City Farming Becomes a Social Cause
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
"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
"Artists are already practiced in perception, in awareness," he said.
"Growing food involves so much looking and observing and just
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
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
"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."
For Strella, who manages the city schools' farm, the artist-to-farmer
transformation started germinating in his sophomore year, when he took
DeBrabander's course on the environment. It opened his eyes to how food
is produced. So instead of spending a semester abroad - studying, say,
Michelangelo in Florence, Italy - Strella lent a hand to City Farm
Chicago, a group that farms vacant blocks in that city.
When he returned, he helped create a garden in East Baltimore,
apprenticed at a farm and grew microgreens and herbs in the window of
his Mount Vernon apartment.
"It's just so romantic to come to understand how simple it is growing food and cooking food," he said.
Mike Hobbs, 27, a songwriter, rock musician and Towson University
graduate who grew up in a suburb, works at Pennypack Farm in Horsham,
Pa., toiling in the fields and teaching school kids about farming.
He makes $14 an hour - pretty good for a farmhand, but less than his mother thinks a college graduate ought to earn.
He couldn't be happier.
"I love working with my hands," he said. "When you finish a job, you
can look and say, 'Hey - done.' ... When I go out in the garden with
the kids, it's delightful. It's really magical, actually.
"I have a whole plan worked out, but I can't really plan for when a bee
flies by and lands on a flower or one of the kids finds something in
the garden and points it out."
Some longtime farmers see nothing romantic in a line of work that can
break a back before it turns a profit. Agriculture can be especially
challenging for this new crop of farmers, experts say, because they
lack the advantage of inherited farmland and tend to favor organic
"I don't mean to discourage
people from the strict rules of organic, but you've got to get a lot
more [money] for your tomatoes," said Henry Holloway, who has four feed
stores in Harford and Baltimore counties. "You could easily go out
there and plant 1,000 tomato plants and not get a single tomato because
of a blight or some type of a disease or insects. Whoever does this,
you're not going to be making six figures. You'd be lucky to make five."
Some artists say they're dabbling in agriculture as a form of
artistic expression, even if, by all appearances, they've become
farmers. Among them: three recent MICA grads who recently won the
$25,000 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize for their East
Baltimore community garden.
Scott Berzofsky, Dane Nester and Nicholas Wisniewski created
Participation Park in the 1100 block of Forrest St., on vacant lots
where 14 rowhouses once stood. They do not have permission to use the
land. It belongs to the city and private owners, who haven't either
noticed or cared about the corn, tomatoes and other veggies that have
sprouted there for three seasons now.
The idea is for neighbors to help themselves to the produce and pitch
in. This year, the artists fenced off an area and created a separate
garden, whose produce they're selling at the Waverly Farmers' Market
and to some local restaurants, including Woodberry Kitchen and Red
Emma's coffeehouse. They hope residents will take over that venture as
Not much painting
The group wanted to create a
public space, Berzofsky said, and thought a vegetable garden "made
sense in a place where there's lots of vacant land, not a lot of
nutritious food available, not a lot of supermarkets, also a shortage
Is it art or agriculture?
Art, Berzofsky says. "It's not so much about, in the traditional sense
of art, that you're producing an image or an object but producing an
experience and producing a space that can foster different kinds of
The three artists were feted at the Baltimore Museum of Art when
the Sondheim award was presented. The next day, they were back pulling
weeds and harvesting heirloom tomatoes.
"None of us are painting," Berzofsky said.