Standing Up for Young Farmers

A couple of weeks ago, Severine von Tscharner Fleming filed the paperwork to start the National Young Farmers' Coalition, a nonprofit she says will be the first of its kind, aiming to address the needs of the new generation of farmers. Farming has been a huge part of her entire adult life (she's 28), from working on farms for the last eight summers, to starting her own Smithereen Farm last year in New York's Hudson Valley, where she raises rabbits, pigs, chickens, herbs, and vegetables. That's not to mention her work on an organization called the Greenhorns, which has produced a documentary on young farmers in America, as well as a radio show, newsletter, and young farmer mixers. We caught up with her to find out more about the new coalition.

What motivated you to start the coalition?

Because we are being brave people and investing in farming, it means we deserve the respect of our policy makers. We are being good kids, we are being good Americans. We aren't so used to engaging in public policy—we are sort of turned off by it, being kids of the Bush/Regan eras. But farming has led us back to it; finding out $20 billion is being spent on the wrong policy. No one is going to do this work for us and, frankly, we really need to raise our voices. In Europe when farmers feel downtrodden they bring their piglets to the Eiffel tower. In this country we haven't seen that and farmers have been suffering in silence.

What are some of the challenges that young farmers face?

[They] are various. Chances are, if you are young, you are coming in to farming without a lot of capital. A lot of the development and real estate pressure has made land a lot more expensive for us now than the previous generation of farmers. We wrote an article about the need for health insurance. We are taking major physical risks and building a lot of fences and restoring a lot of barns with rusty nails.

How are new farmers working around the financial challenges?

If you don't have the cash or equipment, you are going to be starting small and with high-value crops. So that's why you see a lot of young people involved with CSAs. It's an attractive way to get in. You need about $4,000 of equipment and can generate about $120,000 of income off an acre if you really finesse it. But it requires a lot of interaction and marketing. The economic challenge is real. Starting small businesses is a challenge. However, we have the benefit of organizations that were built [a few decades ago] like Oregon Tilth and CCOF. We also have a leg up in terms of [people] that really want to buy the food we are producing, with the farmers market explosion and CSA explosion.

How do you visualize things changing for the better?

Mostly, re-regionalizing food systems. Allow hospitals and schools to purchase local food and from local businesses; they are really powerful, because then you can sell a whole case of kale at once instead of just a bunch at a time at the market. Create land use policy that reflects the agricultural reality Particularly in areas around cities that can be fed, allow land owners to really benefit from renting out their land to farmers. Have a tax structure that would really incent landowners to rent land to new farmers. Make the relationship really reciprocal.

Education is also really critical. The resource agenda and course offerings in the land grant schools are often dictated by industrial practices. There are some [land grant schools] doing sustainable agricultural education, but the mega-majority of [research and development] is being done in many cases by private companies paying for it. Those interested in making careers in sustainable agriculture noticed we were in the old classrooms with old equipment, not in the fancy biotech rooms where companies were giving grants.

The other meta point of what we want to achieve is we recognize so much of the problems are structural, things that have evolved over 30 years. Since we are beginning, it makes sense for us to consider the structural challenge on a 30-year timeline. It's not about it all changing tomorrow. It's essentially putting forward a vision, and moving the agenda towards a food system we have in our minds.

How will the coalition work?

Right now there are four of us on the founding committee. It's going to be a regular nonprofit in three parts. The Greenhorns [the organization responsible for the forthcoming film of the same name] will become the cultural wing. And the political and practical [wings of the Young Farmer's Coalition] will grow. We are going to come out with policy points, which will follow closely with what is promulgated by NSAC. Obviously we will be working in collaboration with existing farming groups.

How can people get involved in the Young Farmer's Coalition?

Folks interested should join the Greenhorns mailing list. At this point, because Greenhorns has an infrastructure, a lot of [the coalition's work] will be that this year. In the fall, we'll be working on having a congress, but we're projecting having a lot of stuff happen online, on wikis, because it's so expensive to travel.