by Jordan Marr
Note: I originally published a shorter version of this essay in The Canadian Organic Grower Magazine's Spring/Summer 2014 issue. I wrote it in May of 2014.
I attended an event for young farmers recently. Its main draw: Jean-Martin Fortier, the certified organic market gardener who, with his partner, Maude-Helene, built a thriving business based on biointensive methods and scale-appropriate tools and then wrote a book about it. In French only at first, but it sold so well (JM tells a story about entering one chain bookstore in Quebec to find his book #2 in sales behind 50 Nuances De Grey) that in early 2014 he published an English translation.
The Market Gardener is an important book. But this is not a book review. I point you instead to the title of the series of talks Fortier gave in BC in March, 2014: Young Agrarians, the organization that sponsored the series, dubbed it the Rockstar Farmer Tour.
Rockstar has become a common, if lazy, hyperbole to describe someone who is well-known in their field. Here I must acknowledge, since I'd rather be accused of hypocrisy than self-righteousness, that I referred to Fortier as a Rockstar in the introduction to the podcast episode I produced in which he featured. So I can't, and don't, fault Young Agrarians for doing the same. At least, not for using a cliche. We in the farming industry have too much to do, and too little time, to be creative all the damn time.
But it concerns me that we chose that particular cliche. Because we didn't just draw Rockstar out of a hat. Cliches become so for a reason, and I think Rockstar's raison d'etre reflects a certain set of attitudes and aspirations of this particular generation of young farmers, myself included. Which is why it has become so popular as a hook in advertising aimed at Millenials.
Has Rockstar been used in the past? Probably. But I think that in those cases it was "Rock Star" farmer Eliot Coleman or "Rock Star" writer Wendell Berry. I can't imagine the phrase ever formed the title of one of their book tours. And, at some point between then and now, the air quotes fell away. Jean-Martin Fortier isn't a "Rock Star" Farmer. He's a Rockstar-Farmer. "Rock Star" has trasformed from a slangy adjective into a noun--Rockstar--of equal importance to the word it used to modify.
So, why Rockstar then? What does the term capture that speaks to younger farmers? As I've said, I get that in large part it's a sexy stand-in for exceptional or renowned. But I don't think that's all there is to it.
Just about all of those farmers who can be defined as 'young' are part of the Millenial generation. Even myself, by a hair. Which means that most of us were subjects in the grand self-esteem experiment of the late 20th century. We were praised regardless whether we deserved it, and for many of us, that praise became an addiction we couldn't shake when we entered adulthood. We were told that we could achieve anything we wanted. We believed it. We also developed a strong social conscience stemming from a combination of growing up prosperous and being informed about the environmental and social calamaties happening at home and abroad.
In a sense, we were raised to be rockstars. Are rockstars, in our own minds. As far as we're concerned, the only difference between most of us and Jean-Martin Fortier is that we haven't gotten our recognition yet. We became farmers because we genuinely wanted to 'make a difference'. But that's not enough. We of the self-esteem generation really, really want to be praised and admired for our noble pursuits. We want to be Rockstar-Farmers.
This could be problematic. Traditionally, farmers have always been associated with humilty. The question is, is this humility a crucial condition to being a good farmer? No, not crucial. But it's pretty important, I think, in the movement to reform farming towards a more sustainable set of practices, and, more importantly, to educate the broader public about why this matters.
This project is greatly helped by farmers who present a friendly, welcoming, and, I would argue, humble face at farmers markets and in other interactions with the public. I'm not sure this can be effectively achieved by a generation of farmers who think they're awesome just for showing up.
This is a movement that requires collaboration, and rockstars aren't always great at sharing the spotlight. They aren't renowned for their customer service, and I don't know that they're really good at being activists, either, because you can't be sure of their true motives. Is it about the issue, or their ego?
While at Jean-Martin's event, I ended up in a group selfie with him that went out over Facebook with the hashtag #rockstarfarmers. It was a nice stroke of the ego, but I know that if it's the advancement of the movement I care about, I should try really hard to be a #roadiefarmer instead.
Good night, Cleveland. You've been great.