Food & Drink » Food: Year of Idaho Food

Sowing the Seeds for a New Generation of Farmers

Young farmers swap seeds and stories

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On stage at the Basque Center in Boise, farmer Casey O'Leary cuts through the air with an imaginary blade as she sings out a self-penned, seed-centric poem.

"Slicing self-consciously, subconsciously stabbing the dense, orange sponge top of my Halloween prop, I'm pondering the wisdom in the combining of red wine and knife."

The 31-year-old O'Leary is one of several participants in a recent Year of Idaho Food seed swap who have decided to share not only their heirloom seeds but stories about them. The long, lanky O'Leary flails her arms, arches her brow and builds her slam poetry paean to seeds into a nearly screamed crescendo.

"Again, I embrace the magic in these unassuming seeds," she shouts. "The canvas! The paint! The painter! All together in a gel-covered shell!"

This is probably one of those "you had to be there" moments. But O'Leary's poetic passion for seed is a stunning contrast to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's recent grim statement that the average age of an American farmer is 57 years old, and more sobering still, that young farmers are dramatically dropping off in numbers. O'Leary and the other young farmers and serious gardeners in this room suggest that small-scale agriculture, at least here, might not be tilting toward the grave just yet.

Ariel Agenbroad, a University of Idaho small farms educator in Canyon County, agrees.

"If you look at all types of agriculture nationally," she says, "then the numbers from Vilsack are correct. If you break that down into small farms, then you actually see that the reverse is true, that there is an increase in the number of young, women and minority farmers."

A recent United States Department of Agriculture survey for Idaho backs up Agenbroad, saying that the number of the smallest Idaho farms (with sales under $10,000) grew by 400 in 2010 while the largest farms (with sales of $250,000 or more) dropped by 300.

Agenbroad knows O'Leary and says she's a perfect example of this brand-new breed of farmer: farmers who are often young, focused on local markets and frequently female.

In her backyard greenhouse O'Leary has dropped the theatrics but is no less passionate about heirloom seeds and farming. Dressed in a down vest and dirty jeans, she kneels quietly, planting seeds in flats for the coming season.

"Today we're doing Swiss chard plus several different kinds of lettuce, three different mustard greens, bok choy and Chinese cabbage," she says in a soft whisper as she carefully pushes small seeds into dark soil.

I ask O'Leary what she finds so riveting about something as seemingly simple as a seed.

"The amazing thing about seeds," she says, "is that inside that little thing is all of the elements necessary to sustain the life of the plant, once you add water. So it's this incredible thing. Every single thing the plant needs to start its life is encased in that shell, and without the seeds there would be no food."

O'Leary is also fascinated by the idea of saving seed rather than buying it. By saving seed from the best fruits and vegetables from every harvest, then planting those seeds, harvesting, saving and planting again, season after season, each plant variety evolves to better suit local climate and soil.

"You're basically able to create your own seed stock that's adapted to your specific plot of land in your specific town," she says.

O'Leary is herself adapted to a specific plot of land in a specific town, having grown up seven houses down from where she now sprouts vegetables for several urban farm plots in Boise's Collister neighborhood. Yet, she doesn't come from a long line of farmers.

"Actually, most of the people that are young folks that are farming here also didn't come from farming backgrounds," she says. "We all kind of found it."

Many of the new farmers she knows are people like herself, anxious to do something good in the world, but having trouble engaging in politics or the more confrontational aspects of activism. Agenbroad points out that not all the people searching for a meaningful life are young. She says retirees and people looking for a career change also find life on the land appealing. For all of them, farming--especially small-scale, sustainable and frequently organic farming--offers a chance to work in what they see as a positive, pastoral and hopefully profitable environment. And unlike industrial agriculture, these new farmers can hit the ground with little more than a chunk of dirt, a shovel and some enthusiasm.

"You can watch whole processes of life and death," O'Leary says of the small-scale farming life she's lived for seven years. "It really grounds you in. It's a seasonal thing, so you move with the Earth rather than just locked away in a box. And it's been the most creative and mentally challenging thing I've tried to do, too. It's really difficult work, mentally."

It occurs to me that O'Leary and this new generation of farmers sound a lot like the heirloom seeds they save. Both are packed with potential. They're diverse, if occasionally untested and at times unruly. They're good at producing quality if not quantity. They're sometimes a little scruffy-looking. And, whether seed or farmer, with enough nurturing, they can grow into vigorous expressions of the place in which they live. Only time will tell whether either will survive the vagaries of climate, soil and agricultural economies.

O'Leary brushes away a strand of her long, straight hair as she looks up from a handful of seeds.

"This new crop of farmers sprouting up and doing it on small-scale, diversified farms, it's so much this radical new thing. It's just going back to what was already being done before. And so in that way I think it does tie well into the heirloom seed idea that new farmers are somewhat like heirloom seeds. We're just reconnecting to what was already happening before and diversifying and keeping alive all of these very different, place-based, localized agricultural economies. And that's really exciting work."