For young farmers nationwide, Severine von Tscharner Fleming is a fearless leader. A farmer, activist and organizer based in the Hudson Valley, New York, Severine speaks for a generation of young farmers, yet is acutely aware of the need for each farmer to tell his or her own story. Three years ago, in midst of films highlighting a culture many saw as losing the battle to Big Ag, Severine saw the need for a film that expressed the true vitality and potential of young farmers. It was out of this need that The Greenhorns were born. After nearly three years of production the film is ready to go—and as Severine drove into New York City for the last night’s premiere, she graciously offered us a look into the brains behind the fundamental new organization dedicated to recruiting young farmers.
Q: Who are The Greenhorns?
Greenhorns got started while I was still in school. I was organizing a lot of events and lectures, parties, magazines and all of the things at UC Berkley. And we were organizing a film festival and noticed that there weren’t any films about the future of agriculture that were positive, it was all about doomsday erosion, doomsday farm labor, doomsday--you name it. We felt like we were all interested in farming and had been farming and were in touch with the community of people who held very strongly to a vision that was quite positive. We thought we should make that vision more accessible through film and that we could share some of these narratives and get a sense of the kind of community momentum that existed around sustainable agriculture.
And that’s how we started our film. We got a little bit of money and then we started making the movie and we made the trailer and then we kind of instantly had major media attention. We became narrators of this movement that we had been a part of and conveners in the form of these workshops, mixers, gatherings and media spaces all involving people who are my age -- I'm about to turn 30 -- who are into farming and who are getting their farms off the ground. There’s about five times as many who are younger, in their mid-20s. In the last census-- I'm talking about the USDA Agricultural Census, 3 percent of total farmers were under the age of 45. And now, in this 2007 census, there were 6 percent. So we are still a minority of the people who are farming, but we're growing and we have to keep doubling.
Q: There are a lot of challenges facing new young farmers, including the obstacle of acquiring land. Do you have any advice for young farmers?
Well, I think the first thing to focus on as a young farmer is ensuring that you have the skills necessary. Learning how to farm obviously takes a lot of time. But those skills are not only the kind of practices you must learn -- there is also a whole institutional matrix that you have to, of necessity, learn and become rooted in if you are to succeed as an entrepreneur of sustainable ag. It’s farm skills, business skills, coping with the weather skills, coping with not such a great profit margin -- all of which you can learn for free. Any community college will offer a very affordable business-planning course. Apprenticeships are available all over the country, whatever growing region you're interested to learn about, we are lucky to have a lot of elders in sustainable ag who are very willing to share their knowledge. And many of whom, if they were in the hippy back-to-the-land time, could really use some extra muscle power on their farm.
Then when it comes to getting the land and becoming your own farmer and having your own farm and becoming an owner/operator, there you are right, the challenges are significant and not to be underestimated. But you certainly have a much better shot at the second part, the land part, once you have become embedded in the sustainable ag network, embedded in and aware of extensions, and aware of farm business planning. And as a mature, business-minded trained individual you will be able to pass that critical land access issue, with all the tools that you have in your tool belt. Generally, it ends up being quite an individual process. Some people are partnering with land trusts, some people are partnering with investors, restaurants, institutions, non-profits, family and many unconventional partnerships.
Q: Can you tell me about your journey into choosing farming?
I think for me the choice to farm isn’t a very easy choice. The first summer that you farm, you spend a lot of time alone, outdoors, thinking quietly, and kind of inhabiting the question of: am I a farmer? Can I be a farmer? You don’t really know the people there; it’s often a lot more solo self-realization space than you've had in your educational upbringing. And so I would say every farmer that you ask of that question will give a different answer. The answer for me is kind of a combination of sensuality and politics. I think that also has to do with the kind of activism that I've chosen to do.
But a lot of it really is about fresh milk and cream and being outside in the morning and working with animals and cleaning spaces of plants. So a lot of it has to do with the smells and sounds and textures of farm life and how that makes me feel—and a lot of it has to do with being a part of something that is uncontroversially good. It is an inconvenient thing to farm in our culture. It’s full of challenges. Our whole society is set up for convenience and capitalist kind of transactions and farming kind of always is grating against the way the society is set up and the economy is set up.
So it is inconvenient, in that sense, but it is challenging, it is definitely not boring, and it feels right and true in a way that I think becomes a little bit addictive.
Q: What in your upbringing led you to farming?
Well, my mother’s family has had a farm for about six generations and we no longer have that farm. Like many families have lost their land, but I spent summers hanging out with cows and kittens and in the barnyard and playing in the hayloft and investigating bugs and eating cherries and getting stung by bees. I think that a lot of the essential part comes from early childhood development and I think that that’s true of a lot of young farmers. If you talk to people, their kind of exposure to a nature/oriented life, and there was kind of a connection that happened. I don’t want to project too much about people though.
Q: You are on a co-founder and board member of the National Young Farmers' Coalition. What was the need for it and what about it excites you?
Well the National Young Farmers' Coalition is a group that has been now in existence for a year and a half, I think. And it is an advocacy and support organization for young farmers, in a way building on the momentum of The Greenhorns, but acting in a bit more of a coordinated national way. So the three arms of the coalition are: the practical, social and political. Political is very high on our minds right now because the Farm Bill is coming. And so we have been working closely with the National Sustainable Ag Coalitionand with the Family Farm Coalition on the beginning farmer marker bill and working to create structures within which young farmers can thrive in the policy environment.
Then there is the social and practical aspects of the coalition, and the social is kind of similar to what Greenhorns been doing, and that is creating spaces for young farmers to gather together. In that way, acting a little bit like the Grange. Basically it’s comprised of workshops, conferences and meetings for the young farmers designed to allow them to communicate with each other and spend time together and inhabit our agrarian culture instead of always being agrarian aliens stuck out in the boonies or stuck out in suburbia, or wherever we are on the landscape. So finding those places where we can spend time together and drink beer together and share stories has been a major part of finding cultural strength for this movement.
And then the practical aspect has been thus far embodied by a project called Farm Hack, and Farm Hack is a farmer-to-farmer technology innovation sharing project and it has a blog and events. The blog share is basically mock-up and sketch-ups and instructions of farmer-designed technologies and tweaks. The first Farm Hack event we did was with MIT. We brought in engineers and farmers to collaborate on the design of our farm-appropriate technologies. We're very into technology and in many ways the young farmers of today are quite similar to the farmers of the 19th Century. You know, super into toys and into Smart phones, just like the Victorians were really into using the newest ploughs and pushing the boundary in terms of tillage, figuring out no till for organic, rotating animals aggressively, with electro fencing. That’s the kind of technological innovation that we really affirm and want to be a part of and want to be drivers of. We want to define the technology that works within our system, we don’t want technology imposed on us by, for instance, Monsanto.
Q: Another powerful tool you have is your blog.
Yes, we have a lot of good stuff going on for young farmers, the most active on a daily basis is our blog, which is called The Irresistible Fleet of Bicycles. Everyday there’s about three or four things up there: land opportunities, job opportunities, trainings, webinars. It gets about 1,000 hits a day. We also have a really great resource there, it’s is a publication called: Land. Liberty. Sunshine. Stamina. It’s a farmers' guide to land access—it basically is a compilation of resources from around the country and also Canada, dealing with leases, land trust, business planning, land/owner literacy, all the kind of issues that you will have to familiarize yourself with as you enter this issue of getting your own farm. And then, of course, there’s the podcast, which is interviews with young farmers. We have a guidebook for young farmers, and everything is available for free on our website.
Q: Who are your heroes?
One of my major heroes has always been always Dr. Vandana Shiva, especially because she brings her tremendous intellectual force to bear in putting these issues that we see in all spheres and in all sectors of hegemony and monoculture and the spoiling of our natural resources. She brings it home in a way that’s deeply compelling and she uses the very direct and accessible metaphors of agriculture to make those concepts clear. She addresses my beliefs about the practice of agriculture and the choice to farm and to physically farm, and to not just write about farming or organize around farming or think about farming with my own choices in food purchasing. I think the actual practice and the direct contact with the earth is similarly about taking kind of a metaphorical stand, and saying, “I'm going to practice with my life a set of relationships with the farm organism that I manage, with the community that I inhabit, with the land and the water and the air and the people around me” is in harmony with a future that I would like to see. It’s difficult to do that in this world unless you have a lot of money to live completely in alignment with your principles, but farming is a way that you can do that. So Vandana Shiva has been tremendously influential in my life and I think in a lot of people’s lives.