Every movement needs an engine, and Severine Von Tscharner Fleming helps keep Hudson Valley farmers running.
As the director of The Greenhorns, a grassroots organization that works to support new farmers in America, this Hudson Valley-based activist, farmer and organizer has managed to marry old-school farming wisdom with modern tech smarts. Her goal is to help farmers navigate the increasingly competitive commercial farming landscape.
As she will be the first to tell you, she didn’t build the farming machine, she doesn’t fuel it, and she doesn’t drive it. What she does do, however, is provide the resources and knowledge to keep it moving forward — and fix it if it starts making a wheezy, thumping sound.
“We are helping farmers who don’t want to participate in the industrial food system,” said Ms. Fleming of her work with The Greenhorns. “The market for local food is strong, so we are not about promoting businesses or educating the public. Instead, we focus on the farmer: By helping farmers optimize their relationships with consumers through social media, CSAs and farmers markets; by helping them prepare for the challenges of working with their bodies every day; by helping them understand the ins and outs of their finances from the loans and grants that are available to them to how to price their various products.”
“Farming built America,” Ms. Fleming continued. “The farmer is our champion. And being a farmer these days is like being Odysseus — there are a lot of beasts to slay and just getting through a season can be an odyssey in and of itself. We’re here to help farmers find the tools to do just that.”
Clearly, Fleming and The Greenhorns’ mission is rather broad. If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind around its all-encompassing nature, you’re not alone. Which is part of the reason Fleming split The Greenhorns’ universe of activity into smaller spheres that are easier for farmers to navigate by utilizing just one or two of the nonprofit’s verticals.
The Greenhorns essentially produces media. It was born after Ms. Fleming spent two years navigating fields across America armed with a camcorder. Her activism began during her years as a Pomona College student in Claremont, Ca., where she started a guerrilla farming club. Driven to alert other young, radical farmers to her cause, she conceived of a simple recruitment film that would target compatriots. Soon, the project blossomed into a serious philosophical inquiry into the monoculture engulfing rural America.
En route to her goal, she met — and helped connect — a network of young farmers too busy settling the land to spend time Tweeting and Facebooking, the standard mode of social and professional connection for Millennials.
After traveling east, Ms. Fleming, the daughter of two Cambridge, Mass. urban planners, decided to put down her own roots in the Hudson Valley, opening a formal headquarters for The Greenhorns in Red Hook.
The first tangible product of her effort was a documentary film called “The Greenhorns.” Since its 2011 premiere, the film has screened more than 1,300 times in communities across the country. Whole Foods also sold the video (now available for purchase on The Greenhorns website) — a coup for a grassroots filmmaker.
“We wanted to share stories in other ways too,” Ms. Fleming said. “So we started a wiki that gives beginning and established farmers relevant information and financial resources; a blog covering farming news, events, jobs and gossip; a weekly radio show on Heritage Radio Network that interviews cutting-edge American farmers under 40; a Twitter account, and a book of essays called The New Farmer’s Almanac.”
Part cultural service, part practical guide, The Greenhorns was built for a specific type of farmer.
“There is a certain tendency in the media to fetishize the smaller-scale food and farming movement,” Fleming said. “We would like to dispel the notion of the gentleman farmer who leaves a job in finance to launch a farm in the suburbs. The farmers we work with fought every step of the way to launch and maintain their farms, and it’s absolutely their hands on the land. They have to compete in an economic environment that has, through federal policy and the consolidation of land, made the price of food go down precipitously. The only way they can compete is locally, through greenmarkets, CSAs and relationships.”
The latest phase of The Greenhorn’s evolution involves utilizing some of the hard facts they have gathered about the reality of farming in America and using them to pressure legislators to institute small-farm-friendly policies.
Ms. Fleming cofounded the National Young Farmers Coalition, an organization that advocates independent family farms, sustainable farming, affordable land, fair labor practices and an apprenticeship program, for new farmers of all ages.
Due to Ms. Fleming’s advocacy work with the National Young Farmers Coalition and other groups, two important amendments failed to pass: the Fortenberry amendment # 93 (which proposed burdening farmers with additional regulatory requirements) and McClintock amendment # 92 (which would have eliminated the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program). The bill’s initial failure temporarily scrapped the amendments, but the fact that the votes are on the record will greatly help future advocacy efforts.
Moving forward, despite grim odds, is one of Ms. Fleming’s strengths. And regardless of all of her gruff nothing-but-the-facts-ma’am practicality, she still has a soft spot for the soil, and those that cultivate it.
“Maybe farming isn’t the fairy tale that the media makes it out to be,” Ms. Fleming said, “but it’s a different kind of fairy tale. One of the sectional rebuilding of American farming, despite incredible odds, an increasingly hostile climate, and an economic crisis. And it’s happening right now.”
“The Greenhorns” documentary trailer. Source: The Greenhorns YouTube page.