that has become ample reason for both the interest in farming among young people and why it will sustain itself. For educated and underprivileged young Americans alike, what jobs that are available to them often lack creative and intellectual outlet and the rewards for creativity are few or unseen. Agriculture, while rife with failures and hard times, also offers visible, palatable returns to intellectual input. Craftsmanship and decades of experience and knowledge are also required on conventional farms, but among the new generation of farms and farmers, knowledge can be considered the single most important input[iv]. The returns to this input are both visceral and esoteric, as a farmer gets to see the literal fruits of his labor feeding hungry people. And this may be the most fundamental reason why more young people are embracing agrarianism: pride in work. Today’s new generation of farmers embraces this pride as readily as the previous one. More than that, they are quietly leading the way to a healthier, stronger and more prosperous global food system.
…to transform how the world is fed?
Beyond creating gainful and rewarding employment, the new agricultural movement has an important mission, and in this it perhaps cannot afford to fail. Faced with depleted non-renewable resources, hunger, economic failure, and wildly unstable political regimes, the leadership of the next generation of farmers is vital. In practice, of course, much is yet to be done to assure their ascension. Tom Philpott notes that the revival of the mid-sized farm is required in order for the impact of sustainable agriculture to be felt on a meaningful scale, and, while the importance and needs of young farmers are beginning to be recognized by US federal policy, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack acknowledges that “we need to be even more creative than we’ve been to create strategies so that young people can access operations of all sizes.”Among these strategies would likely be a restructuring of farm subsidy programs, as Mark Bittman and others have suggested, and changing how the less-endowed gain access to prime farmland.
It’s true that the new farming movement has a superficial likeness to other resurgences of interest in farming and gardening over the past century. However, the world, and the agriculture that feeds it, is at a crossroads. Finding no jobs awaiting them and little value in the status quo that continues to push the globe down a path of imminent disaster, the youngest working generation of Americans are looking to agriculture as both an outlet for their energy and intelligence and as a vital part of the solution to the problems around them. As these problems continue to mount, the young farmers of today may be viewed not as starry-eyed ideologues who will grow up soon enough, but instead as farmer-citizens, leaders for a sustainable future.
[i] Communes have existed in this country for centuries. For instance, a notable uptick occurred in the late 19th century in response to industrialization after the American Civil War and the town of Hopedale, MA was originally founded on Christian and socialist ideologies in 1842), but the burgeoning back-to-the-land movement inspired the creation of rural utopian communities all across the country.
[ii] Maine provides excellent examples of sustained agrarian lifestyles. In 1952, after 20 years of homesteading in the Green Mountains of Vermont, Helen and Scott Nearing, a collective bedrock of the back-to-the-land movement, moved to Harborside, Maine and established what would become The Good Life Center. In 1968, Eliot Coleman, purchased 60 acres from the Nearings and set out to be an organic farmer. Today, he and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, run a highly successful year-round organic farm on the naturally rocky shallow soils of coastal Maine. Coleman’s example and his seminal writings, Four Season Harvest and The New Organic Grower, have become an inspiration to a nation of market farmers. In addition, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association was founded in 1971 and is the “largest and oldest state organic organization in the country”. It currently provides support and services to a quickly growing amount of organic farmers and other farmers who wish to incorporate organic practices throughout the state. Farmers elsewhere in the country, like Fred Kirschenmann in North Dakota and Joel Salatin in Virginia, show by example and by education how sustainable and organic practices can be applied on a large scale and at a profit.
[iii] A recent New York Times op-ed sagely warns of the many dangers of a neglected class of young, educated Americans, equating it to similar conditions in the now-revolting countries of North Africa and the Middle East.
[iv] A report recently published by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food describes this new breed of agriculture as “knowledge-based”, which enables it to be passed from farmer to farmer without need for farm-level transportation or regular capital investment. However, the report also has a more important point: this new breed of agriculture, given many names but here called “agroecology”, can in fact grow enough nutritious food to feed the world into the foreseeable future, and even produce higher yields than conventional agriculture.
Mari is a third year AFE/UEP student who frequently avoids her work by drawing pictures. She also blogs about the intersection of food systems and city living at www.projectstofinish.com
Jeff Hake is in his last semester of the Agriculture, Food and the Environment program at the Friedman School, so long as everything goes according to plan. He really likes tea, breakfast and farms, and spends a lot of time thinking about each of those things everyday. He also blogs at gardenglow.tumblr.com