Thursday evening, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of the new documentary The Greenhorns, produced by the grassroots nonprofit The Greenhorns, and which I first learned about a few months ago.
Greenhorns is a nonprofit that provides information and resources for new farmers. In the documentary, the Greenhorns founder Sevarine von Tscharner Fleming travels the country, interviewing beginning farmers,* as well as some big names in the field, like Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation).
These new farmers, or “Greenhorns,” (see what they did there?) range in age from 18 to their early 60’s, and span the US from coast to coast. They are married and single, with children and without. They grow greens on city rooftops and raise cattle on rural family farms. They rejuvenate empty lots and provide produce for food deserts, balancing the tasks of introducing the joys of local food to consumers of all ages while working to learn the basics of keeping a farm running.
Their stories are all truly inspiring. But I’m not going to write about their stories, because it’s already been done – and very well indeed – by Ms. Tscharner Fleming.
Instead, I want to talk about a theme that pervaded the Thursday night event: community.
First, let me give a brief summary of how the evening ran. When I arrived, I realized I actually knew a few people – there were several interns who are participating in other Piedmont CRAFT farms, who I met at the Sharondale mushroom farm tour. We spent an hour sitting on the grass outside, enjoying the historic and picturesque Morvin Farm, eating a dinner thoughtfully provided by Whole Foods and comparing our various farm apprenticeship experiences. After the screening, there was a “Young Farmer Panel” featuring five relatively new farmers who live in the Charlottesville area.
Late in the Q&A session, one of the panel members quipped, “I became a farmer because I thought I wouldn’t have to interact with people, but I talk to more people every day now than I’ve ever had to before!” Which got me thinking about the sense of community a small family farm creates in its wake.
Once upon a time, America’s countryside was dotted with small, healthy communities – at least, healthier than today. Folks got their food from local family farms, they bought their goods at locally-owned stores, and they weren’t afraid to lean on their neighbors for help.
Today, most of America suffers from what I like to call Cowboy Syndrome – the thought that every man (or nuclear family unit) is an island, and must be as self-reliant as possible. Which is just plain sad. How many moms feel comfortable asking their neighbors to watch their kids for an afternoon? How many people are okay with going next door to borrow a cup of sugar? Too few, I’m sure.
For a small, local farmer, isolation is completely unattainable. As our intrepid young farmer explained, you are constantly interacting with others. Susan and Dean’s home, for example, is constantly revolving with with WWOOF-ers, part-time workers, cottage guests, neighbors dropping by, travelers hoping to check out the winery, college professors examining how the farm copes with soil erosion, the local vet checking the donkey’s hooves… the list goes on and on. Merely starting a small, locally based farm will draw others to you, like small children to an open cookie jar.
While family farms are like small communities in and of themselves, they also play important roles locally – they purchase what they need from other local businesses, while providing fresh food for local families.**
All this crossed through my mind as I understood that, there in the horse barn where the documentary was screened, we were creating our own community: a community of young people, young farmers, a movement of those of us invested in creating justice, health, and sustainability through good, local food.
And as we ate our vegan pasta salad, comparing heirloom tomato seeds and laughing about nighttime chicken raids, I realized that we are building bridges to one another. We, the next generation of farmers in America, are creating relationships that we will use to strengthen our communities, our farms, and ourselves... even if all we need is to borrow a cup of sugar.
* According to the USDA, we learn, “Beginning Farmer” means anyone who has been farming fewer than 10 years.
** At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Walmart sort of messed this up.