The template for U.S. farming is a vestige of the last generation: The average age of farmers in the U.S. is 57. Most produce they grow is picked four to seven days before being sold and shipped on average 2,000 miles to reach supermarket shelves, according to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental- and social-policy research institute based in Washington, D.C. But over the next 20 years, as gray-haired farmers hang up their pitchforks and park their combines, 70 to 80 percent of farmland across the nation will be up for sale.
"We're losing farms, farmers, and farmland at an astonishing rate," says Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a 29-year-old farmer from New York. But that may be a good thing. She simply doesn't want to see those abandoned plots "sold off for development or added to the large factory farms."
Von Tscharner Fleming is the founder of the national Greenhorns movement—now sowing seeds in Washington State—which seeks to recruit and support the next generation of America's farmers. Different from their predecessors, they employ sustainable farming methods such as growing organically, crop rotation, and seed diversity. On Monday, October 4, Greenhorns from across the state will gather for the state's first Greenhorns "farmer mixer" on Vashon Island. There, they will roast a pig, drink, and plot their takeover—acre by acre. But farm-stand produce grown by people in their 20s (and even the term "Greenhorns") sounds more like a quixotic pursuit than a practical attempt to overhaul American agriculture.
So I took a ferry to Vashon to find out what this movement is all about—and if it has a chance at success.
Chandler Briggs, a 26-year-old Los Angeles native who now operates Island Meadow Farm on Vashon Island, is leading the state's Greenhorns movement. He's been farming for four years. He sells his crops of tomatoes, potatoes, and basil at a farm stand in front of the property he leases.
"More people are aware of what a huge social-justice issue food is, from where it's produced to how it's cultivated," says Briggs, showing me around his four-acre farm. It's like a Mother Goose storybook: Chickens roost on a fallow plot of land, pigs munch whey and produce, and a deer eyes his chard from across a dirt road. "We don't want our food coming from China," Briggs says. "We want to know our customers, and we want them to know us."
Greenhorns have been taking root around the state—in Vashon, Bellingham, Sequim, Port Townsend, Olympia, and Seattle. Briggs says that, like him, many come into farming with no experience, but they are energized by a tanking economy. "Graduates want to make a difference but can't get jobs," says Briggs. "So we're going into business for ourselves. We're feeding people who've forgotten how to feed themselves."
But realistically, this generation of aspiring farmers has comparatively few resources to compete against conglomerated agriculture industries fortified with hefty federal subsidies, major distribution networks, and anchors in the hinterlands of "Real America," places where the Greenhorns—young, hip, blogging, podcasting types—are rarely found. How do they expect to co-opt huge shares of U.S. agriculture?
Briggs says the strategy is to start throwing parties, like the one slated for Monday. In attendance will be representatives from organizations like Washington FarmLink, a nonprofit that connects aspiring farmers with landowners. The mixer will offer young farmers a network of resources, a support system of peers, and a political voice. For example: "Farmers lobbied last year to legalize farmer apprenticeship programs in Washington State, and now we're getting a pilot program in San Juan and Skagit Counties," says Briggs. In next year's legislative session, farmers are lobbying legislators to introduce a bill, modeled after an Oregon law, that would allow small-scale milk producers—like Vashon's 21-year-old cheese maker Kelsey Kozak—to legally sell raw milk from their farms.
Siva Sureshwaran, manager of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), says the Greenhorns are on the right track. "This seems to be the trend," Sureshwaran says. And organic, sustainable farming is slowly gaining support from the federal government. The USDA began offering grants in 2009 to promote sustainability and education. Within the next six months, it will launch an electronic library "on everything beginning farmers need to know—from sustainable agricultural practices to accessing capital," says Sureshwaran.
But the Greenhorns still see a battle ahead. "Right now, 70 percent of subsidies go to the wealthiest producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice," says von Tscharner Fleming. Meanwhile, there are few breaks for organic and sustainable agriculture. "It's so small, it's laughable," says Briggs. "[But] we're making it work. We're the ones who are profitable."
These are the kinds of oversights that young farmers' groups want to fix. They'll have their chance in 2012, when Congress updates the federal Farm Bill.
The foundation of our nation's food and agriculture policy, the Farm Bill is tweaked every five years to set broad agriculture policy—from food-stamp programs to agriculture research and farm subsidies. "Through changes to the Farm Bill, we want to create a playing field for our young farmers to more easily gain access to land, work with retiring farmers, take over farm operations from retiring farmers whose offspring aren't interested in farming," says von Tscharner Fleming. "We want more programming support within the USDA."
In addition, Briggs says young farmers, to make their models viable, need better benefits. "We want debt repayment for student loans and access to affordable health care," he says.
Von Tscharner Fleming acknowledges skepticism about an upstart movement, but she insists it's the future. "This isn't a fad—most people who are motivated to be Greenhorns are coming from a place of social justice. If you're not in it for the right reasons, you won't last more than a season because, frankly, it's not glamorous. And we're not faltering."
The Greenhorns are hosting a Young Farmer Mixer and Spit Roast at the Vashon Island Grange Hall (10365 S.W. Cowan Road) on Monday, October 4, starting at 5:00 p.m. The event is free; anyone interested in learning more about farming is invited to attend. A whole pig will be spit roasted and consumed. The farmers will be hot and chatty. You don't want to miss it. RSVP here: http://tinyurl.com/FarmersMixerRSVP