YouTube hits don’t lie: 11-year-old Birke Baehr is a celebrity. Over 200,000 people have watched his TEDx Next Generation Asheville talk on sustainable food, making him the movement’s youngest star. In a mere five minutes, he hits on all of the biggest problems with our food system (no easy feat!) and tells kids what they can do differently to make a positive impact. I had to find out how this kid got so smart, so I spoke with Birke while he was visiting his Granddad in Central Kentucky and was blown away by the enthusiasm and intelligence of this future organic farmer.
I read in an article about you that your family didn’t start eating organic or local until a few years ago. Can you explain how this change came about?
It all started when I peered over my mom’s shoulder while she was reading her email and I saw an article about mercury in high-fructose corn syrup. I knew what mercury was and I knew that it could kill people and I was like 'Ok, what’s up with high-fructose corn syrup?' My mom told me it’s in sodas and, well, I was like "I'm not going to drink sodas anymore." Then I started reading the labels on things and I realized there was high-fructose corn syrup in bread and a lot of different things you wouldn’t think it would be in. That was really the eye opener and the gate to the whole food system. After that I started researching even more and I found out about pesticides and herbicides and GMOs and all that kind of stuff. I brought a lot of information to my family and my mom got into it too and we would share our findings. I also noticed that you guys did The Meatrix! That was one of the things that helped me learn about factory farming.
Who are your role models?
One man that really inspired me is Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. Just the way that he farms is amazing and how he thinks about things. He really makes chickens do what they're supposed to do—peck around and find bugs. He’s just such an inspiration—he made me want to be an organic farmer.
A lot of people think what you're doing is great because it proves that kids can care and be informed about food sustainability. What do you think are the most important steps we can take to get more kids to where you are at?
At first I didn’t know what was going on with our food system, so I think if people understand and are educated about what’s wrong they would do better. You know better, you do better.
What particular issues about sustainable food do you find to be most effective with people?
One thing that I think really encompasses all of the issues and hits home is the idea that you can pay the farmer or pay the hospital. All of the main issues—GMOs, CAFOs, corn products—can cause illnesses. It’s simple: would you rather have $600,000 on your hospital bill or $50 on your grocery bill?
What are your favorite foods?
Hard question! I like all kinds of food; I'm not a very picky eater. I like green vegetables, and I'm from the south so I like my collard greens. One thing in particular that I don’t like is a McDonald’s hamburger, but I never said I don’t like an organic free-range, grass-fed hamburger with organic potatoes on the side.
What is it about being an organic farmer that is most appealing to you?
The lack of them. I want to be an organic farmer because I want to make an impact on the world and help people.
Some people who commented on your video have said “Birke for President!” and others have said they'd like to see you as a politician in the future. I know you plan on being an organic farmer, but any chance we'll be seeing you on a ballot some years from now?
Actually when this thing started a politician from East Tennessee where I'm from sent an email to my mom asking if I could go to the Tennessee House Agriculture Committee. I've been asked, but I haven’t heard too much from that. I'm not going to be a politician or anything but I'd really like to go speak in front of the USDA.
The YouTube video of your talk has over 200,000 views! I think this qualifies you for celebrity status. How does it feel to be one of the famous faces of the sustainable farming movement?
It feels good! It was really frustrating a couple years ago when I was 8 or 9, because I felt like a kid that age couldn’t do anything about our food system. After learning about GMOs I said "I'd really like to wake people up but I don’t know how I can do this at age 8." Three years later I found this application on my mom’s facebook for the TEDx Next Generation event in Asheville. It’s really awesome for me to be able to help people in this way—to wake them up, help them to start eating organic and stop them from getting sick and obese and things like that.
What are some of your other favorite pastimes?
I still like football. As an 11-year-old boy, its still fun to knock somebody’s head off. I really like studying Civil War history, which is something not a lot of people know about me. I also like to be out in the mountains—I'm from East Tennessee so the Smokey Mountains are my home.
What’s next for you? Any projects or talks in the works?
I've been contacted by a bunch of groups that have wanted me to speak at conferences, including a lot that haven’t gotten back to me, but we'll see. I would love to do more talks. Hopefully I can start speaking in different places. One thing that’s crazy that I've heard people say is that I was told what to say and I was reading off a teleprompter. When I heard that I was like, 'Give me a break!' On my YouTube video there are 891 likes and 30 dislikes—it’s pretty funny. [The critics] don’t bother me. I knew there would be people who wouldn’t like me. I'd just love to be able to tell people more about me and what’s wrong with our food system.
Thanks to Birke and his Mom, Tricia, for their participation in this piece and their continued efforts to educate people about sustainable food.