Spectator: Big ideas for small farmers

Lucy Baring clues up on big farming ideas for small farmers.

Words and acronyms fly through the air. Severine von Tscharner Fleming, founder of the Greenhorn movement in America, is sitting at our table and, despite having had little sleep for three days and having negotiated her way around England, of which she has only a sketchy geographical grasp, she displays few signs of fatigue.

Statistics come thick and fast: 70% of the food in the world is grown on less than 30% of the land; $58 billion has been paid over the past decade to bail out agribusinesses affected by drought, hurricanes and flooding. Seed sovereignty, subsidised crops, Farm Hack, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), in-vitro meat… Sometimes, I have to ask, ‘Is that good or bad?’.

I am a conventional person: I believe that if everyone was nice to the three people who live nearest them, we could solve a lot of problems. Severine’s ideas are bolder, more detailed and unconventional. In essence, she’s anti gigantic agribusiness and is fed up with the rhetoric that says we need Monsanto to feed the world.

She set up the Greenhorn movement in 2007 to encourage and connect young farmers across America. There are plenty of them, or plenty of people who’d like to farm, but high costs and low wages mean they need advice to enter farming — and then survive. She believes she’s creating a movement that can, with small steps, restore health to farms and she knows, from experience, that if you can get someone to survive three years in farming, they’re connected to the land for life.

She’ll soon be sailing from Maine to Boston, repeating last year’s experiment, which saw her travel 360 miles down the Hudson River in a boat that acted as a pop-up grocery store. She sold onions, apples, flour, maple syrup and honey — I won’t list the 237 regional ‘shelf-stable’ products (they had no fridge) collected and sold at daily stops. Takings doubled each day and, by the time she reached Brooklyn, the boat was raking in $1,200 a day. Brooklyn, she explained, is hungry for local food.

Recommended videos for you

This gimmick (her word) got noticed, which is why she’s repeating the exercise. It’s all part of Severine’s plan to change the way Americans think about food and food production. It’s not about opposition to the big players, ‘it’s about shifting our system, gradually, but quicker than we are now’. It’s about ‘leaving space for alternatives, providing a more diverse, flexible and enduring way of looking after the land and the people’.

But Severine’s no hippy. She’s got a business brain that’s making the most of our multimedia world. Next stop Bristol, to meet someone who’s creating software that makes it easier for local farmers to sell their products in a joined-up approach. She’s never far from her laptop and by the time I send her out for a walk — because I need to make supper and hide the multi-national packaging on half the ingredients — I’ve received multiple emails from her with links to research papers backing up her arguments.

I’m just getting to grips with the ideas that stem cells can be taken from live animals and grown in a lab to create chicken nuggets and that TTIP promotes free trade, but critics fear it will develop the sort of agreement that allowed Philip Morris to sue Uruguay when its government increased the size of health warnings on cigarette packets (i.e. governments can’t introduce any legislation that may harm profits), when Severine returns with armfuls of wild-garlic leaves, which she chops and fries in a little butter. We eat these instead of the salad in a bag and, of course, they taste better.