Andrea Crawford | April 6, 2017
Some say the current revival of interest in agriculture began in the 1960s and ’70s, in California, at a time of burgeoning environmental and culinary awareness, in the days when Earth Day was born, chefs began buying organic produce directly from farmers, and young people thought of going back to the land. Others say its roots lay among African-Americans who in fleeing the South during the Great Migration brought their agrarian roots to cities that today are the leading centers of urban agriculture. Some say the world’s first rooftop farm opened in Brooklyn in 2009. Others say the claim more likely goes back a couple thousand of years, to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
No matter the twists and turns along its 12,000-year-old history, one thing is clear: Agriculture is undergoing a major revival. It’s seen in the annual double-digit gains in organic food sales, in the more than 12,000 Community Supported Agriculture farms that have appeared in the 30 years since their U.S. debut, and in the way consumer demand for locally grown food far outstrips supply. It’s seen, too, in the fact that sustainable food programs are the fastest growing majors at many universities and farm internships are highly competitive. But while these examples prove agriculture’s revival, they do not help to explain it.
For that, it’s useful to look back about a decade when something in the world shifted. In 2007, as the iPhone debuted and locavore was named word of the year, the global financial crisis began. At the same time, food riots broke out in many countries over dramatic increases in prices, largely the result of market speculation in food commodities and of drought, a sign of the instability that climate change portends. Furthermore, by 2009, in a historical first, the number of people living in cities surpassed those in rural areas worldwide.
At that time, something shifted for me, too. I had grown up in rural Indiana on a multigenerational family grain farm, and, as the first in my family to graduate from college, I had done what most farm kids do once educated: left for a job elsewhere. I had been living in New York City for a long time, and on a spring afternoon in 2009 I joined 3,000 others at the inaugural Brooklyn Food Conference to hear speakers I liked discuss local food and sustainable farming. There I saw a panel called “So you want to be a farmer?” that had drawn — inexplicably, stunningly to me — a standing-room-only crowd. That so many young urbanites wanted to be farmers, that they sought what people like me had worked so hard to leave behind, felt like a rejection of my whole life’s trajectory.
To live in New York City over the last decade was to come face-to-face with the farm roots I had spurned. It was to see agriculture take on a newfound cultural prominence as food and farm-related events became trendy and urbanites treated their farmers like celebrities. It was to hear a woman on the Upper East Side ask a renowned chef, breathlessly, what inspiration he drew from his farmers. It was to hear a New York University professor explain how food now has replaced music as the aesthetic choice of a generation, so young people today come of age and define themselves by drinking kombucha and shunning soda, in the same way previous generations defined themselves by preferring Tupac to Eminem or the Beatles to the Rolling Stones.