Last spring dozens of foodies, farmers and filmmakers gathered in a loft within sight of the Williamsburg Bridge to watch a three-minute trailer for a documentary called “The Greenhorns.” A long table in the middle of the room nearly overflowed with local artisan cheeses, Mast Brothers chocolate and curried game bird hand pies made from wild duck. A bar at the back served organic, biodynamic wines.
A 12-foot wall served as the screen for some of the more than 30 hours of footage the trailer had been distilled from: scenes of sprawling green land trusts in California, freckled young farmers wielding hoes and urban gardeners tucking plants into backyard plots.
When the 27-year-old director, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, stood to make her remarks, she was instantly recognizable as the dynamo at the heart of the project. Anyone who’d been watching the footage had seen her honey-colored halo of ringlets bobbing on the screen, barging into greenhouses, stooping to examine a crop of carrots, running through an overgrown field. In the flesh she flitted from group to group in a diaphanous white dress, stopping to talk to a woman scribbling in a telltale journalist’s notebook for just a second before glancing up at the screen and exclaiming, “That’s where I’m going to farm this summer,” and skipping off for a closer inspection of the footage.
While her manner can be disarmingly offbeat, von Tscharner Fleming’s hands—with long, flexible fingers; big knuckles and closely clipped nails—belie her hippie exterior and reveal the no-nonsense farmer, filmmaker and activist within. As evidenced by the film’s mission statement, von Tscharner Fleming sees a clear purpose in her documentary.
“My premise is simple,” she writes. “If I can make a movie showing you what is possible, introduce you to these myriad rock stars, I believe I can inspire more of my generation to become farmers.”
The full-length documentary, due out in 2010, will tell the stories of “Greenhorns”—her term for such young farmers. Von Tscharner Fleming’s working definition for this group includes agrarians under 40 and anyone new to the endeavor who embraces organic and sustainable farming methods. Perhaps most importantly, Greenhorns also see their sun and soil efforts as a crucial transformation in American culture.
“We’re focusing on young farmers’ toughest obstacles, like training and the cultural bravery required to take on a job that no one in their family quite understands,” explains von Tscharner Fleming.
Filmed across the United States from Maine to Hawaii and back again, “The Greenhorns” is on schedule for completion in December 2009 after nearly three years of filming and fundraising. And while there’s no distributor lined up as of yet, von Tscharner Fleming believes, based on dozens of invitations to screen the trailer at colleges and universities, that it will find its way to theaters with no problem. The vast majority of the film’s estimated $300,000 cost has been, and will be, raised through methods she characterizes as “scrappy scrap, scrap.”
Those scrappy ways have attracted some very talented advisors. Aaron Woolf, 44, the director and producer of “King Corn” and one of the owners of Urban Rustic in Greenpoint, has been an advisor since filming began. With so many bright, shiny new farmers to capture on camera, and many hours of footage from across the nation taken by different shooters using different cameras, he sees a challenging editing process ahead, but also a way to weave all the threads together.
“I think documentaries work well when they have a narrative and maybe in this case Severine is the guide, a Virgil figure, and her journey discovering all these farmers is also the film’s journey.”
Along the way the term “Greenhorns” morphed from working title and description of the subjects to become the name of a nascent agricultural advocacy organization and an entire movement to boot. Last fall the Greenhorns received official nonprofit status, and while the movie remains the heart of the group’s work, its influence and responsibilities are ever-expanding. Over the past year of filming, collaborating and networking, they’ve started a database and mapping project called Serve Your Country Food, a sort of young-farmer census to connect land, people, skills and resources.
“Every day we get requests we can’t say no to,” says von Tscharner Fleming, speaking on the phone shortly before thanksgiving, while headed to a film shoot in Appalachia. “Just yesterday Hillary Clinton’s office called and wanted to find out how they could facilitate institutional purchasing of organic food.”
As both a film and as an organization, the Greenhorns is documenting a shift in agriculture that goes deeper than demographics. The young farmers in the documentary are working to cultivate a new food-growing philosophy as much as their rows of beets and peas. There’s a joyfully antiestablishment edge to many of von Tscharner Fleming’s explanations, and several of the farmers in the trailer speak of farming as a profession without moral ambiguity.
“I’m not relying on some strange economic structures that have been set up to benefit some and hurt others to make my livelihood,” explains farmer Amy Courtney of Freewheelin’ Farm in Davenport, California, in the trailer.
Those philosophical underpinnings—rejecting wild consumption, embracing collaboration, a respect for the environment and a belief in the superior quality of food grown under those conditions—has drawn a wide variety of filmmakers, food lovers and Michael Pollan acolytes to the project, many of them Brooklynites.
“In Brooklyn we fell into an easy tribe of allies, compatriots and colleagues in this movement,” says von Tscharner Fleming, who divides her time between upstate New York, road trips dedicated to filming and farm advocacy work, and the borough. “We’ve found amazing solidarity.”
When Eric Phillip-Horst, 26, a founding member of Brooklyn-based film and media company Meerkat Media Arts Collective, contacted the Greenhorns after reading about the film in the New York Times’ Style section, and von Tscharner Fleming hired him to work on two shoots; he plans to work on several more this spring. “This thing is made by a lot of people working together, that’s how it works, it’s not just one person’s,” he says of the collaborative spirit.
The Times reporter told von Tscharner Fleming that he discovered the film after Googling “hipster farmer,” and certainly, there’s a certain cool-kid factor to the movement, and her crew of “horticulture pixies and punky little permaculture kids” and loft-dwelling Brooklyn-based volunteer corps. But farmers, whether hipsters or strict traditionalists, seem thrilled by the prospect of a documentary about their work. Phillips-Horst went to a young farmers’ conference in Austin where the crowd was “less ‘I’m a hippie and I don’t want to get a job’ and more ‘My grandfather was a farmer and now I’m a farmer, too,’ and people were really excited that there was a film being made. They all said, ‘I’d love to talk to you.’ Uniformly that was the response.”
Talia Kahn-Kravis, a 23-year-old Greenhorns intern who lives in Park Slope, witnessed the growing interest in sustainable farming practices while working in southern Minnesota on an integrated pest-control project. There she saw “a lot of old men trying to keep up with the latest technology,” as well as the contrast of younger farmers embracing organic techniques and rejecting agribusiness’s spray-more mentality. But it took becoming the Greenhorns’ official “database minxy” to see that interest in agricultural alternatives as a sea change for American agriculture. “I didn’t think of young people changing farming as a cohesive movement until I heard Severine talk about it in those terms,” she said.
Between fundraising, working to expand Serve Your Country Food and scheduling shoots, von Tscharner Fleming is planning her next farming season. She raises ducks, rabbits and several acres of vegetables in the Hudson Valley’s Dutchess County, where she also keeps an office. So many of her employees, volunteers and advisors live in Brooklyn at least part of the year, though, that the film bears the mark of the borough. “It’s ostensibly about farmers, so it would appear to be a rural project,” says Woolf, summing up the film’s urban-rural collaboration. “It seems like Brooklyn is really the spiritual home base for it.”
Annaliese Griffin is a freelance writer and senior editor at BrooklynBased.net. She tries not to let her obsession with procedural dramas get in the way of her work.
Cellulose on celluloid: Severine von Tscharner Fleming’s forthcoming film follows the nation’s newest farmers: cool kids.