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A CREATIVE CROP

THE BALTIMORE SUN

One student butchered a sheep for her senior project. Another went on to study animal husbandry. Still more found work on vegetable farms. Professor Hugh Pocock taught them all, not at a land grant university but at Maryland Institute College of Art.

For reasons ranging from highbrow theories of art and social justice to booming farmers' markets, young people with no background in agriculture are going into the field. And quite a few of them are artists.

"A lot of us didn't set out to farm for a living, to have that be what we did all day," said Greg Strella, 24, who came to MICA to become a sculptor and graduated a farmer. "I certainly didn't feel that way even 12 months ago."

But there he is, under a straw hat, atop a tractor, managing Great Kids Farm, a 33-acre organic spread owned by Baltimore's school system.

Strella grew up in a farming area in Pennsylvania but hardly knew it, assuming the wheat fields near his house were "forgotten space." Now he spends his days tending beets and other crops, looking after chickens - believing, each time he spots plants that need watering or detects pests before they take over, that he's putting his MICA education to good use.

"Artists are already practiced in perception, in awareness," he said. "Growing food involves so much looking and observing and just awareness."

Art schools aren't the only breeding ground for future farmers, just one of the more unlikely ones. The University of Maryland added more introductory horticulture and crop sciences classes in the past three years - and still turned students away.

That's good news for an industry that can use new recruits. The average American farmer is 57 years old, according to the federal 2007 Census of Agriculture. Perhaps because many of these new farmers are interested in sustainable farming, the average organic farmer is younger, 53 years old.

"You'd be surprised at the number of students [not majoring in agriculture] who might take our introductory crops courses, who think this looks like fun," said Leon Slaughter, an associate dean at UM's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "We're seeing more interest than we can provide seats for."

'Back to the land'

More young people are turning up at seminars on sustainable agriculture, said Jeff Schahczenski, an agricultural economist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Montana, which runs the U.S. government's sustainable agriculture information service. He credits the Food Network for promoting foodie culture and movies like Food, Inc. for criticizing industrial agriculture.

"I see a lot more young people coming to meetings who are very interested in and passionate about food and food quality," he said. "It is somewhat like a back-to-the-land movement."

With a twist.

While young farmers are not short on idealism, devoted as many are to organic and sustainable methods, they tend to be more entrepreneurial than their hippie forbears.

"There's this economic opportunity to be a farmer again," Schahczenski said. "Whether they enter [the field] as a new kind of artisan butcher to supply fancy restaurants in New York or Seattle or back up and grow that food for those restaurants, they don't want to go to the middle of Nebraska and farm. They want to go to some cool urban center and farm."

Part of farming's new appeal stems from the emergence of food as a hot social cause. A generation of college students sometimes accused of being apathetic toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seems to have found its movement, and it's food.

Gardens as art

These students are against industrial agriculture and out-of-control consumption, and in favor of bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to urban neighborhoods devoid of anything but fast food, said MICA humanities chairman Firmin DeBrabander.

So they are planting rooftop gardens and community gardens and calling it art.

"This is an interesting form of rebellion," DeBrabander added.

"I think it's what Thoreau was doing, an experiment, a new way of living. There's a kind of social criticism in this. It's one thing to run out to the county and do it. But to do it in the middle of the city, that's really a statement - taking on urban decay and the demise of urban neighborhoods."

Pocock, the MICA professor who had a number of students go into agriculture, taught a class called Baltimore Urban Farming at the school this summer. Twenty students signed up, twice the number he'd expected.

"It's always been an art practice to look more closely," he said. "I've had students who want to go back and spin cotton, relearn how to butcher sheep. Because it's so foreign, it's become an art practice.

"They are one or two generations from these kind of very basic practices - self-sufficiency - and now they have a really strong urge to relearn them."

For Strella, who manages the city schools' farm, the artist-to-farmer transformation started germinating in his sophomore year, when he took DeBrabander's course on the environment. It opened his eyes to how food is produced. So instead of spending a semester abroad - studying, say, Michelangelo in Florence, Italy - Strella lent a hand to City Farm Chicago, a group that farms vacant blocks in that city.

When he returned, he helped create a garden in East Baltimore, apprenticed at a farm and grew microgreens and herbs in the window of his Mount Vernon apartment.

"It's just so romantic to come to understand how simple it is growing food and cooking food," he said.

Mike Hobbs, 27, a songwriter, rock musician and Towson University graduate who grew up in a suburb, works at Pennypack Farm in Horsham, Pa., toiling in the fields and teaching school kids about farming.

He makes $14 an hour - pretty good for a farmhand, but less than his mother thinks a college graduate ought to earn.

He couldn't be happier.

"I love working with my hands," he said. "When you finish a job, you can look and say, 'Hey - done.' ... When I go out in the garden with the kids, it's delightful. It's really magical, actually.

"I have a whole plan worked out, but I can't really plan for when a bee flies by and lands on a flower or one of the kids finds something in the garden and points it out."

Some longtime farmers see nothing romantic in a line of work that can break a back before it turns a profit. Agriculture can be especially challenging for this new crop of farmers, experts say, because they lack the advantage of inherited farmland and tend to favor organic practices.

Not lucrative

"I don't mean to discourage people from the strict rules of organic, but you've got to get a lot more [money] for your tomatoes," said Henry Holloway, who has four feed stores in Harford and Baltimore counties. "You could easily go out there and plant 1,000 tomato plants and not get a single tomato because of a blight or some type of a disease or insects. Whoever does this, you're not going to be making six figures. You'd be lucky to make five."

Some artists say they're dabbling in agriculture as a form of artistic expression, even if, by all appearances, they've become farmers. Among them: three recent MICA grads who recently won the $25,000 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize for their East Baltimore community garden.

Scott Berzofsky, Dane Nester and Nicholas Wisniewski created Participation Park in the 1100 block of Forrest St., on vacant lots where 14 rowhouses once stood. They do not have permission to use the land. It belongs to the city and private owners, who haven't either noticed or cared about the corn, tomatoes and other veggies that have sprouted there for three seasons now.

The idea is for neighbors to help themselves to the produce and pitch in. This year, the artists fenced off an area and created a separate garden, whose produce they're selling at the Waverly Farmers' Market and to some local restaurants, including Woodberry Kitchen and Red Emma's coffeehouse. They hope residents will take over that venture as a co-op.

Not much painting

The group wanted to create a public space, Berzofsky said, and thought a vegetable garden "made sense in a place where there's lots of vacant land, not a lot of nutritious food available, not a lot of supermarkets, also a shortage of jobs."

Is it art or agriculture?

Art, Berzofsky says. "It's not so much about, in the traditional sense of art, that you're producing an image or an object but producing an experience and producing a space that can foster different kinds of social relationships."

The three artists were feted at the Baltimore Museum of Art when the Sondheim award was presented. The next day, they were back pulling weeds and harvesting heirloom tomatoes.

"None of us are painting," Berzofsky said.

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