'The Greenhorns': New Documentary Digs Into the Growing World of Young Farmers


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.

The challenge for a movement of young and beginning farmers is that its members spend much of their time working in isolation. Sean Stanton, one of the National Young Farmers Coalition board members, said at the panel following the film screening that he felt he should keep a copy of the documentary at the ready in his DVD player, to watch whenever he was feeling discouraged. Another board member, Ben Shute, said it was important to figure out how, more often, "we can get the feeling we have when watching The Greenhorns documentary, that we're all in it together."

Compared to a time when farmers blanketed the countryside, Shute said, "There are fewer of us. We have to figure out how to work together without all being in the same place."

New farmers have tools their predecessors didn't, however. Crop mob, for instance, organizes young farmers online to descend for workdays on short-handed farms. The National Young Farmers Coalition formed back in December, and one of its first projects is FarmHack, "the DIY farm tool blog." The project aims to take the peer-to-peer learning young farmers do when they have the chance to visit each other's farms, replicate it, and make it more widely available and easily accessible.

NYFC also partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a FarmHack event, where farmers and engineers collaborated on ideas for new farm tools. They came up with six strong ideas, Shute said. (Those ideas include a three-wheeled, bike-based tractor dubbed the "Trike-tor" and a strategy for sustainable cranberry production.)

One set of tools beginning farmers do not have enough access to is the suite of agricultural resources the federal government offers. The Farm Service Agency and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program are not geared toward the type of small-scale, organic farming that many beginning farmers are pursuing. These programs have "tremendous potential" von Tscharner Fleming said, but "they have to be pointed in the right direction."

Young farmers have particular difficulty accessing capital to buy the land, seed, chicks, pigs, fencing, equipment and more that it takes to start a farm, and current USDA loan programs rarely come through with the needed funds. One of NYFC's early victories has been convincing the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to include in its larger farm bill platform a line for a microloan program targeted to beginning farmers.

NYFC is just one of the organizations starting to focus on these types of needs; Stanton, the NYFC board member, spoke about working on a panel in Washington to evaluate grant applications and finding more groups than ever before looking for funds to help encourage young farmers. And the USDA has been moving slowly for the past two decades toward providing more support for beginning farmers.

Leaders of the department realize, as do young farmers, that the current population of farmers in the United States is aging, and that over the next couple of decades, hundreds of millions of acres of land will change hands as current farmers retire. Right now, many agricultural experts are predicting these retirements will lead to further consolidation of large tracts in the hands of conventional farmers. But with the right support structure, today's young, sustainably minded farmers might be able to get their hands on some of that land.

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