The New Generation of Tech-Savvy Farmers

Facing each other in traditional speed-dating lines, 60 or so fidgety farmers from across B.C. trade awkward glances. But all it takes is a few nudges-about land access and composting tips rather than pet peeves and star signs-from coordinator Sara Dent for the volume in the room to skyrocket. Everyone comes alive at the chance to talk dirt at this inaugural Young Agrarians conference, held in January at Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna. Biodynamic farmer Gabe Cipes, whose family owns the place, sums it up: “The old movement was about revolution; ours is about resolution.”

Heather Pritchard, program manager at FarmFolk CityFolk and founding member of Glorious Organics Co-op, agrees. “Today’s young farmers are opting in rather than opting out,” she says. “They are serious and focused, educated in a way we weren’t, more knowledgeable.” Pritchard, a septuagenarian Northwest Territories native, a dancer and kinesthetic learner, found farming through “a natural progression to dig in the dirt,” and was part of the back-to-the-land movement in the ’70s. She watched many in her generation reject urban lifestyles only to later abandon the land because they hadn’t understood what they were getting into, financially or physically. This time around, she feels the movement has staying power. “This generation is really about building a food system that is an alternative to agribusiness. It’s not about bringing the system down. There’s an acknowledgment that the system is not going anywhere, but it will destroy us and we have to create alternatives.”

The Young Agrarians program, which Dent has modelled on the American grassroots farming network The Greenhorns, officially launched in January 2012. As the ecological agriculture movement has grown in B.C., Young Agrarians has evolved to meet the demand, focusing on establishing a community of farmers both online and off-, and working on two major projects: a comprehensive online resource map and a mentorship program. Based on the give-and-take relationship between Pritchard and Dent (Pritchard offers decades of farming and facilitation experience, while Dent helps Pritchard acclimatize to modern media), the mentorships will attempt to bridge the gap between Canada’s aging-but experienced-farming population (the average age of a farmer is 56) and the eager-but green-next gen. “It’s important to connect with other farmers and learn from them. The stakes are higher.” As far as the matches go, Pritchard “would like to match with someone they can really be friends with. We do have to pass down our experience and information-but what can we learn from each other? And what do we need in farming? It’s not just people to grow food, it’s leadership.”

Unlike the back-to-the-land movement, where the motives were more political than agricultural, today’s farmers are focused on growing food. They come armed with university educations, an arsenal of specialized technology, and an aptitude for social media and marketing. Though many are actively and purposefully pulling away from city life, their ability to plug in online strengthens their connections to the larger world. Peachland organic farmer and Vancouver ex-pat Jordan Marr, 31, thinks that “anyone between 20 and 35 who is getting into farming now will have a real leg up .” A graduate of UBC’s Land & Food Systems program, he found his degree had only a satellite connection to farming. Coming out of school, he remembers, “I was all fired up to participate in reform. I thought I would end up in policy or a nonprofit, but I wanted to see farming from the ground. I fell in love with the lifestyle, and my point of view changed. I thought, If I want to be a part of agricultural reform, I should just be a farmer.”

Marr and partner Vanessa will start their third growing season in Peachland with a new tool: a smartphone. He’s excited to take pictures in the field and instantly share them with his subscribers, which he sees as the main attraction of such portable, accessible technology. In the meantime, he’s taken his weekly email newsletter and launched it as a column in the local paper. Marr seeks to do more than just update his customers on the latest harvest: “I have an interest in trying to debunk myths and misconceptions on organic farming. People’s understanding is really superficial. They know it’s healthier, but I want them to understand soil stewardship. I try to be funny, or philosophical. You can’t just go through the motions.”

Marr sees value in what Young Agrarians offers: he knows that online communication doesn’t always translate into real-world relationships. “The nature of farming means it’s hard to get together. Sara is making it easier to rub shoulders with other young farmers.” At the mixer, Marr is making connections he feels will carry over into his future in farming, but mostly he appreciates just being in the same room as his colleagues-a rare treat.

Dent jokingly calls herself a matchmaker-she sees farmers struggling to meet people to share land, labour, and knowledge with. Her hope is that the mixer will inspire farmers to organize themselves, meet regularly, order supplies together, share costs… It’s important that future mixers and the monthly potluck farm tours she hosts in partnership with the Vancouver Urban Farming Society remain free, so that the movement stays true to its counterculture roots-and is accessible to all.

The sense of community created by Young Agrarians extends beyond the business. It’s no secret that rural living has an isolating effect on those searching for a sweetheart. Farming isn’t just 9 to 5; it’s a lifestyle: “It’s hard to date when you’re a farmer in a small community-not only do you have to meet someone, but then they’d have to live with you, and farming is hard work. Invariably people screw it up,” says Dent. “Maybe Young Agrarian events will be a hub for love in the future.”