A Creative Crop

Artists Fortify Youth Movement In Agriculture

July 20, 2009|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

One student butchered a sheep for her senior project. Another went on to study animal husbandry. Still more found work on vegetable farms. Professor Hugh Pocock taught them all, not at a land grant university but at Maryland Institute College of Art.

For reasons ranging from highbrow theories of art and social justice to booming farmers' markets, young people with no background in agriculture are going into the field. And quite a few of them are artists.

"A lot of us didn't set out to farm for a living, to have that be what we did all day," said Greg Strella, 24, who came to MICA to become a sculptor and graduated a farmer. "I certainly didn't feel that way even 12 months ago."

But there he is, under a straw hat, atop a tractor, managing Great Kids Farm, a 33-acre organic spread owned by Baltimore's school system.

Strella grew up in a farming area in Pennsylvania but hardly knew it, assuming the wheat fields near his house were "forgotten space." Now he spends his days tending beets and other crops, looking after chickens - believing, each time he spots plants that need watering or detects pests before they take over, that he's putting his MICA education to good use.

"Artists are already practiced in perception, in awareness," he said. "Growing food involves so much looking and observing and just awareness."

Art schools aren't the only breeding ground for future farmers, just one of the more unlikely ones. The University of Maryland added more introductory horticulture and crop sciences classes in the past three years - and still turned students away.

That's good news for an industry that can use new recruits. The average American farmer is 57 years old, according to the federal 2007 Census of Agriculture. Perhaps because many of these new farmers are interested in sustainable farming, the average organic farmer is younger, 53 years old.

"You'd be surprised at the number of students [not majoring in agriculture] who might take our introductory crops courses, who think this looks like fun," said Leon Slaughter, an associate dean at UM's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "We're seeing more interest than we can provide seats for."

'Back to the land'

More young people are turning up at seminars on sustainable agriculture, said Jeff Schahczenski, an agricultural economist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Montana, which runs the U.S. government's sustainable agriculture information service. He credits the Food Network for promoting foodie culture and movies like Food, Inc. for criticizing industrial agriculture.

"I see a lot more young people coming to meetings who are very interested in and passionate about food and food quality," he said. "It is somewhat like a back-to-the-land movement."

With a twist.

While young farmers are not short on idealism, devoted as many are to organic and sustainable methods, they tend to be more entrepreneurial than their hippie forbears.

"There's this economic opportunity to be a farmer again," Schahczenski said. "Whether they enter [the field] as a new kind of artisan butcher to supply fancy restaurants in New York or Seattle or back up and grow that food for those restaurants, they don't want to go to the middle of Nebraska and farm. They want to go to some cool urban center and farm."

Part of farming's new appeal stems from the emergence of food as a hot social cause. A generation of college students sometimes accused of being apathetic toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to have found its movement, and it's food.

Gardens as art

These students are against industrial agriculture and out-of-control consumption, and in favor of bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to urban neighborhoods devoid of anything but fast food, said MICA humanities chairman Firmin DeBrabander.

So they are planting rooftop gardens and community gardens and calling it art.

"This is an interesting form of rebellion," DeBrabander added.

"I think it's what Thoreau was doing, an experiment, a new way of living. There's a kind of social criticism in this. It's one thing to run out to the county and do it. But to do it in the middle of the city, that's really a statement - taking on urban decay and the demise of urban neighborhoods."

Pocock, the MICA professor who had a number of students go into agriculture, taught a class called Baltimore Urban Farming at the school this summer. Twenty students signed up, twice the number he'd expected.

"It's always been an art practice to look more closely," he said. "I've had students who want to go back and spin cotton, relearn how to butcher sheep. Because it's so foreign, it's become an art practice.

"They are one or two generations from these kind of very basic practices - self-sufficiency - and now they have a really strong urge to relearn them."

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