[adapted from Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey through Carbon Country]
“The agrarian population among us is growing, and by no means is it made up merely of some farmers and some country people. It includes urban gardeners, urban consumers who are buying food from local farmers, organizers of local food economies, consumers who have grown doubtful of the healthfulness, the trustworthiness, and the dependability of the corporate food system – people who understand what it means to be landless.” – Wendell Berry
A few years ago, I traveled up New York’s Hudson Valley to visit a young leader of the emerging agrarian movement with the aristocratic-sounding name of Severine von Tscharner Fleming. I had met Severine a few times before and I knew her to be an energetic and successful advocate for young farmers like herself. For starters, in 2007 she founded The Greenhorns, a nonprofit which has become an influential grassroots network dedicated to recruiting and supporting young farmers and ranchers. Like its director, it is not a shy organization.
“America needs more young farmers and more young farmers want a piece of America,” is how the Greenhorns web site describes its mission. This didn’t simply mean access to a piece of land either, though that’s a huge issue for young farmers today.
“The young farmer movement looks and sounds romantic, and it is,” Severine said. “It also is ridiculously difficult to break into farming these days. And it is critical that we do so. People who take on this challenge are highly tenacious, ambitious, inventive, and also either stubborn or a little nuts.”
It isn’t just Severine’s goals that are impressive, but also the variety of means by which she accomplishes them. She calls it “avant-garde programming” and it includes videos, podcasts, e-books, and web content, naturally enough, but it also includes workshops, social mixers, barn dances, art projects, and a full-length documentary, all done in a bouncy style that can only be described as “farm-hipster.”
If Greenhorns wasn’t enough, Severine also co-founded the National Young Farmers Coalition, manages a weekly radio show on Heritage Radio Network, writes a popular blog, speaks at countless conferences, organizes endlessly via the Web, and helps with something called the Seed Circus, which puts on educational events for young farmers all around the country. And she’s assisting the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, located just over the Massachusetts state line, with an initiative called The Agrarian Trust, which aims to help young farmers gain access to land. And she was editor-in-chief of the 2013 New Farmers Almanac, and she has built an 8,000-volume agricultural library, and she’s active at her local Grange hall.
The underlying theory of her advocacy work is that many more people would choose to farm if they knew how to get started. She also wants young farmers to understand that it’s possible to have a social life and a viable business at the same time, and once they’ve begun farming, to make sure there’s a network of support to help them get access to the resources and information they need to stay in business.
“Basically, if the young farmer makes it beyond the third year and still loves it,” she said, “they’ll likely stay a farmer for life. Which is of course what our country desperately needs. USDA says it wants to bring on 100,000 new farmers in the next five years. It’s a big project, and yes I think art, culture, free beer, delicious food, hot sexy farmer men, and sweaty dancing are appropriate recruitment tools, far more effective, in the long run, than government-issued propaganda.”
Severine says young people are inspired to get into farming for both political and environmental reasons. It starts typically with a journey through apprenticeships and internships as each young farmer discovers which aspects of the farming life he or she wishes to pursue, followed by a bunch of hard work to gain proficiency in, say, carpentry, horse wrangling, or irrigation system maintenance, without going into debt, and usually before starting a family.
Who are these young farmers? According to Severine, most are from cities and suburbs – thus the “greenhorn” moniker – and many come from the social justice or food poverty movements. Another portal is the Food Corps, which is project of AmeriCorps and places young people in food-oriented jobs, often building school gardens. Many young farmers attended farm camps when they were kids or went on field trips to local farms through their elementary schools. A few participated in 4-H, though not as many as one might think, she said. The educational backgrounds of young farmers today varies widely, including engineering, public health, computer science, literature, anthropology and earth science, but the decision to go into farming after examining all the options is the same: to live a life with dignity and purpose and have a positive impact on the community.
“We’ll seize opportunities to buy inexpensive battered pastures and compacted soils,” she said, “and then heal those lands using good land stewardship techniques. We’ll reclaim territory from commodity crops, and try our best not to churn or ruin our own soils while we build up enough capital to stop roto-tilling. We’ll process our own darn chickens and build our own darn websites. We are just as stubborn and innovative as farmers have always been.”
According to the USDA Agricultural Census, the number of young people farming in the U.S. is on the rise. Though it is still a minority of the tiny minority of Americans who are farmers, it reinforces the argument that a movement is growing.
“Big things start small and those of us in this new farmers’ movement are still running small or medium-sized operations, gaining experience and knowledge and aching to scale up,” she said. “We could do more with just a little help, a special chance on a piece of land, a great deal on equipment, babysitting, help with accounting, a graphic design tip, or low cost advice from an attorney. We will continue to need mentorship and guidance, and the occasional kick in the pants. It will be hard, but it will not be boring. Don’t forget that we may need a pep talk every now and again.”
The name of this movement is New Agrarianism.
In Latin, agrarian means “pertaining to land.” My dictionary defines it as relating to fields and their tenure or to farmers and their way of life. Wendell broadens this definition, calling it a way of thought based on land – a set of practices and attitudes, a loyalty and a passion. It is simultaneously a culture and an economy, he says, both of which are inescapably local – local nature and local people combined into “a practical and enduring harmony.”
The antithesis of agrarianism is industrialism, which Wendell says is a way of thought based on capital and technology, not nature. Industrialism is an economy first and foremost, and if it has any culture it is “an accidental by-product of the ubiquitous effort to sell unnecessary products for more than they are worth.”
An agrarian economy, in contrast, rises up from the soils, fields, woods, streams, rangelands, hills, mountains, backyards, and rooftops. It embraces the coexistences and interrelationships that form the heart of resilient local communities and local watersheds. It fits the farming to the farm and the forestry to the forest, to which I would include the meander to the stream and the carbon to the carbon cycle. For Wendell, the agrarian mind is not regional, national, or global, but local. It must know intimately the local plants and animals and local soils; it must know local possibilities and impossibilities. It insists that we should not begin work until we have looked and seen where we are; it knows that nature is the “pattern-maker for the human use of the earth,” as he describes it, and that we should honor nature not only as our mother, but as our teacher and judge.
I first ran across the term new agrarianism in 2003 in a book of essays on the topic collected and edited by Eric Freyfogle, a law professor at the University of Illinois. The term resonated with me because it described exactly what I was seeing as I traveled around. In fact, I could have used Freyfogle’s own words from his essay, “A Durable Scale” to describe my experience.
“Within the conservation movement,” he wrote, “the New Agrarianism offers useful guiding images of humans living and working on land in ways that can last. In related reform movements, it can supply ideas to help rebuild communities and foster greater virtue. In all settings, agrarian practices can stimulate hope for more joyful living, healthier families, and more contented, centered lives.”
Words, I’m afraid, that didn’t impress my colleagues in the conservation movement at the time. Nevertheless, in his essay Freyfogle produced a list of New Agrarians that was spot on:
- The community-supported agriculture group that links local food buyers and food growers into a partnership, one that sustains farmers economically, promotes ecologically sound farm practices, and gives city dwellers a known source of wholesome food.
- The woodlot owner who develops a sustainable harvesting plan for his timber, aiding the local economy while maintaining a biologically diverse forest.
- The citizen-led, locally based watershed restoration effort that promotes land uses consistent with a river’s overall health and beauty.
- The individual family, rural or suburban, that meets its food needs largely through gardens and orchards, on its own land or on shared neighborhood plots, attempting always to aid wildlife and enhance the soil.
- The farmer who radically reduces a farm’s chemical use, cuts back subsurface drainage, diversifies crops and rotations, and carefully tailors farm practices to suit the land.
- The family – urban, suburban, or rural – that embraces new modes of living to reduce its overall consumption, to integrate its work and leisure in harmonious ways, and to add substance to its ties with neighbors.
- The artist who helps residents connect aesthetically to surrounding lands.
- The faith-driven religious group that takes seriously, in practical ways, its duty to nourish and care for its natural inheritance.
- The motivated citizens everywhere who, alone and in concert, work to build stable, sustainable urban neighborhoods; to repair blighted ditches; to stimulate government practices that conserve lands and enhance lives; and in dozens of other ways to translate agrarian values into daily life.
To this list I could add only:
- The carbon farmer or rancher who explores and shares strategies that sequester CO2 in soils and plants, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and produces co-benefits that build ecological and economic resilience in local landscapes.
Freyfogle shares Wendell Berry’s belief that agrarianism is the proper countervailing force to industrialism and its surfeit of sins, including water pollution, soil loss, resource consumption, and the radical disruption of plant and wildlife populations. Freyfogle goes on to add broader anxieties: the declining sense of community; the separation of work and leisure; the shoddiness of mass-produced goods; the decline of the household economy; the alienation of children from the natural world; the fragmentation of neighborhoods and communities; and a gnawing dissatisfaction with core aspects of our modern culture, particularly the hedonistic, self-centered values and perspectives that control so much of our lives now.
In contrast to these negative attributes of modern life, the new agrarianism is first and foremost about living a life of positive energy and joy, says Freyfogle. Nature is the foundation of this joy, but so are the skills necessary to live a life. At its best the agrarian life is an integrated whole, with work and leisure mixed together, undertaken under healthful conditions and surrounded by family.
“When all the pieces of the agrarian life come together,” Freyfogle wrote, “nutrition and health, beauty, leisure, manners and morals, satisfying labor, economic security, family and neighbors, and a spiritual peacefulness – we have what agrarians define as the good life.”
It is to this definition of the good life to Severine and the other new agrarians strive.
A poster from The Quivira Coalition’s 2011 Conference: