Earlier this year, 22 veteran organic farmers met at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California to share experiences, concerns, and wisdom on the development and continuation of organic agriculture. Lifetime farmers and activists Eliot Coleman of Four Seasons Farm in Maine and Michael Ableman of Foxglove Farm in British Columbia organized the Agrarian Elders Conference. Other participants included Amigo Bob, farmer and major league agricultural consultant from northern California, Deborah Garcia, widow of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and producer of several agricultural documentaries, and several other farmer activists from both coasts of the United States. Those invited to the conference all met the criteria of farming either using organic or biodynamic practices for 30 years or more as well as passing on their agrarian knowledge to future generations and demonstrating continued social activism.
All of these farmers were the leaders of the original organic agricultural movement. They had little to guide them in their work and were often regarded as rebels. The movement has grown immensely due, to a large extent, to their initial efforts. According to the Organic Trade Association, organic sales grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $31.5 billion in 2012. However, while the industry is showing marked growth, young people seem less interested in jumping into farming. According to the latest Census of Agriculture, the average age of the American farmer is 58.3 years, and the largest growing age group of organic farmers is those 65 and older. Retiring without a generation to take over farms was a major concern of the attendees of the Agrarian Elders Conference.
Ableman is currently writing a book on the conference, and Garcia is producing a documentary, both of which will give more detailed, personal accounts of each of the “agrarian elders” and their contributions to and concerns about the growing organic agricultural industry in the United States. As a New York Times article states, “How will they (the Agrarian Elders) be able to retire and how will they pass their knowledge to the next generation?”