A Conversation with Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg
Danielle Nierenberg’s experience with agriculture goes all the way back to her roots in the rural Midwest. Though she admits that back then, “I didn’t want to have anything to do with farming.” To say that she has now changed her tune would be an understatement.
The feisty founder of Food Tank—as the name implies, it’s a think tank for the food system—always seems to be in three places at once, whether holding court in a farmer’s field, penning op-eds for major newspapers, or onstage, microphone in hand, smiling at a group of esteemed panelists assembled to discuss some obscure but important topic like the agroforestry systems of Afghanistan, while grilling them about their assumptions and the scientific validity of their work. (Full disclosure: Nierenberg is on the Modern Farmer Advisory Board, too.)
Food Tank is most widely know for its “food summits,” which occur sporadically throughout the year in different cities around the globe (the next one is April 1-2 in Boston). You could describe the summits as sort of a food-centric version of Ted Talks, but Nierenberg makes it clear that these aren’t just feel good preaching-to-the-crowd conventions. They’re about bringing food system players together who might not normally talk to each other—who might hate each other guts—and drawing them into a meaningful public debate on the most pressing issues of the day. No Power Points slideshows here, she says: “We don’t want to allow people to just give their usual spiel that they would give at any sort of industry event or sustainable agriculture conference. Sometimes it’s important to have an uncomfortable conversation, and allow for unusual collaborations to develop.”
I don’t like to romanticize farming; but we’re hoping to make sure that young farmers know that they are not alone,
This month, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture released Letters to a Young Farmer, a collection of essays by 36 leading thinkers in the food world which addresses a certain white elephant: the average age of American farmers is 58.3. Thus there are now more farmers over the age of 75 than between the ages of 35 and 44, which says something about the appeal of the profession in contemporary society. Nierenberg, who contributed an essay to the anthology (along with the likes of Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Pollan), recently sat down with Modern Farmer to share her thoughts on this, and other, essential subjects facing the future of our food system.
Modern Farmer: What was on your mind when you sat down to write your essay for Letters to a Young Farmer?
Danielle Nierenberg: My letter talks about being someone who grew up in a rural Midwest environment and didn’t want to have anything to do with farmers. I thought what they were doing was stupid and I didn’t get it. But in my own personal evolution I’ve learned so much from farmers, as a Peace Corps volunteer when I was younger and later in my career with Food Tank and other organizations. I’ve been able to spend time on farms both in the United States and around the world and get a sense of the important work that farmers are doing every day.
I don’t like to romanticize farming; but what the book is hoping to do is make sure that young farmers know that they are not alone, that there is a growing movement that wants to support them. I thought about what would I want to hear if I was a 22-year-old fresh out of college and embarking on a life as a new farmer. We’re seeing so many people giving up lucrative jobs and turning to farming because they think it’s important.
We’ve forgotten that farming is super knowledge-intensive, or at least it should be.
MF: Do you think the agriculture world is making progress in attracting new farmers?
DN: We are certainly seeing a surge in organic operations, but you don’t see a lot of the folks that I grew up with in the nineties in the Midwest who stayed on the farm. Most didn’t want to. So I think we have a long way to go, especially now with the Trump administration. We made some headway over the last eight years with USDA programs to encourage young farmers, including mentoring programs that link younger farmers with older experienced ones. I fear that a lot of that will disappear and young farmers won’t get the resources and support that they need.
MF: Riding a tractor all day by yourself through a field of corn and soybeans isn’t an appealing job description for a lot of people. Is part of the problem that farming is not sexy enough as an occupation to draw the millennial crowd?
DN: I don’t want to demonize the folks who are operating those large commodity farms, because they have a lot of valuable knowledge and skills. Despite the stereotypes a lot of those folks are actually using very advanced technology to grow crops more efficiently and I don’t want to undermine that in any way. I encourage the integration of high tech with traditional techniques—combining GPS and drones and crop data on your cell phone and all this other cool stuff that’s happening in modern agriculture with cover crops and green manure and native species. I think there is a real opportunity for farmers of all sizes to make farming intellectually stimulating and exciting. We’ve forgotten that farming is super knowledge-intensive, or at least it should be.
I don’t want to demonize the folks who are operating those large commodity farms, they have a lot of valuable knowledge and skills.
MF: Sounds like agriculture has a branding problem.
DN: For folks out there who are looking for something that surprises them every day and invigorates them in a way that working on Wall Street or at a tech company doesn’t, I think they can find that in farming. We have this illusion that farmers are farmers because they are dumb, that they ended up on the farm because they didn’t go to college and don’t have any other opportunities. I think that perception is really changing, but it’s a slow road.
It’s an especially slow road in developing countries where often the government is telling you to get out of farming and move to the city, that they’re not going to support farmers. There is a lot of work to be done to change those perceptions and encourage investment in agriculture so that it’s attractive for young farmers all over the world. But I’m encouraged by what we have seen over just the last five years with Silicon Valley being more interested in investing in sustainable food systems—that will be hard for the new administration to ignore.
If you’re interested in what makes good business sense, what makes money, you can’t deny that having more organic, planet friendly, and plant-based products is a good idea. Those things have been successful because the demand is there. I don’t think it’s going to work to ignore that now and focus on what is essentially a 1980s philosophy for the food system. But unfortunately I don’t think this administration realizes that.
MF: Now that you’ve brought it up, what else worries you about Trump in regards to food and farming?
DN: I’m very apprehensive about what’s going to happen with the next farm bill. I think we are going to have to fight hard to maintain what we gained over the last eight years rather than trying for a lot of new things. The connection between immigration and farm labor is another thing where I think the new administration is totally behind the times. They don’t understand that without those folks, whether they are documented or undocumented, our food system would come to a grinding halt. The people who are growing, harvesting, preparing, and serving our food need to be better recognized for what they do. (Editor’s note: For more on immigration and farming, see “The High Cost of Cheap Labor” from our Spring 2017 issue.)
MF: Food Tank summits have been a fantastic forum for bringing all the stakeholders in the food system to the table, including farmworkers. Why is that important to you?
DN: Our mission is to highlight stories of hope and success in food and agriculture, both domestically and globally, and provide that inspiration to others who need it. I started Food Tank to give a different side to the story of food that was based on the work that I’d done interviewing hundreds and hundreds of farmers and other food system stakeholders around the world. I worked for an environmental organization for many years and it was very doom and gloom, always focusing on the problem. At Food Tank we also highlight where we think the system is broken, but what we really want to do, through the articles that we post every day online, through our newsletter and webinars and podcasts and research reports, is to give people examples of what is working.
Sometimes the things that are working are not getting a lot of government support or funding, so imagine what the world would look like if all those things got the support they needed to be really successful? We want to get those stories out there to a wider audience and show people what needs to be scaled up.
Without immigrants, whether they are documented or undocumented, our food system would come to a grinding halt. The people who are growing, harvesting, preparing, and serving our food need to be better recognized for what they do.
MF: You’re a bit notorious, if I may say so, for bringing people together who have strongly opposing views.
DN: We want to bring people together for the sake of good conversation, but sometimes it’s important to have an uncomfortable conversation, and allow for unusual collaborations to develop. We don’t want to allow people to just give their usual spiel that they would give at any sort of industry event or sustainable agriculture conference. We’ve brought together food labor and justice leaders on the same stage as scientists from Monsanto and Bayer and essentially forced them to talk to one another. It’s healthy to have to answer hard questions and sit next to people on stage or at lunch or in the audience who you never wanted to talk to.
I’ve been doing this for a while now and I’ve seen that preaching to the choir hasn’t gotten us anywhere. If we’re only talking to people whose viewpoints are similar to our own, we are never going to change things. That doesn’t mean I agree with Monsanto, and it doesn’t mean I agree every sustainable food advocate out there, but I do think we need to find where we can agree on things, acknowledge where we can’t, and then find ways to move forward.
We have a president who is not listening to anyone else and that’s not getting us anywhere, it’s just creating a lot of bitterness and anxiety. It’s the same in the food movement—if we want anything to change, we need to start listening to one another.
When we are talking about climate change, every story should include agriculture.
MF: In many ways Food Tank acts as a media organization, blanketing the airwaves with all these new ideas about food. What you think of mainstream media organizations and how they portray the food system?
DN: I feel they are still so behind the times. That’s not to say that The New York Times hasn’t done some amazing reporting over the years on different aspects of the food system—you can’t ignore a publication where both Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman have contributed so much amazing writing. But when we are talking about climate change, for example, every story should include agriculture. Every story about urban conflict should include agriculture. I still think there’s a tendency to not understand that the food system is not only involved in many of these issues, but it can also contain solutions, whether it’s to help alleviate a conflict, find ways to quell migration, or to better engage youth at school.
So I tend to be very disappointed with mainstream media. Anything about agriculture is usually buried below the fold of the front page or inside the newspaper because it’s something that not everyone is interested in—but they should be. Why the famine in sub-Saharan Africa is not on the front page every day, or the role of agriculture in climate change, not to mention its ability to help mitigate and reverse the effects of climate change, I do not know.
MF: You seem to keep at least one foot, and sometimes two, in the international realm of agriculture. What’s the message that you want US consumers to hear about agriculture in the developing world?
DN: Great question. It’s not just what I want consumers to know, it’s what I want other farmers to know. I feel like there has been a tendency for farmers in wealthier countries to think they have so much to teach farmers in other parts of the world, and that the transfer of knowledge and technology would naturally always come from the United States. In some cases that’s true; I think farmers here have a lot to share and that north-south collaboration is important. But what I am really invigorated by, and what I’ve actually seen a lot of, is that we have a lot to learn from farmers in the Global South. So I would love to see more of that south to north sharing of information.
We shouldn’t be ignoring farmers in the rest of the world just because they might be “less developed than we are.”
MF: What might that look like?
DN: Many farmers in developing nations have been dealing with certain things for a long time that are kind of new to American farmers, especially in terms of climate change. Like the wildfires that devastated livestock farmers in the Midwest over the last few weeks and the drought in California. Things like that are an everyday thing for many farmers in poor countries. Those farmers have learned to pivot and change their production practices quickly, though I grant that these farms are often a lot smaller than those in the United States.
There is also a lot to share around things like agroforestry, growing more indigenous and locally-adapted crops, and working with traditional livestock breeds. These are all things that could serve as important lessons for farmers in the United States and in other rich countries. We shouldn’t be ignoring farmers in the rest of the world just because they might be, quote-unquote, less developed than we are.
MF: In a similar vein, what do you think a conventional commodity crop farmer from the Midwest might have to teach a young aspiring organic farmer?
DN: I think many of these older farmers really understand the business of farming in a way that many upstart farmers do not. It’s easy to forget that farmers are businessmen, and businesses need business plans. Idealistic young people in every profession go in not knowing exactly what they’re doing financially. When I started Food Tank I didn’t have a clue about fundraising. Fortunately I had great help from my board to help me figure that out. Those are skills that we all need to learn, and hopefully we find great mentors along the way. But we also need a government that supports farmers in learning those essential skills.