Friday, October 30, 2009

Is the new generation of farmers rural?

There has been a lot of talk in the media in recent years about people re-connecting with their food sources by growing their own food and otherwise attempting to eat locally. My friend Jen is one of the people I know who is taking that talk seriously. Jen has not had a particularly rural life. She grew up in Santa Barbara, California and went to college in Chicago, Illinois. Now in her mid-twenties, she’s back in Santa Barbara running an organic farm.

After earning a degree in sociology, I don’t think she ever envisioned herself working in the fields or tending to the chickens in the coop. Her story is however not as uncommon as it sounds. Many young people are returning to farming as a source of livelihood and way of life in the face of concerns about global warming, food security, and environmental sustainability. See, for example, this story from Mother Nature Network--a source for environmental news and information--entitled, “40 farmers under 40: Meet the new crop of American farmers—young and energetic idealists who are bringing local, sustainable food back to the table. The hip list is topped by pop artist Jason Mraz who owns and runs a 5 acre avocado farm in the San Diego area. What is particularly striking to me about the list of young farmers is that many of them are doing their farming in major urban areas such as Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Atlanta. For visual convincing, check out this map of young farmers put together by the “The Greenhorns,” a documentary film that explores the lives of the young farming community. The urban nature of young farmers leads me to wonder: does the growing number of young farmers mean anything for rural America, or is the new farming movement an urban phenomenon?

Urban farming has been the subject of prior blog posts, in particular this one discussing a New York Times article on vertical farming. The article advocates urban farming in high-rise buildings as a solution to many of the environmental problems American farmers are facing or are likely to face in the future, as well as the threat of population growth. The article argues that vertical farming could solve such environmental concerns as: increased flooding due to global warming, which leads to lost crops and topsoil, increased pressures on the supply of fresh water, the level of greenhouse gas emissions that come from traditional farm equipment and transporting food long distances, and agricultural runoff, which constitutes a major source of water pollution. As the article praises the sustainability of vertical farming, it also argues that if vertical farming were instituted, “[n]ew employment opportunities for vertical farm managers and workers would abound, and abandoned city properties would become productive once again.” Additionally, the article suggests that “[v]ertical farms would also make cities more pleasant places to live.” While the article lays out the potential benefits of vertical farming for urban populations, it seems to give no thought to the future of rural America. What, for example, of abandoned land and lost jobs in rural areas?

With rural populations on the decline and environmental concerns occupying a prominent position in many people’s minds, is the future of farming being redefined? Will the age-old association between rurality and farming become less accurate in this generation? The answers to these questions will likely depend upon how concerns about global warming and environmental sustainability play out, coupled with the direction that young farmers like my friend Jen take with their passions for sustainable food.


Spec said...

I was watching a show regarding future tech and our cities. The futurists and engineers envisioned a time when many of our crops would be grown in the buildings! This wasn't hydroponic mumbo-jumbo (okay maybe some of it was) but a true technological concept of reducing the cost, both economically and environmentally, of growing crops. I remember when I lived in NYC, my wife and I would go to the farmer's market at Union Square on the weekends. There, "eating locally" meant fruits and vegetable brought from over an hour away.

Adam W said...

Great post!

I think that "urban to rural" migration is pretty interesting phenomenon. Though the current trend is no doubt motivated by contemporary issues and ideas, it can be linked in certain respects to the "back to the land" movement which took root in many places in the 1970's. Wikipedia provides a more comprehensive look at the subject than I can in this space:

As was the case for many of the back to the land folks, I think some of the people who are currently trying to make a go of it in notoriously finicky and volatile industries like organic food production will ultimately find themselves returning to the urban world. Some, however, will be successful and will be able to help redefine what it means to be rural.

Best of luck to your friend!

Becky Hayes said...

I am curious what your friends long term plans are and if hopes to continue farming long term. I also have a few friends who I graduated college with who have taken up organic farming in rural locations. I am really interested in these young people's personal stories about what their lives are like now. These are the same people I thought were on my same life path just a few short years ago and now seem to be doing something so different entirely.

I can definitely see the appeal to that life however. I really liked the story of Robin Moore in this article dealing with exactly these same issues:

The entire article covers a lot of the same ground you do in your post. I like your perspective on the younger face of farming today.

Great post!