Greenhorn is a word I expect I’ll hear fairly often in years to come. A greenhorn, according to Severine von Tscharner Fleming, Paula Manalo and Zoe Bradbury – authors of the newly released second edition of The Guide for Beginning Farmers is “a novice, or new entrant into agriculture.” To be precise, it is a certain kind of new entrant into agriculture: one who was not raised to farm and who has no family farm to inherit but who is unconventionally and some would say irrationally choosing to become a farmer, no matter his or her lack of education and resources. Touches of madness are not uncommon among greenhorns. Gutfuls of passion aren’t either.
In the authors’ words, The Guide for Beginning Farmers is “part pep-talk, part institutional index, part career-planning guide” for greenhorns. It is a work in progress. While the authors seek a publishing house willing to expand it into a full-length book, The Guide serves as a “first, early stab” at compiling resources for young people who hear the call to farm but have no place to dig in. The Guide gives them long-ish lists of apprenticeships and mentorships; land trusts and FarmLink programs that help new farmers find land; books on organic cultivation; books on smart business; local, state and federal loans and grants for starting farms; even consumer and food activist organizations that support sustainable agriculture, food access and farmworkers’ rights. There are plenty of places to begin.
Reading through the breadth and number of these lists gives the sense that The Guide is still very incomplete. There must be many more manuals, funding sources, apprenticeship listings and unclaimed parcels of land than the authors have been able to compile. There are people farming wisely and organizations supporting their efforts in every state in this country. It seems to me that programs and policies to incubate new farmers already exist; they’re not extensive, they’re not all tested and they’re not widely known, but they are ideas to try and replicate. Books on how to manage a sustainable and profitable farm are in print. Innovative, successful models of urban and rural food production that meet the specific needs of our time are out there. It seems to me, then, that what we really lack in the movement to create millions of new farmers is awareness. There aren’t too many Americans asking for a Guide for Beginning Farmers. There might be more if city people who condemn corn syrup and demand good food also demand that incentives be put in place to make farming an economically and socially viable profession. Or if they speak up and declare that farming is radical; that farmers, no matter how they do it, are heroes. The first obstacle in creating millions of new farmers is not a shortage of land and capital; twenty-somethings have too little farm experience and too many student loans to buy land anyway. The first obstacle is getting agriculture onto the minds of twenty-somethings before they decide that medicine or banking or pop music or drug dealing is the only way to ensure a “respectable” quality of life.
Hence what I admire most about The Guide for Beginning Farmers is not its references to so many websites but the way it reads, at times, like a Manifesto for Beginning Farmers. In future editions, I suggest the authors play up the joy of growing food and the role of farmers in any sustainable, healthy and just society. They’ve already begun it on Serve Your Country Food, a website The Greenhorns have produced to document, connect and support the work of young farmers. Manifestos are risky, but they’re also exciting. Excitement grabs attention and starts movements. We’ll never know if the existing programs for new farmers or the ones now being proposed are worth their weight if young people don’t demand the chance to try them out.
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.