wise elephant, making it happen

Complex thinking, mandatory for the past 10,000 years…

By Nena Johnson • Feb 8th, 2010 • Category: Analysis, Insight & Analysis

(the below is a guest post by Nena Johnson, Public Programs Director of Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture)

Our industrial food system is broken.

It’s a pretty dramatic statement, I know, but in my job it’s one I hear almost every day.

Consider a few of the facts:
2009 brought us hundreds of millions of acres of farmland planted in commodity crops (76 million in soy beans, 85 million in corn), furthering the monoculture death grip of agribusiness on American farmers.  Land prices, particularly in the Northeast, have skyrocketed out of reach for most producers, leading to permanent loss of farmland in the service of suburban sprawl. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) continue to dominate the animal agriculture landscape with almost all of the 10 billion animals raised and slaughtered for meat in the US every year spending their lives on a factory farm.  Finally, and perhaps most distressingly, according to 2007 Ag Census data (the most recent census data available), less than 6% of American farmers are under the age of 35, while more than half are between 55 – 74 years of age. We’re losing farmers and their expertise at an alarming rate, and the current state of American agriculture stacks the obstacles to starting or transferring a farm enterprise to the rafters.

There’s no magic bullet to fixing the food system.  A problem with so many distinct pieces needs just as many creative solutions.  Luckily for us, the tide is turning – the last six years or so have given rise to a new kind of food activism. Consumers want to know where their food comes from and who produced it; farmers markets are continuing to pop up in communities around the country; school gardens can be found in cities and suburbs all over; urban farming (growing food in community gardens, on rooftops, on fire escapes) has emerged as a powerful movement; backyard chickens (legal) and rooftop beehives (almost legal) thrive in Brooklyn; and beginning farmers – young people in particular – are appearing on the scene.

Young Farmers Conference

(Farm Manager, Jack Algiere, leading a greenhouse workshop at this year’s Young Farmers Conference by jordanstudio.com)

It’s this last piece that interests me the most.  Even with the economic odds stacked against them, young farmers continue to dig in season after season in growing numbers, and they are producing delicious food.  What should seem entirely daunting to anyone starting a new business – prohibitive land costs, difficulty accessing markets and non-existent distribution channels – isn’t keeping these folks at bay. In the words of Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, young farmers are uniquely equipped for the environmental and economic landscapes of the 21st century because, “they are not afraid of complexity.”  It’s complex thinking that has been mandatory for successful farming for 10,000 years – only in the last few decades have the likes of pesticide-resistant corn and ag subsidies simplified things. Successful small-scale, sustainable farmers have to be scientists, stewards, philosophers and inventors. This new wave of agriculturalists comes to their work with degrees in the sciences and the humanities, along with a great interest in learning from the old (Sir Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner) and the new (Eliot Coleman, Joel Salatin).

So how do we help them on their way? Education, support and community-building.  Educating beginning farmers has become a popular vision for many agriculture-related advocacy and non-profit organizations.  The USDA will grant $19 million in 2010 for such programs. At Stone Barns, we’re focusing on young farmers in particular because in our region, the vast majority of new farmers also happen to be young (between 21 – 40 years of age).  That age group implies that many of them have no farming heritage – they’re completely new to the work. With so many farmers either aging out or losing their land, no one is around to pass on traditional knowledge to these up-and-comers, and they need very basic training to start: what to look for when leasing or buying land; what to plant when; the mechanics of basic farm equipment, etc.  Within the technical training, however, it’s imperative to encourage networking, so that beyond workshops and conferences, young farmers have peers to turn to for advice – as well as to remind themselves that they aren’t alone in their work.  We’re calling the result of this community cultivation the Virtual Grange – a place where young farmers can converse with each other and with leaders in the field.  We’ve kicked off this initiative gently as a listserv and Twitter feed, but as our participant roster grows in the years to come, so will the range of expertise that Northeast young farmers can call upon as they build their agricultural enterprises.

Outside of education and advocacy work, how can you support young farmers? Buy your food from young farmers. Subscribe to their Community Supported Agriculture projects (CSAs). If you have a little land – in your backyard or back forty – think about having a young farmer put it into production.

Hopefully, young farmers (wave after wave) will be growing the food you eat for a long time to come. Without them, we’ll have no choice but to rely on the broken system we’re trying so hard to dismantle now. Putting aside the environmental, nutritional, and social impacts of that system, we can all agree that its food – once it finally makes its way to your plate – just doesn’t taste as good.


Follow Stone Barns and the Growing Farmer Initiative on Twitter: @stonebarnsYFC and join our Google Group: SBC Growing Farmers.

Find young farmers in your area by visiting Serve Your Country Food, a project of the Greenhorns.

Image credits:  All images for this article were created by jordanstudio.com.


FTC Disclosure: Jason Moriber of Wise Elephant received a modest honorarium for a presentation he gave at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture on December 4th, 2009.

Nena Johnson is Nena Johnson is the Public Programs Director at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture
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