By Tracie McMillan

How do you feed a hotter, drier, more inequitable world? A new generation of American farmers are coming up with answers that rarely resemble the cornstalks and cattle pens of mainstream agriculture.

Today's American farmers are less white. They're also increasingly experimental. Even as our biggest farms get bigger, small producers are innovating in countless ways as they grapple with the serious questions that face our food system. Some prioritize making high-quality food affordable to folks on minimum wage and accessible in places where fresh produce is scarce; others are learning how to farm with far less water on drought-prone fields. They may be discovering hidden super fruits, reinvigorating coal country or bringing urban farming to the mountains. Here are six who will change your mind about what it means to farm.


1. Fish Farming on Dry Land

Aquaponic farmers Jessica Patton and Ken Armstrong at Ouroboros's farm stand.

Ouroboros Farm

Ouroboros Farms
Half Moon Bay, California

When the recent six-year drought hit California, most farmers were screaming for water. Here's one who wasn't: Ken Armstrong, owner of Ouroboros Farms in the Bay Area. And that is more than a little strange—because for Armstrong, water is actually a growing medium. He specializes in aquaponics, a system of raising fish and vegetables in tandem.

Armstrong founded the farm in 2012 after watching a YouTube video about Will Allen, a MacArthur Grant-winning urban farmer in Milwaukee. Inspired, he gathered some potential partners and attended a four-day workshop in Florida, then went home and got to work. Today, Ouroboros's greenhouses sit on a sliver of land, just one-third of an acre. Nutrient-rich water from the farm's 9,000 gallons of fish tanks circulates out through neighboring "raft beds," which hold floating frames with sprouting greens whose roots are suspended in water, and through "medium beds," which use clay pebbles to filter and disperse water for the vegetables. The roots take up the nitrogen from the fish, and clean water circulates back into the tanks.

The system, said Armstrong, produces mature lettuce more quickly than soil planting and uses less water, too. The monthly output of 12,500 heads of lettuce requires about 8,000 gallons of water—a little less than two-thirds a gallon per head, as opposed to 12 gallons on traditional California farms. And output is constant, allowing his fraction of an acre to match the annual production of five acres of soil.

Armstrong said he launched Ouroboros to prove that the method could work commercially. He sells greens and other vegetables to local restaurants, and an on-site farm stand offers direct sales, with salad mix going for $4 to $5 for an 8-ounce bag. He also hosts training programs and farm tours and consults with new growers looking to run commercial aquaponics operations.

"Being able to bring high-quality, nutritious food closer to urban areas is going to be one of the agricultural paradigm shifts for the future," he said. "I think more and more it's going to be popping up."

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