Agrarian Millennial – An Oxymoron?
Thanks to millennials and their unfettered online access to science, art and politics, global shifts around conscientious food production are accelerating.
Millennials, who follow Generation X, were born between 1980 and 2000. UrbanDictionary.com attributes “a strong sense of citizenship” to them and calls them “moral, confident, sociable, street smart, diverse.” Millennials grew up with the worldwide web, and for them, Facebook, Twitter and blogs have opened possibilities previously undreamed of.
Thanks to millennial farmers, Carbondale is affirming its place on the new “conscious food” map of the Roaring Fork Valley.
Last year, 24 year-old Sara Legg inherited Linda Halloran’s legacy as garden program manager at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School (CRMS). Told that she had big shoes to fill, Legg laughed out loud, replying that she has big feet! Like Halloran before her (whose accomplishments are legendary) Legg works the land, growing food and teaching a younger generation.
Legg’s Bachelor of Science in agricultural ecology from the University of Wyoming enables her to apply science and technology to the task of interpreting years of Halloran’s planting and harvest records. Now in her second growing season, Legg has integrated the data into spreadsheets. She’s learning the micro-climates and soils and growing more successfully this year.
Everything she grows feeds the campus. Legg and the chef determine what the coming growing season will look like based on prior successes and shortfalls. They grow extra lettuce for annual events. Students may eat more carrots and less kale.
It’s mid-season as this article is being written and Legg says, “I’m very tired.” Although her hours exceed her pay, she says she finds “a lot of wonder and hope and magic” in them.
Whitney Will, 23, was a backyard farmer long before she farmed for a living. Why? “I love to eat!” she says. “I get so much joy from cooking and cookbooks: Alice Waters, Nigel Slater.” The Faulkner ink scribed on a tattoo over Will’s ribs defines her: “I feel like a wet seed, hot in the wild, blind earth.” After serving as Legg’s assistant in 2014, Will landed the greenhouse and garden manager position at Roaring Gardens at TCI Lane Ranch for 2015.
Roaring Gardens is unique in that it’s the heart of a neighborhood planned around a farm, versus, say, a golf course. Because it’s fully funded, Will can experiment with her business approach. Rather than selling plant “starts” individually, she created a five-week distribution program, tackling the two main challenges her nursery customers face: what will survive and how to get it started. She’s excited about the database she created; it will not only allow her to cater production to customers’ individual tastes and lifestyles, it will also integrate with her Explorer Series, a free program that passes on info and recipes for oddities like the vegetable celeriac.
Merrill Johnson, 25, and Zac Paris, 30, raise heritage pork hogs and produce award-winning compost. For four years, they’ve implemented biodynamic and permaculture models on Merrill’s Family Farm at Cedar Ridge Ranch. They raise honeybees, Zebu cattle, chickens and rabbits. “We enjoy seeing all the diversity of a system working in harmony,” says Paris.
After growing food for a friend’s wedding, Casey Piscura, 29, passed on a river guiding job in New Zealand to start a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm in the Crystal River Valley. “Success to me is being happy, being fulfilled,” he says. “I was guiding Class V rivers and I was like, this is not… I’m not fulfilled. So I canceled my tickets and took off to the next adventure – and farming’s an adventure.” Casey started High Lonesome in 2014 but has recently changed its name. It’s now called Wild Mountain Seeds. “We didn’t want to be so high on lonesome, anymore,” he chuckles.
Millennials face many of the same marketing and profitability challenges that small farmers have faced for decades. For example, Piscura focuses on market crops and works 80-hour weeks. His friends complain that they miss him, but Piscura feels that he’s seeding more than just friendships; he’s growing healthy, clean food while preserving genetic seed banks and nurturing the land.
Wild Mountain Seeds is market-dependent, and that has him concerned. “Farmers markets don’t necessarily want to add another producer,” he says. “People aren’t there to buy produce. They want a fancy drink and some lunch.” Piscura runs a stand at the Basalt farmer’s market, and the Carbondale Beerworks, a significant customer of his, also lets him have a stand on Thursdays from 3 to 7 p.m. That allows the working stiff to tap into farm-fresh produce after work. (The Carbondale farmers market, held Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., sees little foot traffic because its hours conflict with workers’ schedules. In true millennial form, local residents have started a Facebook campaign to change those hours.)
Johnson and Paris have needed to pour outside money into their pig operation. “Our prices are well below the true cost and time it takes to get our products to market,” says Paris. Luckily, his company, Peace and Love Landscaping, provides additional income, but life/work balance becomes an issue.
Says Johnson, “We do what we love so we tend to forget to eat and to get out on the river… I remind myself to breathe and to practice self-love and self-care.”
None of these producers are certified organic. While the organic label differentiates produce and meats, the bureaucracy attached to certification turns many small farmers away. Says Piscura, “You’re better off knowing your farmer even if they’re not certified organic, but are organic and can tell you where they got their compost from.”
Will relies on relationships with other growers to forge ahead without USDA certification and without adhering the Organic Materials Review Institute’s guidelines. “In not being certified, I get to work more with local farmers, trading seeds and plants,” she says.
Clean, whole food is a spiritual thing to these millennial farmers. Piscura’s voice moves to awe as he describes life unfurling from a seed. Johnson reflects, “Every day more people are connecting with the natural world and their truest and highest self. They are learning that we are all connected. What we choose to eat and do are the truest reflections of ourselves and society.”
In their current jobs, both Legg and Will spend months working alone before interns are hired. Contrary to millennial stereotypes, the growers say they enjoy the extensive solitude. The plants speak to them.
Will relishes the reprieve from what she calls the pressure of “the comment culture,” social media. “I really enjoy being able to spend hours on my own, not worrying about opinions,” she says.
Piscura jokes about “broad fork meditation” – those farming tasks performed hours on end.
Commenting on younger interns and students who need music to get through it all, Legg bursts out, “I can’t think when they have their music on!”
The media has labeled millennials “entitled and lazy,” “tech-obsessed,” “over-educated and under-employed.” Far afield from these stereotypes, these grounded young people are undertaking humbling and worthy ventures. Like any generation, they wear the mantle of a cliché, but it doesn’t prevent them from finding dignity, purpose and fulfillment.