We recently had the great pleasure of speaking with farmer, activist and professional organizer Severine von Tscharner Fleming. This woman is a force of nature for the Millennial generation. Not only is Severine a farmer herself, when Rootstock Radio host Theresa Marquez spoke to her in mid-2015, she was also on the boards of directors for FOUR organizations that she either founded or co-founded, all working toward shared missions to recruit, promote and support the next generation of young farmers.
These organizations are the Greenhorns, which is best known for its film of the same name; Farm Hack, an online, open-source platform for affordable farm tools and technologies for young farmers; the National Young Farmers Coalition, which now has 23 state and regional coalitions; and her latest startup, Agrarian Trust, which focuses on land access for beginning farmers.
We can’t wait to see what she does for our food and farming system in the next few decades. Please enjoy this great conversation with Severine.
Rootstock Radio Interview with Severine von Tscharner Fleming
August 17, 2015
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome back to Rootstock Radio. I recently had the great pleasure to speak with farmer, activist, and organizer Severine von Tscharner Fleming. This young woman is truly a force of nature for the millennial generation. While Severine has actually founded or co-founded four different organizations, she’s best known for founding The Greenhorns, a group helping young people choose farming as a career. Please welcome Severine.
TM: Welcome, Severine.
SEVERINE VON TSCHARNER FLEMING: Thank you for having me.
TM: I’m so delighted. You are a very young lady and are doing some remarkable things, and you have been doing them for many, many years. So I am so curious: What led you to the journey that you’re on now?
SF: Well, I think ultimately a love of plants and animals. Specifically cows were, I think, my gateway animal into agriculture. My childhood, I spent every summer growing up on a dairy farm that was in my mother’s family, where there was dairy and then cherry trees. So, you know, the dappled shade on the flank of a happy lady…
TM: What made you want to start Greenhorns, and how did you come up with that great name?
SF: Well, I saw all the corporate money flowing into UC–Berkeley, and the agenda that was set there for resource extraction and for synthetic biology and genetic engineering. And I saw the activism that grew up to confront that agenda. But I saw kind of the public at large not seeing how we could have an alternative.
And so that was the basic, that remains the basic premise of Greenhorns, is let’s welcome young people into agriculture. Let’s cherish them right from the beginning, let’s get them the skills that they need, let’s help [make] sure they have a good mentality as they enter the trade of agriculture. Because it is quite humbling to enter into agriculture, especially from a non-ag background. Like you really have to learn so much, all at once, and you’re at the very bottom rung of a system.
TM: Well, what about the young people who are the sons and daughters of the conventional farmers right now? Of course, they’re leaving conventional farming in droves. Do you envision them as part of The Greenhorns?
SF: Yeah, well, we’ve been in the first part of our work very, very focused on young organic farmers and people entering in through apprenticeship and being trained by the kind of hippie generation of organic farmers. But we’ve recently started engaging more with the FFA crew, so that’s Future Farmers of America crew. And so last year we showed up at the FFA convention, which is sponsored by Monsanto, and you know, the keynote speaker—
TM: Cargill and—
SF: —is Tyson. And really it’s a terrible waste of a lot of young people’s time, to be frank. I mean, they’re teaching them how to be spokespeople for a future that undermines the economic prospects of these young people. So I’m interested to engage there. I see that there are young people who are critical of the system. They see their parents going into deeper and deeper debt; they see consolidation; they see their towns emptying out of people, and the churches empty, and the high schools having to consolidate. You know, they’re kind of no fools. So I see those kids as a tremendous opportunity.
TM: You know, it’s really clear that we’re in a very difficult time where we have this sort of a, I guess I’m going to call it a conflict or a dichotomy between different agricultures: a conventional agriculture that touts this is the only way we can feed the world, and then an alternative agriculture. And then, for those of us who have been in the food and farming movement for, I’m going to say forty years now, we are just constantly feeling kind of sad and almost cynical. And I can’t tell you how much The Greenhorns, how much hope that they’re infusing back into the way that we’re thinking about the work that we’ve been doing and what we need to keep doing. I mean, how do you see your role here?
SF: Well, so in the beginning, Greenhorns, we were really focused on celebrating young people because we really felt that that morale-boosting and the sense of togetherness and the sense of potential… It was pretty important that we would be able to sustain a life like that. And so we were really focusing on youth culture and mixers and networking.
But then this last year we really started focusing on the Grange and organizing within Granges. And we just kind of kept finding ourselves in the Grange. And I feel like the character of the young farmers movement now, first of all, a whole bunch of us are all popping out babies, but it’s becoming more intergenerational as we kind of move forward, so that we are still super welcoming young ones and focused on that early career, but recognizing the knowledge transfer and the dynamism of an intergenerational collaboration—keeping it going, seeing the long future, and seeing that longer history, and elongating our kind of time horizon of this work. So actually this is a moment where every time I see someone with white hair, I’m plopped right down, because they’re the ones who run these Granges.
TM: And, you know, some of our listeners might not know what a Grange, if they haven’t lived in rural. And of course, you know, mostly everyone lives in the city now. Maybe you would say a little bit about the Grange and why it’s such a good symbol for what you’re trying to do.
SF: It’s a great symbol. It’s an amazing lineage. It’s also an institution which has tremendous, wonderful real estate held in a commons. So the Grange was founded in 1867 by Oliver Kelley, who was a reformer. He was part of the kind of agricultural society movement, interested in scientific agriculture and improvement, and you know improvement of the land—at that time, you know, cover cropping and conservation tillage. So the Grange grew out of an appreciation for the potential of American agriculture, but grew into power along a set of populist principles.
So this is a family farm economy that is at the center of basically a community—it’s basically a community center that has a social aspect, an economic aspect, and a political aspect. So you have the kinship, you have the gossip, you have everyone rubbing elbows together for harvest events and for lectures and for touring musicians and kind of civic discourse. You also have then the vessel that can hold a radical political perspective. And the Grange really exercised its muscle in that way.
The Grange grew to a membership of almost a million within a decade of its founding, and that growth reflected the farmers’ need to come together to organize against the Monsanto of yesteryear, which was at that time the consolidated railroads and the speculators and the price distortion and the monopoly practices and the vertical integration and cheating—systemically cheating the farmers for their price on the grain. So the farmers were betrayed by the railroads and organized to force the state to regulate this unchecked power of the railroad industry. And those are called the Granger Laws. They’re still on the books; it’s some of the best infrastructure we have in our legal system against monopoly.
The Grange grew into the Populist movement. They were interested in currency reform. They were very involved with the suffrage movement. In 1909 they succeeded, after a long campaign, to get free rural mail delivery. They understood farmers need information and they need access to information to their door—they didn’t always have to go to town or to the shopkeeper in town. So the Grange, anyway, is the longest, is the oldest agricultural organization in the U.S. It’s older than the Farm Bureau, and in fact the Farm Bureau was formed as a counterforce. And the original partners in the Farm Bureau were Chicago Board of Trade. So the Farm Bureau has always been the voice of agri-business. And again, this is a history you have to really dig around to figure it out, because Farm Bureau did a really good job at the business of selling insurance. And so, so many of us, even though we really disagree with the politics of the Farm Bureau and their lobbying, are members because of the insurance.
So the Grange was an infrastructure that grew out a whole cooperative movement as well. And so that’s kind of the framework that we’re operating from as a young farmers’ world, is here’s an institution with a really radical history, very long-lasting as a social form, and whose infrastructure, like these community halls, these church— They’re basically like a church. You know, there’ s a little piano, there’s a kitchen, there’s a stage, there’s chairs. That’s the space you need to organize anything.
TM: Pretty basic.
SF: That’s the space you need to organize a buyers club, cooperative daycare, purchasing, inputs for your farm cooperatively. If you have a space like that, you can organize.
TM: Well, thank you so much for this history lesson, because I didn’t know that about the Grange, although I have gone by old Granges and wondered, “I wonder what happened there, in there?” And I noticed a few old signs and I knew that this was a Grange building. But thank you so much for that history. I think it’s fascinating, and what a great, I guess, model for what we’re trying to do here.
I’m taken with the fact that the Grange was multidimensional. It wasn’t just about agriculture and farming. If I heard you correctly, you said daycare, music shows. It’s a gathering of the community. It’s a way of bringing the people who are in a geographical area together to talk about the things that matter to them. And so how do you see the Greenhorns as… You know, what are the things the Greenhorns have done? You did a movie. What are some of the other things that you think you’ve done to really bring back that feeling of community around something that’s really meaningful?
SF: Well, yeah, and we didn’t have that Grange, we didn’t have a physical form. You know, we’re the Internet generation, so Greenhorns, we’ve been working on the Internet—
TM: The Internet Grange!
SF: And so, you know, we started with a documentary film. We have a very, very active blog. We published an anthology, and now we’ve published two versions of The New Farmer’s Almanac. So that’s kind of like a literary journal/miscellany of young-farmer writings. We have a weekly podcast. We’ve done digital mapping. We’ve done a lot of art stunts and collaborations like public programming, networking events, weed dating, a lot of short videos for Our Land about solutions-based activism. We published a series of guidebooks.
This summer we’re doing another fun boat project. We do these kind of art stunt projects to raise the visibility and bring into kind of a public performance some of the project of re-regionalizing our food system. So we call it a “pageant of logistics,” but we’re basically sailing cargo, agricultural cargo, from Maine to Boston, along the coast—or as you say, “up the coast” to Boston. So last year we did one down the Hudson from Vermont to Manhattan; we sold $60,000 worth of regional food products.
TM: So describe—you put it on a barge—
SF: You bring the food, mostly nonperishable—actually all nonperishable, so potatoes, grains, beans, maple syrup, honey, carrots, pickles, kimchi, salted caramels. We’re bringing cashmere goat pelts. And we load up the boat, and it’s a 134-foot schooner called the Harvey Gamage, and we’re just going to sail to Boston. So we’re going to celebrate regional trade and kind of imagine what a more regional food economy would look like, and how delightful it is to have a value chain where you know each step along the way, where you have transparency, where you have trust. You know, when we have such a Cisco Foods, opaque, distorted global economy, let’s just make kind of like a ballet project or like a performance.
TM: I like this idea of integrating the arts with agriculture and using it as an expression. I think I want to ask you, you know, thinking about this art stunt of the food and the boat and a lot of what you’re doing: How would you describe your primary audience? And what are you hoping they’ll do?
SF: Well, you know, our kind of core constituency is people who are in the beginning of their farming career, so young people who are organic farm apprentices—keeping them in it for enough time that they’re addicted for life. That would be the core audience. Then the larger culture, you know, making sure that the choice to farm is acceptable and lauded in mainstream culture. And then just young people—you know, “Dear young people, the future needs you. Roll up your sleeves.” That’s kind of the core, I think, the core of this—and, you know, that basically you’re welcome here. This agrarian movement, this young farmers movement, this organic farming movement, this back-to-the-land movement, this new economy movement, ethical trade, re-regionalizing—you know, all the infrastructure that it’s going to take to rebuild a resilient rural and urban food system. It’s a lot of work and we need you, and we’d love you here. And when you’re here, you’ll see how fluid and transparent and reciprocal and generous it is to be in this culture. You know, once you’ve been in it and immersed, and you’ve felt it, that’s it!
TM: I have this feeling sometimes that I’m living in an extraordinary time in that I believe that we all have extraordinary work to do. And I think that’s what I’m hearing you say, too, that we need moral courage. We need to find it wherever we are. And I’m thrilled to see this so embedded in this movement of young people to do this. I would really like you to tell us about what your current project is that you’re working on.
SF: Yeah, and it’s interesting, because it really grows out of that inside of the Grange is a cultural commons, and the real need that we have in the young farmer world for better access to land. So after Greenhorns, I was also a co-founder of the National Young Farmers Coalition, which is now I think 27 state chapters operating in a policy-advocacy context mostly, but also social gatherings; and then Farm Hack, which is an open-source exchange for farm technologies, farmhack.net. So it’s kind of like a Wikipedia for open-source farm tools. And so, again, these are all different parts of the puzzle, and there are many other parts.
One thing we kept noticing, or I kept noticing, as I’m radioing and videoing and traveling and speaking and documenting and celebrating and gathering essays from young farmers, is just how many people are farming precariously—on a lease, on a handshake deal, on land they don’t own, on the neighbor’s land, with an old lady or a young guy who owns it, and nothing on paper. And that the economics of running a farm, starting a farm, capitalizing a farm business, starting a young family; on top of that, having to afford land at these historically high prices, is actually just not feasible. And so even some of our best farmers in this country who are shipping 80 hogs a week, you know, to Chez Panisse and Whole Foods, or doing 135 acres of organic vegetables to account up and down the Midwest, or our true champions who are incredible operators, they just can’t afford to have security on the land.
And what’s going on is a continuing consolidation of farmland ownership. What’s going on is the retirement of current farm owners. And what’s going on is a boom in land prices and land grabbing, and the financialization of farmland on the global economy. And so, exactly in this moment where you have a new generation with powerful momentum, working to rebuild the soil, rediversify the landscape, re-regionalize the food economy, you have uncertain ground, unstable footing for this new economy. And actually the figures are terrifying. It’s 400 million acres of land is due to change hands in the next 20 years, so—
TM: Yeah, the aging of the American farmer is a reality that we’re facing deeply right now, with not a lot of solutions.
SF: Yep, and that land will transfer. And so that amount of land, you know, that’s the size of the Louisiana Purchase which, when Jefferson signed that purchase agreement, it was very controversial. And it’s not yet controversial in this country that that much land is changing hands, and that 30 percent of us, it’s predicted, in the next ten years, to be obese or diabetic, where so many people care about what their kids eat and so many people care about the health of their food, and yet we are held hostage by this agro-industrial junta of lobbyists. And you know, it’s ecocide. They’re spraying 280 million acres of land a year with glyphosate in this country. Anyway—
TM: And now glyphosate and now 2,4-D, the famous dicamba cocktail.
SF: Right. So anyway, so this amount of land is moving. And we haven’t as a nation got our mojo together to recognize where we want this land to go. We want this land to go into regional food production. We want this land to be healthy. We don’t want this land tiled and draining nitrogen into our river system and destroying our Gulf and destroying our fisheries. We’ve got to focus on solutions to access for these young people who are ready to spend their lives doing work that is not well remunerated, to heal this land.
We worked with the Sustainable Economies Law Center to design what is essentially a farmland commons, based on the model that I learned about in France, which has now 112 organic farms that are basically owned by a cooperative. So it’s a cooperative ownership—the farms are not owned by the farmers. The farmers have a life lease, so they have all the benefits of ownership, all the security of ownership, but the cost of the land is removed from the equation. And there are rules: you can’t degrade the land; you can’t mine the topsoil off the land and sell it; you can’t cut down all the trees and move away. You have to farm it organically, and you can only sell what you grow to a local market.
So it’s essentially, the project that we’re on now, besides raising this issue and raising it in many different spheres, including the policy sphere, where we’re actually going to need to get the traction, the project is also to build almost like a sanctuary for local food sovereignty.
TM: That’s a beautiful idea and a brilliant concept, and I hope that you’re going to truly get that awareness raised, but also convene a lot of groups around you who are going to be supporting this, including the public. I’m always struck with how much we can grow in the Midwest, and yet we don’t have a market there. So when we think about what local is, we’re going to have to expand a little bit. You know, what do we really want that’s local? What do we don’t mind coming a little bit further away? What will we put up with very far away?
And of course, this remarkable time that we’re in of shifting sands with climate. We don’t even know yet, I don’t think, how it’s going to reshape us or rethink about it. Does your group find ways that you integrate this idea of climate change and global warming into the way you’re thinking about what you’re doing?
SF: Totally. And who owns the land matters deeply when it comes to climate resilience. You know, when you look at absentee ownership in the U.S., absentee ownership lines up exactly with commodity for export and larger acreage and more chemical-intensive, and these brittle ecologies, which we’ve seen in the past five years this incredible crisis—hundreds and thousands of acres not planted. We’ve spent, in the last ten years, $60 billion—it’s actually $58 billion in the last ten years—on crop insurance in this country, bailing out these people who are growing crops and cropping systems that are not adapted to the changing climate. And there isn’t really a capacity to adapt, because you’ve got guys out there for 24 hours a day on these mega tractors, trying to get it all in. So you don’t have the flexibility that you have in a…
You know, in community fisheries they call it fleet diversity. You want small, you want medium, and you want large. It’s like good soil—you want aggregates of many sizes. And that’s been, what’s been pushed out is the farms of the middle scale. What’s been amazing is to see how small farms like beginning startup farmers are able to scale from an acre, two acres, to 40, 50, 60, 70 acres of vegetables, 100 acres of vegetables. Even just in seven years it’s really common for people to be growing 20, 30, 40 percent, stepping it up, because the demand is there for vegetables, for pastured pork, for pastured poultry, for pastured beef. And quickly moving out of vegetables-only into a more diversified farm system. I mean—
TM: Mm-hmm, the old-fashioned farm.
SF: The old-fashioned farms are growing fast, and growing into medium-scale farms. And the places where that has been… You know, I’ve been spending a lot of time in northern Maine, or Down East Maine, and northern New York, like in the Adirondacks, Champlain Valley. Greenhorns is based in the Champlain Valley. And we have 50 new farms up there, six hours from New York City. And the reason is that land is cheap, and there’s great, sweet, brick farmhouses, beautiful views, fabulous hayfields, and it’s affordable. So more and more young people… You know, if you can’t figure out how to be part of a nonprofit or a land trust or some sweet deal closer in to the city and closer in to the market, well then you’re going to go out more rural. Same with northern Michigan, Nebra— I mean, there’s all these super rural young farmers.
And that’s where that whole question about the regional economy comes in, because if you’re out in super rural, you’re not going to be hustling the farmers market; you’re not going to be spending your whole summer serving tourists or yoga moms or whatever. You’re going to have to be figuring out how to add value on the farm, store up your cash flow to sell all year, and work more collaboratively in logistics to get that product to market. Because basically the easy pickings for farmers markets and vegetables CSAs, a lot of that has been saturated now. And so if you want to build a business, you’re going to figure out something other than lettuce to grow.
TM: I’m very inspired by what you’re doing. I think it’s beautiful and it also acknowledges something that Mary Cleaver said to us, and that was people want to help. If we have something very specific to do, we want to help. And certainly we’re in a major part of our lives that we have to see change, and see change pretty fast. So I’m so thrilled that you are doing what you’re doing. But I want, for the listeners, if they want to contact you to speak, or another Greenhorn, how do they go about doing that?
SF: Oh, they could email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Yeah, you know, the help goes both ways. I feel so blessed to operate inside of a movement, and to see life growing and see farms growing and see the complexity and elegance and reciprocity deepening in this movement. So, I don’t know, I think we’re all helped by helping each other.
TM: What a busy young woman! For those of you who want to make a donation, I’m confident it will be well used. I want to thank Severine for her passion and for all the fantastic work she’s doing.
Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.