'The Greenhorns': New Documentary Digs Into the Growing World of Young Farmers
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To leave the farm, even for an evening, in the middle of May, when leaves are greening and farm stands filling with fresh produce, a farmer has to be a little bit nuts. The four board members of the National Young Farmers Coalition who took the night off from their farms to be present at the New York City premiere of The Greenhorns documentary acknowledged as much. But as Severine von Tscharner Fleming, who produced and directed the film, said of the growing cadre of young and beginning farmers, "It's a social movement. The people involved are hyper-motivated."
The Greenhorns, which has been in the works for more than three years, attempts to capture the motivation and spirit of that movement. Von Tscharner Fleming traveled across the country to meet with other young farmers, visit the ground they've staked out, and talk about how and why they've chosen to work on the land.
In the film and at serveryourcountryfood.net, young farmers are represented as a group by the growing crowd of dots on a map of the United States. These farmers are young people who, after years of tending vegetables in their backyards or in community gardens, left the city for the countryside, or who, inspired by the sustainability movement, returned to the farms they grew up on and thought they'd left forever. Although their numbers have been growing, for the most part, anyone who wants to do this kind of work has had to find his or her own way. But increasingly, groups like the Greenhorns and the National Young Farmers Coalition are working to build an infrastructure and gather resources that beginning farmers can tap into.
None of the farmers or farms featured in The Greenhorns are alike, and part of the reason the film took years to come together, von Tscharner Fleming said, is that "it took a long time to figure out who we are." In California, she visits Pilar Reber, who began an organic nursery after her employees at a conventional, pesticide-laden nursery gave birth to babies with corneal blindness; Willow Rosenthal, whose urban farms create opportunities in low-income communities; and Aaron Dillon, who is expanding the citrus nursery his great-grandfather founded. She visits young farmers in Vermont, in Georgia, in West Virginia, who grew up on farms, studied product design, or were fascinated by greenhouses from an early age. They may be from all over, but there are characteristics they have in common: they work hard, and they believe the work they are doing will change the country's food system for the better.
Although the ranks of beginning farmers are growing, there's little data to define them as a group.
"New farmers tend to be younger, and they're more likely to use direct marketing, and to grow organic than established farmers," said Taylor Reid, whose doctoral research at Michigan State University focuses on beginning farmers. But many of the calls that organizations like the New York Beginning Farmer Project receive don't fit that exact profile. "A lot of our audience is mid-career people and even people who are retiring and starting farming as a second career," said Erica Frenay, a manager with the project.
The last USDA agriculture census, in 2007, found that about a quarter of farm operators were beginning farmers who had less than 10 years of experience. But that figure includes, as the USDA reported, residential farms whose owners have no intention of making a profit. On the other hand, the census only counted primary operators, leaving out the group of apprentice farmers and secondary farm operators who are learning that trade but might not have scraped together the capital to start their own business yet.