The Greenhorns: Sustainable Farming with “Punky Grassroots Ninjas”

Severine von Tscharner Fleming showed up to the screening of her documentary, “The Greenhorns,” shown last Thursday at the Saybrook Underbrook, wearing an ankle-length denim skirt and a thick wool sweater that kept rolling itself up while she spoke to the audience. Her curly dirty-blond hair was pinned back, and she contorted her tall body to act out the issues she was describing.

“Young farmers need to get help from everyone!” she said. “Like, we’re our own membrane, and then there’s this membrane of engineers, and when we need good farm software, we need to reach out to them!” She put her arms into a circle in front of herself (making a membrane) and did a half-plié. “Helloooooo, engineering membrane!”

Fleming is the director of the film “The Greenhorns,” as well as the figurehead of an organization of the same name. Both seek to create a network of young farmers, for socializing — most of the events over the past three years have involved copious amounts of free beer — and activism. She describes its ethos as “punky” (and has been quoted calling her organization’s members “punky grassroots ninjas”), but qualifies the moniker with its limitations: “But we’re not all punky! We get people dressed in, like, braids, too!”

In the film, Fleming is a shrill-voiced Steve “Crocodile Hunter” Irwin, leading us to the exotic wonders of young farmers across America. She whispers into the camera when there is a particularly exciting specimen — an urban farm in San Francisco, for instance — and shows brazenness in the face of oncoming danger — by running across the road in front of a tractor.

The documentary follows Fleming across the country in a red Volvo as she visits a diverse array of young farmers, her “Greenhorns.” They are male and female; black, white ,and Hispanic; just out of college and middle-aged. They have the kind of precise regional accents that in our neutralized urban age most people have forgotten exist. In 2008, Fleming, then 27, told The New York Times that she wanted to “show how sweet and honest and brave and purposeful” these Greenhorn farmers were. She does a good job of this. What all the film’s farmers have in common is a conviction that they are living the most just way, that they are doing hard, honest work, and that they, their communities, and their land are all better off for it. One farmer — who is only considered “young” because the average age of farmers is so old — explains, “I’m just the caretaker while I’m here — the best thing I can do is leave the farm in better shape than I found it.”

The film reminds us that “the way to make a living in agriculture changes every generation.” In between interviews, Fleming uses historical footage and charming hand-drawn illustrations to explain the challenges that small, sustainable farmers face, including access to land, natural disasters, marketing their produce, farm laborers’ rights, and government programs such as the Farm Service Agency (“A lot of my friends have been fucked over by the FSA,” said Fleming after the film).

The animated interludes only scratch the surface of the myriad obstacles before young farmers. It’s clear that they are many and constant, so rather than risk disheartening future acolytes, the film takes its final challenge to be translating these frightening realities into mantras and dicta. The average age of an American farmer is 57, according to one of the film’s precious (rather rare) statistics, and in the next 20 years, 400 million acres of land will change hands. Will that land be consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer people, Fleming asks, or spread among more and more? Will it even remain farmland? She reminds us that 2880 acres of farmland are lost every day,and then pulls out the croons of her movement, imploring us to join the young people who are “working like dogs and eating like kings.” “Serve your country food,” she says.

The film has our idealism captured, the intelligentsia on board to source their food locally and healthfully, and perhaps a few hardier audience members ready to callous their hands and tan their skin on a farm of their own. But the film ultimately leaves unanswered the big questions of farm economics and access to land. Acquiring land is prohibitively expensive for young people without family property. Some lease from wealthy people with idle landholdings, others take jobs as farm managers. But after year after year of hard work, these farmers still have no savings and are living below the poverty line. Idealism can only take one so far; for a truly sustainable movement, the avenues to achieving stability must be made clear. Unfortunately, even Fleming, with all her punky wisdom, might not yet be able to show them to us.

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