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.
Do You Own Land?
One of the most important actions that can be taken to support the new agrarians is to facilitate their access to land. This is the most fundamental challenge facing anyone who wants to farm. America’s farmers and farmland owners are aging, and the ownership and control of America’s farmland is being passed to their heirs, many of whom do not farm. But it is these new owners who will decide who farms the land and under what type of lease—and even how it will be farmed. And if they opt to sell the land, they are deciding who will control its future. If you own farmland or are involved in deciding how land is used and by whom, then no matter where you live there are new and beginning farmers who would love to have the chance to work your land. Organizations such as the National Farm Transition Network and the National Young Farmers’ Coalition can help put you in touch with people eager to farm. More than 20 states operate land-link programs designed to connect people interested in farming with farmers nearing retirement or landowners with vacant land.
You may be thinking, “I don’t own any land, so this doesn’t apply to me.” But think again: Do you belong to a church or a land trust? If so, it probably owns land that could be used for local food production. The best way to find out if an organization you belong to owns land that could be farmed is simply to ask a board member or whoever is in charge. Many “nontraditional” landowners—organizations owning or controlling farmland—could assist new agrarians if they chose to. The same is true for other landowners. Think of the acres of grass surrounding many office buildings and school campuses, as well as the lands owned by utilities and local governments. Successful urban farming programs such as Growing Power in Milwaukee and Cultivate Kansas City are using innovative partnerships with municipal governments to gain access to vacant urban land and put it to work in training programs to assist new farmers. You may not own the land, but if you are a voter, a member, or a shareholder, you can raise the issue: “What are we doing with our land?” and help influence decisions on making it available for people who want to farm.
We Are All Citizens
Even if you can’t think of any land you own or influence, remember, we are all citizens who can vote. Across the nation, cities and local governments are asking how they can help create opportunities in the food system, so people can have access to healthy food and can find jobs and careers in food production. One step many are taking is to create a city food policy council, such as in Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Portland. The goal is to seek input from citizens so cities can make better policy choices, such as using city parks as sites for community gardens or changing zoning laws to promote urban farming.
Farmers, marketers, and citizens are constantly writing America’s food future. The surging interest in local food and the recognition that healthy food is essential to addressing America’s health-care future are opening new opportunities for people who want to raise this food. We all have the ability to support the new agrarians and promote the values of food democracy: being able to choose what we eat, knowing how our food is raised, and supporting local actions and engaging citizens to benefit society.
Neil D. Hamilton is the Dwight Opperman chair and professor of law and director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.