In a recent profile for Huffington Post’s “Style” section, female folk rock duo Kemp & Eden shared their thoughts on their personal fashion sense and artistic endeavors. While ruminating on the state of what’s cool and unique among young creatives today, member Charlotte Kemp–who is also a model and the girlfriend of Beatle scion Sean Lennon–makes the statement, “Everybody’s got a band, everyone’s a filmmaker, but once you sift through all the white noise there’s just a few people really doing something interesting. I think of it actually being cooler and more relevant and way more edgy just to become a farmer.” Embedded in this musing by a waifish New York scenester is the growing perception among millenials that farming is fashionable. As outlined in my previous blog post, The Foodsters, this generational opinion is informed just as much from current trends in hipster artisan culture, DIY sensibilities, and food-related media, as it is from environmental activism, health concerns, family history, or economic security. While eating local, slow, and sustainable foods has become popular amongst individuals in every demographic, millenials have especially embraced the “conspicuousness” of food production and consumption. They are growing their own food, spending Saturdays at the farmers market, pickling their organic produce, and documenting it all on social media.
As an educational garden aimed primarily at college-age students, Flagship Farms has the opportunity to capitalize on this cultural moment to reach and recruit a wider population of young people than are typically interested in agriculture. Outreach is critical because the median age of farmers in the United States is 56-58, with a large portion of Baby Boomers now reaching retirement age. To compound this problem, fewer of those farmers’ children are continuing in the family profession. Census statistics from 2012 show a 23 percent loss of 35-44 year old farmers since 2007, likely due to the Recession and weather affected by climate change. it is critical that a new generation of farmers, even those with no backgrounds in agriculture, take up the mantle.
The good news is in the last 5-8 years more young people are doing just that. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition “the latest Census  does show a small increase in the very youngest farmers between the ages of 25 and 34.” The NSAC also concedes this number may actually be higher as young farmers are less likely to respond to census takers. In a 2011 New York Times article, Garry Stephenson, coordinator of the Small Farms Program at Oregon State University, is quoted as saying he “had not seen so much interest among young people in decades.” A twenty-something organic farmer from New York City relayed to me that when he started his one-acre farm on Long Island in 2007 his mention of working in agriculture would kill conversations at parties. But within just a couple of years everyone he meets is suddenly interested. According to long-time Albuquerque farmers Patricia and Scott Allaire, “Twenty years, even ten years ago, no one even knew what a hoop house was here.” Patricia thinks the recent influx of young sustainable growers is “great.” “I never thought there would be so many young farmers at the [Albuquerque Grower’s] market. It’s exciting and gratifying.” Indeed, the 2012 census suggests that “New Mexico posted a sizable gain in new farmers, and there were a few other states in the West that saw their new farmer populations increase, including Utah, Nevada, and Alaska.”
Patricia and Scott, who began farming in New Mexico in the late 1980s, say seeing young people shopping at the local growers markets is new as well. “College kids weren’t buying organic produce around here twenty years ago. It was all old people from Los Ranchos.” The couple have a small organic permaculture farm called Simple Revolution? Farm! in the South Valley. They are both east coast transplants, Scott is from Virginia and Patricia hails from Buffalo, New York. Their reasons for getting involved in sustainable agriculture in the late 1980s, and starting their own family farm in the early 1990s, was primarily political. They met as flower gardeners for the University of New Mexico campus and discovered they both had a similar interest in the politics of food production. Especially as biotech crops began to make their way on to the market, the couple felt that farming could provide a meaningful avenue for action. As twenty and thirty-somethings in the nineties, they say they knew people their age at the time who were interested in environmental and food issues but they hardly knew any contemporaries who were farmers. “There was a tend to be apathetic in the nineties. People thought we were crazy.” Even politically like-minded friends parted ways with them over their production of meat and dairy. Patricia says “[slaughtering and milking animals] actually took a social toll. The people who were into sustainable food were vegans and they weren’t farmers, they really took offense.” They observe that the young Albuquerque farmers they know today are more “foodie” and “lifestyle” minded, interested in the culinary benefits of snout-to-tail cooking and the bucolically of backyard chickens. Scott says he would prefer if more young farmers were more politically motivated; but says he will take allies in the organic and local food movement however he can get it. “Growing food is the most important thing. Who cares as long as they do it?”
For Flagship Farms, perhaps the hope is that while many will join because of it’s trendiness, the program might ingrain the deeper values of sustainable agriculture, and therefore enable a larger retention of farmers and local food makers after trends inevitably shift. (Urban animal shelters have already been inundated with backyard chickens by fair-weather “hipster farmers.”) But in order to get college kids committed to local and sustainable food production, they have to get excited about the program. Avenues for outreach include social media, savvy branding, and foodie-centric collaborations.
The advantages of advertising and interacting with young people through social media cannot be overstated. While many farms have a rarely updated website, or even semi-active facebook page, the center of internet farm culture resides on instagram. As the fastest growing social media platform, instagram has become especially integral to small businesses promoting a lifestyle brand. Unlike Pinterest which simply shares images of products, businesses with successful instagram accounts post imagery meant to evoke the essence of a company/restaurant/clothing line. For something as visually rich as a farm, this is a no brainer. For Albuquerque farmer Seth Matlick, 31, of Vida Verde Farm instagram means more than free advertising. “We have followers from all over the world. It allows me to connect with fellow farmers, we support each other. Looking at other farm’s photos is inspiring to me. I get new ideas for tools and crops, and having so much positive feedback is gratifying and pushes me to do better.” For Flagship Farm the branding can extend beyond pretty images of produce and flowers to incorporate scenes that invoke college life, education, activism, healthy living, and New Mexican culture. This is a great recruitment tool not only for fellow lobos, but for potential students thinking of attending UNM from around the country. Other colleges have lovely campus farms, but have neglected their social media presence. Flagship Farm could generate a lot of publicity just by filling that niche. Students in the program should have access to the account to share their own pictures. This will allow them to share their successes with family and friends and further instill a sense of pride in what the are doing. Social media will also allow the community to see on a regular basis what is coming out of the field, and where they can buy it.
Of course it is not enough just to grow the food. If Flagship Farms wants to train students to be farmers not hobby gardeners, the students should also participate in selling their produce. Farming is a business, and a difficult one at that. While philanthropic endeavors such as donating vegetables to local charities or giving fellow students access to fresh produce are great ideas, Flagship Farms should also encourage students to sell their goods for profit. Perhaps this means selling to local grocery stores or restaurants, but in terms of speaking to this generation of foodies and conspicuous consumers, selling at the Rail Yards market and to gourmet food trucks may be more “on brand.” The Albuquerque Rail Yards market will allow students to interact with the public and their peers, gain skills in salesmanship and merchandising, and participate in a weekly event aimed at revitalizing the city. Selling or collaborating with some of the 100 local food truck vendors exposes Flagship Farm produce to a large population of local consumers, lets Flagship farmers participate in the growing artisan and gourmet local food movement, and allows students to reap the rewards of their bounty by eating deliciously prepared food in places they frequent anyways–local breweries.
According to the New York Times, “The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.” This is where Flagship Farms will intervene. Once the program has inspired a legion of bright-eyed youths to partake in the “food revolution,” it can begin to teach potential farmers about land acquisition, start up costs, political lobbying, labor issues, environmental best practices, and production and marketing skills. Once they are informed and prepared for the long hard road ahead, the program’s focus should move on to retention. To do this Flagship Farms would benefit from relationships with local farms on a variety of scales, practicing a variety of methods, and whose farmers are willing to talk about the financial and physical tolls of farming as well as the rewards. Farming is not as glamorous as milenials think it is, but Flagship Farms can appeal to those ideals in order to get young people in the field. Only then can the program better educate them so that they may make informed decisions, become better businesspeople and, hopefully, passionate food activists.