It’s 5:45 a.m. and the pickup truck is heaped with hand-sifted compost, worm castings and soil building conditioner, an artillery of land-shaping tools, and flats of baby veggie plants that contain a future bounty of feasts with friends. The sun has not yet peeked its first ray over the shaded city, and the world is quiet. Pruner sheaths strapped to hips and hair still drying from pre-dawn surf sessions, there is soil to be worked.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture the number of farmers under the age of 35 is increasing. What’s staggering is that 69% of those surveyed had college degrees, surpassing the national average. The National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) in partnership with Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, Executive Director of Sustainability at George Washington University and former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, has measured the majority of these young farmers are not the result of generations of agricultural workers – but instead a surge of first-time growers driving a sea of change in the industry.
Despite being faced with the challenges of access to land, affordable housing, healthcare, and dependable income, young farmers find they are seeking success of a different kind. In reaction to industrial agriculture and a motivation to steward the land, the success they are seeking is measured by positive change rather than dollars.
“NYFC reports that young farmers surveyed are capitalizing on the demand for local food by selling directly to consumers and growing a diversity of crops and livestock. The survey also indicates a generation of producers strongly committed to environmental stewardship, with 75% of current young farmers describing their practices as ‘sustainable,’ and 63% describing their farming as ‘organic,’ though many of them have not sought certification.”
While leaders of the real food revolution surround us in Southern California, we as consumers have also become aware of the impact we can make through food on the land, on our health, in our communities, and we seek to consume food that represents our awareness and ideals. We shop local, we comb farmers markets. We patronize independent restaurants whose menus boast small farm ingredients in seasonally curated dishes. We want better food.
Not so dissimilar from decades past with people being drawn to the farm to work and be close with the land, today’s new generation of farmers are taking it one step further and finding meaning in repairing the damage caused by industrial agriculture and broad-based consumerism. We are moving into communities and neighborhoods centered around gardens and green spaces. We are increasingly more eco-conscious. These young farming generations care about how our food is grown, the soil it’s grown in, what’s sprayed on it, and how we leave the land. For many, the seal of organic certification on a purchased product represents the peace of mind that we are voting with our dollars.
But is organic enough?
“We care about how our food is grown, the soil it’s grown in, what’s sprayed on it, and how we leave the land.”
Young farmers don’t always think so. A driving force of this revolution is the ability to take control of how we farm. “Organic” is a positive baseline of standards that is measurable and increasingly familiar to the consumer. “Sustainability” is a step beyond, with careful consideration given to the longevity of our farming practices, populations of farmed animals and sea life, and food availability. Yet, these classifications still do not address all goals of truly responsible farming:
Patagonia, Dr. Bronner’s, the Rodale Institute, and several other entities highly regarded for social and ecological responsibility have joined forces to “farm like the world depends on it.” They have formed the next wave in farming standards with the creation of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, and have announced the groundbreaking Regenerative Organic Certification. This certification is the culmination of pioneers in organics, scientists, ranchers, and activists, and outlines that, “…it is essential to farm in a way that enriches rather than degrades the soil, and values animals and workers. Regenerative Organic Certification leverages existing high-bar organic, animal welfare, and social fairness certifications, and includes additional regenerative requirements.” Regenerative organic agriculture is an all-inclusive triumph of truly responsible farming.
The desire to regenerate the land is what drives new generations of farmers. This certification bestows a tangible measure of this noble work. California Farm and Garden took a look at why this generation has such deep conviction toward stewardship, and what exactly makes us happy about growing food the way it was intended.
“Regenerative organic agriculture is an all-inclusive triumph of truly responsible farming.”
We asked the co-owner of California Farm and Garden, Paige Hailey, to define the moment she conceived of her path in agriculture.
“What was the specific reason you felt compelled to pursue a life in organic agriculture?”
Paige sat for a moment, digging into a bank of soil-covered memories. She shared that her vision spurred from the knowledge that she needed to be outdoors. There was a need to control her own path, breathe real air, and to make a tangible and measurable impact. She considered land restoration and forestry – careers in which your life’s work carries meaning. Yet, these paths would result in countless hours of isolation. She wanted community and the opportunity to share knowledge, in addition to bestowing reverence on the land.
Horticulture seemed to fit the puzzle for Paige. Once immersed, she discovered plants that provided harvests were most rewarding to her. She expresses that she finds deep satisfaction in the science of transforming dirt to biology-rich soil, and bringing produce from seed to plate. Like many farmers of her generation, bringing new life to old dirt right in the midst of her community was the satisfaction she was craving! There is a sense of gratification in the simple yet amazing act of “if you follow these steps, there will be growth!”
“For many it may seem impossible that a humble harvest of vegetables could wield power in a team of workers, but in the hands of an independent farmer, they represent the reckoning against industrial agriculture.”
For the past 10 years, Paige has joined an army of visionaries working toward environmental responsibility. This is in relation to what we eat, how it arrives on our plates, and how those who grow it thrive. This band of revolutionaries have abandoned desk jobs to write a new chapter in the modern workforce. They feel closer to the outdoors, and the health benefits thereof.
For many it may seem impossible that a humble harvest of vegetables could wield power in a team of workers. In the hands of an independent farmer, they represent the reckoning against industrial agriculture. They move about their careers treading carefully, leaving the earth better than how they found it. They know the work on this path is not easy, but it is good.
There is a revolution coming. It’s marching forward, and it’s not clearing everything in its path. It’s growing in its path. It’s in the back of this pickup, packed, route mapped before dawn, and it is forged by farmers who see a nutrient-rich future.