Some say the current revival of interest in agriculture began in the 1960s and ’70s, in California, at a time of burgeoning environmental and culinary awareness, in the days when Earth Day was born, chefs began buying organic produce directly from farmers, and young people thought of going back to the land. Others say its roots lay among African-Americans who in fleeing the South during the Great Migration brought their agrarian roots to cities that today are the leading centers of urban agriculture. Some say the world’s first rooftop farm opened in Brooklyn in 2009. Others say the claim more likely goes back a couple thousand of years, to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
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No matter the twists and turns along its 12,000-year-old history, one thing is clear: Agriculture is undergoing a major revival. It’s seen in the annual double-digit gains in organic food sales, in the more than 12,000 Community Supported Agriculture farms that have appeared in the 30 years since their U.S. debut, and in the way consumer demand for locally grown food far outstrips supply. It’s seen, too, in the fact that sustainable food programs are the fastest growing majors at many universities and farm internships are highly competitive. But while these examples prove agriculture’s revival, they do not help to explain it.
For that, it’s useful to look back about a decade when something in the world shifted. In 2007, as the iPhone debuted and locavore was named word of the year, the global financial crisis began. At the same time, food riots broke out in many countries over dramatic increases in prices, largely the result of market speculation in food commodities and of drought, a sign of the instability that climate change portends. Furthermore, by 2009, in a historical first, the number of people living in cities surpassed those in rural areas worldwide.
At that time, something shifted for me, too. I had grown up in rural Indiana on a multigenerational family grain farm, and, as the first in my family to graduate from college, I had done what most farm kids do once educated: left for a job elsewhere. I had been living in New York City for a long time, and on a spring afternoon in 2009 I joined 3,000 others at the inaugural Brooklyn Food Conference to hear speakers I liked discuss local food and sustainable farming. There I saw a panel called “So you want to be a farmer?” that had drawn — inexplicably, stunningly to me — a standing-room-only crowd. That so many young urbanites wanted to be farmers, that they sought what people like me had worked so hard to leave behind, felt like a rejection of my whole life’s trajectory.
To live in New York City over the last decade was to come face-to-face with the farm roots I had spurned. It was to see agriculture take on a newfound cultural prominence as food and farm-related events became trendy and urbanites treated their farmers like celebrities. It was to hear a woman on the Upper East Side ask a renowned chef, breathlessly, what inspiration he drew from his farmers. It was to hear a New York University professor explain how food now has replaced music as the aesthetic choice of a generation, so young people today come of age and define themselves by drinking kombucha and shunning soda, in the same way previous generations defined themselves by preferring Tupac to Eminem or the Beatles to the Rolling Stones.
It was to hear cookbook author Mark Bittman speak to a packed college gymnasium in downtown Brooklyn, sharing a list of ills: 80 percent of antibiotics used today are given to animals; sugar is the tobacco of the 21st century; more than a trillion dollars have been spent on making us eat food that’s bad for us. It’s to hear his suggested solutions to these problems draw applause, and Bittman stop to ask, “Is anyone here not in the Food Movement?” and to be surprised when a few people actually raise their hands.
It was to find a large, sell-out crowd in the East Village come to hear the writers Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson discuss the future of agriculture, a gathering that Berry noted “wouldn’t have been imaginable a decade ago.” It’s to hear the event’s host say that “the era of large-scale, industrial-based, chemically intensive, fossil-fuel-powered farming” — the very kind my own family takes part in — “is now recognized as among the greatest threats to the environmental stability and ecological health of the planet.” It’s to hear Jackson, of the Land Institute in Kansas, say that we need to use “nature as a standard or as a measure against which we judge our agricultural practices” and to hear a crowd uproariously applaud.
It’s to see city people lamenting that agriculture has been lost from their lives — and realizing that the loss of connection to food stands for a profound loss of human connection, too. It’s to be startled to discover that in dense city centers, unlike isolated rural areas and suburban regions, the public square is alive and well. At farmers markets, New Yorkers procure what they need — all the meat, fish, eggs, dairy, vegetables, flowers, honey, pasta, bread, beer, wine and grains — directly from the people who farm and fish and brew and bake it, as church groups set up tables alongside yoga studios, and local politicians come to meet the people they represent.
It’s to learn that agriculture is a major threat to biodiversity. That a third of our global population suffers from malnutrition; that for the first time in history diet-related chronic diseases kill more people than contagion. That our current industrial agriculture system is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants, and uses vast amounts of energy.
Above all, to be a former farm kid in New York City over the last few years was to be inspired by people who believe that humans transform the world through eating more than anything else we do. It was to be challenged by the energy of people choosing anew a way of life I both deeply love and had rejected, people looking to agriculture and admiring a profession we humans have historically demeaned.
To be in New York City these last few years was to meet young people who had come to agriculture through global experiences, who, for instance, after working with female farmers in Africa had returned to discover a need for development at home, too. It was to witness the powerful leadership of people of color who believe healthy bodies and vibrant communities should not be an upper-class luxury or racial privilege, that access to healthy food and clean water is a fundamental human right.
It’s to learn that this new approach to agriculture is best defined not as organic or sustainable but agroecological and regenerative. It’s farming as a way to regenerate our soil, our communities and ourselves.
For undergirding the resurgence of agriculture is a profound feeling that something is broken — that we are broken. That in this country founded upon genocide and slavery, we have never had a food system that worked without exploiting someone, not even yet today as we rely on low-paid workers, often immigrants, to grow and harvest and transport and serve so much of our food. That we have fed ourselves in a way that has warmed our climate, poisoned our water and washed away our soil; that we have fed ourselves in a way that isolated farmers and decimated rural economies so that communities have died and schools have closed (as the one in my hometown of New Harmony did in 2012), and that now too few people remain in the countryside even to tend to their cemeteries.
In this need for healing, many young people who came of age during the Great Recession have found a calling. In the act of agriculture, they have found creativity, fulfillment, responsibility and empowerment, beholden to time measured in seasons rather than computer screens’ false urgencies, bringing joy and health to people who in buying from you look you in the eyes and trust you with their lives.
This is how I found myself in a class for aspiring farmers near Manhattan’s City Hall, looking toward the future and facing down the past. It’s how I found myself in Farm School NYC, a two-year certificate program in urban agriculture co-founded by Karen Washington (profiled in Food, Farms and Family). It’s how I met people across the five boroughs of New York City and throughout the Hudson River Valley, who, in their humility and hard work and reverence for each other and for the land, reminded me of the friends and family in rural Indiana I had left behind.
For, as I’ve heard a food justice activist say, “If we don’t get this right, we don’t get anything right.” Because how we feed ourselves dictates everything: the health of ourselves, our children, our relationships, our communities. Because in a world where so much divides us, nothing can join us together again like gathering around a table and breaking bread.
Andrea Crawford, a journalist who recently moved from New York City to South Bend, is writing a memoir to be published by Avery/Penguin.