400 Million Acres Of Farmland Could Disappear—Unless This Woman Gets Her Way

Activist Severine von Tscharner Fleming is fighting the agricultural crisis of a lifetime—protecting retired farmland from developers for the organic farmers of the future.

February 8, 2017
severine von tscharner fleming
Aaron Colussi

She first fell in love with farming while visiting relatives in the Swiss countryside. “I was really into cows,” says Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a tangle-haired 35-year-old activist. “I still am.” Watching the farmers milk their herd and make cheese at Alpine dairies gave her a taste for a community-based farming lifestyle nearly gone from the United States. When she arrived at Pomona College in Southern California, she helped start an organic orchard, recruiting volunteers, planting trees, patching hoses, and giving voice to her beliefs. “That’s where I learned to be an activist,” she says. 

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While completing undergrad studies at UC Berkeley a few years later, Fleming became increasingly concerned by the corporate takeover of the food supply—the antithesis of what she’d experienced as a child in Switzerland. She founded UC Berkeley’s Society for Agriculture and Food Ecology (SAFE) in 2007, hosting dozens of speakers and starting an ag-themed film festival. The events were a success, but after they ended, she says, “I realized that in order to solve problems of industrial farming, it takes more than commentary—it takes new bodies, new ideas, and personal commitment by smart people.”

Fleming made her first documentary, The Greenhorns, about young farmers choosing sustainable agriculture as a meaningful livelihood. But she also saw how tough it was for newcomers to navigate careers in agriculture, so she launched her first nonprofit, also called the Greenhorns, to help. Based in upstate New York, the organization provides young farmers with resources to network, learn, and develop business plans.

Related: How Much Hard Work Actually Goes Into Starting An Organic Farm

Thanks partly to her work, more young people are pursuing organic farming—but they’re struggling to buy land, a hurdle that Fleming sees as the agricultural crisis of our time. “The basic math of the situation is really frightening,” she says. “And the megatrends are all headed in the wrong direction.” In coming years, 400 million acres of U.S. farmland (nearly half the nation’s total) will go up for sale as older farmers retire. With land prices driven to record highs by developers and corporate speculators, property is increasingly out of reach.

And so in 2015 Fleming launched the Agrarian Trust, an advocacy and support organization that hopes to begin acquiring farmland soon via purchase or donation, to hold in trust for organic farming. As these organizations mature, Fleming is organizing her third national symposium on land ownership, researching land reform, and working on Our Land, a video series about food and the farm economy. When will she ease up on the throttle? “When we have a new economy of jobs that are place-based and land-based,” she says. “When people are eating happily and healthily from within their region.” The rest of us shouldn’t relax until then, either.


Related: "I Gave Up An MBA To Become An Organic Farmer"