Rising early and loading produce to take into town for the twice weekly farmers market can be grueling as summer wears on, but Will Frost, a budding writer, chooses to see the poetic side of it.
“I get to see the sunrise, and often I’ll still be out there when the sun sets,” he said recently. “It’s holistic, working with your family and the land. And at the end of the day, you know you did something worthwhile.”
With the average age of U.S. farmers now 60 and half of America’s farmland expected to change hands in the next 12 years, finding young people similarly enthused about taking up food production is a growing concern.
Frost’s contemporaries — young farmers eager to get their start in a demanding profession — are the subject of a new film, Farmers for America, which is currently being shown in small theatres around the country, with support from the National Young Farmers Coalition, Farmer Veteran Coalition and the National Farmers Union.
Frost, who is part of a family farm near Fountain, had a chance to weigh in with his own impressions following a screening held recently in Colorado Springs.
Documentary filmmaker Graham Meriwether said he was compelled to explore the challenges confronting the next generation of farmers after hearing the topic continually brought up while he was promoting his first food-related film, American Meat.
“When we were doing screenings for my first film, that’s what everyone was talking about,” he said outside the old gymnasium at Ivywild School where the screening was held.
American Meat, which was billed as a “solutions oriented” look at the U.S. livestock industry, emphasized the potential to develop more grass-based livestock production. It was screened at the National FFA Convention and other venues and even caught the attention of the New York Times.
Meriwether said he had three goals for his current project: to celebrate farmers, to inspire more young people to start farming and to drum up more support for beginning farmers.
He chose to enlist Mike Rowe, host of the popular TV show, Dirty Jobs, to narrate the film.
“He has dedicated his career to lifting up the foundational people in our culture, the blue collar workers,” he said.
Meriwether said his interest in farming began when he read the book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and learned about innovative sustainable farmers like Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farm in Virginia.
When he started piecing together a film about meat production in the U.S., he initially planned to use stock footage from PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.)
“It didn’t feel right,” he said.
Instead, he went out and filmed a wide variety of farmers in their own environments and listened to their stories. While he tends to spotlight eco-trendy farming practices and direct marketing, he also treats farmers of all kinds with obvious respect.
“First of all, I want to say thank you to farmers for what they do,” he said. “You won’t find any hidden camera footage in my films.”
In Farmers for America, Meriwether uses 75 minutes of scenic cinematography to introduce young people from across the country who are preparing to inherit farms or yearning to start new ones.
The film also looks at military veterans who are drawn to the healing effects of growing food and raising livestock while cultivating new ways to contribute to society.
His footage seems to show that many young farmers are choosing to diversify away from conventional farming, in favor of direct marketing through farm stands or on-line stores.
Will Frost, who is currently a creative writing student at the University of Montana, isn’t in the film but fits the premise well. He and his older brother Sam, a CSU graduate, have helped transition part of their family’s traditional ranch and hay farm along Fountain Creek into a direct-to-market model selling lamb and beef, herbs, flowers and fresh produce. They are also part of the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, a marketing cooperative that operates out of a local food hub at Avondale.
“The only way really for a small agrarian to make any kind of money is to convince people to invest more of their capital in you,” Frost said following the film.
Forging that connection also helps increase consumer awareness about how food gets from field to table, he said.
“It trickles down,” he said.
One of the things Meriwether brings out in his film is the potential for young people to serve as “bridge builders,” capable of reintegrating agrarianism into the rest of society and creating new methods of doing business along the way.
That idea is conveyed by Eliot Coleman, a legendary organic farmer from Maine best known for his books on year-round vegetable growing. In the film, Coleman promotes high-value intensive cropping as a way to reduce the need for land, a resource difficult for many young farmers to obtain.
Another story line in the film describes how Organic Valley, a dairy cooperative based in Wisconsin, spread the consequences of an economic downturn among all members equally rather than letting it fall on the newest — and also youngest — families to join the co-op.
That approach resonated with Nick Levendofsky, who was also invited to share comments following the film. Levendofsky grew up on a farm in north central Kansas and now heads up legislative advocacy efforts for Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.
Some type of coordinated supply management would help protect farmers against oversupplies like the gargantuan inventory of U.S. grain that is currently pushing corn and wheat prices down to 1970s levels, he said.
“I think we need to look at that as a country,” he said.
He also pointed out that 50 years ago farmers made 50 cents of every dollar spent on food sold at retail, and today that figure is down to 14.8 cents. Young farmers are being forced to seek out direct-marketing alternatives, like farmers markets and CSAs, to capture more of the total food dollar, he added.
“As an association, we encourage people to buy directly from farmers whenever possible,” he said.
With only 6 percent of today’s farmers under age 35 and 20 percent of the nation’s food imported, Meriwether wants to convince viewers it’s time for action.
One of his ideas is to designate farming as a “public service,” so young practitioners would qualify for college debt forgiveness and other forms of financial relief.
“We have a crisis approaching,” he said.