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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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From Film to Action, Greenhorns Org. Inspires Young People to Farm for Sustainable Future

February 7, 2012 |

Severine von Tscharner Fleming, founder of The Greenhorns

The Greenhorns, a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote, recruit and support a new generation of farmers, began in 2007, when founder and director Severine von Tscharner Fleming decided to make a film.

The idea sprouted while Fleming was helping organize a film festival at UC Berkley. The lineup of documentaries at the festival highlighted the gloomy realities of our time: a food system in crisis; a corrupt political system; a cycle of global poverty and exploitation. The threats of global warming, soil depletion, bioengineering pitted against biodiversity and poisoned waterways appeared insurmountable onscreen. Fleming wanted to produce a film that would inspire action rather than ennui.

Fleming, who studied agroecology at UC Berkeley, is well versed in the crises of contemporary agriculture. “The agricultural sector has been losing brains, bodies and businesses for the last 30 years,” she explained. According to the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, the percentage of Americans who call themselves farmers has fallen to a mere 1% of the population. But Fleming would tell a different story, one not of decline, but of the increasing number of young people who are turning to agricultural professions as a means of creating a more sustainable future.

“Sustainable agriculture must be the foundation of the new economy, an economy that we must build for ourselves. Fixing America is all of our jobs right now, and farming is a logical place to start,” she said.

Enlisting the help of 13 other cinematographers and a host of skilled volunteers, she spent three years traveling to 30 states and interviewing hundreds of farmers. The final cut highlights a diverse set of young food producers, all variously engaged in the social, political and environmental issues bound with agriculture, from revitalizing depleted soil through organic farming practices, to transforming vacant urban lots into food plots, to empowering communities by providing the opportunity and skills to grow food.

The film, titled “The Greenhorns” was released in 2011 for public screenings, and has since been shown in 326 community venues nationwide. Community groups may host a screening of for $150 dollars. The film is intentionally short (fifty minutes) and is typically followed by a panel of young farmers to encourage community conversation about the struggles these entrepreneurs face.

Meanwhile, the Greenhorn organization has grown into a nationwide network of young farmers working to create a more hospitable climate for aspiring agrarians. The group hosts social events for young farmers (young, in the greenhorns’ context, includes anyone under the average age of the American farmer, 57), produces a weekly radio show, keeps a blog, and has developed a Guide for Beginning Farmers. Young Farmers are invited to participate in the group’s mapping project, a visual database of farmers, food producers and agricultural service providers around the country.

“The network of new farmers, interns, apprentices, keeps growing and growing. At each event and conference and mixer I am continually impressed with the quality of the new entrants onto the scene. It is very inclusive, but because it is a lot of work to farm, it seems to attract a strong caliber person,” said Fleming.

Fleming encompasses the passionate, if sometimes frenetic, energy of the movement. In addition to traveling to Greenhorn events around the country, she co-chairs the National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) advisory committee, hosts Greenhorn Radio, and farms on leased land in New York’s Hudson Valley. Though a central part of The Greenhorn’s mission is to recruit new farmers, she doesn’t sugarcoat the challenges that young farmers face.

“There are obstacles. In our report, ‘Building a Future With Farmers’ we found that the biggest obstacles are access to land, access to capital, healthcare and access to credit,” said Fleming.

To organize a political voice behind the movement, the Greenhorns cofounded NYFC, an organization that offers young farmers a network of support and advocates for public policies that will help young farmers succeed. In addition to getting involved politically, Fleming encourages aspiring Greenhorns to think creatively.

“Getting farms started up requires capitalization. It takes stuff to farm – diesel fuel, tractors, greenhouses, fencing, labor, irrigation, coolers, transportation to market. That’s not including the cost of land. Having said that, you can get equipment for cheap, you can find land to use usually for free if you play your cards right, and there are thousands of retiring farmers looking to support the initiative of new farmers, so magic is very possible,” she said.

In April, the DVD of “The Greenhorns” will be available for sale, as will the organization’s new book of the same name. The organization has already begun work on a new documentary project titled “Our Land.” The film will feature stories of people who are applying workable solutions to environmental land issues, showcasing the innovative spirit needed to inspire and sustain a new generation of farmers.

“Over and over again, the farmers I interview and work with revel in the creative challenges, the logistics of entrepreneurship, as a kind of life-sport,” said Fleming. “It is hard, hard work; hard decisions, a lot of factors to balance, and multi-dimensional as all hell, but that also makes it stimulating. And beyond the ‘this is a good thing to do’ factor, there is also the ‘this is a thrilling thing to do’ factor.”


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