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New Spin on Back to the Land

Darra Goldstein

A computer whiz asked me out to dinner many years ago, back when Silicon Valley was just bursting into being. The guy lived in East Palo Alto in a funky, hand-built house. I was charmed. But the minute I walked through the door I sensed something amiss. No smell of onions or garlic greeted me; my date obviously was more interested in bytes than bites. The meal proved my nose right. Dinner consisted of righteously unseasoned brown rice with bean sprouts and sunflower seeds. I declined to date him again.

Healthy food in the ’60s and ’70s (“health food,” we called it) too often meant tasteless food. Sure, it was pure, both in terms of ingredients and ideology, but most people weren’t after exquisite taste. Now things are different. Every couple of weeks I go with my husband (who wooed me on paella and cheesecake not long after that brown rice encounter) to pick up our share of chicken at Hidden Pasture Farm, a small holding in the hills of southwestern Vermont run by young farmers Fiona Harrar and Seth Hanauer. We buy these chickens for several reasons: We want to support Fiona and Seth, and the chickens are genuinely free-range. But these worthy reasons remain secondary to what counts most for me. These chickens taste fabulous!

The Community Supported Agriculture movement in America began nearby here 25 years ago, yet the recent changes in this isolated corner of New England still surprise me. It’s the return of small farms. Dozens of smart, well-educated young people have chosen to move here, to devote themselves to farming. These young people have gone “back to the land,” as many of us dreamed of — and did — in the ’60s. But it’s very different now. Back then, embracing the land and eating whole foods meant a different kind of political statement. It was an act of rebellion, of dropping out. The 20-somethings involved in today’s Youth Food Movement are idealistic, to be sure, but also driven by a desire to engage rather than retreat. Instead of distrusting anyone over 30, they welcome the older generation as necessary partners in their quest to make the world whole again through food and farming. Their movement is consciously “glocal,” a neologism that grates on the ear but reflects the young people’s commitment to local food systems in the context of global communities. Or, as the Slow Food website explains, “We harness the potential of international fluidity and communication to positively affect local food communities and economies.”

Of course, every movement involves a degree of posturing, and food has certainly become a fad. The 1960s’ “back to the land” movement extolled Thoreauvian meditation. Today’s back-to-the-landers are more practical, and less starry-eyed. They use tractors and harvesters, not just shovels and hoes. Even the name — the Youth Food Movement — reflects their pragmatism, embracing not only the new generation of farmers, but also high school and college students. If this is a generation unsure of its place in a world that no longer feels safe, in the soil they discover a literal grounding.

Hidden Pasture Farm in Vermont.There is something deeply appealing, if old-fashioned, about relying on land for security. (I still remember my parents’ tattered copy of the small-farm handbook “Five Acres and Independence” in our suburban home.) Yet investing one’s savings in land is a very risky thing to do. Neither income nor yield can be assured. But the farmers, community activists and other participants in the Youth Food Movement believe that the nation can be saved by a commitment to the land. Row by row they will restore the soil and grow wholesome food to make people healthy again. For some, the social justice component is high; for others, it is a matter of individual or public health. For all, it represents a new American dream.

In the ’60s, you were either with us or against us; there was no middle ground. Today’s youth movement welcomes all types: brainy idealists, timid eaters, outraged activists. All are welcome; it is food that creates the community. Thus sit-ins are replaced by communal eat-ins, protest by positive action. If the Peace Corps was once the young idealist’s organization of choice, now that role may be filled by the Food Corps, a fledgling organization that hopes to send young people out into the fields and school cafeterias. College campuses nationwide are organizing their own Slow Food chapters; students at the University of California at Berkeley, ever ahead of the pack, have gone a step further to create CoFed, the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive, intended to “electrify” college campuses around issues of food. The endorsements on CoFed’s website reveal a generation that has absorbed the lessons of self-esteem and individual agency. As one student writes, “I feel so empowered, so loved, so much a part of something and I am so motivated within this group to finally bring about change — something I have wanted to do for I couldn’t tell you how long. CoFed is the start of the food REVOLUTION! We are the food revolution!”

What does it mean when college kids would rather spend spring break WWOOFing in Europe than partying in Fort Lauderdale? Will the Youth Food Movement last? If so, how will it develop? Will its very popularity institutionalize (and therefore destroy) it? This is a wondrous cultural moment, in which everything is open-ended, utopian and potentially all-inclusive. Sowing, reaping, nourishing — the whole project is laden with metaphors that mask the hard physical labor involved. Yet even if the Youth Food Movement’s grand visions aren’t fully realized, there are worse places to look for enlightenment than the farm. Soil is surely healthier than drugs. And in the end, it might just prove more revelatory.

Darra Goldstein is the Francis Christopher Oakley Third Century Professor of Russian at Williams College, and the founding editor of Gastronomica: the Journal of Food and Culture. She is the author of four cookbooks — “A Taste of Russia,” “The Georgian Feast,” “The Winter Vegetarian” and “Baking Boot Camp at the CIA” — and has organized several exhibitions, including “Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005,” at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

Photos, from top:
Darra Goldstein. Credit: Caleb Kenna
Young farmers Fiona Harrar and Seth Hanauer of Hidden Pasture Farm in Vermont. Credit: Carl Villanueva

Zester Daily soapbox contributor Darra Goldstein is a professor of Russian at Williams College and founding editor of Gastronomica. She is also the author of five cookbooks. Goldstein currently serves as food editor of Russian Life magazine and series editor of California Studies in Food and Culture from University of California Press.