Despite the previous post about a NYC-based kitchen competition reality TV show’s call for contestants (see, Calling Ambitious TV-Ready NYC-Area Sweet and Savory Chefs: Producers of “Cake Boss” Casting New Kitchen Competition Show), NYC Foodscape is generally no fan of reality TV’s race to the bottom production style and atmosphere of hostility and contrived drama. That said, here’s a new farm and food reality show with a mission and a vision that we all could get behind.
Yardfarmers is an upcoming reality TV show created in partnership with the Worldwatch Institute about young Americans moving back in with their parents to farm their parents’ yards and neighborhood greenspaces. Why yard farming? Because yardfarming could help solve many of America’s challenges: from the obesity epidemic to food insecurity, from the abuses of industrial agriculture to food deserts, from social isolation to climate change. In an era of a changing climate, America’s future may very well depend on what form its 40 million acres of lawn take. An America built around local agricultural economies will be far more resilient than one built around car-dependent suburbs. The show is planned to air spring 2017 with filming in 2016.
The Show’s Premise
NYC Foodscape spoke to the show’s creator, Erik Assadourian, a sustainability researcher and Senior Fellow with the Worldwatch Institute for the past 13 years. Erik has also directed the Institute’s Transforming Cultures project since its creation in 2009 with production and publication of State of the World 2010: Transforming Cultures: From Consumerism to Sustainability. Erik is co-author of over a dozen books and an eco-educational board game, Catan: Oil Springs. He is a leading expert in sustainable development, economic degrowth, sustainable communities, and consumerism.
America is facing a converging set of crises–runaway climate change, increasing economic inequities, food deserts, an out of control obesity epidemic, and an industrial agricultural system that’s exacerbating all of these. This grim future is the impetus for Assadourian’s creation and vision for the show.
Yardfarmers seeks six idealistic contestants willing to move back in with their parents or other family members and turn their yards and other neighborhood green spaces into “yardfarms,” and in doing so, convert America’s fifth largest crop by acreage (the lawn) into a major new source of sustainable food, household security, livelihoods, and community resilience–and inspire the rest of America to do the same thing. Assadourian sees the show as a way to normalize sustainability and help Americans “take the future of their communities, their livelihoods, and their food systems back into their control, and make themselves ready for the changes Mother Nature is going to throw their way.”
Assadourian hooked up with documentary film maker, Katy Chevigny, an award-winning filmmaker and co-founder of Big Mouth Productions. Chevigny recently co-directed the feature documentary E-TEAM, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and won the festival’s U.S. Documentary Cinematography Award.
How Yardfarmers Differs from Other Reality TV
Unlike most reality TV shows, Yardfarmers will not rely on melodrama, contestant subterfuge and snarky interaction to catch viewer attention. Instead of fast moving cameras and confession room disses, Assadourian compares the show’s production format and style to Frontier House, a historical reality TV series on PBS. The show followed three families that agreed to live just as homesteaders did in the state of Montana on the American frontier in 1883 and complete a set of tasks necessary to prepare for the harsh Montana winter in competition for a prize. Like Frontier House, at the end of the series, Yardfarmer contestants will be judged by a panel of experts on how well they have transformed their yards and organized their communities, using criteria such as, the amount of food produced, their sustainability and permaculture practices, their ability to store and/or sell their food, the balance of self-sufficiency and economic viability, how well they educate and mobilize neighbors and viewing audience, etc.
The producers are looking for diverse contestants to yardfarm in their small towns, suburban/exurbian locations and major urban centers, as long as you know you can live with your parents for almost a year and they are willing to participate in the yardarm concept. Though Assadourian doesn’t see picking a contestant who will have too difficult a time creating a sustainable yardfarm, such as someone from a highly arid desert location or where they don’t have a lawn or they live in a location where getting access to public or other land to grow is impossible, he he is willing to consider any viable plan, even if seemingly far-fetched.
After a training period in Tennessee where the contestants will learn how to grow food and get permaculture as well as what he calls “backpack” journalism training, the producers will begin filming at each contestants location, relying heavily on the contestants’ self-directed footage and multimedia platforms, including blog posts, Web footage and training videos. Assadourian says that there may be guest appearances along the way, such as farmers and experts in sustainability and the like.
Why Moving Back With Your Parents?
Assadourian sees an opportunity for cultural transformation. Projections for our climate and economic future in next century are very bleak, he says, and we can’t keep growing in numbers the way we have as as a country and living separately. He cites recent past economic crises in Europe, where youth unemployment in places like Spain and Greece skyrocketed, but where multigenerational housing is a normalized way to support family members through all life stages. The idea of living separately is a very American idea, and moving back in with your parents is a sign of shame here, Assadourian notes. He wants to flip trend upside down.
The producers are shopping the show around, looking for a network to to pick it up. They have grant funding to produce a pilot, but to produce an entire series, the show will need more money and will need the backing of a network.
To give you an idea of Assadourian’s long-term vision, here’s the tongue-in-cheek press release for the show:
Release: 2 April 2030, 10:00AM Eastern
Washington, DC: After 14 incredible seasons, Yardfarmers—the award-winning reality TV show that inspired a national change in how we grow and eat food, and ultimately how we live—is finally coming to an end.
“I remember when it all started, back in April of 2015,” said show creator Erik Assadourian, “when we launched our very first call for contestants to find six young Americans willing to move back in with their parents to convert their parents’ and other neighborhood lawns into yardfarms.” Back then, more than two-thirds of American adults were overweight or obese, most ate diets full of highly processed foods made primarily from corn, wheat, and soy, and at the same time many Americans spent thousands of dollars a year sustaining polluting, climate-changing, monocropped lawns. In fact, as hard as this is to believe now, in 2015 the fifth largest crop in the United States by acreage was the turf-grass lawn.
“Those certainly were barbaric times, where Americans ceded control of food production to large companies who used a mix of fossil fuels, genetic engineering, and toxic pesticides to manufacture calorie dense but nutrient poor foods,” said Assadourian, “all while literally sitting on huge reserves of fallow land just begging to be farmed.”
But today, after 14 seasons, most former lawn space is now devoted to producing food for the household and surrounding community. And of the 4.3 million acres of lawn that still exist—down from roughly 40 million acres in 2015 (See Figure)—most are in the form of community parks and athletic fields, both of which also serve as grazing land commons.
This transformation of America’s lawns into yardfarms (“yardfarm” officially entered the Oxford English Dictionary after Season 5 in 2021) played a significant role in increasing local food production to the current one-third of daily food needs, in bringing America’s overweight/obesity rates down to the current 18 percent, and in reducing the climate emissions of the agricultural sector by nearly 40 percent. Experts also point to the show as what prevented America from being seriously affected by the global famine of 2026, when massive droughts simultaneously hit the bread baskets of the Midwest, Western Europe, and Russia. “As most American communities produced at least part of their daily food needs, they became more resilient in the face of more unpredictable climate patterns,” wrote food scholar Michael Pollan in his best-selling history of the yardfarming revolution, Let Them Eat Carrots (Island Press, 2028).
With the human population still growing—now at 8.1 billion—and greenhouse gas emissions still not stabilized, all strategies to make communities more resilient are valuable. Yet with lawns no longer being seen as a “normal” part of the urban or suburban landscape, and with multigenerational households now commonplace in the U.S., the idea of encouraging young people to move back in with their parents to create more robust household and community economies by converting lawns to yardfarms has run its course. “Yardfarmers has achieved what it set out to do,” said Assadourian, “and it’s time to put the show out to pasture for a well-deserved retirement.”
Katy Chevigny, award-winning filmmaker, co-founder of Big Mouth Productions and director of the first three seasons of the show, noted surprise upon hearing news of the show’s cancellation. “Honestly, I remember being pretty skeptical back in 2014 when Erik approached me with this project. I thought reality TV was just too corrupted to be made into an agent of social change,” said Chevigny. “But Yardfarmers helped put the real back in reality TV and in the process helped put America on a far more sustainable path.”
Of course, none of this would have happened without the success of the first season that aired in 2017. And the call for contestants that launched on April 2nd, 2015 is when it all started. At that time 36 percent of young Americans (ages 18-31) were living in their parents’ homes. But back then, living with mom and dad was typically a source of shame. Yardfarmers succeeded in tapping into the changing social realities and converting that shame into the pride of living healthy, interdependent, community-connected, sustainable lifestyles. As the original call for contestants noted, “The conversion of a million acres of lawns to yardfarms begins with one seed sown.” Fourteen seasons and 36 million acres later, that conversion has now run its course. —END—
Need Inspiration? Meet Melina, Yardfarmer
Before there was Yardfarmers, there was Melina Kelson-Podolsky. Melina and her husband, Pete, both Chicago-area chefs, live in Skokie, Illinois. Like most of the 1950 brick ranch homes in Skokie, their home was surrounded by the standard swath of flat, green, generic, chemical- and water-dependent lawn. Melina, a baking instructor at Kendall College culinary arts program, became active in the local food and farming world about 10-15 years ago, and was an early and key volunteer during the formative years of The Talking Farm. She worked tirelessly to help us create our mini-farm and outdoor classroom in 2008, and for that hard work, I am eternally grateful. During that same summer, she had an idea for her own mini-farm: turning her useless lawn into a productive yardfarm. At the time she performed this transformation, her yard was the talk of the town, drawing visitors and accolades from the local food community. Her yard was featured in Chicago Magazine and was a revolutionary step in home landscaping that a growing number of homeowners have emulated in the years since her yardfarm began.
Here are some photos from the past six years of Melina’s yardfarming. Almost every part of her yard is put to productive use, providing her and her family with most of her fruit and vegetable needs. She and her husband even built their own wood-fired oven to make and sell their own baked goods and savory products using their own fruit, under the name, Bootleg Batard, and her two kids have been part of the team since the beginning. Thank you to Melina for the photos below:
Apply before August 1st to be a Contestant
Though you don’t need to apply formally to become a yardfarmer, the producers want to inspire all of America to following the adventures of six young Americans (21 to 30ish) that they hope will lead the rest of America to tear up their monocropped lawns and replace them with yardfarms.
The show will be filmed from March 2016 until November 2017, so applicants need be able to commit to be being a yardfarmer during that time, and be willing to be filmed while they do. The show will then air in March 2017.
No farming experience is necessary–just a commitment to convert lawns around your neighborhood into productive yardfarms. All contestants will receive a crash course in permaculture in March at the Ecovillage Training Center in Tennessee (all expenses paid). Contestants will also receive training in filming so they can film their yardfarming journeys.
The producers will pay your health insurance, and are offering student loan repayment assistance, plus stipend for completion of full growing season. The winning yardfarmer will receive a significant cash prize, the amount to be disclosed.
Application includes questions, such as:
- Will you graduate by March 2016 or will you be able to take leave from March 2016-December 2016 or will you be able to continue your studies while living as a yardfarmer at your parent’s home?
- Do you have a criminal record?
- Are you a legal resident of the United States?
- Are you already living with your parents?
- Where would you yardfarm? Please include specific locations that you would farm (such as front/backyard, community lot, public space, vacant lot, balcony, etc.):
- Do you have or do you think you will be able to get permission to farm the properties you include? Please describe.
- Will you and your family be comfortable documenting your yardfarming journey through a combination of a camera crew and through self-filming?Describe your family. Include descriptions not just of your parents, but any siblings, grandparents, or other family members living at home. Also include any family (e.g. partner, child) that will be joining you if applicable.
- Why do you want to be on Yardfarmers?
- What makes you unique?
- Describe your experience farming/gardening, if any.
- What do you think will be most difficult about being a yardfarmer?
- Describe your personality (good aspects, bad, weird, interesting, etc.)
- What are some of your interests or hobbies?
- Do you foresee any obstacles to moving back in with your parents and becoming a yardfarmer (e.g. complaints by neighbors, difficult land to farm, etc.)? Describe and explain how you’ll address these obstacles.
- What social issues are you passionate about? Why? How are you helping to address this issue?
- Why should we pick you to be on the show?
Include a video that shows why you should be chosen and helps the producers get to know you, your parent(s) and/or family you’ll be living with, including any other members of the household who will be living at home from March 2016 to November 2016. We want to also get to know your neighborhood and the sites you plan to yardfarm.
Yardfarmers is a production of Big Mouth Productions in partnership with the Worldwatch Institute. More information about the show can be found at yardfarmers.us and more about the call for contestants, including official rules, at yardfarmers.us/call-for-contestants.
The Worldwatch Institute is an independent research organization, based in Washington, D.C., that works toward the evolution of an environmentally sustainable and socially just society in which the needs of all people are met without threatening the health of the natural environment or the wellbeing of future generations.
Through accessible, fact-based analysis of critical global issues, Worldwatch helps to inform people around the world about the complex interactions among people, nature, and economies. Worldwatch focuses on the underlying causes of and practical solutions to the world’s problems, in order to inspire people to demand new policies, investment patterns, and lifestyle choices.