The NYT hails the era of the hipster farmer
Edible Media takes an occasional look at interesting or deplorable food journalism on the web.
Hey, hipster! Wipe that smirk off your face and put that can of PBR down. It’s time to get your hands — and those stiff Carhardts — dirty. We don’t care how many obscure bands you have on your iPod, or how you found that vintage shirt. Can you handle a hoe? (And no, that’s not a reference to the gangster rap of your suburban youth.)
The inevitable has happened: small-scale organic farming has been declared hip by The New York Times. In a recent article — in the Fashion & Style section, no less — the Times reports that young folks, some of them recent urban residents, are increasingly attracted to farming. Gushes the Paper of Record:
Steeped in years of talk around college campuses and in stylish urban enclaves about the evils of factory farms (see the E. coli spinach outbreaks), the perils of relying on petroleum to deliver food over long distances (see global warming) and the beauty of greenmarkets (see the four-times-weekly locavore cornucopia in Union Square), some young urbanites are starting to put their muscles where their pro-environment, antiglobalization mouths are. They are creating small-scale farms near urban areas hungry for quality produce and willing to pay a premium.
My first reaction to the piece was panic. As any hipster worth his vintage Ben Sherman trousers will tell you, the Times typically discovers trends just when they’ve played themselves out. But I think this particular story stands on solid ground.
The piece, by style reporter Allen Salkin, actually isn’t so bad. Salkin did a solid reporting job, talking to folks at several established and nascent farms outside of New York City, as well as a few highly respected ag researchers.
However, he evidently strained mightily to force the farmers he profiled into his pre-fab “hipster” mold. The article prominently features Benjamin Shute, a former Brooklynite who runs the very successful Hearty Roots Community Farm in the Hudson Valley.
Shute and I ran in similar circles during my own New York days in the early 2000s, and I’ve since come to know him. Back then, he was devoting himself to the city’s community garden movement — reclaiming unused lots and turning them into vital and productive green spaces, typically in low-income neighborhoods underserved by parks.
Salkin couldn’t fit any of that into his piece. Instead, he pegs Shute as someone who “kept Brooklyn Lager in his refrigerator and played darts in a league” — darts being a hipster’s pastime par excellence. As for gardening, Salkin reveals only that Shute had “volunteered at a farm in Massachusetts” and “tried growing strawberries on his roof in Brooklyn.”
I asked Shute via email about having his Brooklyn past summed up in terms of darts and lager, not growing food. Here’s his response:
The reporter wanted the story to have a strong hipster slant, but none of us fit very well into that mold (I don’t know any young farmers who really do). He asked me plenty of pointedly hipster-related questions (“Do you have tattoos? Piercings?”), and seemed less interested in the emphasis I put on my community gardening. When he tried to dig up appropriately hip free-time activities, I kept explaining that I spent most of my free time at my community garden, but that didn’t work for him, so he kept asking for other things. I finally mentioned that I played darts very occasionally — and that’s what made it into the article.
I do think Salkin’s article is valuable; it heralds a new age for farming, a profession fled and avoided by young people for decades (centuries? millennia?). We need capable young folks to want to be farmers, and farming has to provide a viable living. Farming should be fashionable; hip, even.
But the reporter’s zeal to find hipster totems among his subjects blinded him to lots of complexities and difficulties involved with launching a farm project — high land prices, steep learning curves, lack of access to startup cash, the uncomfortable need to charge higher prices than many people can afford.
I wrestled with these questions in a short essay I wrote not long after I fled Brooklyn to help launch a farm project a few years ago. Salkin’s piece brought to mind one particular passage:
Chefs gained celebrity status starting in the 1980s, when the yuppie food revolution gained force. I predict that in places like New York and San Francisco, the age of the rock-star farmer is not far off.
I am reminded of a line from Baudelaire’s notebooks:
If a poet demanded of the State the right to have a few bourgeois in his stable, people would be very much astonished, but if a bourgeois asked for some roast poet, people would think it quite natural.
Welcome to the era of roast farmer. Micro-farms dot the areas outside of metropolises, producing hand-picked, highly nutritious, and pungent microgreens to be plopped on lawyers’, accountants’, and high-tech professionals’ plates at astronomical prices. Meanwhile, the people who staff the vast services economy get the dreck served up by thriving companies like Smithfield Foods.