The way we grow and consume food in the U.S. isn’t working. Over 40 million Americans don’t have access to affordable and healthy food options and yet billions in federal subsidies are spent every year to prop up uneaten crops. Industrial agriculture is one of the major drivers of climate change, causing a whopping one third of global greenhouse gas emissions. To top it off the American Farmer is a dying breed: of the three million or so farmers across the country, just 6% are under the age of 35.

With an aging and flawed food system, is there any hope in finding a way to both feed all Americans, rich and poor, and keep from further harming the environment?

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This was the central question being asked at the Young Farmers Conference at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in early December. Set against a backdrop of sloping Hudson Valley farmland, Stone Barns Center hosts 250 of the nation’s young farmers for a week of workshops on sustainable farming. The goal of the conference is to support new farmers and, in the process, save the future of American food.

Famers getting settled at the Young Farmers Conference.
Lucas Isakowitz

The farmers at the conference, most under the age of 35, came from all sorts of diverse backgrounds; there were urban vegetable growers from New York City, food justice farmers from California, and cattle ranchers from Mississippi. Universal among every young farmer was a level of commitment to their work that is rare to see in a generation often guilty of apathy and distraction. These were people that believed in the value of what they were doing: growing food to make the world a better place. And yet also as a group, young farmers felt overworked, underappreciated, and underpaid. This is a huge problem.

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Adrian Galbraith-Paul, who runs a nonprofit organic farm outside of Philadelphia, broke it down like this:

One person can only grow so much food, and so if you really want to change how our food is produced, to have a system that is better for the environment, employs more people, and feeds Americans healthy food, then you need to have more farmers. And to do that you need to break the stereotype of what it means to be a farmer because parents want their children to grow up to be doctors and lawyers. No parent wants their child to grow up to be a farmer. That needs to change.

Considering that only about 1% of the U.S. population works on a farm, a historic low, Galbraith-Paul has a point. In order to shift away from large-scale industrial farming, which comes at a huge environmental cost, we’ll need to have more farmers. There are a myriad of ways encourage more farmers, such as counting farming as public service and forgiving farmers’ student debt, or increasing federal funding for small scale farms. Still, it would be foolish to think that more young farmers alone are enough to fix the food system.

Those at Stone Barns Center believe that another key solution exists on the consumer side of things, in stimulating demand for healthier food. In addition to being a center of sustainable agriculture, Stone Barns Center is home to one of the most famous farm-to-table restaurants in America, Blue Hill. The chef at Blue Hill, Dan Barber (author of The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food) believes that creating demand for healthy locally grown food is integral to improving our broken food system. The idea goes that as demand for better food increases, farmers will have a greater market for sustainable healthy products and will then grow more of these products. The process will continue to trickle down, allowing more farmers to diversify their crops and adopt better agricultural practices, until the food system changes for all Americans. Barber explained this theory of change to the conference, saying that “all the great movements of the world start, in some ways up on high…they start from an elite few…and this is what’s going to happen with food.”

In part, Barber’s theory of change is already happening: from 1999 to 2013, the sale for organic food increased five-fold. On the other hand, millions of Americans can’t afford to feed themselves, let alone purchase organic food. And the average size of the U.S. farm has increased over the past five years, indicating the continued advance of large-scale agriculture.

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When Barber finished his speech and asked for questions, Arian Rivera, a former apprentice at Stone Barns Center who now works on a cattle farm, took the microphone. “I have to push back on the idea that it comes from the top up, because I truly believe that it comes from the soil up, from us up," he said. "That’s what’s going to effect change.” The room erupted into applause. “And also, accessibility has to part of the conversation," Rivera continued. "There’s millions of people right around here, in the New York City metropolitan area, who also know what to do with good food if they’re given access to it…and they need to be part of the conversation. And it’s not just going to come from an elite few. I have to push back on that.”

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The exchange illustrates the complexity of changing our food system, and it’s what makes a conference like the one at Stone Barns Center so important: conversations need to happen at every rung of the ladder. Barber ceded that Rivera was right, thanking him for the reminder that change in the food system needs to come from everybody.

Leafy greens growing in one of Stone Barns Center's many winter greenhouses.
Lucas Isakowitz

Jack Algiere, the farm director at Stone Barns Center, agreed that pressure needs to come from both the top and bottom, but also pointed out that the largest agents of change are us, the non-elite, non-farming majority of the country. “Every time you eat, you’re voting on one direction or another,” he said. “You’re making a decision that has an impact, not only on the food system, but also on your own health.”

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We’re not just voting for ourselves, but for the over 40 million Americans that don’t have the economic liberty to choose which food system they buy into.

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“It’s easy to see the problem and feel like a victim,” Algiere said. “But you’re only a victim if you’re not doing anything. You can stand up. No one is physically shackled to not participate in the food system. Learn to cook, learn to bring community together, get out of the isolation of house to house, get outside, get your kids outside, visit markets and recognize where the food comes from.”