Join 3,564 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


An ironic infestation of Japanese beetles
March 16, 2008 7:53 PM   Subscribe

Young Americans are leaving the city to return to the land, and the New York Times is on it, well the Style section is covering the trend. Is this just some fashion trend or are these the young Americans Emerson was looking for?

Other young farmers

Farm Bureau

Seventh Generation

FFA

The Grange


4H

and a gratuitous link to a 1978 Time feature about farming.
posted by Toekneesan (87 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
Have fun!
posted by Artw at 8:02 PM on March 16, 2008


White flight!

(DO NOT FEED ME!)
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:12 PM on March 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


That is an awesome hat.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:16 PM on March 16, 2008


The "Back to the Land" movement 2.0

Unwanted Advice?

Handy Farm Devices and How to Make Them.
posted by R. Mutt at 8:20 PM on March 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


White flight!

All night! All right!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:23 PM on March 16, 2008


Alright then you young Americans, lemme just dig down into the back of my closet here... I got something that'll help you get "back to the land" and all that... just a minute... Ah! Here it is! Lemme just dust it off a little... there you go! Now you take this with you, and don't forget to write us every now and again, and remember, me and your mother will be right here in the city if you ever wanna come back home!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:29 PM on March 16, 2008 [4 favorites]


R. Mutt: Handy Farm Devices and How to Make Them is online for free.
Handy ideas for DIY folk as well.
posted by bystander at 8:35 PM on March 16, 2008 [2 favorites]


And of course ... Backwoods Home Magazine ... with these important articles ... God speed.

Never underestimate a woman Issue #32
Everybody talks about lightning and yes, there are things you can do about it Issue #37
For large quantity food dehydration try this homemade gem from the past Issue #41
The incredible cattail — "The super Wal-Mart of the swamp" Issue #43
Seventeen great tips for caring for windows, mirrors, and other household glass Issue #43
Make your own effective fishing tackle while you save money and recycle scrap Issue #44
Women play a key role when it comes to making this rural volunteer fire department a success Issue #45
You can become a hardcore forager Issue #47
Make a fully functional cold storage pit/mound and enjoy your garden's production all winter Issue #47
You could furnish an entire homestead at Lehman's "Non-electric" Hardware Store Issue #47
Commonsense preparedness just makes sense Issue #48
How to maintain a dirt road Issue #48
From triumph to tragedy to triumph again, Dorothy Ainsworth makes her valiant comeback Issue #50
Canning 101 — pickles, fruits, jams, jellies, etc. Issue #53
Buy your country place from the government Issue #54
With commonsense planning, you can survive hard times Issue #55
Remembering what grandma used Issue #57
Start your food storage on $10 a week Issue #59
Start a self-sufficiency garden even in a cramped apartment Issue #61
Jackie’s tips for hardcore homesteading Issue #62
Make a sure-fire live trap Issue #64
Homestead helpers Issue #65
How we found our remote backwoods home Issue #65
Home canning safety tips Issue #66
The raging torrent — respect it, even when you play Issue #70
Tips and handy hints for 4X4 living Issue #71
Getting out of Dodge Issue #73
Disaster preparation Issue #74
The return of home emergency shelters takes on a dual-purpose approach Issue #74
13 steps to a life of freedom Issue #76
Preparedness for travelers Issue #81
Harvest your own firewood Issue #83
The joys of making soap Issue #84
Getting logs BHM Website Exclusive
For fuel, fertilizer, and maybe even improved water quality you may need look no further than your manure pile Issue #87
Common sense about burglary prevention Issue #89
Space heater safety tips Issue #90
Catch your own bait Issue #91
The art of living in small spaces Issue #92
Finding your own freedom Issue #93
Self-reliance for women — surviving a biochemical attack Issue #94
Self-reliance is a mindset — A woman’s opinion Issue #94
A view of self-reliance from a more timid perspective — A woman’s opinion Issue #94
Subduction zone tsunami Issue #94
Funerals don’t have to be expensive Issue #95
Need more gas mileage? Issue #96
Survival firebuilding skills Issue #97
Vinegar Issue #97
Flashlight! Flashlight! Who’s got the flashlight? Issue #97
Buying the right emergency radio Issue #98
Take care of your knife Issue #98
Buying a used mobile home Issue #99
Clean up your act! Issue #100
Water development for the homestead: Ponds, cisterns, and tanks Issue #102
10 day survival pack for your vehicle for just $25 Issue #104
The coffee mug knife sharpener Issue #105
Cleaning a well Issue #105
Lessons learned from an ice storm Issue #108
Caveman walking stick Issue #108
The trigger line Issue #108
Wildlife tracking 101 Issue #109
Tips for finding your affordable home BHM Website Exclusive
Hunting to fill the dinner pot Issue #110
posted by R. Mutt at 8:41 PM on March 16, 2008 [10 favorites]


The "Back to the Land" movement 2.0

Ah... the good life.
posted by Artw at 8:44 PM on March 16, 2008


The Good Life? They're nothing but a couple of reactionary stereotypes confirming the myth that everyone in England is a lovable, middle class eccentric, and I! Hate! Them!
posted by steef at 9:02 PM on March 16, 2008 [3 favorites]


Nice post. I had just heard about the movie "Greenhands" this week.

From my point of view in Northern New England, there is a bit of a 2nd wave movement going on. I'd hesitate to call it a rebirth of 70s-style back-to-the-landism, though; there are still a lot of those folks around, and their emphasis seemed to really lie in self-sufficiency - the woodlot, the garden, the solar panels, being off the grid and self-sustaining.

With the younger farmers I know, they're not looking to secede from society. In fact, they actively seek it, because farming is so solitary. They see their work as a way of building community and creating a sustainable food system. They don't want to cut links to the cities, they want to create links to consumers and beat out the national chains. A lot of them have environmental science training or engineering training.

And there really are a lot of them. The other night I was at our local growers' meeting talking about some promotional initiatives. I had last been there two years ago, when the organization seemed to be made up of mostly 50-and-up farmers who had been participating for 20 or 30 years. This week, looking around the table, at least half the active growers were under 40, and several were appointed to the board. They've come from all over - former New Yorkers and Seattleites, suburban kids who fell backwards into agriculture, environmental activists who want to model sustainable food farming. It's been a couple of decades since young people in New England wanted to go into farming rather than "getting stuck" with the family farm. The recent linkage of critiques of industrial agriculture with health and environmental damage are making farming a suddenly attractive area for idealists who don't mind hard work - what river guiding or rock climbing or field school work might have been in the 1990s.
posted by Miko at 9:02 PM on March 16, 2008 [8 favorites]


Sorry. The documentary is not Greenhands but Greenhorns.
posted by Miko at 9:14 PM on March 16, 2008


I have some friends who are doing just this. They are even moving back to western MA to look into buying land to start their own farm on. Really to be sustainable and self sufficient, and also because they are vegan's and it is cheaper for them to live that way.

I plan to stay in touch with them, in case of entire economic collapse, I now know a group of hippies I can stay with and grow 'taters so I wont starve to death.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:52 PM on March 16, 2008


confirming the myth that everyone in England is a lovable, middle class eccentric

*closes eyes*
*visualises myth that everyone in England is Felicity Kendall*
posted by pompomtom at 9:52 PM on March 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


whoa. thanks for the emerson link.

i've been idolizing a few other essays and writings for some years, i forgot that there are essays like this out there too. it's good to be reminded that he was kind of a dick about some things.

living in a small-ish city in the middle of cornland has been quite the experience, with regards to this post and the fashion/fact of young farmers. 'round here, they're like celebrities. waiting lists for CSA shares, you know the drill. it seems that, even within the realm of the new young farmer, there are kings and there are subjects.

this world is just puzzling to me.
posted by CitizenD at 10:02 PM on March 16, 2008


This story is as old as dirt. We been down this road many many many many times before?
posted by thedailygrowl at 10:15 PM on March 16, 2008


You know, the rural farm life would be fun and all, except for that whole thing about being miles from your closest neighbor. I bet that the few people who you saw regularly would become annoying really quick.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:15 PM on March 16, 2008


My girlfriend's younger brother worked on an upstate farm that supplied the Union Square greenmarket for a year and is now working on a PhD in sustainable agriculture science. The style section piece doesn't surprise me; when we went to visit him on the farm all the farm hands were young, highly educated, good looking kids. They lived in trailers and listened to old psych vinyl on the record player, made mulberry wine, read Seamus Heaney, collected insects and played a lot of cards. It was pretty cool, I really came away from a weekend with these kids feeling like they were really on to something. At that point I couldn't believe someone hadn't already done an article on one of the greenmarket crews and this was two summers ago.

Nearly all of them are either still farming or working on advanced degrees in agriculture sciences.
posted by The Straightener at 10:28 PM on March 16, 2008


Oh thank the sweet lord there are people who want to be farmers. I spent waaaay too much of my youth in the murky depths of rurality and I never want to wake up to the smell of freshly-spread manure every again. Also, mica? Dries out your hands. Little tip when doing your planting. Wear gloves unless you have a vat of hand cream at the ready.

So, perfect. I like to have food, but I like to have other people grow it. Me? Been there done that. It's not that thrilling, frankly. Also I always got a kick out of the possums coming to eat the alpine strawberries. Man, they loved those things.

Anyways, whatever. Sure, these kids are thinking that its all fun and grains now, but just they wait until Monsanto and Cargill get in on the action and you know if this takes off, those fuckers will be all over it.

Also, how does this work on large scale? Canadian wheat farms can't be run by a couple of hipsters fresh out of Cabbagetown. I know this for a fact - spent time at a couple of family farms out on the Prairies. No manure smell there. That was nice.

So yeah...for me farming, not so much, but I think it's great. Having young people move out into farmland, especially if they have the guts to move into ACTUAL farmland (hello, Kansas!) will help economies and towns that are dying away. I think that would be a good thing.
posted by Salmonberry at 10:52 PM on March 16, 2008 [1 favorite]


I thought sub-urbanites were becoming urbanites? And now urbanites (to get away from the sub-urbanites?) are becoming farmers? Hot cakes, Oliver! Farmers will now move the suburbs and get their two-tractor garages.

Farming is a job and 90 percent of it is drudgery. Smart young folk won't last long in it, not unless they make enough money to pay other folk to do the actual farming while they stay inside and play at being landed gentry.
posted by pracowity at 11:16 PM on March 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


Also, how does this work on large scale? Canadian wheat farms can't be run by a couple of hipsters fresh out of Cabbagetown.

I think people have been trying to answer that question for quite a while now, but in a slightly different guise: how do you take the "grow locally" movement mainstream?

I guess all the snark in this thread has to do with questioning the sincerity and/or fortitude of the people participating in the latest wave of small-scale agriculture, which is totally understandable—if it really is a trend or a fad, plenty of the people now involved won't stick it out. It'll be the newest version of teaching in Japan or backpacking across Europe: you do it for a year, then come back and tell all your friends how much awesomer you are now because you did that stuff.

But at the same time, I really hope something here does gain traction, because it seems like the growing food locally with organic practices could help with issues related to domestic labour, the environment, and the economy. As an alternative to the current regime of corporately-owned factory farms, I don't know of any better ideas. If decentralized small-scale organic farms are run by a bunch of ironic t-shirt-wearing people who used to live in NYC lofts and go out to tiny indie shows, who cares so long as the model actually works?
posted by chrominance at 11:24 PM on March 16, 2008 [5 favorites]


"Young Americans are leaving the city to return to the land [...]"

For a moment, I thought you meant these people...
posted by progosk at 12:26 AM on March 17, 2008


Scariest part of this article in the New Yorker a couple weeks back was when they talk about how the locavore movement might not be so carbon-positive as we think.

The environmental burden imposed by importing apples from New Zealand to Northern Europe or New York can be lower than if the apples were raised fifty miles away. “In New Zealand, they have more sunshine than in the U.K., which helps productivity,” Williams explained. That means the yield of New Zealand apples far exceeds the yield of those grown in northern climates, so the energy required for farmers to grow the crop is correspondingly lower. It also helps that the electricity in New Zealand is mostly generated by renewable sources, none of which emit large amounts of CO2.

When is someone going to do a scientific study of the carbon cost for every product on the shelves and everything we do? It'd be a massive undertaking, but I'd like to be able to make more informed decisions. Then again, the best thing for the environment would probably be to leave the developed world behind, wouldn't it? Fuck. We're so completely... fucked.
posted by incessant at 1:09 AM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


greentards.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:17 AM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


About the sincerity, fortitude and mainstreaming: there are ways to do this as a result of rational analysis of what to do with your time and money. Small scale agriculture can be a good business.

I owned 5% of a small flower production enterprise in the mountains. I got it as payment for design work. Nothing romantic about it, they had a pretty well researched business plan, an on site agronomist, and full support from a bunch of scientists in Holland. Everything is going as planned, they have doubled in size, and it has become the only income source for 2 people and their dependants.

I sold my stake to come to San Francisco to write code, they started very small, 1,000 square meters of greenhouse, plus a cool room and smart irrigation technology, and it will take a couple more years to start seeing some real profit. I hope to save enough to go back there and start a 1 hectare project.

I would not like to do the kind of farming that my grandfather did (he later got peons to do the work while he watched from his horse, then from a car). But this small scale high-science stuff is amazing. You can go low tech or high tech, but you have to go high science.

I see it as an easy sell for introverted science and technology geeks. Play with cool toys, see stuff grow, learn lots of science, you can always drive for an hour or two if you really need some socializing, and you can get almost anything delivered to the nearest town.

At least where this farm is located, putting your money into land and a small home makes more financial sense than buying in the city. Hard chance of making profit in the short term, but looking at long term trends, this seems like a surer bet.

BTW: Contemplating lots of space with no zoning or noise regulations starts putting dangerous ideas into the brains of tinkerers. I never found where the rocket landed.
posted by Dr. Curare at 1:18 AM on March 17, 2008


:: patiently waits for eponysterity ::
posted by NolanRyanHatesMatches at 1:26 AM on March 17, 2008


Speaking as a feminist myself, Felicity Kendal is sweetly nicely and i want to protect her.

I'm trying to read this article with a minimum of snark, having had some positive experiences out in the country, sitting in a house where all the food didnt come from a shop or in a tin but was produced on site was really interesting - and people were much nicer than in this museum of a city.
posted by sgt.serenity at 1:28 AM on March 17, 2008


I hated this article, actually that's not strictly accurate. I hated one particular point of this article.

I had a house two hamlets over from Tivoli for about ten years and I love the area. It is physically beautiful as all get out and it's also lousy with artists and New Yorkers - for the most part the best kind.

Over the years, and not just because of the housing boom, it's become a place for people to go who couldn't afford or couldn't stand, the Hamptons. And subsequently, it's gotten really expensive.

Deciding to start a farming operation in Tivoli (or buying an existing one) is a little bit like camping on the roof of your daddy's apartment building on the upper east side. Sounds like hyperbole, I know, but it kind of isn't. If the farm goes tits up you can still sell the land for around 20-30 thousand an acre. (Which means that's what you paid to start your farm.)

I think the impulse is honorable and I'm all for it, and bringing agriculture back to a community that lived by it for hundreds of years, is also laudable. I have a friend who was having to sell off land that had been in his family for three generations because they couldn't afford the taxes. He was going to be "rich" for it but he hated that he 'had' to do it much more than any solace the money was going to bring. Lastly, if they were looking to make a living at it, they would have moved across the river to Greene or Ulster county where land is cheaper, taxes are much cheaper, and you're just as close to the city.

Which is to say, if these kids weren't rich white kids, would it have made the "Style" section? If they had, say, inherited their grandfather's farm? And decided to run it, though they hadn't gone to RISD or Penn, and their dad was only a CPA in the village?

This post is better than all my bitching.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:24 AM on March 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


Which is to say, if these kids weren't rich white kids, would it have made the "Style" section?

In a word, no.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:28 AM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Oh the farmers and the hipsters should be friends,
The farmers and the hipsters should be friends,
Farmers like to shovel shit,
Hipsters talk a lot of it,
But that's no reason why they can't be friends.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:31 AM on March 17, 2008 [12 favorites]


I know one of these "young americans", and I remember being taken aback when I first met her like "M is a farmer? Really?" But now, having known her for a while, it seems perfectly natural. She's talented at farming, and passionate about it.
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:25 AM on March 17, 2008


What I don't get is where the hell they're getting the capital to start these farms. I wasn't a farmer, but I grew up in small-town South with a bunch, and I always got the impression that farming experience mattered a great deal to productivity. Are these kids very good at it, or are they buoyed by something else? Finally, I wish that people were going to the farm at 18 and letting that time emotionally mature them, then spending N thousand dollars for an education at Amherst (and a couple of years "in Italy") rather than the other way around. Probably would accomplish more.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:42 AM on March 17, 2008


Smart young folk won't last long in it, not unless they make enough money to pay other folk to do the actual farming while they stay inside and play at being landed gentry.

The kids I saw, including a number of young women, worked their asses off under a blazing summer sun and came home totally wiped out at the end of every day and didn't seem terribly concerned for money because they got much of what they needed from the land. There's also the fact that a lot of these kids are parlaying these experiences into advanced degrees in agriculture science that will position them to make major impacts on how farming works, the kinds of chemicals that might or might not be used in the process, the kinds of policies that will impact agriculture on a national scale, etc. If this thread was about Big Agriculture, pesticides, and genetic modification of crops you mother fuckers would be up in the pulpit bitching about big business but here we have a small segment of young kids actually busting balls to somehow start attacking that monster and half of you are practically tripping over yourselves to assure the crowd how cynical you are, how bullshit this movement is and how all of these kids will wind up chained to a cubicle somewhere after all. That's bullshit. Hate the Style section if you want, but don't hate the kids for doing something different.
posted by The Straightener at 5:20 AM on March 17, 2008 [15 favorites]


nice post
sanks
posted by kuzmas at 5:26 AM on March 17, 2008


BTW: Contemplating lots of space with no zoning or noise regulations starts putting dangerous ideas into the brains of tinkerers. I never found where the rocket landed.

Quoted for truth.

(That's certainly why _I_ would want to live in the middle of nowhere.)
posted by kableh at 5:27 AM on March 17, 2008


Smart young folk won't last long in it, not unless they make enough money to pay other folk to do the actual farming while they stay inside and play at being landed gentry.

My friend, mentioned above, makes little to no profit, and has been doing it for 5 years now. She does it for the same reason people start independent record labels or co-op groceries, or zillions of other small business: because she loves it.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:48 AM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Nice post.

It occurs to me that if this "movement" is to have any chance of lasting success, they probably need to drop any pretension of competing directly with agribusiness. Why? Because small farmers have never been able to compete with agribusiness except when small farmers are offering something agribusiness isn't selling. In this case, small quantities of unique and high priced goods for rich people.

There really isn't much of a chance of taking over the local grocery store. Most supermarkets of any size will probably go through the entire production of a small farm in just a few days. If all the local farms in an area banded together, they might be able to keep one supermarket supplied with a few kinds of produce--but only during that part of the year when it comes ripe in that part of the country. During, say, November through May, the supermarket will have to get its goods from the factory farms in California and Florida, so there really isn't much of an incentive to not procure from there year round. By way of comparison, though the market at Union Square is really cool, no one pretends to think that they could feed even the population within three blocks, let alone any reasonable percentage of Manhattan.

I don't think this is a bad thing. People need to eat, and though I'm no fan of the way much contemporary food is produced and prepared, I am strongly in favor of having that food instead of not having it. People in America aren't as healthy as they might be, but very, very few people are starving, and even fewer are in a situation where they can't do anything about it. But I would like to see small farms come back--they're aesthetically appealing whatever else they might be--and if that means catering to rich people, I'm okay with that. I just hope the new young farmers can be content with that and not burn themselves out tilting at windmills.
posted by valkyryn at 5:53 AM on March 17, 2008


I'm one of the smart, young youth who are seduced by this idea.

I studied Economics in university. I know that the food industry for the dregs on the frontline sucks. There's room now for organic farms to break out a little bit in the short term but, where there's a buck to be made, a bunch of people will jump at it and saturate the market. In 10 years, I imagine that the organic farmers will be experiencing what traditional farmers do; a job that may be rewarding spiritually but isn't financially.

I love the idea but, in my heart, I know that only the rich kids are going to succeed at it long-term. Those of us who were born without a dime to our name just can't sustain a few bad financial years and will eventually lose everything we own to a dream we had. Growing up in a place where the farmers and the fishers cry for help every year, it's not worth it. You end up tied to the system you're trying to escape from, perhaps even moreso than you were before.

Still though, to those who are getting their silver spoon dirty, kudos for doing it. You're living the dream I wish I could. I'm a little jealous but I really believe what you're doing is right. Good on you.
posted by scabrous at 6:11 AM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Just because some people in New York are doing it doesn't mean it's a trend yet.
posted by drezdn at 6:52 AM on March 17, 2008


Up here in Maine a lot of the organic farms have apprentices who work there for a year or two, and then go on to run their own farms elsewhere...or get hired as farm managers... or whatever.

I don't know about the people farming in Tivoli but I do know John and Stacy slightly, and have met a lot of other farmers up here, and I don't think any of them are really "silver spoon." I'd imagine most of them are from fairly normal middle class backgrounds, not trust funds.

As the local farm movement has grown, we are seeing a lot more locally-grown produce in our shops-- from tiny 'boutique' groceries to the huge Hannaford in Portland. Some of the CSAs have waiting lists of a couple of years. I don't think the farmers are going to make a mint, but I do think they can sustain a nice simple lifestyle.

I have to say I am a little baffled by the intensity of the snark here. I mean, sure, it's a NYTimes style article, so it's going to present the most hipsterish aspects of the 'trend.' But I don't see how increasing the number of small organic farms is anything but a good thing, regardless of what sort of hats the farmers wear.
posted by miss tea at 6:52 AM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Eddie Albert approves this message.
posted by Senator at 7:12 AM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


...one of the smart, young youth...

Well, not all the youth are smart, but they are all young!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:25 AM on March 17, 2008


Get orf my land! Bloody townies! (loads shotgun)
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 7:38 AM on March 17, 2008


Wow. I'm rarely on the cutting edge of anything, but like miss tea I see this phenomenon in action daily, and eat a lot of food that people like these folks grow. Despite snark by those less familiar with the phenomenon, it's not pie in the sky, and I do think it's an important movement worth paying attention to.

I also don't think it's a passing trend at all - the Style section debut gives that impression with its typically shallow coverage and focus on the affluent, but you have to consider that many young and youngish farmers have already been at this for 10+ years. Even new graduates figured out four or five years ago that soil science was where it's at and have planned accordingly. If it's a trend, then so is graphic design or programming.

except for that whole thing about being miles from your closest neighbor.

So, I live in coastal New Hampshire less than an hour from the cities of Portland, ME, and Boston, MA, and there are two small cities of 20,000 that make up our community. Those cities are surrounded by formerly almost abandoned, rural/industrial towns that are now becoming healthier. The many young farmers in our area work land in the surrounding towns, but not all of them necessarily live on the land they farm. Even those that do are 10 minutes from a world-class microbrewery, bookstore, and live music. We also have loads of regular events that people come to. May through October, the weekly farmer's market becomes a big hangout meet-and-greet, and in between there are potlucks, picnics, contra dances, and stuff like that. No one in this region is really isolated unless they want to be. They do spend long days on their farms alone or with 1 or 2 others, but they can spend evenings in company very easily if they like.

What I don't get is where the hell they're getting the capital to start these farms.

They're definitely not all rich kids. What many are doing is trying alternative models for farming. In my area, for instance, there's no way a brand new young farmer just buys land. No way. Not even two or three acres - land values are just too high. So what happens is that many will start out as tenant farmers. Many have found land by approaching one of the hundreds of defunct New England farms that have been lying fallow for generations, where the family still owns the land but no one actively farms. There is a huge oversupply of these places, especially due to the 1980s dairy buyout. Farms that aren't farmed any more. So they strike deals with the landowners to farm a couple of acres of this existing property. Often the owners will let the farmers do this for free - they're happy to see the land back in cultivation and the equipment put to use. Sometimes they'll charge a rental fee, which is often nominal. Close relationships develop. Occasionally, at some point, there may be a land transfer or sale between owner and established farmer.

Some also get capital by starting CSAs. People who have done programs WWOOF and have apprenticed farms for a while build up a resume and history of success. When they can line up access to some land, they sign up supporters for CSA shares. You pay up front, a few hundred bucks, and then you receive a share of the harvest on an ongoing basis throughout the season. You share the farmer's risks but also the yields. The farmer gets a kitty of a few thousand bucks to buy seed, feed, tools, equipment, etc. Produce that doesn't go to the CSA can go to markets, wholesalers, or direct buyers like local restaurants. The goal is to make enough to live on and plant again next year. Most farmers I know aren't that interested in making a ton of money. Many also work other jobs - one works all winter in a really high-end restaurant in town. Another freelances setting up websites for people. Another makes jewelry. Some of them have spouses who don't farm - they teach or work in nonprofits or libraries or something, so there's one non-fluctuating income coming in. All in all, these folks work pretty creatively so that they can do what they love.

they probably need to drop any pretension of competing directly with agribusiness.


That's just it - they actively do not want to compete with agribusiness. They are opposed to large-scale farming. They are going into small-scale, community-based farming for reasons having to do with their values and convictions, which don't support large-scale agriculture and the environmental and social damage they believe it causes. Their produce and meats are priced noticeably higher than the products of agribusinesses, and they are matter-of-fact about that: that's the price it costs to raise food within your community paying fair wages for labor, not receiving any subsidies or tax credits and not using questionable practices to create food that is artificially cheap- what agribusiness does. They are intentionally working toward building (rebuilding, actually) a food system with far greater dependence on small-scale local farms than on national sources of supply. Some are motivated by environmental concerns, some national security concerns, some see themselves as uniters and community builders, some just like plants - but all have deliberately chosen not to go the FFA/ag-school route of entering industrial farming.

The New Zealand lamb and apple argument has some merit, but often it's just trotted out as a "take that, locavores" quick mention without real examination. When the English researcher says this:

The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby—well, it’s just idiotic,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.


..he's right. So if we want a lower carbon footprint, we need to be a little more sophisticated. If you embrace a style of eating that aims to improve community and the environment, you end up eating more seasonally. You eat fewer red peppers in February, and more butternut squash. You do a little more of your own food storing (lately people have been asking me to put on programs about freezing, drying, canning, and root-cellaring. There's a lot of interest in learning to store food in peak season so it's available all year). You look at climate and region. Is New England a good climate for growing oranges? No, it's not. So maybe you eat fewer oranges than you once did. Or if you want oranges in your diet, you can still make the case for a difference between oranges from Florida and oranges from South America. One is a bit higher on the sustainability scale than the other. Organic romaine lettuce is really popular. It takes an insane amount of water to grow organic romaine in the hot Mexican desert so it can sit in the grocery store year-round. Meanwhile, it takes very little water to grow romaine in the cool New England spring in a greenhouse. Eat romaine that's local when it's in season, when it's fresh and plentiful and not resource-intensive, and you have reduced your carbon footprint. Insist that the same grower force romaine to grow through July and August, and you're going to see that they'll need much more water and an artificially cooled and shaded greenhouse space. Some benefit is lost. So looking only at how far food has traveled is too simple a measure.

Though I'd argue it's still a darn good one to start with. The carbon-footprint concern is only one consideration that local food supporters take into account. There is a good economic argument (spend your money in your community, and it stays in your community. When I spend my money at the giant grocery store, the profits above wages paid go out to the corporate offices in a suburb south of Boston, where they in turn go to whatever the local economy is in that suburb - to kids' Irish step dancing lessons, golf course fees, to Panera bread and more large retailers, who then ship profits out to other corporate headquarters cities to reward office work. That's all well and good and easily found. But money paid to a local farmer stays here, in my own community. The farmers use it to buy seed and feed locally, to buy supplies from the local hardware store, to pay cover charges to see local musicians at local venues, to support local nonprofits through donations and event tickets. What goes around very clearly comes around; my town's small enough to see it directly. The nonprofit that employs me doesn't get any donations from national chains. But we have been very generously treated by locally owned businesses, including farms. Building community and increasing local food security are equally good reasons to eat local. For me, since it's six-of-one, that alone would be enough reason to support them. The overall reduction in carbon load is a bonus.

I have to say I am a little baffled by the intensity of the snark here.

Absolutely. I've been lucky to be involved with folks like this for a few years now, and I think it's nothing short of a renaissance. In general, they're great people whose quality of life and sense of purpose are to be envied. And I think theys first proposed in my town in 1980: it was a hippie idea which would never work may be leading the way in a shift in consciousness. I can remember when recycling was introduced to my city in 1980: it was greeted derisively as a hippie idea which would never work. People would never willingly sort their trash! So inconvenient! What was the point - landfill space was infinite! So to see a world a couple decades later in which recycling is an unremarkable fact of daily life which, wonder upon wonders, creates economic benefit too is somewhat interesting. People out in front of the mainstream do change our systems. I'm excited to support farmers like these. I like them as people and their presence in our community is a definite boon.
posted by Miko at 8:06 AM on March 17, 2008 [88 favorites]


Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.

Oh, and that struck me funny..it might be true in England but not where I am. In Maine the potato harvest is in September and October. Potatoes being what they are, they store beautifully and are cheap and abundant throughout the winter and early spring, when they tend to be a staple of the locavore diet. In August, local potatoes are at their oldest and most expensive. In New England groceries, potatoes bought in August are more likely to be imported, there being no local supply at all. So again, a lot of this is about knowing the answers for your region and the food you want to buy. When you know, you don't have to speculate with generalities.
posted by Miko at 8:17 AM on March 17, 2008


Wait, I want to move to Texas and build up a farm where I can skeet shoot off my back porch, and I'm a redneck, but when rich white kids in New York do it, it makes the Style section of the New Yorker?

Methinks there's a lot the 'left coasts' can learn from these here flyover states after all. Perhaps some hemp production, like North Dakota?
posted by drstein at 8:29 AM on March 17, 2008


oh yes-- like Miko said, a lot of the farms here are actually fairly close to small cities. Broadturn Farm, for example, is in Scarborough, right outside Portland. This isn't exactly rural isolation.

And, also as Miko pointed out, the changes being wrought in communities by the availability of local fresh food are huge. There's an uptick in interest in preservation techniques, cooking, baking, and all the other stuff that comes along with the "inconvenience" of trying to eat seasonally. A lot of the people I know who belong to CSAs also grow their own herbs, or extra tomatoes, or whatever. I guess what I mean to say is that it's not just the farmers who are changing-- it's the consumers, too, and that's also a good thing.

Notwithstanding hipsterism, or whatever.
posted by miss tea at 9:20 AM on March 17, 2008


Wait, I want to move to Texas and build up a farm where I can skeet shoot off my back porch, and I'm a redneck, but when rich white kids in New York do it, it makes the Style section of the New Yorker?

Well, the thing is that if you're farming in Texas, you're not going to live off of it alone unless you do what these people are doing -- growing a niche good that commands a higher price, but at the same time allows you to (and even requires you to) use farming practices that encourage small farms. Don't get me wrong, I would bet there are some organic farmers skeet shooting off their back porch at night after loading up a truck to sell vegetables to yuppies in the northeast. They might just be enjoying the lifestyle, but guess what -- the northeast has its share of backwaters and rednecks too.

The fact that it's city kids moving to the farm that were profiled instead of rural kids making a buck off of the people who can afford organically-farmed stuff doesn't mean that these groups don't both exist, and they can't coexist. I mean, deep down inside, everyone loves skeet shooting, right?
posted by mikeh at 9:42 AM on March 17, 2008


Brings to mind a wonderful documentary I watched last week: The Real Dirt on Farmer John [trailer]. It profiles the 'up-and-down' efforts of John Peterson to save the Midwestern farm which had been in his family for generations. This flamboyant character ends up transforming the shrinking, cash-strapped farm against most odds...odds stacked with vicious local rumors about John, an economy hostile to family farming and even violence. The result: a thriving CSA whose 1,000 shareholders each receive a weekly 3/4 bushel box of fresh vegetables and herbs delivered to over 20 Chicago area sites, Angelic Organics and the Angelic Organics Learning Center.
posted by ericb at 9:47 AM on March 17, 2008


And, also as Miko pointed out, the changes being wrought in middle class communities by the availability of local fresh food are huge.

Fixed that for ya.

At Asda (the UK branch of Wal-mart), you can buy two fresh chickens for £5. At Sainsbury's, a free range organic chicken, grown by one of the sort of farmers that we're talking about here, will cost you around £12.

Now, if you're a single person, or a two-income couple, £12 is no biggy. However, if you're a family of five, struggling to meet your bills on something close to minimum wage, none of this stuff is having any impact on you at all.

If we are headed for a recession, it's going to be interesting to see how these boutique farmers make out when money is a lot tighter.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:54 AM on March 17, 2008


middle class communities


I don't really buy this as a reason to malign the effort. I'm one of the people who buys clothes at Goodwill so I can buy more local food. We all make choices about where are money goes. There are a lot of families who don't have as much flexibility in the choice. But it's hard to see why creating jobs at living wages in local communities is bad for the poor. Again, our local businesses and farms do more to support local service nonprofits than national chains do. Also, they keep professional people with more disposable income nearby, and they can then devote some of their time and money to their own communities.

Then too, the theory is that as more local infrastructure is rebuilt, prices will come down. Again, this is not airy-fairy stuff. Before WWII, 60% of New England's food supply came from within New England. Today it's more like 6%. Even if there is a downturn coming, it makes a lot of sense to let people with extra income fund the rebuilding of an infrastructure that we're all going to very much need when the cheap oil is just a memory. That will have lasting value.

I'm just not into making this a class war thing. I've seen way too much real good come of it - good that has effected my city at every level.
posted by Miko at 10:19 AM on March 17, 2008


I'm just not into making this a class war thing.

If only that were relevant to the question of whether or not this is a class war thing.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:22 AM on March 17, 2008


Speaking as a feminist myself, Felicity Kendal is sweetly pretty and i want to protect her.

Well, it's the first time I've ever heard it called that!
posted by Grangousier at 10:40 AM on March 17, 2008


Now, if you're a single person, or a two-income couple, £12 is no biggy. However, if you're a family of five, struggling to meet your bills on something close to minimum wage, none of this stuff is having any impact on you at all.

You know, Peter, your point about the chickens is well taken, but it's really only applicable to meat (and only to meat under special circumstances). The CSA I belong to provides enough vegetables for a family of 4 to live on for less than $25 per week, and before you ask, they do take payment plans and allow for working shares as well. I think you're wrong when you assume this is only a middle-class 'trend.'

There's a very successful nonprofit here called Cultivating Community which ties together a lot of the issues of local foods and the hungry, by the way-- and most of the organic farmers I know are quite active in the organization in one way or another. A lot of people of all incomes here are looking to more local foods.

Another point I'd like to make about the meat thing is that although of course you are correct, organic meat is much more expensive, the fact is that there are ways of making it cheaper. For example, as my husband and I have become more interested in local and organic foods, we of course realized that buying the same and exact amount of organic meat would seriously impact our bottom line. So we buy a lot more lower cost items, like bone-in chicken thighs, rather than boneless chicken breasts or whole birds. We use every part of the meat, including the bones which we use to prepare stocks. We shop sales and buy large quantities when stuff is cheap. We grind our own meat instead of buying pre-ground. We buy local trash fish.

(Just as an example, you can buy chicken thighs, organic, for about $2.50 a pound.)

All of these things seriously save money. The problem isn't that making these types of changes is difficult or impossible on a low salary; the problem is that people just haven't had the reason to do it when you can buy an agribusiness chicken from Florida for $1.99/pound. I think that as the recession worsens and oil prices continue to skyrocket we'll start seeing the real cost of industrial meat production reflected in those oh-so-cheap chickens, and the local stuff will be similarly priced.

(Of course in addition to the strategies above, there's cutting back on your meat consumption. Personally I do like meat, though, so we do the above.)

(I should also note that a lot of the immigrants in our communities are particularly interested in local foods, presumably because that's what they grew up with.)
posted by miss tea at 10:46 AM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


If only that were relevant to the question of whether or not this is a class war thing.

Maybe you can describe how you think encouraging local agriculture will harm the poor.
posted by Miko at 11:05 AM on March 17, 2008


Will some moderator please sidebar Miko's comment above? I've flagged it as hard as I can, as I expect others have as well.

I am sympathetic to PeterMcDermott's viewpoint about anything that increases cost of food is going to be bad for a non-trivial percentage of the population.

I also agree with miss tea that the rising cost of fuel is going to make certain goods become surprisingly expensive in some parts of the country.

Bananas have always been a shock to me. They are so cheap as to almost be free, and they are heavy, not particularly easy to package/crate, and come from Far Away (tm).

Maybe you can describe how you think encouraging local agriculture will harm the poor.
posted by Miko at 1:05 PM


You seem incredibly well versed in this Miko so I think the concerns should be obvious to you, even if you wouldn't necessarily agree with the expectation.

Locally produced and/or organic (they don't HAVE to be the same thing) foods tend to be more expensive, sometimes MUCH more expensive, than what you can pick up off the shelf at Chain Grocery Store.

So while local squash may be delicious, organically grown, have a smaller carbon footprint, and be decidedly more delicious than those trucked in from god-knows-where, if it is 40% more expensive, then this is not a net benefit to those in the lowest income brackets.

Those on low incomes need good food, of course, like everyone else, but they also need cheap food.

These two needs seem to be in some kind of conflict, much like most other goods produced.
posted by Ynoxas at 11:21 AM on March 17, 2008


I wanted to be a farmer last week. It was then I knew that a story about becoming a farmer would appear in the New York Times style section.
posted by malaprohibita at 11:27 AM on March 17, 2008


I am glad people are doing this. I did some time on an organic farm, and it taught me that I really, really hate farm work. I do like sustainably grown produce, though, so I hope this pool of smart, hardworking farmers continues to expand.
posted by everichon at 11:28 AM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


So while local squash may be delicious, organically grown, have a smaller carbon footprint, and be decidedly more delicious than those trucked in from god-knows-where, if it is 40% more expensive, then this is not a net benefit to those in the lowest income brackets.

I'm confused. Why does it have to be a net benefit for the poor? That is, if it has no benefit for the poor, it's automatically a bad thing? (I'm not trying to flame or troll, I just can't figure out what you're saying, Ynoxas. Apologies if this sounds snarky - I don't mean it to be.)

And I'd argue that those local squash aren't always more expensive than the agribusiness-trucked-in-from-a-zillion-miles-away squashes. Every couple of weeks we head to one of the farmers' markets around here, one which is supplied by small-scale, mostly Asian (Hmong) farmers from the Central Valley. A lot of what they grow isn't organic, but I've seen the number of vendors selling organic peaches, greens, garlic, etc. increase slowly over the years. Still, though, because this is the Alemany farmers market and not the Ferry Plaza one, even organic prices are lower. The shoppers tend to be mostly Asian and Latino. The cars in the parking lot tend to be older and have dings and rust spots. This is not your fancy-pants rich peoples' farmers market - not that there's anything wrong with those, since I love the one at the Ferry Plaza, too. It's a different scene, with some differences in suppliers and buyers.

I know a couple of folks who gave up life in the NYC fast lane to move upstate and raise pigs. They've got pigs and chickens (chickens for the eggs), and they both still work "regular" jobs, but they produce enough to sell at greenmarkets, and supply themselves and neighbors with reportedly outstanding bacon and eggs.
posted by rtha at 11:46 AM on March 17, 2008


These two needs seem to be in some kind of conflict,

I don't believe that they are. Inroads to rebuilding local agriculture are not going to cause the national and international food supply systems to disappear overnight. Despite the growing prevalence and success of local agriculture in my part of New England, low income people still have as much access to cheap food from the industrial system as they ever have. So there is a fallacy in pitting people who have more money for local food against people who don't. In addition, miss tea is correct that eating fresh local produce in season can be quite a bit cheaper - home economy is a real set of skills which has largely disappeared, but eating as she describes allows people with the equipment they need and access to such programs the ability to eat on less money per week than most affluent people spend on meals out for a week or speciality coffee for a month. Questions about how to improve that access are very valid - it's still on the rarer side - , but they are definitely part of the local-ag movement. For instance, our local farmer's market takes federal food stamps and is within walking distance of downtown and bus stops. The problem then becomes that a lot of our city's homeless/housing insecure people don't have cooking facilities. You can't do much with a kohlrabi and a hot plate. These are structural problems we need to solve, but it's not fair to think that people who support local agriculture are not addressing the problems. In my experience, they are doing a lot more work on those problems than people who might have similar resources but don't give food supply a thought.

There is a direction to the vision. The thinking is that as more local land goes back into food production and infrastructure (local feed/seed/equipment sources, improved access to/frequency of markets, etc), prices will fall. Meanwhile, food prices are rising worldwide and will continue to do so as oil and corn prices rise. becuase of this, it's likely we'll see a narrowing of the gap between locally produced (not necessarily organic) food and industrial food. Some think it's pretty important to begin rebuilding local sources now so as to depend less on the worldwide transportation infrastructure and defend against rising fuel cost. I find the picture of rising food prices pretty scary. Who will be hurt and have fewer choices as food prices continue to climb? The poor first and foremost. When milk is $5 a gallon and bread is $3.50 a loaf, the rich will be hurting less than the poor, unless we can do something to address that.

Another aspect of the movement is political. The industrial agriculture system is cheap in part because of subidies and tax credit programs that have been managed under the Farm Bill. If our local and regional farms that grow vegetables and meats were eligible for more taxpayer support and fuel-use credits, as the big guys are, they could lean less on market price for their support, too. But they're not right now - they are considered 'specialty growers' and are largely ignored in federal policy, receiving few if any benefits that drive down the price of industrial food.

I guess for me, the bottom line is that the food system is changing anyway. It's changing in response to market pressures, expensive fuel, and federal investment. We as citizens have an opportunity to change it in ways that are more positive for our communities - the rich and the poor. There's benefit for all in gradually shifting our resources toward localism and I personally believe we'll be glad we did. Someone always has to lead the way. I've found that the benefits become starkly clear the more I've gotten involved.
posted by Miko at 11:47 AM on March 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


That is, if it has no benefit for the poor, it's automatically a bad thing?

No, not at all. It's just that food tends to be an emotional subject because it is a need, not a want.

Peter McD above was saying this was a middle class (and above by implication) issue, and others disagreed.

I'm saying that while this may be a "good thing" in and of itself, it only has limited application IF it only results in higher prices. Everyone needs good food, not just white collar America.

It stands to reason that locally grown food could be cheaper than trucked in, all things being equal, just due to the transportation cost. But, the large corporate farms have orders of magnitude smaller costs for actual production, so they can add those transportation costs and still come out cheaper than the local farmers.

And yes it is good to have choices. I'm not saying there should be no market for higher-end food. Until recently, that's what "organic" meant to the average consumer.

But I'm hoping what Miko says on preview is true. I'm hoping that costs do go down as this develops. But, generally speaking, what tends to force prices down in a situation like this is economies of scale, which the small farm concept is in direct opposition to. So I'm not sure where the reduction in cost will come from.
posted by Ynoxas at 12:06 PM on March 17, 2008


Well, I don't think we're in danger of seeing 10,000 acre farms having their economic knees taken out by niche growers anytime soon. And, as Miko pointed out, food prices are rising across the board. There's an interesting piece in the NYT about rising food prices, as seen by a guy who runs a bodega.
“Now they’re using more corn for ethanol,” said Mr. Baez, a tall and gregarious fellow, in between dispensing lottery tickets to a steady flow of customers trying their luck at Take 5 and Mega Millions. “When the corn is more expensive, it’s more expensive to feed the cows. More expensive cows, more expensive milk. And ice cream.”
For decades, we've enforced low food prices via subsidies - fuel subsidies, crop subsidies. Now the nonorganic chickens are coming home to roost, as it were.

Or, you know, what Miko said.
posted by rtha at 12:35 PM on March 17, 2008


At least the abundance of ethanol will help bring oil prices down...
posted by Artw at 12:41 PM on March 17, 2008


Thanks for this post. I volunteered on an organic CSA farm for a couple summers, with dreams of running my own farm someday. It was one of the best educations I've ever had. The biggest lesson I learned is that farming is damn hard work, often for very little return. I doubt that I'll start a farm of my own, at least anytime soon. I applaud anyone who even makes the attempt. I will, however, be growing my own organic food for as long as I'm able for the rest of my life, as I now have some of the know-how to do so. Doesn't get more local than the backyard (or community garden)!
posted by medeine at 12:50 PM on March 17, 2008


But I'm hoping what Miko says on preview is true. I'm hoping that costs do go down as this develops. But, generally speaking, what tends to force prices down in a situation like this is economies of scale, which the small farm concept is in direct opposition to. So I'm not sure where the reduction in cost will come from.

This is a good point, but I think it's backwards. When real costs are factored into the price of foods, local food will be competitive price-wise.

I think the economies of scale thing is somewhat misapplied to food production, anyway. By their very nature, vegetables abhor a monoculture, which encourages pests and depletes the soil. That's why monoculture farms use pesticides and intensive chemical fetilizers, or why agrifarms that raise animals dose them up with hormones.

On the other hand, on a smaller scale farmers can rotate crops and practice other sustainable farming techniques that take time and effort but not additional expenditures of funds.

Agribusiness is reimbursed for much of the expenditures they make in this area; smaller family farms are not. That's the cost differential, or a lot of it.

But also let me reiterate: we spend less than $25 a week for enough vegetables to feed a family of four. We have to put by a significant portion of what we receive. We continue eating of the CSA veg throughout the winter as well, in the form of stored foods (ranging from frozen pureed tomatoes to canned dilly beans to leek and potato soup). I'm not sure how much cheaper the vegetable should be.

It's more of an issue of awareness and access, I think. Nowadays even a meal at McDonalds will set you back five bucks, so it's not even that cheap. Per portion our CSA food is way cheaper than that.
posted by miss tea at 12:57 PM on March 17, 2008


* let me clarify we're not a family of four, which is why we have to put a lot away. Sorry, just realized that sentence was kind of confusing.
posted by miss tea at 12:58 PM on March 17, 2008


I'm one of the subjects of the NYT article, which doesn't go deep enough to answer some questions and assumptions in previous comments:

Farming is a job and 90 percent of it is drudgery. Smart young folk won't last long in it, not unless they make enough money to pay other folk to do the actual farming while they stay inside and play at being landed gentry.

Not really! There's some drudgery with any job, but I've found diversified farming to be extremely challenging and stimulating. I talk a bit about this in the multimedia section of the NYT piece.

Deciding to start a farming operation in Tivoli (or buying an existing one) is a little bit like camping on the roof of your daddy's apartment building on the upper east side. . . If the farm goes tits up you can still sell the land for around 20-30 thousand an acre. (Which means that's what you paid to start your farm.)

We started our farm with no money-- rented land, borrowed equipment, did everything we could by hand, and got money for seeds and expenses from our first 30 CSA members; by the second season we saved enough to pay the bills and buy a cheap used tractor, and we've kept expanding without taking out any loans ever since.

In the case of my farm, we don't own any land, couldn't possibly afford it in this neck of the woods (due to the prices you cite). Renting farmland around here, though, is very affordable, since so many of the landowners have no interest in actually working the land themselves. So our biggest long term problem is that we don't have permanent access to our land, making our long-term farm prospects shaky. Our ideal situation would involve having a very long-term lease on farmland held by a land trust; we know some farmers in the Hudson Valley and elsewhere who have this arrangement. (Equity Trust is one of the leaders in this movement)

Which is to say, if these kids weren't rich white kids, would it have made the "Style" section?

The author of the article definitely had particular angle to his story in mind, wanted to choose city kids who have moved to the farm as an extreme example of this movement. For the record, of the many young farmers in this movement, I don't know any (myself included) who fit the hipster profile; the author stretched things a bit to make the story sizzle. Seems to have worked well to get folks to pay attention to the article, since you all are lapping it up-- and I don't see folks posting about the young-farmer stories that have been portrayed less flashily (such as you might find here).


Just because some people in New York are doing it doesn't mean it's a trend yet.

I wouldn't call it a "trend" yet, but there is a whole lot of energy and enthusiasm among young people in this movement. I am meeting more and more young folks, in the U.S. and internationally, who are working on farms, and many of them are starting their own operations-- I'm not talking trust fund hobby operations, these are scrounged together by any means necessary, and they're making it happen against all odds. And there is huge demand for the produce now, dramatically more now than I've seen in the 10 years that I've been working on farms, so there is room for the movement to grow very significantly.
posted by brshute at 2:21 PM on March 17, 2008 [30 favorites]


Hi, brshute - welcome. Please don't fear the snark around here - it's just kind of what it's like.

Coming back to mention that our last housemate has gotten interested in farming. She's pretty sure that she herself doesn't want to farm, but she's going to work on a farm this spring/summer, and see if she can figure out a way into the small, growing movement out here that brings locally grown produce to neighborhoods that lack even a grocery store filled with agriproduce. There are several programs in the Bay Area that are focused on getting inner city kids connected to food, food growing, and food selling - this is a good example. Con-Agra isn't interested in programs like this - it's all coming out of the small, local farming communities, many of which are run by people who don't come from family farms.
posted by rtha at 2:58 PM on March 17, 2008


I'm one of the subjects of the NYT article...

God, I love this place. Ben, welcome to MetaFilter!
posted by ericb at 3:01 PM on March 17, 2008


I would add that you needn't even move to the country to get started in the farming business. We've got a CSA in Portland, OR, Sunroot Gardens, that produces its entire crop by farming backyard garden plots distributed around the city.
posted by mumkin at 3:20 PM on March 17, 2008


I don't see folks posting about the young-farmer stories that have been portrayed less flashily (such as you might find here).

brshute, thanks for popping in here. I hope you stay, and please do post that and anything else you recommend!
posted by Miko at 3:23 PM on March 17, 2008


I wouldn't call it a "trend" yet, but there is a whole lot of energy and enthusiasm among young people in this movement.

It probably counts as a 'trend' here -- to the extent that we've had several seasons of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doing this stuff at River Cottage on prime-time TV.

I hope that people are right about the possibility of increased access to decent food for the lower waged. They do seem to manage it in France, Italy and other parts of Europe. I think what bothers me about it though, is that there's a normative element involved here, that tends to suggest that if you aren't feeding your kids this expensive, pesticide-free, organic produce, that you're a bad parent or that you don't care about your kids. And of course, here in the UK, almost all of our food shopping happens at one of the chains of mega-supermarkets who tend to use this as a status thing, to maximize their already-inflated profits yet further.

All of which winds me up a bit, to say the least.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:32 PM on March 17, 2008


Don't forget Foxfire
posted by horsemuth at 4:38 PM on March 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


I have an old acquaintance who is a stellar violinist and graduate of Juilliard, and allegedly he much preferred living and working on an organic farm to the ridiculous competition and pressure that he had to deal with as a music student. I'd be lying if I said that I don't share his attitude from time to time, even though I'm hardly stellar at anything.
posted by Dr. Send at 6:06 PM on March 17, 2008


Hipster, not hipster, if any of you young farmers start with your manure spreading around where I live, even if it's just your backyard plot I WILL NOT BE HAPPY. Know that. I will burn your crops after I steal all your veggies. And eat them.

The organic part might be new but young people being interested in farming isn't. Kids I knew got student loans through Provincial and Federal to raise livestock on the family farm or use for their own crops, as a way of learning the business and raising money to go to uni. I'd bet they're still at it and using it to learn new techniques and technology like they did before. All the while their parents, with their years of farm experience, are there to help them out.

Which leads me to one question - families. There are a few comments here about how these farmers are living. When you're young with no children or just a baby I imagine the hand to mouth existence is alright. Others have chosen to have one spouse hold onto a regular job as a buffer....but what happens when you want a full family and need the income to match it? That was always the stumbling block for a lot of kids on farms. How do I ensure I can take care of 2 or 3 kids year after year, when all the crop prices keep falling?

I'm sure something must have developed. I'm just curious to know how many of these farms have become successful businesses (employees, etc)? Surely some of them must have?
posted by Salmonberry at 9:03 PM on March 17, 2008


I don't know where you'd go to define the terms that would include "these farmers" or get numbers on family structure. The question about expanding families and whether that's compatible with small-scale farming is a good one. But probably not insurmountable.

I do know two local families- meat farmers - with grown kids, where the kids were raised on the farms. One family raised a son and daughter on the farm income + the father's income driving deliveries for a feed store, and during the kids' childhood the mom also went to school and got an MA in psychology. The son became a chef (doing very well) and the daughter a photographer. Both still help on the farm part-time. The parents still run the farm. The other family has 3 kids all in their teens - one in the state university and 2 in high schools.

I don't mean to minimize challenges, but there are a lot of low-income families in this country and they don't all live on farms. At the very least, their kids have a skill set.
posted by Miko at 9:10 PM on March 17, 2008


Is this just some fashion trend or are these the young Americans Emerson was looking for?

If by Emersonians you mean, "The kind of young person that takes a twenty minute train trip out to 'the woods,' spends a week or two boozing it up in a tent while trying to write a book about their 'experience,' only to wind up breaking out of character every hour or so to grab snacks from rural gas stations... then my vote is YES! These are just the sorts he's looking for.

The kind that are actually crazy enough to make it out to Nebraska will quickly get scared back into their places on the coast when they realize just how vast and empty those places are. Hell, I knew a guy that worked as a cable installer in Cherry County, NE. That one county is larger than the state of Connecticut. That's about 1,700 families. Bigger than Connecticut.

Peak oil should scare them back to their senses.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 1:55 AM on March 18, 2008


...the author stretched things a bit to make the story sizzle.
Adding Sizzle? I Can't Believe It! The Paper of Record! I think I have to go have a lie down.

I'm glad you could set the record straight brshute. Now, about your wardrobe...

I'm more than a little jealous you get to eat Mikey's bread (and brioche and croissant) and go to Upstate Films, and drink growlers of Keegan Ales, and the sake margaritas at China Rose. I freakin' love Red Hook its really got everything.


And as much as I hate the NYTimes' trivializing portrayal of your endeavor, I'm really glad you're farming in Northern Dutchess and hope you can make it work and stay. I'll assume you've met Norman Greig, of Greig Farms. I met him once or twice and the stories he had about trying to keep and keep running, his farm were sobering, to say the least, but he has managed to, if not in the capacity it once did. I would imagine he'd be a good professional peer.

I hope you can make some hay from the press you've received. And yes, that pun was intentional.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:35 AM on March 18, 2008


In BC, the pressure to move out of the city, and work in agriculture or biotourism is very strong. I have several friends who are pursuing careers in agriculture, horticulture, and the like; and have enjoyed brief stints in the same. There is certainly a pleasure to be had working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week; it sounds absurd but until you're in the thick of it you won't understand how you could be happy doing it forever.

BC's exploding wine industry, but more importantly the general state of the Canadian economy, basically promises a well-paying career to anyone who wants to leave the city. It's very appealing and will only become moreso.
posted by mek at 3:32 AM on March 18, 2008


It's been really interesting reading your comments, Miko and brshute. The article itself was pretty dopey, but I wouldn't have expected anything less of the nytimes style section. Whenever I read it they're fervently doing an expose of some crazy trend, like librarians with tattoos.
posted by eponymouse at 5:42 AM on March 18, 2008


The kind that are actually crazy enough to make it out to Nebraska will quickly get scared back into their places on the coast

I get the implied condemnation, but I think you're missing the point of what's going on here. People going into sustainable farming are trying to recreate local and regional sources of food in their own regions. I can't imagine that people from "the coast" would migrate into Nebraska to re-establish its local food sources. I can imagine that maybe there'll be young people from the colleges in the Plains states that might do it. Young farmers where I live have embraced the region, climate, and lifestyle - they understand it.

I think it's pretty fantastic that our towns and cities are increasingly dotted with pockets of agriculture where none had existed before. If that means that the farmers get to live closer to society, that's good too.

Just found a good essay about new farmers in Edible Nation:
U.S. farmers are getting old. The national average has climbed to 55.3 years as of the last agricultural census in 2002 (the 2007 census is currently underway), and the trend is ever upward... the sirens are clanging not only because farmers are getting older (in fact, more than a quarter of U.S. farmers are older than 65), but because young farmers are getting scarcer. A mere 5.8% of farmers are now under 35, compared to 16% in 1982.

...There are some signs that the next generation of U.S. farmers may be gravitating more towards sustainable agriculture, with 18% of organic farmers under the age of 35, compared to 5.8% in conventional agriculture. In Oregon, where we are faced with the unnerving prospect of 25% of our farmers retiring within the next decade, numbers like these help to remind us that opportunity always attends change.

...It’s possible that these new farmer programs and market forces might be related to a unique and beautiful little statistic here at home: Oregon, bucking the national trend, grew 58 new farms between 1997 and 2002, from 39,975 to 40,033. Though it’s a humble figure and causality is difficult to tease out, it’s hard to repress hope in the presence of a counter-current number like that.
Another useful piece: Young Farmers, Creative Beginnings profiling four new farmers.
posted by Miko at 6:32 AM on March 18, 2008


I think I've heard of this movement somewhere before.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:39 AM on March 18, 2008


I'm a librarian with a tattoo who wants to become a farmer. My hipsterism knows no bounds!

Regarding midwest agriculture vs. east coast, I spoke with a water law expert a couple months ago. He is studying the confluence of water law and climate change, and his prediction is that as the Ogllala aquifer (midwest) is steadily depleted by irrigation, agriculture will move back to the east, where rainfall is more dependable. (Atlanta notwithstanding-- their problem isn't lack of water, it's lack of easily and cheaply accessible water, and a failure to restrict water use at all.)
posted by cereselle at 8:31 AM on March 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think that the class-war question is a total red herring. The test of the hipster farmer phenomenon is not "does this help the poor." For one, hipster farmers are a supplement to our current food production and distribution systems, not a replacement. For another, the current system is already giving the poor a wide array of not-very-good options; it's not like the hipster farmers are making things any worse for anyone. If you wanted to solve food insecurity in the US, there are a whole set of things you would do, but worrying about whether farmers markets or supermarkets were involved is not really a major component of that.

I have been reading Miko's and others' contributions here with great interest. People keep mentioning the midwest as being "real" farming country, eg:

Having young people move out into farmland, especially if they have the guts to move into ACTUAL farmland (hello, Kansas!) will help economies and towns that are dying away.

In fact, large parts of the midwest have turned out to be ill-suited for farming, whether done by hipsters or whomever. The mid-atlantic and northeastern states, however, have always been well-suited for small and intensively worked agriculture -- the hipsters are just the latest in a long line of small-scale farmers willing to work the land hard; the high population density means that there are a lot of markets for what they produce. Similarly, a lot of western cities have always had small truck-farms around and inside their borders; again, the hipsters are just the most recent piece in a long chain.

But a lot of it is really marginal activity. By that, I mean that it is made possible by people finding flexible arrangements in complicated land situations (such as high land values but low use values -- so someone won't sell the land but also won't charge high rent); finding uses for land that mainstream agriculture won't or can't use; and finding small spaces in the marketplace that are not being served by other mechanisms (eg, if the local supermarket sold edible vegetables, I wouldn't go to the farmers market nearly so often). But change any of those parameters, and the margins go away. I think it is a really open question if these small farming operations can catch on outside of places like the northeast, around Portland, etc.

And the people I know who have started these kind of hipster farming operations (who may be deeply unrepresentative of the phenomenon nationally, I have no idea) have pretty serious safety nets and resources. Some are farming family land; all have high-dollar educations and will have plenty of career options if they get tired of farming; some have big trust funds; few speak seriously of farming for the rest of their lives. This isn't a criticism of them, at all. But it does explain how they can take risks (like trying new crops for new markets) that a career farmer might be less comfortable taking, and makes generalizing this as some new model of agricultural production more difficult.
posted by Forktine at 1:53 PM on March 18, 2008


Part of what I have trouble with is the idea that younger farmers with "high-dollar educations and will have plenty of career options" are a new phenomenon, though. I think people have underestimated the amount of education all farmers have been getting for a century or so. This is why the big land-grant colleges were founded - and the business sense, knowledge of genetics and growing cycles and economics and so on that it takes to run a farm, either large scale or small scale, is not child's play. We may have a stereotype about who "real" farmers are that imagines that they have been uneducated. Despite the myths of American ruralia, that hasn't been true for a long time. Most farmers, conventional or not, have had quite a bit of education.
posted by Miko at 2:41 PM on March 18, 2008


Most farmers, conventional or not, have had quite a bit of education.

Yes, absolutely. But the phenomenon in the Style section article, and as seen in many (but hardly all) farmers market stalls, is of someone with a degree in, say, art history from Yale, or whatever, becoming a farmer. The people getting the degrees in animal husbandry from Big State U don't get written up in the style section of the NYTimes quite so often.

Your point that this is not new, I think, is completely correct; what is not "new" (as in never before seen) but is different now than in the 1970s is that there is a well-developed market in many places for the high-margin products of these small producers, making it more of a viable enterprise. How long that will last, I don't know -- if those spaces in the market can be filled by larger, more traditional agriculture (with attendant lower profit margins), the hipsters will find something else to do. If not -- if this is a truly new model -- then it will last. Either way, if it means better food at reasonable prices, I'm all for it.
posted by Forktine at 3:19 PM on March 18, 2008


To make a slightly odd analogy, I thought seriously at one point about opening an independent bookstore in New York, only to realize, after serious research, mostly working in one, that the only people who can open and successfully run independent bookstores (at least in NYC) are people with serious amounts of capital, not to mention money to fall back on when times get rough. Which means, essentially, not me. At least not yet. Does this mean I should piss all over anybody with money who decides to open an independent bookstore? No. Does this mean I should attack the very idea of independent bookstores just because the socio-economic climate makes them only viable for people who already have money? No. Does it mean I can be frustrated and jealous and resentful? Sure, but what fucking good will that do?
posted by Football Bat at 10:21 PM on March 28, 2008


« Older Fasten your seatbelts....  |  Circuit relays, fulcrums and p... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments