Regeneration: One Way or the Other, Millennials Must Learn How to Farm

Jessica Wang

Poly­faces—a doc­u­men­tary direct­ed by Lisa Heenan and Isae­bel­la Doher­ty — goes deep behind the scenes of Poly­face Farm, a cel­e­brat­ed fam­i­ly-run oper­a­tion locat­ed in Virginia’s Shenan­doah Val­ley. The film explores Polyface’s unique back-to-basics farm­ing tech­niques and gives a col­or­ful look at Joel Salatin and his fam­i­ly as they lead the effort toward sus­tain­able farm­ing and slow food.

Priz­ing trans­paren­cy, envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly prac­tices and the pro­duc­tion of chem­i­cal-free, clean” meat and eggs, Poly­face offers a strik­ing alter­na­tive to the pre­vail­ing mod­el of indus­tri­al­ized crop farm­ing and cor­po­rate agribusi­ness. Salatin has been named the most inno­v­a­tive farmer in the world” by TIME mag­a­zine, and was fea­tured in Michael Pollan’s best-sell­er The Omnivore’s Dilem­ma and the 2008 doc­u­men­tary Food, Inc.

Cur­rent­ly, less than 10 per­cent of the nation’s 2.1 mil­lion farm­ers have tran­si­tion plans to pass their land and busi­ness to the next gen­er­a­tion, and much has been made of the loom­ing cri­sis of America’s aging farmer. But at Poly­face Farm, Sheri Salatin, daugh­ter-in-law of Joel Salatin and mar­ket­ing direc­tor at the farm, has seen first­hand the grow­ing inter­est in sus­tain­able farm­ing from the youngest gen­er­a­tions. So in July 2014, she launched Eager Farmer — an online resource specif­i­cal­ly meant to bridge the gen­er­a­tional divide and give Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture a new way forward. 

The fol­low­ing inter­view has been slight­ly edited.

Jes­si­ca Wang: Talk about the Eager Farmer pro­gram — what moti­vat­ed you to start it?

Sheri Salatin: One of the things that we do at Poly­face is teach young — and I say young farm­ers, but I mean inex­pe­ri­enced farm­ers — how to do this kind of farm­ing and make a liv­ing at it. And we’d got­ten to the point where our intern­ship pro­gram had become quite pop­u­lar. But it was to the point that we were get­ting 260 appli­ca­tions for eight spots. Well, my heart lit­er­al­ly, as a mom, was break­ing for all of these young farm­ers that we were send­ing away. And it’s not as if they’re not amaz­ing, it’s because there wasn’t enough place for them. How can you pos­si­bly teach 260 stu­dents? On the flip side, we would have these old­er farm­ers com­ing in who had expe­ri­ence, and say, My chil­dren aren’t inter­est­ed in farm­ing, and I want to do it the right way, and I just can’t find anybody.”

And so that’s how Eager Farmer came to be: my pas­sion for get­ting these young peo­ple hooked up with men­tors, help­ing landown­ers who don’t want to farm to find farm man­agers, or peo­ple who have expe­ri­ence farm­ing but no land to get matched up… and then real­ly answer the ques­tion of the aging farmer. That’s the big ques­tion right now. The aver­age farmer is 70 years old — what’s going to hap­pen to all the farm­land? Where will our food come from?

An esti­mat­ed 400 mil­lion acres of farm­land in Amer­i­ca is going to change hands in the next 20 years. You’ve been try­ing to fig­ure out how to put a new gen­er­a­tion of farm­ers on the land. What have been the biggest obstacles?

First, I think that the inter­est is huge. I think the mil­len­ni­al gen­er­a­tion wants to make a dif­fer­ence, and they also want to be noticed. And they’re real­ly get­ting into this idea of clean food. They’re the first gen­er­a­tion we’ve had in a real­ly long time that is being taught that our nat­ur­al resources in the world are not going to last for­ev­er. So they’re becom­ing more and more con­scious of the envi­ron­ment and con­scious of what they eat and how it’s raised.

The big hur­dles are con­nect­ing both gen­er­a­tions and find­ing the right fit. The thing with some mil­len­ni­als, though of course not all of them, is that many of them are not will­ing to put in the hard work. They’re not will­ing to stick it out. Farm­ing is drudgery on cer­tain days — there will be days that nobody notices you. And there are some days where it flat-out stinks to be a farmer. So I think some of it will have to be a shift for them — to real­ize they’re going to find that inner strength to push and keep at it and be strong. But there’s also that old­er gen­er­a­tion that’s going to have to allow this younger gen­er­a­tion to get in and allow for their farm to look dif­fer­ent than they thought it would. Allow the trac­tors to be used in a dif­fer­ent way. In many of the events we hold at the farm, we see the bridge of those two gen­er­a­tions com­ing together.

What does this new gen­er­a­tion of eager farm­ers look like? I imag­ine most peo­ple have this stereo­typ­i­cal image in their head of a young per­son that’s part hip­pie, part envi­ron­men­tal activist.

Oh my good­ness, it’s insane how diverse they are. Today’s the first day we’re open for appli­ca­tions for interns. Here’s a quick gan­der at the peo­ple involved: I’ve got a father with two young chil­dren, ex-mil­i­tary, who wants to start some­thing new. I’ve got a young per­son who just turned 18, home-schooled his whole life. I’ve got a young lady has been around the world with the Peace Corps [who is] super inter­est­ed in set­tling down and doing some­thing dif­fer­ent. I’ve got anoth­er lady who’s sick of the rat race in cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca — she’s been sit­ting at a desk her whole life. This is just today. We have peo­ple from all kinds of walks of life and all kinds of demo­graph­ics and interests.

From what you’ve seen and heard, what is draw­ing these young peo­ple to farming?

The way that Poly­face does farm­ing is attract­ing the best and bright­est, because it’s more of an intel­lec­tu­al thing. It mar­ries the brawn with the brain. You have to be smart. And I’m not say­ing farm­ers are dumb, but in the past we’ve had this idea where if they can’t do any­thing else, let them farm’. But now, because of the com­pe­ti­tion that’s out there — because of the mar­ket, because of all these things — if you’re want­i­ng to real­ly car­ry your prod­uct all the way through (and not just do the pro­duc­tion side, but do the pro­cess­ing, dis­trib­ut­ing, mar­ket­ing — all four legs of it) you’ve got to real­ly have the savvy to com­pete and to be good enough to com­pete against the big guys. Because that’s who we’re com­pet­ing against.

Geo­graph­i­cal­ly, where have you seen the most interest?

Right now, it’s real­ly the out­er areas of the coun­try. I have not seen much break into our mid­dle crop belt — Kansas, Nebras­ka, Mis­souri, Iowa. But we’ve seen lots in Flori­da, New York, Cal­i­for­nia, Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, even Mon­tana, and Col­orado — but noth­ing in the real core cen­ter yet. I think it’s just hard­er because every­thing is already plowed up.

What’s been most reward­ing for you with your work at Poly­face and Eager Farmer?

The thing that I find most reward­ing is see­ing peo­ple real­iz­ing their dreams. And whether that is find­ing food that saves the life of their child, or find­ing some­thing that makes them so healthy that they’re then able to do all the things they always want­ed to do. Or it’s a young per­son find­ing their niche in the world — see­ing what real­ly makes them hap­py and ful­filled. Or it’s an old­er per­son being able to trans­fer their pas­sion for what they do, and see that shine out through the next gen­er­a­tion. That makes me get up in the morning.

Any spe­cif­ic sto­ries that have stuck with you?

Not maybe a month ago, I had a lady email me to tell me that her son has had severe aller­gies to the point where he almost had noth­ing to eat. Hor­ri­ble — you can­not imag­ine. But she was writ­ing to tell me that the broth that she makes from our chick­en and our beef is sav­ing his life. Because of the nutri­ents in it, and the lack of chem­i­cals, and the puri­ty in those prod­ucts that we raised for her is giv­ing him health. And she said she was so excit­ed, because it looked like for the first time in a very long time, he was final­ly going to be able to eat some of our chick­en. He’d been on our broth diet for a year and had been pro­gress­ing. Things like that, how could you not be excited?

Indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture still dom­i­nates the farm­ing land­scape — we’re talk­ing large-scale com­mod­i­ty crops, heavy use of chem­i­cal fer­til­iz­ers and pes­ti­cides, and meat pro­duc­tion in con­fined ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions. What’s the good news out there in sus­tain­able farming?

I think it’s real­ly excit­ing to see a grow­ing num­ber of fam­i­lies return­ing to the farm. And in the return to the fam­i­ly farm, it is also bring­ing back com­mu­ni­ties, and respon­si­bil­i­ty and going back to the din­ner table. My hope is that the gen­er­a­tion of dis­con­nect­ed­ness with our social media and com­put­ers and all of that will grad­u­al­ly start turn­ing back around to bal­ance itself. We’ve swung so far, I’m hop­ing as the pen­du­lum swings back to the cen­ter — that we’ll find that per­fect bal­ance of being able to stay in touch with peo­ple around the world and con­tin­ue the rela­tion­ship with a friend that moved away or what­not, but also have real-time, real-life, per­son-to-per­son rela­tion­ships. And with Eager Farmer, I’m excit­ed about see­ing some post­ings that have been out­side of just farm­ing. And that’s where we’re all going to be able to be involved in this. Because we need pho­tog­ra­phers, we need web­site design­ers, we need book­keep­ers, we need all of it.

A trail­er for the 2015 docum­n­tary direct­ed by Lisa Heenan and Isae­bel­la Doher­ty. (Film: Poly­faces: A World of Many Choic­es)

(“A New Way For­ward for Amer­i­can Agri­cul­ture” was orig­i­nal­ly post­ed on Bill​Moy​ers​.com and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion. You can fol­low the author of this inter­view on Twit­ter @j_k_wang.)

Jes­si­ca Wang start­ed her jour­nal­is­tic career in the fast-mov­ing world of sports report­ing, though quick­ly branched out into the gen­er­al news and edu­ca­tion beats for news­pa­pers in Shreve­port, Louisiana, and Stock­ton, Cal­i­for­nia. After stints at CBS Radio and the ABC News Inves­tiga­tive Unit, she found her home at PBS — spend­ing time at Wide Angle, NOW, and Front­line before join­ing the Bill Moy­ers team for a series of doc­u­men­taries and pro­grams. Her work there won an Emmy award and sev­er­al nom­i­na­tions. She then helped launch a new pro­gram with Ali Velshi at Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her first fea­ture-length documentary.
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