Who Is the Modern American Farmer?

What to eat. What not to eat.
April 26 2013 8:18 AM

The Modern American Farmer

Today’s new farmers aren’t just white hipsters.

Farmer loading a grain truck in Illinois.
Bill Raben loads a grain truck as he helps harvest corn on land he farms with his brother near Carmi, Ill.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

A new magazine hit newsstands last week, and, given the state of print media, that fact alone is notable. But the launch of this magazine also reflects a significant shift in American culture. Its cover resembles that of a design publication: It’s matte-printed on thick paper stock, and it features an arty photograph of a rooster so close up as to appear life-size. The bird’s deep red comb against the dramatic black background directs readers’ eyes upward to where, in an elegant font, the magazine’s title appears: Modern Farmer.         

What kind of person is a modern farmer? That question has been on my mind since I walked last fall into the first meeting of New York City’s Farm Beginnings—a class taught, implausibly, in an old office building amid the concrete canyons of lower Manhattan. Nearly three dozen aspiring farmers gathered every other Saturday over four months to participate in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded program to support new farmers. Each developed a business plan, most in preparation to buy or lease land within 200 miles of New York City to meet the requirements for selling at the city’s greenmarkets. The majority of students were minorities and first-generation Americans, immigrants both newly arrived and long established, in their 30s, 40s, and 50s (a fact that sheds light on why the National Young Farmers’ Coalition defines “young” in farming as anyone who has been doing it for less than 10 years). And they reinforced how the dominant stereotypes of farmers—either a white, rural corn farmer in a state that starts with the letter “I” (the kind hailed in Dodge’s much-lauded “So God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl ad), or a hip, white, urban grower on the East or West coast (the kind of person to whom Modern Farmer seems to be marketed)—fail to convey the diverse reality of the country’s changing agricultural landscape.

Farm Beginnings is one of several educational initiatives serving a growing interest in farming. Aspiring farmers vie for coveted apprenticeships at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, whose annual Young Farmers Conference gathers some 250 beginning farmers to learn sustainable farm practices (and last fall sold out in less than two days). And Farm School NYC, a two-year-long certificate program that features courses on propagation, crop planning, irrigation, animal husbandry, and more, attracted so many applicants in its first two years that its selectivity rate matched that of an Ivy League college.

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When the first Farm Beginnings class convened, among its students were a few fitting the hipster stereotype: young, white, Brooklyn-based, wearing ’80s vintage glasses, and working in fashion or design. But they were outnumbered. When students introduced themselves, they cited countries of origin such as Haiti, Guyana, Sierra Leone, Ecuador, India, Turkey, China, Hong Kong, and Canada, prompting one woman—a spoken word performer from Staten Island—to exclaim, “We have the whole world here!”

But unlike programs that seek to help new immigrants launch agricultural businesses, this class attracted many highly educated and long-established first-generation Americans. Among my classmates was Suresh Murugiyan, a software engineer in his 40s, who emigrated from India in 2000 and lives in Queens. His father, also an engineer, had been the first in the family to forgo a life of farming and move to a city. But as a child, Murugiyan often visited his grandparents, most memorably during the annual Tamil agricultural festival of Pongal, and as a result he has long felt the urge to farm. “It is something I want to do,” he says, “something I want to do which my ancestors did.” As he learned about organic farming—and realized the market potential of a South Asian community that, like many others, is becoming more conscious about eating healthy, locally grown food—Murugiyan understood that the small-scale, greenhouse-based farming he finds appealing could be economically viable in the suburbs of New York City. Another classmate, a Turkish emigrant who runs a grocery store in Brooklyn, wants to farm not only because he sees firsthand the demand for such artisanal products as chestnuts but also because he wants to share with his new countrymen the taste and quality of the produce he ate as a child. After 20 years in the U.S., he has saved the capital to buy farmland in New Jersey.

American-born minorities made up a decent portion of Farm Beginnings students, too. Some class members described a desire to restore African-American traditions: to help bring black farmers back from the brink of extinction, reconnect urban youth with agrarian values, and reclaim farming from its association with slavery and sharecropping. Says Michelle Hughes, former director of Farm Roots at GrowNYC and the class co-instructor, “They’re looking to reconnect with where their food comes from and with nature. And because African-Americans have that history—the stigma of the soil—it’s healing.”

Many came to agriculture through an interest in food systems and social justice. They included young men and women who believe organically grown local food should be available to people of all races and income levels. Such activists believe the U.S. food system needs to get out from under the control of multinational corporations, and that a warming planet demands sustainable, regional food systems. To make these things happen, they seek careers in farming.

The students in New York City’s first Farm Beginnings class represent a new chapter of an enduring American story. Immigrants and ethnic minorities have always gone into farming—some against their will, some willingly. But in an important way, this is a different version of that story. When software engineers from India and social justice activists from the South Bronx want to enter agriculture, something has changed in American culture. Farming’s new cachet is impossible to deny—and its appeal is more widespread than many cynics believe.

Modern Farmer, to its credit, acknowledges that renewed interest in agriculture isn’t limited to upper-middle-class coastal progressives (even if they dominate the community-supported agriculture membership to whom half the first issue’s print run was distributed for free). Among three American growers profiled in the first issue, only one conforms to that stereotype: Mark Firth, a former Brooklyn restaurateur who now owns a farm and a restaurant in Massachusetts. The other two look a lot like the people I met in Farm Beginnings:  Juan Murillo, the son of a former farm laborer, who grows fruit and vegetables organically on a half-acre of land he leases through the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association in Monterey County, Calif., and Kelvin Graddick, a 24-year-old African-American with a computer science degree who revived a farmers cooperative in Georgia founded by his grandparents. The only farming demographic missing from Modern Farmer’s pages, in fact, is the rural, Midwestern old guard.

It remains to be seen whether any farmer will subscribe to a magazine that, at first glimpse, looks like an over-the-top romanticization of agriculture (and one that’s probably too expensive for many actual farmers to buy). Some of the farmers I know have expressed skepticism about its usefulness to them even as they admire its prettiness. The magazine’s deputy editor, Reyhan Harmanci, acknowledged in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that the magazine’s “core audience probably won’t be farmers, necessarily.” But even as the magazine’s assumptions about its readers may hew to stereotypes about urban foodies—there’s a how-to on growing cocktail ingredients, and a fashion spread featuring a $320 sunhat from Barneys—its representations of farmers are, thankfully, rightly diverse.

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Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Andrea Crawford is a New York City-based journalist, writer, and former magazine editor.

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