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making farming attractive

By Matt Love

I was posed with an intriguing challenge for this youth-themed issue of In Good Tilth: write a column making organic farming attractive, even sexy to the younger generation.. Sell the sizzle of raising hormone free steak. Make cultivating the soil take root in the desiccated age of Paris Hilton. I accepted the challenge, but after a few misfires, came to believe it was the wrong one to confront.

If organic farming is ever to become a life choice for youth to embrace with revolutionary zeal, then the choice must starkly contrast with the superficial and unsustainable careers that are being hyped. Forget about trying to make organic farming sexy. Start showing how it can change your state, your country, your body, and your own soul, for the better.

Going back to the land, becoming an organic farmer, embracing a rural existence, sacrificing big city amenities, growing food that nourishes bodies and local economies, wading into the stream of a fully ecological life – all stand in stark contrast to the ephemeral nature of what constitutes many young American lives today. I have observed this ephemerality myself over the course of teaching 13 years in Oregon secondary schools. Frankly, a severe hunger exists out there, and I’ve seen it present in rural, suburban and urban schools.

If we could just offer our youth a glimpse of this contrast, or better yet, a taste, I believe many of them would take up farming. And when I write, “we” I mean our schools, universities, Oregon Tilth, organic farms, the state, foundations, any group interested in seeding that revolution. And yes, this “we” could even be celebrities or rock bands who care about the principles that embody the organic movement and want to champion them. Can you imagine the positive effect of a Farm-Aid-type concert series that promotes organic farming and food instead of trying to bail out traditional farmers enslaved in debt and beaten up by free trade? It would be a sensation!

So, by all means, utilize some aspects of popular culture to hook kids on farming. But the main strategy to recruit youth should be to wage an all out offensive to put them in intimate agricultural contact with the land. It goes well beyond a field trip to a pumpkin patch, although that’s a start. It means nothing less than a stern series of five year plans (preferably launched by the private organic growing sector) that try to educate children about organic food and farming and specifically target and train interested young people to become farmers. Imagine the program like an Agricultural Peace Corps, but the members never leave the hinterlands. They put down rural roots and work the land.

Doubtless, many groups are already engaged in what I propose, and doing fine work. Some of my ideas for the offensive are:

   1. Offer full-ride scholarships for those high school students who want to pursue organic farming as a study;

   2. Stage an annual youth organic food summit;

   3. The aforementioned rock and roll tour;

   4. A traveling organic food exhibit at school cafeterias;

   5. Intense lobbying of state departments of educations to include (require) more content related to agriculture;

   6. Two staffers hired by Oregon Tilth to go forth into Oregon and Washington schools teach teachers and students;

   7. Organic farms create summer internship programs for students and teachers;

   8. Attract major foundation support to fund a far reaching nationwide campaign;

   9. State and local governments provide tax incentives and tuition waivers to recruit people into organic farming;

  10. Educate voters and pressure politicians to make sustainably-produced agriculture an issue of national security, which it most certainly is.

Start planting the seeds now, and in ten years they will be for ready to harvest. We are talking nothing less than a renaissance of rural America and of the yeoman farmer class Thomas Jefferson always championed as what this country should place its democratic hopes upon.

There is no doubt in my mind that there are thousands of hungry young people dissatisfied with the vacant quality of contemporary American life who would love to be a part and lead this renaissance. We have to go find them. And in doing so, let’s sell them the soul, not the steak. Or for that matter, the sex. The land will be more than enough, once they experience it.

Matt Love’s newest book in the Stone Oregon Trilogy is Red Hot and Rolling, A Retrospection of the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1976-77 Championship Season, available through Nestucca Spit Press,

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