Last April, I blogged about our plans to move to France and establish our own cheese and wine-making venture. It was all in the spirit of April Fools’ of course, but the dream is still very much alive. It sings especially loudly when I read stories about people working hard to realize their dreams, like the young farmers who’ve penned the essays collected in the recently published Greenhorns: 50 Dispatches From The New Farmers’ Movement.
If you’re an avid supporter of local independent farms, you may have heard of The Greenhorns. Started in 2007 by filmmaker Severine von Tscharner Fleming, it’s a non-profit organization geared towards supporting and promoting young farmers. From its grassroots Berkeley origins, it has grown into a national organization with a network of local chapters, and an assortment of media outlets, including Greenhorns radio, a blog, a weekly podcast and a documentary.
Co-edited by Severine and fellow Greenhorns Zoë Ida Bradbury and Paula Manalo (all farmers in their own right), the book runs the gamut of human emotions: love (Andrew French’s sweet tale on how his farm and his current relationship began with the impulsive purchase of two piglets); dedication (Sarah Smith’s relentless routine of running CSA deliveries and farmers’ markets with two kids in tow); frustration (Evan Driscoll on the novice farmer’s steep learning curve); hope (Jenna Woginrich urges us to believe in our dreams and to write them down) and loss (Kirsten Johanson’s heart-wrenching tale of losing their laying hens to Hurricane Ike).
The stories paint a portrait of the young American farmer in the 21st century as courageous, hard-working, and determined to feed their communities in ways that enrich the environment and their soul. With the average age of the American farmer currently at 60 or older, the fact that young, (mostly) college-educated folks are choosing the challenging life of an independent and sustainable farmer bodes well for our communities and food culture.
Despite her hectic schedule, we managed to catch up with Severine to chat a bit about the book, the Greenhorns and her next project.
Could you share a little about what prompted you to found The Greenhorns in 2007? Were there any farm experiences that motivated you to head in this direction? What about the filming of young farmers: How did that process impact you?
I founded Greenhorns as a non-profit organization in order to work on the production of the documentary film. Over the course of organizing the production and interviewing farmers, we quickly identified one obstacle we could tackle: social isolation. We figured that if we could leverage new media and grassroots efforts to create a supportive national network for young farmers, we would help improve their chances of making it beyond the first season into the second, and then to fully transition their lives and commit to becoming a food producer. It was an intervention opportunity not to be missed.
As we grew as an organization, we were able to manage the distribution and community outreach around the documentary film. We co-organized over 500 screenings of the film, most of them accompanied by young farmer panelists speaking directly to the concerned audience about the challenges they face. Enabling these strategic conversations among key stakeholders was our desired outcome, and we know that these conversations have triggered or bolstered collaborative action to create the conditions where local farming and farmers can thrive.
What motivated the creation of this book?
The goal of both the documentary and the book was to bundle and broadcast the voices of the young farmers themselves, asking them to reflect on why they farm, how they approach the work, the business, the community, the decisions. The purpose of these essays is to share the experience, to feel solidarity, and to help new entrants (even greener greenhorns) orient themselves and have a sense of what to expect from a career in farming.
Looking ahead, what do you hope this book will achieve?
I’d say the goal overall is to make sure all aspiring farmers know the range of experiences they could come to expect, and to know that others have confronted and overcome the same obstacles, found ingenious solutions, and thrived. Ultimately, success in farming is much easier if you proactively prepare for what can go wrong, through working with mentors, reading about other’s experiences, attending conferences, and tuning in to the social network of other farmers. That way you can build the inventory of moral tales that may well save you from a silly mistake, or inspire you to try something pretty ballsy.
Our next media format is a webseries called Ourland, which we are currently fundraising for. It’s a series of short films about agriculture, focusing on structural crises such as monoculture, soil contamination, the loss of genetic diversity, unaffordability of land for young farmers, and the like. There are 12 episodes and each episode introduces viewers to young farmers and others who are reorienting agriculture and confronting broken systems with brave and successful businesses.
Danielle Tsi grew up in Singapore, a tiny, food-obsessed island on the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula, where every waking minute was spent thinking about what her next meal was going to be. Landing in the United States with her well-traveled Nikon, she turned her lifelong love affair with food into images and words on her blog, Beyond the Plate. When not behind the lens or at the stove, Danielle can be found on her yoga mat perfecting the headstand.