Greenhorns, Warm heart. An Interview with Severine von Tsharner Fleming, Director of The Greenhorns
with Severine von Tscharner Fleming
If you shop at farmers’ markets you might already associate farming with the young, rosy-cheeked vendors who bag your beets and apples. By contrast, the 2007 Ag census reports (although not in these words) that America’s farm operators are primarily white men who are not getting any younger. The average American farmer is 57 years old. Farmers aged 65 and up operate 30% of all farms in the United States. Young farmers, 35 and under, operate less than 6%. (graph from USDA Agricultural Census 2007)
The ‘graying’ of farmers is not a new trend, but it’s especially pointed as baby boomers enter the over-50 group much faster than young farmers take to the soil. Economies of scale in agriculture have encouraged a shift towards big operations, which have come to concentrate land and profits.
“Lifestyle” farms, operations that need to supplement their incomes with off-farm work, comprise over one third (36%) of all farms, but nearly two thirds (65%) of all small farms. Despite a surging demand for healthier foods, farming is still a hard way to make a living.
The looming drought of farmers is troubling when you think about the future of domestic agriculture. There are serious environmental, economic, and security implications at stake. If we want to ensure the future of industrial agriculture, where large and expensive machinery reduces labor needs (often while increasing farmer debt), then the aging of America’s farmers may not seem so dire. If instead we recognize the need for a more adaptive, entrepreneurial, and diversified food system–we’re going to need some recruitment in the ag. sector. Fortunately, there are those who see a problem as an opportunity in disguise. The graying of farming in America may signal a changing of the guard and the chance to try something else.
Severine von Tscharner Fleming is an agrarian, activist, organizer, and the director of The Greenhorns, a documentary film about young farmers, and a non-profit of the same name. The project began in 2007 with a nationwide search for mentors, young farmers, and their stories. Two years, and hundreds of hours of footage later, there is a film (complete with a heavy-hitting advisory council) and, more importantly, a movement. The Greenhorns blog, “the irresistible fleet of bicycles“, gets 700 hits a day and is, in Severine’s words, “a central hub for young farmer news, land opps(opportunities), job opps, gossip and video ephemera.”
The Greenhorns is about recruitment, enlisting protofarmers to take on sustainable farming and eaters to support the fruits of that labor. The young farmers in the film exude a sense of purpose and idealism. Severine, who runs Smithereen farm on rented land in the Hudson Valley, is the first to admit that farming is hard. It demands skills and training. This is not meant as caveat, but fact.
The Greenhorns produce a Guide for Beginning Farmers with tips on how to get started in sustainable agriculture, starting at the very beginning. The guide is encouraging but doesn’t sugar-coat the realities new farmers should expect; namely, that market prices that don’t necessarily reflect the efforts of production. The Greenhorns film is a Transformer: it provokes and doubles as a vehicle–say, bicycle–for launching conversations about access to credit, to land, to training, to markets, and the policies needed to make sustainable farming happen and keep happening.
Severine is relentlessly critical, boundlessly optimistic, and ready. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about the film, and what’s next. It’s highly abridged. I’d like to pick up themes from our conversation (e.g. edible landscaping, processing, stimulating/activating consumers) in future posts.
Who would you want to see your film?
The core audience that I’m trying to reach is potential farmers and people who may be on the edge of stepping onto the bicycle-meaning the film is mostly about the logistics of bravery and the logistics of forming a farm and forming a business and the relationships around farming and business. And figuring out that organism as a practical, economical way of feeding people. It’s about the power of a farm organism made by a couple, by a few individuals; about the farm organism as a critical unit in a future we all need.
What about those who realistically aren’t going to start farming?
I see the farmer as an analog for other local businesses and the institutionalization of personal initiative. ‘I have an intention and the farm is an institution that represents my intention.’
One of things that’s so appealing about The Greenhorns is the do-it- yourself ethos shared among those interviewed. You talk about young farmers as being “punks” and “ninjas” in their approach. There’s a subversive energy. At the same time, the Guide for Beginning Farmers talks about the need for tens of millions of new farmers in the United States. Can you talk a little bit about growing a movement with integrity to your original goals?
Right. Those numbers come from Richard Heinberg who says 50 million. Wendell Berry says 30 million. Michael Pollan says 20 million. New, young, beginning: they’re all interchangeable.
It’s the acknowledgment of the fact that the fastest growing sector is the small farm sector. (ed-The 2007 Ag Census reports that 91% of all farms are small farms). That’s revenue of less than 250, 000 dollars year; it’s the size of a small business. So for models of scaling up, I think about entrepreneurial people in really small towns. There are medium scale businesses like High Mowing Seeds; Vermont Soy and Natural Coatings and Jasper Hill Farm that are all lending money to other players in the regional food system. The way they were able to scale it up was working by a team. They all fully acknowledge the importance of collaboration.
There’s that proverbial saying ‘the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker’. Except it’s the paint maker, the seed maker, the veggie maker, the cheese maker. (laughs)
Could you talk about the balance between the need for millions of new farmers and the need for profitability?
Chose niche; grow niche. There are so many unplugged niches. Even in a town where there’s a fully functional farmer’s market, we’re now seeing so much potential for processing–preserved foods, and meats, and jerky–as ways of bringing profitability into your business.
The next level of entrepreneurs will capture the fruit to make fruit leather. They’ll value-add. It’s sequential. It’s not only the extension of one business but the evolution of food chain.
Thinking about scaling up…
Small is beautiful. Big is subsidized. And the middle is gone.
It’s pretty important to re-grow the middle-the middle class, the medium sized farms. We need agriculture that supports people going to college. There’s a more difficult sweet spot to achieve… and that’s the middle.
Take for instance my friend’s family that runs a 4th generation apple farm/orchard in the Northeast. It employs 13 people, 1.5 million in revenue. It’s middle class, middle scale, 200 acre. They have invested in labor saving equipment that they could be amortizing with double the acreage, but too much land not to have those expensive tools. They get none of the benefits of being small and none of the benefits of being big.
The Greenhorns sell a great “Serve your country food” poster that’s “eco printed by unionized leftists in Berkeley, California”. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some conservative, anti-government types that are also into self-sufficient farming. Have you encountered any in your interviews? Do you see room for working across ‘red’ and ‘blue’ lines.
Yeah. Eggplants are purple. We’ve come across hardcore Christians that are super conservative. Joel Salatin is kind of the Godfather of sustainable agriculture and he’s really conservative, but that’s not what people are paying attention to.
We grew up in an office in Berkeley. That’s where we’re coming from as an organization. Now that Greenhorns is basically ducking under the skirts of the New Young Farmers Coalition 501 3(c) it strives to be representative of a broader range of folks.
Start where you are and work towards common values with people who are on the same team. I think it’s going to take all of us. [links to director's statement/film treatment. Being a farmer and reclaiming the food system where you live is a very political act. There are sides where the (political) spectrum disagrees, but if you’re respectful of that shared line, you can keep moving forward. We have to.
If you’d like to help keep the Greenhorns moving forward, check out their website. They are accepting donations to help distribute the film and grow the organization. They also sell merchandise, including posters by artist cum urban Victory Gardener, Brooke Budner.
Follow up from Severine about “Berkeley”: It’s no secret that in Berkeley, California the Green presses are run by old radicals. Unfortunately, in Berkeley, California the University is not as radical as legend would have it– with major funding coming from Novartis and British Petroleum supporting biotech and cellulosic ethanol research. Those are both technologies that serve to concentrate power, a more conservative tendency. So it’s complicated.
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