Courtney White and Avery C. Anderson

Sustainability. Adaptation. Mitigation. Local. Grass-fed. Resilience.

These words, so much in the news today across the globe, barely registered on people’s radar screens 15 years ago. For example, when we founded the Quivira Coalition in 1997, we were focused on peace-making, collaboration, land health and good stewardship. Issues such as climate change, local food production, grass-fed meat, and other “modern” concerns were rarely discussed, if at all. That’s not the case anymore. Soon, these words will require a new conservation paradigm, one that combines the ecological, the economic and the social.

Fortunately, one is emerging, and it has a name: a new agrarianism.

What is this new agrarianism? Here is Wendell Berry’s definition: “There is another way to live and think: it’s called agrarianism. It is not so much a philosophy as a practice, an attitude, a loyalty and a passion – all based in close connection with the land. It results in a sound local economy in which producers and consumers are neighbors and in which nature herself becomes the standard for work and production.”

Across America, there is a resurgent interest in local, family-scale, sustainable food, fiber and fuel production. It began slowly, but has gathered speed recently. Local food is the focus and key to this new movement, but it’s more than just food systems. New agrarians have a vision of resilient food production from farms and ranches that are managed for land health, biodiversity and human well-being. It means working to sequester carbon in soils, improving water quality and quantity, restoring native plant and animal populations, fixing degraded creeks, developing local energy sources and replenishing the land for people and nature alike. It is a vision of coexistence, resilience and stewardship – a place for people in nature, not outside it.

This new agrarian movement is being led by young, energetic and passionate people – as every movement before it has been. The difference, however, is that today’s new agrarians can stand on the shoulders of their predecessors and thus see farther. Fortunately, the toolbox at their disposal is full of ideas and practices that have been tried-and-tested in the field already. And undoubtedly they will innovate new ones to go along with what we know already works.

But who are these new agrarians?

  1. Too old to be a new agrarian? In the U.S. today, for every farmer under 35 years old, there are six over 65, and the average age is 57. In 2007, there were only 118,613 farmers under the age of 36 – only 6% of the 2 million farmers nationwide (down from 6 million farmers in 1910). The National Young Farmers’ Coalition (NYFC) reports that between now and the year 2030, half a million (one-quarter) of American farmers will retire. Unless we plan to stop eating, these facts give urgency to mentoring, training, and creating policies that help young people get a start on a farm or ranch.
  1. Where do they come from and what motivates them? New agrarians come from communities across America, urban as well as rural, and are motivated to take care of the planet and feed their neighbors. In contrast to the back-to-the-land movement of their parents’ generation, they are tech-savvy, business-minded, well educated, and highly collaborative. They are also quite aware of the challenges they face, including climate change. Many do not come from agricultural backgrounds, but instead entered agriculture because of an interest in local foods, environmental values, renewable energy, a desire to be physically active outdoors, or an interest in exploring new economic models.
  1. What works and what are the biggest obstacles ahead? A national survey conducted by the NYFC identified five programs/institutions that are successfully serving the needs of new agrarians: apprenticeship programs, local (community-scale) partnerships, the community supported agriculture (CSA) model, land-link programs that connect landowners with young people, and diverse educational/training programs. On the flip side, the five biggest obstacles standing in the way of new agrarians are lack of access to: start-up capital, land, health care, credit, and marketing/business planning skills.

New agrarians need our support.

In the words of young farmer Severine vT Fleming: “The need is urgent, and the message is clear – America needs more new agrarians, and more new agrarians want a piece of America. We know it will take millions of these rough-and-ready protagonists of place to care for our ecosystems and serve our country healthy food, but we are equally confident we have the skill sets and perseverance to tackle the challenges ahead.”

Courtney White is Executive Director and Avery C. Anderson is a CARLY Program Director with The Quivira Coalition.