In his nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver, Barack Obama told us, “America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done… Not with an economy to fix and cities to rebuild and farms to save.” The group of about 20 of us who were listening to his speech on a laptop as we got ready for the “young farmers seed swap” about to take place at Slow Food Nation stood straight up and smiled. “Did he say farms? Does he mean that?” As 80 other young activists, students, cooks and farmers streamed into the room, that phrase – “farms to save” – swam circles in our ears. Obama was confirming what we are all beginning to feel is mission of our generation: saving farms, rebuilding the food system, digging back into the land. He didn’t mention what kind of farms we have to save, but he did imply that the future of the economy and of our cities is bound to the future of agriculture and that the security and livelihood of our nation depends on our ability to grow food. That’s an old-fashioned idea, but it’s still a big one—even to young people.
The people in that room knew that if we’re going to save farms, the first challenge we’ll face is finding farmers willing do it. In 2002, the U.S. Agricultural Census reported that the average age of the American farmer is 55. Between 1 and 2% of the U.S. population works on farms; that’s fewer than are in prison. Since the 1950s, agribusiness, with the backing of the U.S. government, has worked hard to put machines, instead of people, on farms, claiming that factory farming produces the cheapest food and frees Americans from the “drudgery” of having to grow and prepare their own meals. As a result, generations of farmers’ sons and daughters have fled the land, seeking jobs and city lives that are marginally more secure. Today, many of the people working on U.S. farms are new immigrant laborers who have no rights, earn below-minimum wages and can’t avoid being exploited. The impression of the people farming the land today is that they’re the people the rest of the country would prefer to ignore.
In a time of concurrent economic, energy, climate and health crises, we’re beginning to realize how badly our country needs to rebuild its food and agriculture system. We should also realize that a food system that is good for us, good for our communities and good for the planet is going to rely on small-scale, diversified agriculture and is therefore going to require a lot more human labor. The U.S. needs millions of new farmers. But right now, that’s good news. Millions of people are losing their jobs this year and millions more need real food. Were we to invest in a healthy food and agriculture system today, we would create jobs at every level that not only boost our economy but also put healthy food on our tables, return money to rural communities and clean up our carbon footprint. (And we should all tell Obama we think so.)
There’s a vanguard of young people taking it upon themselves to find or create careers in agriculture, but it’s mostly idealistic college graduates. Those are the mad young farmers-to-be who gather at San Francisco seed swaps and raise their fists in solidarity when they hear Obama say “farms to save.” (I’m one of them.) As a group, we hope that we’re paving the way for other young people, and we hope we’ll soon be implementing programs and policy that incubate new farmers, but we’re admittedly not a “young farmer movement.” We don’t represent the wide swath of people this country will need to see farming real soon. We’re not going to see that swath of people farming until rural communities can sustain real economic security and provide the nurturing social fabric that makes life livable. “Ordinary Americans” won’t put their hands in the dirt until their neighbors consider farming a noble profession and are proud to shake the calloused hands that feed them. The prospect of jobs may lure people back to the land – or into parks and onto urban rooftops – but they won’t stay unless we train them to grow food and respect them for doing so. To ensure that the next generation of farmers is substantial and serious enough to fix our broken food system, farms will need an economic infrastructure (read: local processing facilities and markets for quality food) and a cultural vitality (read: internet access and things to do on the weekend) that make farm life viable.
That’s a radical agenda; to see it happen, every one of us, farmer or not, will have to rethink the way we interact with the land and with each other. But we will reap its rewards: strong urban and rural economies, healthy communities, a safe and secure food system, a habitable planet. There’s a lot of work to be done in readying the next generation to farm the land, and Obama’s right: we cannot turn back. We have to look forward, and from where I’m standing, the future looks full of promise.
This post is part of Gordon Jenkins’s Young Farmers Unite series, where he writes and invites others to write on the challenges young farmers face, and how we can support new farmers at their profession.
Photo: growing youth project