Who knew organic farming was so cool? These young agricultural leaders are out to show their generation why it's good to go organic.
When you hear the word farmer, it's tempting to conjure up images of the sort you read about in nursery rhymes: an older man wearing overalls and carrying a perpetual pitch fork. But while the median age of farmers in the US is 57, according to the USDA's Census of Agriculture, a new crop of young adults are out to change this.
They're known as Generation Organic, or Gen-O as they affectionately refer to each other, and they're the brainchild of Organic Valley, America's largest cooperative of organic farmers whose milk, yogurt, butter, eggs and cheese line the shelves of your local supermarkets and natural food stores. The company's coop of farmers has been in existence since 1988, but it wasn't until four or five years ago that Theresa Marquez, Organic Valley's Chief Marketing Executive, had the idea to bring some of their members' children, and other young people who were interested in agriculture together.
"I was talking to some of our young farmers and they told me that they were being ridiculed in their communities for having gone organic," recalls Marquez. "There was such a backlash against organics and I thought, 'these kids need to meet each other.' Plus, we needed spokespeople and leaders in agriculture who aren't paid by the chemical companies." Thus Generation Organic was born, a group of fresh faced, attractive young farmers ages 18-35 who are committed to teaching the world about the benefits of organically grown food.
It's a message the farm community is in dire need of spreading: since 1935 the United States has lost approximately 4.5 million farms. "If farmers can't make a living wage, how can they support their families?" says Jake Wedeberg, 25, Organic Valley's On-Farm Sustainability Coordinator and himself a fifth generation dairy farmer. "But when people start connecting, getting to know their farmer and where their food came from, it's really great to see."
Over the last two and a half weeks, from October 7-22, the Gen-O's took to the road for the first ever Generation Organic Tour. The idea was originally hatched by Marquez as a way to get the Gen-O's to interact with each other right on their own farms.
But when colleges expressed interest in having the group visit their campuses, the idea for a larger tour snowballed from there. Traveling in a brightly painted bus fueled by vegetable oil, the group visited Eastern college campuses, elementary schools, farms, and grocery stores — where they hosted a Shopping Cart Surprise by paying for the groceries of a couple of lucky shoppers — from Ohio to Washington D.C. and spoke about organic farming practices, hosted grilled cheese socials (using organic cheese, natch) and met with USDA agricultural leaders.
They also got a few pleasant surprises of their own, namely a look at the amount of urban gardens that have popped up across the nation. (According to the American Community Gardening Association, there are an estimated 18,000 community gardens in the United States and Canada). Laura Boere, 25, a striking blonde who works with her father and brother on their dairy farm in Modesto, Calif. was most moved by an urban garden in Binghamton, NY started by neighborhood kids in an abandoned inner city lot. "They lease it from the city for $1 a year and the kids can pick vegetables and bring them home to their families," explains Boere. "People are getting really into growing their own food even if they don't live near a farmers market."
It's a trend the Gen-O's are hoping will continue to grow — literally. And putting forth such a shiny, healthy image of agricultural business certainly helps in getting future generations excited about putting in a day's work on the farm.
"They're little rock stars," says Elizabeth Horton, Organic Valley's Director of Public Affairs who shepherded the group through radio interviews, presentations and even an appearance on Today. "I love going out and helping people understand what we're doing," says Preston Green, 21, who works on his family's dairy and beef farm while studying agriculture business at the University of Wisconsin.
"Gen-O is one of the things that I think can really advance Organic Valley's youth. It teaches young farmers about what it means to be a coop. We're the future and we need to be involved now."
This article was originally posted on the Tonic website and is reprinted with their permission.
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Photos courtesy of Organic Valley.