I first met Severine von Tscharner Fleming when she was a student at UC Berkeley. Her bubbling, nay BOILING energy was a pleasant surprise for me. This wasn’t some idealistic naïve college student nonsense: Severine was already at that point a killer organizer, a thoughtful writer, and a principled investigator into all things farming. In working with and knowing her for the past 8 years, she’s only gotten better, and her work has successfully spread and become more and more effective. Severine’s list of projects is positively intimidating for people not used to such ambition, or trying to plot their own path into food/farming activism. My read is, if you have that ambition, and you can marshal it for good, and not be a jerk in the process, then go for it! And Severine should serve as an inspiration to all activists: young, farmy, or not.
I feel like there is a renewed interest in craftsmanship that comes with the “young farmer revival”. It’s in the visual aesthetic of the homemade, the 1800s signage, the focus on detail and care; it also seems to reflect a desire to make things of quality (say, organic food) as a fundamental value that is over and in conflict with mainstream desires for profit, growth, efficiency, etc. Do you know of William Morris? Do you think his ideas have inspired your work (its values or aesthetic) directly or indirectly?
Yes. Craftsmanship, and the craft economy, are back in fashion. But they’ve been back cyclically throughout our nation’s history, as the counter-force to industrialism and expressed through various memes and moments. The Grange and Rotary clubs arose from 1870’s post civil war populist movement of agrarians; Nathanial Hawthorn’s early retreat to Brook Farm; 19th century romanticism and social experiments; sexual cults; transcendentalists; arts and crafts movement in England; arts and Crafts in the 1930’s in virgin California. These themes of hand-made, use of natural materials, reverence for skill, beauty, the social configurations of the workshop and trade guild. If it’s calling you, consider getting into the history a little bit, you’ll be dazzled with the institutional idealism of your predecessors to this sentiment. As to William Morris, yes I’m reading his utopian futurist novel News from Nowhere right now. Superfun!
Similarly, there is an preponderance (at least here in mega-gentrified San Francisco) of boutique foods and purveyors of food experiences that reflect this aesthetic, but are clearly catering to a certain urban upscale demographic. What’s your experience of the much maligned “foodie elitism”? Do you dislike it, or deal with it? And how do you maintain your promotion of the small, the local, the artisan, while fighting the elitism that it might naturally articulate with?
Cities like San Francisco and Brooklyn are wonderful marketplaces full of consumers with unending appetite for beautiful food—and if you are a producer that wants to ship to that market, can find land near enough to it to do farmers markets/ fancy shops/restaurants, then super duper. Charge a fortune, wrap it up nicely, and start a college fund for your kids. Or use it as an early-career training opportunity, work hard at the ” best” bakery, live in a coop, meet the love of your life, then move to another city and start a bakery based on your apprenticeships.
Can’t deal with the glittering sparkle of 1% foodies? Hate the traffic, stress and suburbia? Get out of the city—any city. There is plenty of land in this country, so, so very much. While edible magazines might proclaim the 18th street/Guerrero block the epicenter of foodcool– you don’t have to strain your punkrock very much to realize that the growing edge, the radical economics of this movement are not happening within a gas-tank of Google, Twitter, et al. The frontier is where my heart is at, and I’m hoping you’ll agree.
The capital cost of creativity is much higher in Ojai than in Ohio. Serving the highest and best, yet a nicer cup of coffee w/crema isn’t challenging the underlying character of our broken food system: top for the top. If the solution we need system-wide is to re-orient our production towards the regional, making food simultaneously more profitable to produce, and more affordable to eat. That is a logistics game where scale and base costs really matter.
Here are some reasons to consider starting your business in a rural place:
• cheaper land
• skilled, self sufficient neighbors
• less distractions
• the opportunity to rebuild a slumped economy
• peace and quiet
Can we coordinate the logistics of transit, processing and retail in a way that doesn’t undermine the producer?
Can we achieve a price-point that is driven by the real costs of responsible production, instead of a fiction driven up and down by global price fluxes, kept low by the 60% of our exploited agricultural workforce that is working illegally, and the subsidized intercontinental airmail of produce from countries with an average daily wage below our average hourly wage?
Can we rebuild productive capacity in regions whose agricultural economies have become hyper-specialized and narrow, with considerable de-skilling, barn-slump, and attrition?
Whoa—crazy. Yes. Those are the kinds of goals we have. In countless innovative projects around the country there exist radical demonstration projects working with these and other system-changing business models, and their work is made easier by cheap real estate. And cheap real estate in a rural place or in a reviving downtown of a less-major city is surprisingly findable these days, even fully stocked retail spaces. Consider the advantages of brick-built butcher shops, main street facilities, intact agricultural economies with many skilled practitioners (i.e. large animal vets, loading/slaughter facilities, cold storage, compressor dealers, dairy supply deliveries, fabrication shops). These things are harder to find, and far less affordable in places like Napa and Westchester, and frankly there are many moments in the startup of a new farm business, or food business, when old-timer mechanical knowledge is worth far more than any free graphic design you could ever barter.
We met at Ignacio Chapela’s class (your first semester at UC Berkeley), introduced by Hallie Chen, who now works as producer for greenhorns next film project. Back then, why did you want to make a movie? What struck you as the necessity of such a movie, and did you imagine the many facets the project now encompasses, or did that evolve on its own?
When I went to the basement of UC Berkeley Library to find films for the film festival I was organizing, for SAFE (Society for Agriculture and Food Ecology, the student group I was running at the time we met), what I found was a doom-dominated media landscape. Horror movies about soil erosion, slave labor in sugar cane, soy bean plantations displacing rainforest, persistent hunger, the dust bowl migration, etc. It was depressing.
I realized that the solution to all of these problems would require more than a left-brain critique by academics and newspapers and highly literate urbanites. I realized that these were problems that would be solved by committed individuals taking action with their lives, with their businesses, and usually by living in the places that were being despoiled by the regime of global corporate farming.
This was the idea I had about what to spend my life working on, and I’d met enough other young farmers in my 3 seasons of apprenticeships and a year of wwoofing to know that there were many of us. What I wanted to figure out, both for myself and for others considering a career in farming, was if there were enough of us to make a difference. To actually succeed at retrofitting the food system it would take a whole lot of us, and likely we’d need some political power to shift the incentives currently shaping the Mega-Ag economy. At that time it seemed like making a movie was a pretty straightforward way to discover this issue, and try to make it an issue that more people cared about.
Once we started making media, really there was no stopping us. Not only making movies about young farmers, and trying to do so as respectfully and accurately as possible; slightly glossy happy, but not lame we hope. Then we got into creating venues for other farmers to make media as well—since we all benefit from improving our communication skills, our community mojo, and our speaking voice.
Some of our media includes:
-A book of young farmer essays http://www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=9781603427722
-A repository of young farmer interviews. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/greenhorn-radio/id351948580
-A New Farmers Almanac project: http://www.thegreenhorns.net/?cat=28
Now that you’ve completed that movie, and the Greenhorns organization is a full-fledged non-profit seeking to “promote, recruit, and support young farmers in America”, what are you working on to expand from this?
Our newest film project is called OURLAND, a series of webfilms about overcoming structural obstacles in the food economy. What struck me in the media-darling phase of greenhorns work, was how happily the press comprehended the production and promotion of a media product, and how much making media helps us learn about new issues, meet new people, and forces us to articulate what is possible, what is happening, what needs to happen more.
Really our whole mission with the greenhorns is about empowering people to consider agricultural careers, to introduce them to the compelling community of young farmers and the potential to join a movement that could be game-changer. As a consequence of our media-orientation we did a lot of puff-pieces and cute pictures and “ooh-la-la, young farmer phenomena” communication that was catchy, but in my analysis less compelling that the real live experience of attending a young farmer mixer and seeing a smiling, sweaty barnful of happy, confident, self-directed young people wearing dirty clothes and rosy cheeks. We have organized more than a hundred such mixers over our 6-year history, but the film part does seem to be the part that gets the most press. With our new films we’re taking on 13 of the worst characteristic in our current food system (monopoly, monoculture, soil contamination, soil erosion, land value inflation and so on) and profiling in 5-10 minute films the practices and methods of young farmers, businesspeople, organizations, artists who are straddling that challenge, building the new economy inside the old one. Though one of our methods is the production of media—which travels fast and far in our current global age—the ultimate purpose of the message is to welcome in newcomers to our community of practice; to slow them down to the logistics and bravery and commitment that it takes to actually change anything substantial; to give them the tools for analysis that will make them good farmers, good entrepreneurs, good teammates.
Check out the project. It needs funding. www.ourland.tv
Is making documentary films an art form to you, or is it “activism”? (I hate to dichotomize so much, but it seems necessary)
Making a film is pretty similar to doing a graduate thesis—it is research, interviews, travel, and investigation. It basically means you stalk your chosen issue and develop enough expertise to have an opinion, a story, some compelling representative case studies, and then take the trouble to make a soundtrack, do audio polishing, titles and a tour for people to learn what you found. In that sense, the film is a means by which to pursue activism on behalf of the young farmers, on behalf of myself as a young farmer; to learn how to address the obstacles we face, particularly around issues of land access, and be better equipped to advocate for legislation, circulate the most relevant resources/model leases or educational materials, and of course get great practice talking about the subject.
I have the same question for farming. Would you consider your farming (as in, actual farming, not the promotion of it) as an art you practice? I can imagine farming as instrumental for political, gastronomical, and self-expressive ends, but I wonder what your experience of it is.
Farming is many things, and different things to its practitioners, of which you are one too! Is it art? Moving things around outside, cultivating, washing dishes, weeding, harvesting, transplanting, building fence, guarding chicks, problem-solving, unscrewing stuck things, planning, office work, packaging, sales? Hmm. I’m not sure. It means controlling the whole process, and designing systems for outcomes wanted. Some parts of that can be artful, sometimes. But on the whole it’s more about adaptive management, stamina, and logistical fitness—so I’d say more like athleticism than art practice. But then, I never went to art school, so I’m the wrong one to ask.
What is the role of art in promoting a more sustainable way of life?
Our mission is: recruit, promote, support. The underlying theory is that many more people would choose to farm if they knew what it meant, how to get started, that it’s possible to have a social life and a solid business as a farmer. Then, once they’ve begun farming, to make sure they feel empowered, that they have access to the needed resources and information, to a community and team play, to cash, land, training. Basically if the young farmer makes it beyond the 3rd year, and still loves it, they’ll likely stay a farmer for life. Which is of course what our country desperately needs. USDA says it wants to bring on 100,000 new farmers in the next 5 years. It’s a big project, and yes I think art, culture, free beer, delicious food, hot sexy farmer men, and sweaty dancing are appropriate recruitment tools, far more effective, in the long run, than government-issued propaganda.
I have been doing research (for the California Food Policy Council) on policies and campaigns that might be transformative and make land access more possible for new, values-based farmers in California. Of course, Severine’s has an even newer project that perfectly articulates with my own. In 2013, she launched the Agrarian Trust, which intends to tackle what I believe may be the most pressing issue for food systems and the general future of our society: land access. By compiling case studies of innovative initiatives, and proving the need for new policies to increase land access and reduce the destructive development of agricultural lands, the Agrarian Trust will likely be another important element of the new/young farmer movement in the U.S.A.
For more info on Severine and the Greenhorns, check here.
Contributed by Antonio Roman-Alcalá