In US culture, where food is denatured, communication is #txtd, and the majority of us spend most of our time indoors behind computer screens, going back to the land holds an undeniable charm. Many therapists and advocates for a more holisitic life, such as peak oil writer Carolyn Baker, argue that such a draw is healing, and essential to mitigate the most alienating aspects of industrial life.
Just witness the uptick in rustic and green weddings, where city slickers don the trappings of barns and meadows, serving hooch out of Ball jars while their pals post the photos to Facebook. Clearly people are longing for something of substance, something proven, weathered, imperfect, handmade, connected, even if it’s only for the muddy day they exchange vows.
But rejecting the worst in modernity to truly take up work in harmony with nature is not for the weak-of-heart. Or the weak willed or the physically weak. It’s not all about romance, picnics under the apple tree and hamming it up for a glossy photo with barn and banjo props.
Really digging in
For a growing number of young people, it’s about embracing the whole lifestyle of the land. Actually digging in the dirt. Farming. And by the miracle of sun, rain and back-breaking labor at all hours under all weather conditions, yielding something from the fickle soil.
For them, the discovery that it’s not all roses on a barn wood table comes with the territory and is not an inhibition, but rather part of the allure of sustainable farming, using methods that date back to the way it’s always been done, as well as adopting Permaculture methods, biodynamic farming and other practices advanced in modernity, but not a slave to it.
Back to the 21st century land
But The Greenhorns is more than a film. It’s actually a movement designed to encourage and support young farmers who are either tackling field and barn already, or contemplating it, each with their own reasons for doings so. But all of these folks are in agreement that the industrial model is ineffective, dangerous, and undesirable.
The growth during the 20th century of industrial farming pushed many people out of farming.
Rather than creating more jobs, automation and centralization meant fewer jobs as one farmer was able to manage more acreage or more livestock. But just as the coal industry does for mountaintop removal coal mining, Big Ag’s proponents continue to argue that industrial farming is a job-creating industry, ignoring ample evidence to the contrary. Heavy machinery pushes land all right, but it also pushes more workers right out of a job. (Today fewer than 2% of workers are farmers, even as up to 20% of American workers are unemployed.)
All this has caused more and more viable farm land and farms to be given up, resulting in fewer and fewer people taking up farming.
At the same time industrial methods, heavily dependent on fossil fuel inputs from gasoline to pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, have wreaked havoc on the land, sullied waters, and led to a food system marked by low-quality, over-processed foodstuffs and the growing girth of Americans’ bellies.
For more and more people, this lifestyle, whether as a producer or consumer, has proved both unsustainable and unappealing, creating a market for better products, and an opening to return to the farm — if you’ve got it in you.
Many hands make light work
Fleming’s film, which chronicles the lives of several young farmers (defined as between the ages of 18 and 57 and with less than ten years of farming experience), shows that sustainable practices are profitable, engaging, and doable.
With all the areas of farming available, from produce and berry production, to livestock and landscape plants, young farmers demonstrate that you don’t need to be a slave to the vertical farming practices of Big Ag, where the farmer takes on the enormous risk of debt, acting as little more than a sharecropper, and is expected to deploy the heavy-input, confinement practices and quick growth trajectories that an industrialized system demands. And then make pennies on the dollar doing it.
In contrast, sustainable farmers, who may or may not take on loans, farm at a manageable scale utilizing labor-intensive practices, and draw on a variety of methods to support the farm’s financial viability. Perhaps they use crop mobs to prepare land, plant or harvest. Maybe they develop a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model to guarantee that the farmer does not bear the risk alone while ensuring that locals have access to regular deliveries of local food, dairy and meat. Maybe they form a collective, sharing ownership, decision-making and duties to work the land together, sharing its burdens and its blessings. Or maybe they take on urban homesteading, sustaining their own family, and trading or selling their surplus to local markets.
Fleming covers everything from an urban farmer in San Francisco who repurposed an abandoned lot to grow food for sale at her local farmers market, to young people who wanted nothing to do with their family’s farm then coming back to embrace it, to some who grew up doing sustainable farming before it was called sustainable and never wanted to do anything else.
As a farmer herself, Fleming sympathizes, loves the land, calls herself an idealist, and considers the philosophical elements, cultural legacies and practical questions at play in sustainable farming.
Her website, rich in resources for new and emerging young farmers, is part of a larger nonprofit campaign for sustainable farming. Rendered in low-fi hand drawings and animations (which also appear in the film) Fleming’s message is clearly that being green, in the inexperienced sense, should be no inhibition to telling a story, advocating for a cause, making a film, or planting a seed.
Mostly this works.
While I love the sensibility of the drawings, on screen they lose some of their punch. A message that’s hard to read and see no longer works for its main purpose, which is to communicate. A re-do of those drawings with sharper lines and the addition of some color for subsequent printings of the DVD might help ensure that each animation is clear and accessible to the audience.
But that’s about the worst criticism I can offer, and remember, I actually love those drawings themselves!
Fleming’s story telling ability is top notch, and her inclusion of a wide variety of greenhorns — men, women,black, white, younger, older, urban, rural — reveals that the urge to cultivate and create in concert with nature is in our natures, just waiting to be born. Her fleshing out of the story in tandem with her nonprofit’s extensive resources demonstrates that this is no passing fancy for Fleming, and that she has the vision, leadership skills and organization to be a real force for good in the growing movement to revitalize sustainable farming just when we need it most — when energy is growing more scarce, folks are out of work, the land is worn out from industrial methods, and people are hungering for something more real.
Farming offers jobs, local food and related products. It’s a long-standing cultural force that is central to the American experience even as it transcends that experience, connecting us to people of all places at all times. The Greenhorns is a delight to watch, an inspiration, and a guide back to the future. Request a screening in your community here.
–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice