Rebecca L. Neely photo
“Hello, my name is Birke Baehr, and I’m 11 years old. I came here today to talk about what’s wrong with our food system.”
Birke Baehr has become famous in this past year, but on a Tuesday afternoon you might find him at a modest farmer’s market held in a church parking lot banked by tall lush woods in a residential area of Knoxville. When you meet him, he looks you in the eye and shakes your hand firmly. He has a quick command of facts and a sure way about him, that rare confidence that comes with international acclaim. One of the most popular lecturers in the history of the Internet’s esteemed Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) series of talks on provocative subjects, in April, Birke’s message was dubbed in Italian, when he was a guest on a show broadcast nationally from Rome. Known as a fierce and uncompromising advocate for organic agriculture, he has more high-profile lectures coming up this fall on the West Coast—at the Mother Earth News Fair in San Rafael, Calif., as well as another TED event in Redmond, Wash.—as well as spots in upcoming British and American documentaries.
He has strong opinions, that farming should be done without pesticides or other chemicals, that animals should be treated well, that food should be as natural as possible, that consumers should know the farmers who provide their food. He expresses his views politely but frankly. Some of those views concern subjects most Americans, even the organic farmers who set up tables here, know little about. “Everybody thinks that Europe is so anti-GMO (genetically modified organism) and pro-organic,” he says, “and it wasn’t, really, from what I could see.”
It goes without saying that he opposes GMOs. He is patient in explaining his terminology to the uninitiated. “Genetically Modified Organisms is what it stands for,” he says. “How it goes against nature and everything is really freaky for me. Like Frankenstein, that was the first thing that came to mind.”
Birke would be a remarkable fellow, even if he were not 12 years old.
He wears a University of Tennessee Vols cap, as does his companion, who’s about six and a half decades older than Birke. Birke calls him his “buddy.” Don Mills is Birke’s grandfather. A local businessman who grew up on a farm in rural Jefferson County, Mills admits, “I was not too into all this stuff myself, you know. I knew about pesticides and chemical fertilizers and all that stuff. But I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention until I started taking him to some of these conferences. And I tell you, I’ve become a real big advocate of what he’s doing.”
Birke’s always observing, but today he and his grandfather are shopping, too. “We got some green tomatoes to make fried green tomatoes,” he says. “We’re going to have them for dinner.”
Three or four years ago, he was just another skinny West Knoxville kid, albeit a smart, outgoing one. “He was born two months premature,” says his mother Tricia. “We thought, he must have something important to do, he sure was in a hurry to get here. He was always very bright, and interesting to talk to.”
He has a twin brother Brandt, who’s not yet famous. “They’re very different,” his mother says. Brandt is introspective, artistic.
Growing up in the very suburban west side of town, the boys had a mom who shopped at Kroger and a dad who traveled a lot. If Birke was known for anything, three or four years ago it was for his pluck as a middle linebacker for a community football teams organized by the local Optimists Club, and like most Tennessee boys, he daydreamed of playing in the NFL. They called Birke “Hit Man.”
“He used to tell me that when he became an NFL football player, that me and my wife wouldn’t have nothing else to worry about,” grandfather Mills says, laughing. “He would take care of us.”
The Baehrs were pretty typical Americans in their eating habits. Tricia cooked at home, and did most of her shopping at Kroger. She did prefer whole-grain bread, like a lot of mothers do, and didn’t buy sodas except for birthday parties and family pizza nights. Their life began to change, unexpectedly, when, at age 8, Birke wandered behind his mother as she sat at the computer in a mundane daily chore: checking her email. Birke peered over her shoulder and practically shouted, “What’s that?”
On the little news feed beside her home page—Tricia Baehr hadn’t even noticed it—was a report of a university study indicating that levels of mercury were sometimes present in high-fructose corn syrup.
“Click on that!” he demanded, and summarily took over the computer.
“Well, that’s interesting,” his indulgent mother thought.
Birke explains. “That was really when the light bulb went on in my head, because I knew from all my friends in third grade that mercury was poisonous, that it was gonna kill you, don’t eat it or anything, don’t break your thermometers and mess with it. So I didn’t know what happened with corn syrup, just being an 8-year-old kid, and I asked my mom, and the only thing she really knew it was in was sodas. And that was really—Wow. I just said to her, I’m not gonna drink sodas anymore. And so that really got the ball rolling.”
It rolled a good deal farther, as Trucia recalls of her willful son. “At Kroger, I’d put bread in a grocery cart. He’d pick it up, look at it, read the ingredients—and put it back on the shelf.”
“It’s got high-fructose corn syrup in it, Mommy.”
She would respond, “You don’t say.” She adds today, “I had no idea.”
Accustomed to leaving Kroger with a cartful of food, she sometimes left with only 10 items. Their genius son posed a dilemma, and she recalls the problem: “What are we gonna have for dinner? Birke won’t let me buy anything at the store.”
Fortunately, an Earth Fare, a grocery chain that emphasizes organics, opened nearby. The Baehrs, who weren’t wealthy, at first balked at the higher prices, but as their son patiently explained, they could pay more for organic groceries—or pay the doctor. It was the origin of a line that got applause years later at the TEDx lecture.
She began helping Birke with his research. Before long, Birke “went down that rabbit hole” of studying the agricultural industry, she said.
At the time, he predictably got some peer resistance. “At the time, a lot of my friends were kids who ate Cheese Puffs, and that kind of stuff, and played video games all day. And I also had some friends—maybe three or four—whose moms were into the organics, and they knew all about it. So I had friends who thought I was crazy, and others who didn’t.”
The more he learned, the more urgent his mission seemed. “I just remember digging deeper and deeper, finding more and more research, and I just remember one day, I said to myself, Man, as a kid, how do I get the word out. Nobody’s going to listen to a kid. But I finally got the chance one day.”
Meanwhile, three years ago, Birke’s mother and father made an unusual choice. Father John Baehr, who works with industrial flooring, often spent most of the time, as much as 25 days a month, out of town, often hundreds of miles away from Knoxville, and from his wife and children, on business.
“That’s not conducive to having a family,” says Tricia. “Here I was in Knoxville with three kids, always feeling like a single parent.” She found a website—the Internet plays a major role in this family drama—about families traveling together. The Baehrs bought an RV and began going as a family on Dad’s business trips, across the Southeast and beyond, from campground to campground. Birke recounts some of their travels with Dad, to Tampa Bay, Charlottesville, Indianapolis.
Of course, that makes football practice problematic, not to mention school. For the last three years, Tricia Baehr has been home-schooling her three kids on the road. That’s OK with Birke. Tricia gives them assignments weekly; he especially likes math, a subject especially useful for a farmer. “I get an urge to get very much done,” he says. “Sometimes I get it done in a day, and take the week off.”
Tricia doesn’t think their unusual gypsy lifestyle has anything to do with why her son is so different. “I think he was like that anyway, to be honest,” she says. But she adds their lifestyle did open up the world in ways schoolchildren rarely see.
“It gave him opportunities to follow his passion.” Often, he wanted to visit organic farms and organic food-producing facilities near where his dad was working. John Baehr was working at a medical center in Murfreesboro, Tenn., when Birke noted—his mother thinks he was reading the Mother Earth News—that a well-known organic farmer named Joel Salatin, from northern Virginia, was speaking at “the Farm.” The once-controversial colony known in the ’70s as a “hippie commune” near Summertown, Tenn., survives as a sort of alternative-nutrition center.
“That’s only 70 miles from here—will you take me?”
“Well, I guess,” his mother responded. The organic agriculture prodigy befriended the middle-aged Salatin, who later impressed Birke’s grandfather, too. Don Mills has often been the one who accompanied Birke on his jaunts to conferences, first as a student, lately as a lecturer.
That unexpected career began one year ago, when his mother heard about an event about 120 miles east of home, in Asheville. Tricia had run across mention of a special TED series intended to expose the best ideas of teenagers—kids 13 to 18—in the Asheville area for a public project called TEDx Next Generation Asheville. Birke was only 11, and lived in Knoxville. But, as Birke acknowledges, his mom has a talent for promotions. They filled out an application, and after a written statement and a sample film, made in his grandfather’s garden, the committee bent the age and geographical rules to let in the pre-teen from Tennessee.
The Orange Peel in downtown Asheville is not necessarily the sort of place one expects to see a grade-school kid lecturing about organic food. The well-known nightclub had recently hosted Vampire Weekend, Parliament Funkadelic, the Cowboy Junkies, and George Thorogood and the Destroyers. But on Aug. 28, 2010, a special event organized in conjunction with TED brought Birke Baehr, home-schooled sixth-grader and organic-food activist, to its stage.
He opened his talk, “Hello, my name is Birke Baehr, and I’m 11 years old. I came here today to talk about what’s wrong with our food system.”
He spoke without notes, and rapidly, about high-fructose corn syrup and pesticides and herbicides and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) for five minutes and 15 seconds.
“It seems to me that we can either pay the farmer, or we can pay the hospital,” he said, to a burst of applause.
“Know your farmer,” he concluded. “Know your food.”
There must have been something special about that particular five minutes. It was the first time he’d ever given a speech before any group, and it got out on YouTube. As of this summer, the number of people who have watched it is approaching half a million.
Today, Birke seems just a little sheepish about it. “I think I went really fast and did a lot of hand gestures, because I was really nervous and actually wanted to get it over with. I learned my talk completely,” he says. “I had to memorize it, and I tried my hardest to make it just go perfect. A lot of people are saying, ‘He used a teleprompter,’ and I’m saying, ‘No I didn’t.’”
Regardless, it was the beginning of a speaking career. He says it’s easier now.
The invitation to Italy’s popular talk show, “Il Senso della Vita,” hosted by popular television personality Paolo Bonolis, came out of the blue.
“I believe in English that means ‘the meaning of life,’” Birke says of the show’s title. In Italy, they call Birke “il piccolo agricoltore biologico.” The little organic farmer.
The Baehrs had never been to Europe, but they went to Rome to do the show. Birke was an obviously popular guest. His presentation before a live studio audience was dubbed in Italian. Originally planned as a two-day trip, the Baehrs decided to make a longer trip of it. While there, Birke spoke at John Cabot University, the English-language university in Rome.
Staying true to Birke’s mission, they stayed with an organic farming family—the Italian word for organic is biologica—in rural Umbria. From them he learned the Mediterranean diet is not all it’s assumed to be, at least from an organic perspective. “Everybody has this romantic notion of Europe, that they’re so much more organic than us,” he says. “Actually, from what I see here in Knoxville, we’re more organic than them.”
In between all the lights and applause, when he’s not on the road with his dad, he’s at his granddad’s house, helping with the turnips, red Asian lettuce, green onions, and bell peppers, tomatoes.
“The Cherokee Purple tomatoes are pretty good to plant every year. I just discovered them, the other year, and I got some seeds, and when I went to Italy [in April] I told my brother to water them for me. I had some in starter trays. And they died. So I bought some starters from a lady at the market, and I also bought some from the flower festival at the University of Tennessee garden, on Mother’s Day, so I have at least four or five now, at my granddad’s house, by the pool.”
The Baehrs’ home base, when they’re not in the RV on the road, is not a farm, but just a suburban yard around a modern one-story house with a swimming pool in back. West Knoxville is known for its McMansions and chemically treated putting-green lawns, but the Baehr/Mills family’s tree-shaded neighborhood retains a ragged trace of the rural hill country, as you find in some pockets on the edges of towns in the foothills of the Smokies.
In the plot alongside his grandfather’s house is a puzzling row of greens Birke doesn’t remember planting. He refers to it matter-of-factly as the “mystery plant.” Pointing at it, curiously, he says, “It looks edible, and I wanted to find out whether it’s a weed or not.” It could be young collards. He’ll figure it out.
Even a world-famous organic farmer has disappointments. “Our Swiss chard wasn’t doing so good,” he says, “so we plowed it up with the rototiller.” And, of course, replanted.
Across the quiet road and just down the hill a bit, a neighbor has a much larger field, and tills a small part of it, maybe a quarter of an acre as a larger market garden. He hires Birke to tend it when he’s in town. The owner of this local organic-food plot is, perhaps ironically, a retired Kraft employee.
Their subdivision on a hilltop looks disarmingly rural on a summer afternoon, that idyll accompanied by songbirds and a lone crow, but in fact it’s only half a mile from Kingston Pike, Knoxville’s notoriously commercial 20-mile long drive-in strip; Pizza Hut and several other chains restaurants are just down the hill. But you can’t see them from here.
Birke stands at the fence after a few days out of town and talks about how Johnson grass is poking up among the peas, potatoes, and cabbage in Mr. Brown’s market garden. “I think that cabbage is going to seed,” he says solemnly. He wants to try some new things this season. “I’m going to plant some watermelons and pumpkins. I haven’t grown watermelons yet, that’s why I want to test ’em out to see what happens.”
He’d optimistic about the progress he’s seen just in his own short life. Knoxville alone has several more organic stores and farmers’ markets than it did just five years ago. Knoxville’s 157-year-old downtown Market Square has seen an astonishing revival and is Birke’s favorite local market. His grandfather remembers the days when everybody went to buy fresh local produce at Market Square. Farmers’ markets became much less common in Knoxville after 1950 or so, and especially after the demolition of the old Market House in 1960.
But during Birke’s lifetime, local and organic food has been a growing concern. Farmers’ markets are sprouting up everywhere, and Market Square alone sees more produce sales, especially at its Saturday market, than it has seen in half a century—and, by July, dozens of varieties of tomatoes.
“The organic movement started to catch on in the early 2000s, 2003,in that area is when it really started getting momentum,” Birke observes. (In 2003, remember, he was 4.) “It’s gotten more popular since then.”
“I used to want to be an NFL football player. That was one of my dream jobs. But now I want to be an organic farmer, because I want to change the world.” It takes an unusual mind to convince any American, at 12, that farming is more important in the big scheme of things than football, but he’s already making long-term plans. His mother expects him to save up and buy his own farm by the time he’s 25.
“Right now I’m a gardener, because I don’t have any land to inherit,” he says. “I’m gonna have to start from scratch when I get older. I want to have my own farm, and be an organic farmer.
“A lot of people think farming is just putting a seed in the ground,” he says. “But it’s not that. It’s so much more.” He outlines the necessity of planning the crops, protecting them from weather—an unprecedented hailstorm in April was a big setback to many local farmers, and gardeners.
“You need to do some research about plants and what they need,” he says. “You’ll get some variety that’s from the north, and can’t stand the Knoxville heat, or some that are even from Florida and can’t stand the Knoxville winters.
“A lot of people underestimate farmers,” Birke says. “They don’t understand how important they are.”