Beginning farmers from both sides of Lake Champlain gathered at the Grange Hall in the crossroads of Whallonsburg for a sort of mixer. The mixer was organized by the Greenhorns, a nonprofit group that works on behalf of young farmers. The day included area farm tours, workshops, food, a puppet show, and camaraderie. Typical old grange-style stuff. But it wasn't farm business as usual. Sarah Harris found the young farmers there were on a mission to change farming in America.
It’s a rainy Saturday in late June. The restored Whallonsburg Grangehall looks like a carnival has come to town: above the porch, a brightly colored hand-sewn tent flaps in the wind. Inside, volunteers are busying stringing the hall with with christmas lights, wild flowers and banners.
Today the grange’s original purpose has been revived: providing farmers a place for serious discussion, community work, and good plain fun.
The farmers at today’s gathering are a mixed bunch. Some are urban farmers up from Brooklyn—identifiable by their clean fingernails and arty tattoos. Some are apprentices from nearby farms, others have traveled from Vermont, the Hudson Valley, Massachusetts, and across the North Country.
Emily Jaquish is petite, dark-haired, and well spoken. She’s an intern on Full and By farm, just up the road. Although she grew up in Addison, Vermont, a farming community across Lake Champlain, she didn’t develop an interest in farming until studying conservation and working on a vegetable farm in Maine last year.
“I went to school for environmental conservation and just became interested in food and where it comes from and kind of got here that way," she said. "I’ve just been exposed to this whole farming world like within the last year I would say so it’s all still new to me."
But it’s not just young farmers at today’s event. There are older farmers too — some who have farmed for a long time, others who are just beginning to farm as a second career.
It’s a motley crew. Their leader: Severine Von Tscharner Fleming, an organizer who founded the Young Farmers Coalition and the Greenhorns. She’s zany and energetic, a farmer too, with lots of progressive thoughts about agriculture. Fleming say’s there’s no typical beginning farmer these days.
“The new entry farmers are a very diverse bunch. You know there’s punky people and there’s backwoods homestead people and there’s Christian people and there’s ‘we’re going to produce food for middle class families’ people and there’s social justice people and farm worker rights people," Fleming said. "Farming takes a lot of motivation and different people have different motivations but the motivation is real and a lot of times it has to do with a critique with how mainstream America is feeding itself and polluting the land and the water and the air.”
The grange hall is teeming with excitement and energy. Everybody’s having fun, and If this group is in any way representative of young farmers, then agriculture is changing. Farming seems, well, cool.
”We’ve kind of been throwing around the term
agricurious... seems kind of like a hip thing to do right now but I don’t think
that’s a bad thing,” Jaquish said.
The afternoon is filled with workshops about compost, weaving, and bicycle powered machines. Everybody’s excited to try something new.
Andy Wekin led the pedal powered workshop. He’s helping to cook tonight’s dinner, a roast pig, using a pedal powered bicycle machine he worked to design. Andy hopes small farmers will use his machine to generate their own power.
“We’ve been collecting sort of applications for it:
threshing is one, butter churn, cream separator, carding wool… One of the most
impressive ones is splitting logs," Wekin said.
After a screening of the Greenhorns documentary film and a recognition of beginning farmers in the audience, everybody gathers for dinner — a delicious assortment of local foods, says Kate Glenn, an intern on North Branch Farm.
Von Tscharner Fleming was articularly excited about the spit-roasted pig. "It's been on there for four and a half hours."
After dinner, a theater troupe takes the stage for a political puppet show. Everybody laughs as they play on buzzwords like sustainable and organic. It’s clear that this bunch of young farmers is trying to define themselves outside of mainstream agriculture. Are they homesteaders? Back to the land 2.0? Ecological entrepreneurs? Or something else?
Severine thinks young farmers are harbingers of big change: “The young farmers are a force to be reckoned with. And I think what we’re working on as a whole is the project of changing America—one farmer at a time, one town at time, one grain mill at a time, one pig roast at a time… You’re asking me do I think it’s a trend, no. I think it’s the leading edge of what’s to come.”
As the night draws to a close, “We are Jeneric,” a band from Altamont, plays what they call “magical fantastical folk pop.” People chat and laugh and dance—agricurious hipsters, old time farmers and everybody in between, all celebrating farming.
Sandra Ball, a Texas native and refugee health worker turned farmer, says they’re here to stay.
"Absolutely it’s real and a lot of people are doing it because they see the ills in our society and in the food system as a whole — we want to reclaim agriculture and we’re doing it because we’re ecologically literate, and we’re business savy and we’re damn ambitious, and so we’re out there, changing it, bit by bit," Ball said.