Photograph by Blend Images, Alamy
Read Caption
The brains behind "Yardfarmers" think turning lawns into farms needs a Kardashian-like approach to go mainstream.
Photograph by Blend Images, Alamy
The Plate

Millennials Move Home to Farm Their Parents’ Lawns

Almost anything is better than grass. That’s the message the creators of Yardfarmers are hoping to get across in a forthcoming reality TV show centered on six twentysomethings who move back in with their parents and tear up their lawns.

“I’m trying to coin a new word here,” says Erik Assadourian. As a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute, Assadourian is charged with transforming culture. But after years of churning out reports encouraging Americans to eat and live with the environment in mind, he decided the message needed a bigger, more Kardashian-like stage. The concept for Yardfarmers was born.

The inherent drama of millennials brandishing rototillers moving back to their childhood homes—ruffling the feathers of, at the very least, the local homeowners association—should make for good television. In the show’s trailer, a pair of brothers says sharing a house with their dad in Connecticut is the hardest part of farming his yard. Another contestant says her Cuban parents see vegetables sprouting in their Miami yard as an economic step backward, not forward.

“The story tells itself with this subject,” says Katy Chevigny, a documentary filmmaker whose Big Mouth Productions is directing and producing the series. “I felt confident that there was going to be sufficient drama that came out of this paradigm shift of farming a yard.”

Beyond entertainment, Assadourian and the show’s backers see growing food in yards—and opting for multigenerational housing—as concepts viewers could replicate. They see such efficient use of both spaces as a way to make Americans more resilient and food secure in the face of a changing climate and growing population.

“America’s future may very well depend on what form its 40 million acres of lawns take,” says Assadourian, who grew up in a multigenerational home in Connecticut. “But, truthfully, the real motivation is that we need to reboot how we do things in America.”

From Concept to Reality

To reach that wider audience, Yardfarmers’ creators just have to find the right distribution channel to carry their series—or a foundation to foot the bill for production upfront. They’re producing short videos about the contestants throughout this growing season in hopes of filming next year.

Assadourian was first inspired to wade into reality show development by the work of the Population Media Center, which produces TV and radio specials in developing countries to educate citizens about family planning and safe sex.

Many of these series didn’t make it into the United States, but East Los High, which just landed a fourth season on Hulu, is an exception. The soapy drama follows Latina teens as they make life-altering decisions about pregnancy and STDs between sultry dance numbers. Nonprofits like the Ford Foundation saw the show’s subtle educational potential and funded production.

Foundations like the climate-focused V. Kann Rasmussen Foundation and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation have seen a similar potential in the concept for Yardfarmers and helped fund Assadourian’s work over the past two years. But producing several episodes of the show will require further support.

“A lot of 2014 was a learning process,” says Assadourian, who has been working on various state-of-the-world reports for Worldwatch while chipping away at the Yardfarmers concept. “I’m not a millennial and social media is not my forte.”

Still, the show’s call for willing contestants garnered more than 30 applications last year, from which Assadourian picked six with a variety of backgrounds.

Cast of Characters

Julie Pierre, 26, had already begun growing produce in her parents’ yard—and 45 other neighborhood lots—in Audubon, New Jersey, when she applied for the show. Her experience is featured in a short video about spring farming basics on the Yardfarmers website.

Jake and Max Renner, 22 and 20 respectively, had stashed their vermicomposting experiments in bins under their beds before moving back in with their dad. Now, they hope to grow enough food to at least defray the cost of their healthy appetites.

And then there’s Marielou “Lou” Cifuentes, 29, whose parents’ home already has several generations living in it, and Diana Perez, 26, who seems to know very little about growing food in her parents’ Miami yard.

“My greatest challenge would be to, like, actually have a harvest,” Perez says in the show’s trailer. “I don’t think it can be that hard, right?”

Assadourian hopes the trailer, videos, and social media outreach will continue to garner attention for the yardfarming concept until it finds a channel distributor or “the luxury” of a large financial backer.

Chevigny says one of the challenges of producing such a show, besides having to film as the seasons allow, is that it’s perhaps ahead of its time.

“I really do think that in a couple of years this will be a much larger part of the mainstream conversation. I’m convinced of that,” says Chevigny, who recently moved to Nashville, Tennessee, to find a growing number of neighbors with backyard chickens. “But we could make a fascinating television show about it now.”

Follow writer Whitney Pipkin on Twitter.