In my Tedx talk, "America 6.0," I mentioned that the future will see more and more people willingly choosing to farm again. Some of it will be for higher-value crops, some will create new agricultural tourism as a result of their efforts and some will do it just for the love of feeding themselves. This will all be especially true within an easy drive of larger metros, so people can have access to city life when they want it.
It all makes me wonder, will be farming be the new preservation movement? What I mean is, historic preservationists stood up for the value of our cities and buildings at a time when society didn't value them. They saved our civilization from itself, and helped lay the groundwork for today's back to the cities movement.
Will the new farmers fill a similar role? People are rediscovering something valuable that we lost in the rush to modernity and mass production: real, good food. Just like beautiful, social cities, this feeds (so to speak) our humanity. Society largely doesn't value agriculture and agricultural land today, nor has it for some time. Will the new farmers change this?
This week - two stories of the new farming ethic that's rising; one inner-city and one rural. First, in Memphis:
Nautyca Wilkinson has no idea that the afterschool program where she raises butterflies and plants flowers is part of a much larger strategy to transform the city where she is growing up. A brainy, articulate 12-year-old who reports that gardening is her all-time favorite activity, Wilkinson was brought to Foster’s afterschool program by her mother. “My mom said this place is really smart,” she said. “She wanted me to go somewhere really educational.”
Wilkinson’s mother was right. The Knowledge Quest wildlife club raises butterflies and swaps plants after timing how long it would take caterpillars to eat them. The math club surveys the farm and tabulates yield predictions. Picking the best crops for the soil lends for earth science lessons. It’s farming, but it’s also a STEM education curriculum. Even the flowers have educational purposes. Mums get planted to “draw the bees close.”
(Sunflowers attract bees too, and Nautyca adores them in particular. Foster says they’ve made a space for the bees, and the farm now has an apiary.)
Foster decides which crops to plant based on which will maintain and replenish the quality of the soil, but they still have their staples — greens, okra, onions, tomatoes, peppers and purple hull peas, a southern pea that Foster remembers picking as a child on his great-grandfather’s land in Mississippi, which he describes as “40 acres and a mule probably somewhere.”
After students pick the crops, they sell them at South Memphis Farmers Market, itself the work of collaboration between the Works CDC, the University of Memphis and Community LIFT, the Operation Safe Community partner whose board includes Foster.
And from California, the new generation of organic farmers:
Agriculture trade groups have developed programs, including training and financial incentives, aimed at attracting young people. The National Young Farmers Coalition through member surveys has found that the bulk of new operators are going the organic route.
Many new farmers are motivated primarily by the desire to show that mainstream methods aren't the only way to grow food.
Large conventional farms can churn out commodity crops quickly and economically. The average American farm, tilled by heavy machinery, is now 434 acres, up from 418 in 2007, the USDA reported recently.
But changing consumer preferences for locally grown and organic food have paved the way for young farmers to carve out a niche.
Kramer and Motter, for instance, borrow equipment from farmer neighbors and look for deals on used tractors and attachments on Craigslist. Velez and his wife, Jamie Carr, live frugally and avoid going into debt. Growing their own food helps.
We "might be poor on paper, but farming allows for spending time with kids," said the father of two. "My richness is life."
Indeed, in this small community of 2,400 an hour south of Yosemite National Park, the kids, Stella and Cosmo, 8, ride their bikes up and down the lane near their home and farm. Velez is often home but usually working.
Only recently has Velez learned to pace himself. For years, he worked from sunup to sundown. In 2004, he ran a nursery and simultaneously farmed the five acres before buying the land in 2007.
Now, he said, he will take much-needed breaks. That usually involves having a few beers while watching either of his two favorite soccer teams, the Mexican national team and Manchester United.