Are new organic farmers snotty know-it-alls?

Reach for a changeA friend and I were recently discussing his nascent co-op and the activities they are planning. One idea was to have a farmer/city dweller potluck, which got us talking about an event I attended in March ’07 that sought to bring farmers (old- and new-school), environmentalists, and legislators together to talk about making our county a better place to grow food and people. Here are some highlights from that discussion.

A big take-away for me from that meeting was that farmers are more generally suspicious of environmentalists than I would have guessed. They do not like being looked upon as curiosities or museum pieces. And when it comes to the ways of the land, most purported environmentalists are ignorant babes in the woods. Really. The men I met at this meeting don’t hug strangers and they don’t talk to plants, but they are acutely aware that they are one dry season away from foreclosure and starvation. Long-term, highfaluten ideas about the “health of the ecosystem” are a handful of ashes when the reality of hunger is staring you in the face.

That meeting was really humbling for me, because it made me see with stunning clarity the degree to which I approach the world from a vantage point of privilege and academic interest…and utter cluelessness about the Way the World Really Works. So yeah, we’re trying to learn to garden and be more self-sufficient, but we’re starting from zero. These folks have been doing it (and their families have been) for decades or centuries. We cant even touch the coattails of that. Inviting an old guard farmer (who’s more representative of the people who actually grow the food in this country) to a potluck is kind of like asking the only African American on your block to please come to a party so your kids can meet a real Negro. So I guess I can’t blame the farmers for being a bit crotchety when we come to them with our “oh, we must learn from you and share with you, oh wise farming person!” bit.

That being said, the community of “new farmers” is more typically 30 or so years old, probably farming organically, possibly living communally with all the young idealist farm hands. They probably don’t interact a whole lot with the folks who have been farming that area for the last century, which is a shame. But there’s a huge cultural gap: one such farmer told a story about receiving a visit from a neighbor farmer who complained that the women from the organic farm were scandalously clad in overalls right on the shoulder of the country lane where anyone could see them, and could he have a word with these wayward young ladies?

I do wonder there’s a huge shift in who’s farming in this country happening; most new farmers aren’t the children of farmers. That will be a huge loss of cultural memory – all that stuff we have to learn from scratch – but it will also afford the opportunity to forget some of the “common wisdom” that doesn’t actually work. For the record, I don’t think new organic farmers are snotty know-it-alls, but I think we sometimes forget that the world outside our compost piles is much bigger and set in its ways than we think. And that world is made up of real people, good folks, and it should be part of our goal to find ways to bridge those gaps. Non-environmentalists have some strong preconceptions about environmentalists, and not without reason.

It would be ideal if we could get everyone to work together, of course. There’s a program on the east coast that pairs younger, enthusiastic farmers-to-be with older, retiring farmers with no one to pass the farm to (does anyone know the name of it? I’d like to link to it but can’t find it…)…maybe that’s one way to go. Or maybe we suffer the changing of the guard and make do the best we can.



  1. farm mom said,

    February 20, 2008 at 8:21 am

    As you know, my husband comes from farming roots. His father was a 3rd generation conventional farmer here in the US (who knows how many generations back in Hungary). Eric tried talking to his father about farming with an organic approach and he was scoffed at. If Eric’s father had not died from brain cancer in the mid 90’s, I have no doubt that the land around us would still belong to Eric’s father and it would still be farmed conventionally. The conventional wisdom is all about the bottom line. This is a business. You’re in it to try to make a profit not to protect the land. And the way that it is set up, most small farmers barely break even year to year. SO there is a desperation to make money, or go bust. There’s no thought to anything else really. Eric’s greatest hope was to make changes when it was his turn to take the reins. But, could he really turn this poor, abused earth into a patch of organic heaven? I have no doubt he would have tried, but I cannot help but wonder if his motivation would have turned as well, as he had to provide for a growing family.

  2. February 20, 2008 at 9:25 am

    Here are some interesting statistics from the UK Organic Market.
    Some notes of interest I have put together over the last 6 years.
    I have been doing research on all things organic.
    These are not exact figures.

    Organic Grocery sales in the UK = £2 billion.

    This is 2% of the £100 billion Grocery market.

    80% of all organic is sold by the supermarkets.

    20% by the independents.

    20% of organic is sourced in the UK.

    80% is imported.

    Organic is growing world wide at about 20% per annum.

    Organic in the UK is growing exponentially.
    Certainly at 20% per annum.


    Supply and demand – can it keep up?
    Follow the news
    Dr Walter Yellowlees Book – Dr In the Wilderness.

  3. katnanna said,

    February 20, 2008 at 4:05 pm

    Great post…you have been blogrolled!
    We are doing our part for our community with a blog to connect locals with local farmers.

    The locals are good with this new information about their farmers they had no idea existed, the farmers how ever are not quite sure about our agenda.
    Some are amazed at how we can put them in the public eye, want it and like it, and we think some are a little leary about be exploited. Why? Not so sure. As newbies to the world of small farmers, this is the vibe we are feeling with “older farmer”… why do you need a website and what is a “blog”?? how and why would you want to communicate about farming? What does make sense to us is “we are to busy working on the farm”.

    So, as proud newbies, we are going forward with our “lets get together and meet pot-luck”, who knows , it just might be what we all need!

    Happy Farming,
    Kat and Anna

  4. Emily said,

    February 22, 2008 at 1:02 pm

    Kat and Anna-

    The thing that perplexes me so much about the attitude you describe above is that the web site and such really CAN make a difference to farmers’ bottom lines. Ok, so you think people who go out of their way to pay extra for food because it’s grown in their neighborhood are kooky…but do you care? You’d think it would be an advantage.

    Though I can see how, if you grew commodity, gmo, corn and you were used to selling all of it by the truckload to the grain elevator in one fell swoop, the thought of packaging some of it for resale – especially if you had to grind it – is just more than you’d want to deal with.

    Who knows? Maybe economics will encourage people to go back to a more diversified kind of farming. On the other hand, will the “average American” care enough to get Kellogg’s to build a better cornflake? Will Kellogg’s want to buy from a multitude of farmers? Maybe a two-track system of commodity farmers and new-age hippie organic ecosystem farmers is the practical solution. Time will tell, I suppose…but is there anything we can/should be doing to nudge it along?


  5. Mercedes said,

    February 23, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    “There’s a program on the east coast that pairs younger, enthusiastic farmers-to-be with older, retiring farmers with no one to pass the farm to (does anyone know the name of it? I’d like to link to it but can’t find it…)”, I am not sure about the program out east, but here in KS/MO we have the “Growing Growers”:
    I work with the Lawrence Farmers’ Market and several of our farmers have apprentices each year. The apprentices get a real education on small scale farming (usually organic-but sustainable for sure!) from what grows well, how to work and care for soil, when to harvest and tips for storage to the actual selling/marketing of product through CSA, farmers’ market and farmstands. Not all apprentices go on to lives in agriculture, but those that do have a wealth of experiences to draw upon.

  6. katnanna said,

    March 12, 2008 at 1:29 pm


    Yes there is something that can be done to nudge the future of local sustainable foods…
    we must start at the community level.

    It really is that simple, we are doing it by talking!

    Word of mouth, on line and in my neighborhood. It seems every where we go people are interested in local foods not knowing where to find it, so we talk, educate and they are listening.

    The media now is actually helping the local foods movement, even tho most are promoting big agribusiness, it is up to us who truly care about local farmers that need to continue to educate our community.

    Who’s in??

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