Sometime during the last ten years, Americans became interested in learning where the food in their refrigerators came from. Empowered by agricultural exposes like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, an organic food movement blossomed. Today, it’s easy to trace a carton of eggs – or a nice rib-eye steak – to an ethically raised source. But for those of us filling our carts with fruits and vegetables, it gets complicated. Most green produce grown in America is laced with either pesticides or GMOs that counteract nutrient content. And mystifyingly, most farms are not required by law to disclose the use of any additives to customers.
In pockets of America, communities have dug their heels into the ground and taken a stand against agricultural giants by supporting local organic growers. In Boulder, Colorado – where I’ve spent the last four days – one of those growers is Isabelle Farm. Spread across 70 acres of land, Isabelle grows and harvests many of the vegetables that make up our swankiest dinner spreads: bell peppers, summer squash, pickling cucumbers, and even Halloween pumpkins. Each season’s harvest is sold at a roadside farm stand, not to mention several Boulder restaurants.
I recently spent a punishing day under the sun at Isabelle Farm, cutting broccoli heads, pulling up weeds, and chatting with Elizabeth and Brett: two Millennials who found their way to the farm from different corners of the country.
Elizabeth’s journey from her native Lyme, New Hampshire to the west sprang from a deep-seated desire to cross the great divide and see the other side of America. Prior to packing up her car and hitting the road, she earned a degree in geography and music from Clark University. She worked for the Boston Museum of Science as an overnight camp-in instructor, and for the Appalachian Mountain Club as a backcountry shelter caretaker. Working outdoors may not be a stretch for her, but adjusting to the life of a farmer was not without adversity.
“Our days are usually 6 AM to 6 PM, five to six days a week,” she told me as we drove to the fields just before sunrise. “Some mornings, I’ll be outside harvesting vegetables and weeding, which is physically intense. But just as often, if not more, I’ll be staffing the farm stand.” When I asked her how she recuperates on the occasional day-off, she laughed. “Honestly, I’ll often use the weekends to catch up on basic household tasks, even if it’s doing laundry! After a day on the farm, I’m usually drained. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll go for an evening bike ride.” This isn’t exactly surprising: Boulder is a town known for incubating one of the fittest populations in America. “Most people here do at least two workouts per day,” Elizabeth chuckled. “Any less and you’re slacking.”
Elizabeth sees herself staying in Boulder for the immediate future. Since making the move from New Hampshire, she has found a lifestyle and a community optimal to her interests. When the harvest season wanes, Elizabeth will teach local yoga classes to supplement reduced hours at the farm stand. This variety of livelihoods and the relationships it typically yields are – for now – more important to Elizabeth than reaching a certain salary tier. “Boulder is a bubble, I realize,” she said as we approached the field. “But a lot of what works here – especially the local farming scene – could be implemented on a larger level. How much faith I have in the federal government to actually take steps towards moving away from big agra subsidies and considering organic farms…that’s another question entirely.”
We entered the fields with knives, two gallon buckets, and slowly, the other farm hands emerged: young people in work pants caked with mud, all of whom wore broad-brimmed hats. I soon found out why. By 8 AM, it was uncomfortably hot. By 9 AM, my shirt was soaked with perspiration and the SPF 50 sunscreen I had slathered on moments earlier was running into my eyes, blinding me from the squash I was supposed to be picking.
Brett – a fellow east coaster transplanted in Boulder – was busy plucking away in the neighboring plot. I began to learn pieces of his own history. He decided to pursue organic farming after volunteering on several farms in Pennsylvania, where he hails from. “Right here, at Isabelle, this is actually my first full season working on any farm,” he said. “The giant scale of this particular farm is totally unrivaled back east. I’ve never seen anything like Isabelle’s operation before. Plus, there’s actually a market to sustain it out here.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked him. “Why do organic farms thrive in a place like Boulder as opposed to Pennsylvania?”
“In my experience, it’s really tough to get a farming job that pays a livable wage in most other parts of the country,” Brett said. “But it’s especially tough in Pennsylvania because the Amish have already captured the market for organic vegetables. People like us, living a modern lifestyle and trying to run a farm…we can’t compete with their prices.” Brett quickly added that he didn’t wish to place the entirety of the blame on the Amish, but the admission was sobering to hear. “I think when people balk at paying a higher price for organic vegetables or fruits, they don’t factor in the human cost; the money that goes towards paying workers,” Brett continued. “There’s a greater consciousness of that out here.”
Farming is Brett’s passion, and one day, he’d like to make the jump from produce to meat. “There’s already a huge market for organic meat, and in many ways, meat is losing its stigma,” Brett said. “People aren’t shying away from it for dietary reasons as much.” He then went on to tell me about a new farming technique called “mob grazing” in which huge populations of cattle are herded across several concentrated plots of land, sometimes on a daily basis. The idea is to replicate past ages, when herds of bison roamed and grazed across large swaths of land, achieving a proper balance of nutrients from their nomadic diet. Hearing Brett explain the concept, I thought, “Jeez, this guy’s no hobbyist: he knows what he’s talking about.”
As we moved from squash to pulling up pickling cucumbers, I asked Brett what he sees as the challenges that today’s young people – from farmers to investment bankers – are likely to face in 10 or 15 years. “I think it all comes down to whether you have kids or not by then,” Brett began. “We’re probably going to be one of those generations that “starts” later, in terms of having families or buying homes. Forty years ago, most people were already there by now.”
He paused, as if troubled by something quite suddenly.
“But here’s one that really keeps me up at night,” he added. “Water. That’s going to be a big one. I’ve been scared seeing what’s happening in Southern California; they’ve had to extract their water supply from more and more northern areas because the immediate reservoirs are all dried up.” Having been in Southern California less than a week ago, it was difficult not to feel a slight shiver as Brett said this. “It’s crazy,” he exhaled. “I feel a little worried living here sometimes, given how arid the west is becoming. It’s difficult not to think back upon all those environmental ethics classes I took in school.”
By this point, the sun was so strong that I was beginning to feel dizzy. I put down my basket of cucumbers and started rubbing on more sunscreen. Brett moved onward to the next plot of plants. It was 102 degrees fahrenheit.
We continued picking vegetables until it came time to yank weeds from the bell pepper plots. Kneeling in the dirt, ripping stiff plants out of the soil, I couldn’t help but feel flabbergasted at the stamina one must possess to be out in the fields on a daily basis; everyone from Millennial farmers like Brett and Elizabeth, to the millions of migrant workers who remain a virtually invisible workforce to the American public. It’s a brutal job – often condescended to by those raking in more income from air-conditioned spaces, but it’s also a life-sustaining one. And I suspect that as Millennials age – with the repercussions of global warming revealing themselves in new, destructive ways – the profession of farming will reclaim its prestige. Unless Google has figured out a way to grow pork shoulders and tomatoes by then, of course..
Only time will tell.