NOW WHO WILL GROW THE FOOD?
“Pack it up Penelope,” teased my grandfather, dabbing a handkerchief at his sun-weary face. Her name was Ethel, but Ralph always called her “Penn-uh-lope.” Ethel climbed into the dusty pickup. Although heaped with furniture, the farm equipment and animals that had defined their lives for decades were absent. A sheer coral scarf obscuring her curlers, and bottle bottom glasses magnifying her watery gray eyes, Ethel blew her nose on her monogrammed hanky. Ralph closed her passenger door, and walked around the truck, his eyes scanning fallow cornfields, the newly painted barn, and then resting on his favorite horse, “Stubby,” mirroring his gaze. Ralph turned away and climbed behind the wheel next to Ethel. Still together, as couples used to be, and in silence, as they often were, they rolled down the long gravel driveway for the last time.
My grandparents retired from farming when they reached their seventies. Although strong from decades of toil, the elderly couple tired more quickly, their injuries lingered longer, and the cold bit more deeply. My father and his brother, urged by their wives, had left for better living in the city. Without heirs to the farm, the competition from the encroaching industrial agriculture and rising labor costs drove my grandparents into retirement. They held the knowledge of generations of farmers in their region. But now who would grow the food?
“Farm businesses, infrastructure, and/or the land they sit on are not getting passed down from generation to generation,” laments Betsie DeWreede, who began growing organic produce at Independence Valley Farm in Rochester, WA in 1982. She now grows colorful tulips sold at the Co-op. “Land prices are much higher in this area as land gets gobbled up for urban sprawl. It seems the only affordable land in Thurston County is either wetland or flood plain. Flood plains offer fertile soil but come with their own set of challenges.”
Amongst the strategies for preserving local agricultural sites are community land trusts. “Land trusts have had some success in offering land to new ventures,” DeWreede says. South of the Sound Community Farm Land Trust (SSCFLT) is one such organization. SSCFLT has leased Kirsop Farm’s 30 additional acres of fertile land in Rochester, called the Scatter Creek Farm and Conservancy. This new lease agreement is an example of a strategy meant to support farmers who are starting out or looking to expand, as it allows farmers to hold a renewable 99 year lease that gives the farmers, and potentially their heirs, affordable access to the land in perpetuity. The Scatter Creek project is also exciting as an opportunity to show that wildlife conservation, farmland preservation, incubating rural businesses, and providing employment can all be mutually beneficial efforts that enhance the community for all.
The SSCFLT and county reports have found that Thurston County has already lost 75% of its working farmland since 1950 and could lose another 32% by 2035. How can we support a local food economy without saving some of this farmland for a new generation of farmers? This spring, you can look for the opportunity to donate to SSCFLT’s important work by simply rounding up at the register during your Co-op shopping. You can also fill up your cart with fresh organic vegetables from local farmers who work with farmland trusts like Kirsop Farm.
Although my father left farming for college administration, we always lived on the outskirts of town where he could keep a garden and some chickens. I rode a squat little pinto pony until I could jump bareback onto a proper horse. Sun-drenched backyard tomatoes and rooster ballyhoo in the mornings imprinted farm life upon me as something fundamental to my wellbeing, and I’m grateful for it.
Sara Arlan is a young farmworker at Spring Creek Farm, which supplies the Co-op with herbs and vegetable starts. She learned about the farm job through a family friend, who knew of her interest in herbal medicine. “Herbal medicine is a huge passion of mine. I hope to have a property one day where the farm I run can be open to the public to learn off of, harvest off of, and it would be an honor to be able to feed those who can’t afford good produce.” The most difficult issue Sara faces is the seasonal nature of the work. “My job is only six months out of the year, and while I have other passions I am pursuing for income, it has been a challenge.”
While family and friends may introduce young people like Sara to farm work, many urban and suburban children don’t have a direct connection to cultivate an interest in agriculture. “Many kids don’t grow up knowing where their food comes from, and how it’s grown, and who grows it. There’s a big disconnect,” says Wade Arnold, Youth Programs Lead Educator at Garden Raised Bounty (GRuB). An award-winning Olympia non-profit, GRuB initiates projects to empower people to grow food.
“A big challenge that youth face is definitely the image of a farmer; unless young people see it as a sustainable income, and unless they’re exposed to farming in their youth, there’s little appeal comparatively speaking, to, say, the booming tech industry.” Still, Arnold recognizes this tech appeal as a backdoor opportunity to turn kids on to agriculture. “We live in a day (and) age where a slogan, a hash-tag, a picture of yummy looking food, or a celebrity shout-out can be a hot trending topic that rapidly spreads and keeps building the food justice movement.”
Arnold sees farmers gaining in status. “In certain circles, food justice is hip, it’s radical, it’s prideful.” The radicalization (meaning “getting to the root”) of agriculture has shown a great potential to energize young farmers. ”I’ve seen there’s an obvious growth in awareness of food quality and a passion for youth, especially youth of color, reclaiming their food sovereignty and food education,” says Arnold. “It’s urban, suburban, and rural.”
Growing public discontent with industrial food systems, and lack of corporate accountability to migrant workers and the environment are fueling a young farmer revolution in our midst. Working with young people has made Arnold hopeful, “The youth that I work with honestly get angry that the wool has been pulled over their eyes. All it takes is youth who are affected by atrocities to be a part of the solution.”
By Robyn Wagoner with Maureen Tobin, Staff Members