America is experiencing a food revolution, and one of the most exciting aspects is the number of people who want to farm and raise healthy food. The better-food movement is being driven by people of all ages and backgrounds—young and old, new college graduates and second-career retirees—people I call the “new agrarians.” This new generation of people who want to farm are driven by a passion to put their hands in the soil and the desire to grow fresh, healthy food—most often organically. Their goal is to feed themselves, their families, their communities, and collectively our nation. The desire to farm is as traditional as human culture, and in 2012 we celebrate the 150th anniversary of three formative actions that shaped America’s food and agriculture history. In 1862, Congress created the USDA, passed the Homestead Act, and founded the land-grant university system by enacting the Morrill Act. These forces remain at work in America’s food system and will help write the next chapters of our food future.
America’s new farmers are coming from different places: Returning veterans, second-career seekers, and college grads are just some of the groups looking for meaningful employment and exploring what agriculture has to offer. The article on the Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm in Organic Gardening’s June/July 2012 issue revealed how these folks can acquire the skills to farm. My focus in this essay is on the rest of us. What if we can’t be farmers ourselves? What actions can we take to help America’s new agrarians?
Think About What We Eat and Who Raised It
The first and most obvious way—and the one most available to the greatest number of people—is to buy and eat the food these new agrarians grow. As customers, we can create the demand that will make their farms thrive. By shopping at the farmers’ market, joining a Community-Supported Agriculture farm, or going to the farm stand, we can vote with our feet, our dollars, and our mouths. My wife and I run a 10-acre garden farm near Waukee, Iowa, and we know the reward of hearing a satisfied customer tell us how delicious our produce is, but it reminds me how, in more than 50 years of raising corn and soybeans on our Iowa farm, my parents never had the joy of hearing “thank you” from a happy eater. The small family farmers raising the local organic food we value face many obstacles, perhaps even some skepticism from family and friends, so reaching out to thank them can provide important encouragement.