Agrarian Elders Bring “Youngers” to California

They started out farming in the ‘60s and ‘70s— a wave of “back-to-the-landers” driven there by anti-establishment, anti-war ideas as much as by the desire to care for a piece of the earth. They pioneered organic farming, tended their farms in harmony with nature, produced food for their communities—and ushered in an agroecological revolution that continues to gather strength across the world.

Today these Agrarian Elders, as they call themselves, are looking to pass the torch to the next generation at a time when farmers on the whole are rapidly aging and problems in our food system abound. Enter the agrarian “youngers,” among them Jack Algiere, Stone Barns Center’s farm director.

Jack was invited to join the Agrarian Elders at their second meeting at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., this past winter. (Their first meeting was celebrated in a New York Times article on January 24, 2014.) Organized by Eliot Coleman (Four Season Farm, in Maine) and Michael Ableman (Foxglove Farm, in British Columbia), the older farmers banded together to take stock of the present and plan a way forward for the movement they helped engender.

The council also functions as a mentoring circuit. This year, each elder was asked to invite a younger—not a beginning farmer, but a well-seasoned one like Jack. “It was an honor,” he says. “As a 40-year-old farmer, I am part of the smallest demographic of farmers in the country, and yet we are tasked with both training new farmers and continuing to produce food while we witness the largest retirement of farmers in history.”

Over three days at Esalen, the group, operating on a consensus-based protocol, debated the ethics and realities of “organic hydroponics,” organic certification reform, soil carbon and biogenetic technology. One of the fruits of their meeting was a letter they penned to the USDA requesting a moratorium on certifying hydroponic production, a method by which plants are grown in water, not soil.

“While the accumulated years of experience and wisdom of this group is extraordinary, the most valuable aspect of the gathering could be said to be the deeper relationships that have been forged in this mostly autonomous collective of independent farmers,” says Jack. “This group is about honoring the earth and the whole culture of the small farmer and farm ethics, which is endangered.”

Nearly 30 agrarians participated in the conference, representing farms across the country. The group’s meetings have been funded by the Esalen Foundation and the Wallace Genetic Foundation, which is also a Stone Barns Center grantor.