Greenhorns: the network that's breathing new life into US farming

It's helping attract youthful talent into sustainable agriculture across the US, but can the Greenhorns movement survive in the land of Big Ag, or cross the Atlantic to the UK?

The Greenhorns is an exciting new movement tearing up the turf (gently) in the USA. This fresh network of young farmers is mapping the future of food production with ambitious targets, incisive communication and savvy marketing - all fertilised with plenty of organic passion.

Severine von Tshcarner Fleming started the Greenhorns because she was fed up with the negativity she kept encountering while studying agroecology, and the low levels of funding available for sustainable agriculture. She wanted to reflect 'the incredibly positive uprising of people engaged in the day-to-day rebuilding of our food system' found everywhere she worked on the land. Hence these 'young farmers' are united more in attitude than age.

Severine explains: 'The context for your farm business is a very inhospitable global economy that does not value your labour, does not value your food, and so on. So in order to overcome this you have to have a certain kind of posture in the world. That means entrepreneurship, it means community-orientation and it means partnerships.'

This ethos of networking, sharing resources and ideas, is central. Through schemes such as the National Young Farmers' Coalition, Greenhorns put new farmers in touch and get them working together to improve their situation. 'With Greenhorns and people in this new generation there's really a great willingness to innovate and make pioneer/frontier-style partnerships, because we don't have any money and we don't have any land and we really didn't know what we were doing in the beginning. This community of relationships helps young farmers to be emboldened to take the next steps,' says Severine.

Locally specific

The Greenhorns mission statement asserts: 'We recognise that we are the inheritors of a system in crisis.' Severine remarks that, in the US, 'the ghettoisation of family-scale agriculture is such that there's a lot of fixing to do'. As a result many Greenhorns are taking charge of land that has lain derelict or neglected. Smaller plots not suitable for large conventional farms are perfect for the 'ninja' approach advocated by the movement. This involves strategised polycultural growing aimed at specific local markets. Box-schemes are a perfect example of this. Many are also concentrating on getting high-quality fresh food to poorer areas traditionally disenfranchised of the chance to eat well.

As well as isolating viable and underexplored markets, farming in a way that is bioregionally appropriate is fundamental, says Severine. It's all about 'tuning in to your microclimate and working with the genius of your place'. This practice not only helps give local flavour, but also preserves biodiversity and rare crops.

Equally important is to work with those who already inhabit and farm in that place. Severine affirms that 'transfer of knowledge between the generations is crucial. It's essential for young farmers to respect and work with the older, experienced farmers, and to become part of the rural community'.

Campaigning for change

Have there already been situations when young farmers have appeared right next-door to old-school giant monocropping operations? What have the reactions been? 'Although some are threatened by it, overall there's been a big welcoming; most of the older generation are jumping out of their socks to see young people interested in agriculture, even though they're all growing GMO corn.'

The latest project from the Greenhorns is Serve Your Country Food. This is an easy-access way for young and new farmers to show their colours. An interactive map of the US allows you to place a green dot at the location of your farm. A red dot signifies a 'nomad', journeyman farmer or 'farmer-in-waiting', someone still learning or looking for land. The visualisation of intention afforded by these red dots is significant to the endeavour.

They are also mobilising for the next US Farm Bill (coming up in 2012), foregrounding issues related to sustainable agriculture and young farmers. These will include campaigns for student-loan forgiveness for new farmers, savings-matching to help financially, and tax-incentives for retiring farmers without heirs to pass on their farms as farmland. Currently, much farmland is under threat from development.

Ultimately Greenhorns are aiming for 'a mozaic of appropriate land use that serves the needs and interests and health of the people, and that is ecological and humane'. The Greenhorns has also become a documentary film, showcasing the resourceful work of these young farmers, due to begin screening this autumn.

Breathing new life into farming

The phenomenon of ageing farmers is by no means confined to America. Closer to home, work is being done to address the issues of the ageing farming population (the average age of a UK farmer is around 58). For example, a Welsh Assembly Government scheme is also aiming to help those coming in to the trade, as well as young people already within the farming community.

In terms of organic and sustainable, the Soil Association's Apprenticeship Scheme is now in its fourth year, training 12 to 15 individuals a year in placements on organic farms. They are also developing a complementary internship programme. Few farms are able to take on apprentices in the current climate, though. The scheme's director, Ben Raskin, sees further challenges: 'You can skill them up, but then how do they afford to rent land and manage to find accommodation?'

Living off the land

Ben points out that many people are forced to live what Severine calls a 'hybrid lifestyle': working part-time on the land or having a partner in a more regular day-job who earns the cash. This is closer to the idea of community-supported agriculture, which might seem ideal to some; Ben adds, however, that it is hoped the price of food will begin to rise again soon, helping to make farming feasible for more people.

He also notes that of 250 enquiries about the scheme, almost none have been from people with farming backgrounds. Most are people in their mid-to late-20s who have been following other careers for a time: 'But also we should be trying to encourage the sons and daughters of farmers to try and hang onto their farms.' This seems to reflect the trend in America for 'young' farmers to be 'new' farmers.

Jonathan Smith of Organic Futures (specialists in engaging more young people in organic agriculture and horticulture, and linked to the Organic Growers Alliance) confirms that the main problems are 'access to land, finance, suitable training, and that it's also very much a cultural thing that it's not considered a good career for people when they leave school.'

Nevertheless, he maintains that 'smaller-scale farms are more appropriate to employing larger numbers of people, and the more diverse range of tasks is more attractive as a career option. Monoculture agriculture is going to reflect in the types of jobs and opportunities it offers - that is, on a lot of large-scale farms you're going to be a tractor driver and that's it. On a small-scale farm it's entirely different'. This is a way of life attractive to increasing numbers of people, although Jonathan admits: 'You certainly don't do it to get rich - well, not financially anyway.'

It's clear that there is a lot of progressive thinking and positive activity here too, but at the moment things are small and just starting out. There certainly seems to be scope for a Greenhorns-style network in the UK, led by the young farmers themselves... perhaps one is growing - organically, of course - as we speak?

David Hawkins is a freelance journalist

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