Hi, Sarah here. On Wednesday the farm crew ventured to the Yale-Meyers forest, 8,000 acres of woods in northern Connecticut. Each summer a crew of students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies manages the forest.
The forest is divided into plots of land, a few of which the crew looks at each year. The plots, by the way, get named by the crew; we walked through “White Pine-apple Express”, “Super Dank”, and “Carly Simon”.
"Managing" a plot is a two step process. First, the crew surveys the area and comes up with a prescription. This prescription takes into account a laundry list of factors: the density of the plot which is measured by the basal area (literally the thickness of the base of the tree), how many of each species are represented, the soil type, diversifying the ages of trees. It suggests generally which species or kinds of trees to favor.
Bearing in mind the prescription, the forestry students take cans of spray paint and look at each area closely. They select trees as “crop trees” which they would like to see flourish, trees with healthy crowns and straight trunks that are about 30 feet away from the nearest crop trees. Then they take their cans of spray paint and mark which trees need to go down, which are pretty much any trees that are inhibiting the crop tree from reaching its potential. Dead trees are usually left up since they make good habitats for wild life.
Sometimes when we talk about giving tours at the farm, we use the phrase “seeing the forest through the trees,” which for us means giving the larger contexts of diversity, crop rotation, urban farming etc. to the specifics of transplanting chard or trellising tomatoes. Obviously, the phrase was a bit more literal in this context: the prescription serves as a view of the forest when the crew is looking at a smaller subset of trees.
But walking around Yale-Meyers, I found myself a bit more interested in seeing the trees themselves, looking at the subtleties that differentiate a crop tree from the one that will be chopped up and used to fire our pizza oven. Usually when I’m walking in a forest I see a forest, or at least trees plural, but the crew was analyzing the potential of each and every tree. Julius, who manages the forest, described thinning out an area as a puzzle. As one goes through to mark an acre, she must constantly be balancing the locations and species of all the other crop trees and the prescription she created.
I come from a coding background, and my first reaction was to imagine the way a program might solve these problems. Definitely there were times when lines were blurred, when two beautiful trees stood close to one another and choosing one would then alter the 30 foot radius or the species ratio and therefore all the crop tree selections, There had to be an optimal arrangement. Quite quickly I realized human instinct is actually much more efficient than converting every tree into pieces of data, mostly because each decision has so many incomparable factors. How does one decide whether the knot in one tree might make it less profitable than the bend in another? What about which tree is healthier for the ecosystem? How can one weigh profit against forest health at all? A computer certainly can’t, unless numerical values are assigned to those priorities. I feel like this always happens when we talk about the best forms of agriculture. Grass fed beef have more of a carbon footprint than corn fed beef but also how do we factor in the fact that people would eat less beef if it wasn’t cheap CAFO stuff and then there would be fewer cows? Some things just can’t be compared by exact numbers of carbon dioxide molecules going into the atmosphere.
Then there’s the issue of playing God.When we weed our lettuce bed or trim an area of the forest, we are taking natural selection into our own hands, favoring the big and the beautiful and allowing the potentially weak to live. I remember a Pollan argument that the plants that can survive without pesticides are the most nutritious ones because they are strong or something like that (forgive me it’s been a while since I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma). Continuing that path of logic suggests that we should all be foraging, only eating the fittest of plants since they are the most nutritious. The weird thing is with forests, we already have played God, or at least our ancestors have. Almost all of New England was at one point farm land. These forests have grown back from plowed pasture; managing them might get them closer to a “natural” place. Even Native Americans managed forests with controlled fires.
It wasn’t immediately clear to me why we were going to the forest besides that forests are really cool. But looking at timber as a crop pushed me to think about our farm. Which totally raised the trip from dank to super dank.
Today’s post comes from Global Food Fellow, Austin Bryniarski CC ’16. The Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.
I remember when I first learned about food deserts some years ago. I was at an urban farm in Milwaukee, minutes away from the city’s largest housing project, perplexed by the simultaneous cacophony of chickens and car alarms. To me, food access mainly concerned city dwellers. My understanding was basic: supermarkets planted themselves in middle-class neighborhoods, leaving low-income residents with precious few options for healthy and affordable food. In response to this alarming pattern, novelty ways of producing food — like urban agriculture — came to be.
Fast-forward to one week ago, four years after my food access amuse-bouche, and I’m presenting policy options to a group of people interested in increasing food access in their community. Unlike Milwaukee, though, the trains carried coal instead of people and the closest downtown was a couple of blocks long, at best. My supervisor, a fellow intern, and I travelled to Vanceburg, Kentucky and Athens, Tennessee to train community members in food policy advocacy and facilitate the creation of a food policy action plan. The focus of our presentations was to discuss ways to increase production and consumption of local agricultural products in rural Appalachia — a place stricken with food access issues that I admittedly, until this trip, had not thought a lot about.
Rural America is rife with food insecurity. Like urban food deserts, poverty severely affects Appalachia, which makes it harder for residents to afford healthy foods and more challenging for grocers to ensure they’ll have enough of a demand to supply. Upon our arrival, we found out that one of two grocery stores in Grundy County, Tennessee had recently closed. Without grocery stores, rural communities depend on corner stores and fast food restaurants for nourishment because they are convenient and inexpensive, albeit unhealthy. (An excursion to Cracker Barrel — the ubiquitous, kitschy restaurant at every highway exit — proved this. I still reminisce about my chicken-fried steak, all slathered with gravy.)
Geographic distance plays a role in rural food access, too — the USDA considers rural Census tracts food deserts if at least a third of the tract’s population is more than ten miles away from a grocery store. Grundy and McMinn Counties in Tennessee contain food deserts under this definition. Complicating this metric is the fact that some residents may not be able to drive — especially in areas with low vehicle access, no public transportation, or with large elderly populations — further limiting the options of where someone can purchase food. The USDA’s Food Access Research Atlas shows that almost half of Lewis County is considered a “low vehicle access” area. We constantly heard about how schools throughout the region had had only one day of school in January because inclement weather made travel unsafe; the same hazards can prevent many from going out for groceries, too.
The situation in Appalachia carries a subtle irony. We city slickers often picture rural America as where we get most of our food from, red barn and spotted cow and green tractor, and thus question why food access would persist in such a place. The numbers, however, tell a different story about the places we travelled. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture (the food and farm policy wonk’s Bible), commodity crops like hay, corn, and soybeans dominate agricultural production in Kentucky and Tennessee, while income from fruit and vegetable production is at the wayside, clocking in at anywhere from 2 to 4 percent of all production. Further complicating our myth, farmers are shifting away from the profession: since the last Ag Census in 2007, the number of farms dropped by 10 and 14 percent and the total land in farms dropped by 7 and 1 percent in Kentucky and Tennessee, respectively. Fewer farmers are farming less land. And what they are farming isn’t ending up in salad bowls or soup pots nearby.
These twin problems of food access — lack of consumption and lack of production — can have significant impacts on public health. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported that Appalachia is home to the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the country. The groups we presented to, called the “Appalachian Diabetes Coalitions” (ADCs), are part of a program created by Marshall University in West Virginia, and they exist throughout the region to respond to and improve public health outcomes associated with diet-related disease. The ADCs that we worked with identified the issues of agricultural production and local food consumption as major priorities, so our report focused on three strategies for improving each issue.
To improve production, we focused on policies the ADCs could advocate for that would incentivize farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables. For example, we looked at policies that allocate greater funding toward new farmers or farmers transitioning to food production from a different crop, for example through grants, low-interest loans, or tax incentives. We also provided examples of policies that improve training for farmers (either new farmers or farmers learning how to comply with food safety regulations, for instance) and policies that could more innovatively link farmers to farmland (aptly called “land-linking”) that Kentucky or Tennessee could emulate.
To improve consumption of local, healthy food, we focused on how local producers could best take advantage of local markets. I presented about local procurement by institutions, where a state policy could require schools or state agencies to purchase local produce (thereby supporting the local economy). We also discussed policies to make direct-to-consumer purchasing easier (like placing EBT machines at farmers’ markets) and ways to improve the distribution in the supply chain, like incentivizing the existence of food hubs and food processing facilities.
After providing this menu of options and discussing how relevant each one would be in the counties we worked with came the “policy advocacy” activities that were well-received by the coalition members. For the time we had, we realized our original goal of unveiling a completed action plan by the end of the day was too ambitious, but we still went through the process that the ADCs will replicate on their own time after more carefully considering each component of their plans. We spent the afternoon evaluating policy goals, partners, and strategies for attaining those goals; defining what successful advocacy for that goal would look like; and anticipating challenges that would arise from advocating for a policy. With business cards exchanged and photos snapped, our workshops ended with an air of excitement and a palpable potential.
It seems to me that the growing “food policy movement” has honed in on urban centers in recent years, mostly concerned with the wants and needs of people living in cities. Take farmers’ markets — policy has made setting up a farmers’ market in a cities around the U.S. easier, so that all it takes is a trip down the block to buy groceries directly from Farmer Brown. Everyone — from city and country — is happy. Right?
What about the rural folks living amongst those farmers? Where are they in the distribution chain, and how are they affected? When we talk about “improving sustainable agriculture,” which demographics are we improving it for? Appalachia made me realize that rural food politics are woefully uncharted, and in solving the problems of an interdigitated food system, rural food politics cannot be left out of the picture. While our interactions with the coalitions were limited to a two-day trip, the objective of our workshops was clear and started a conversation that would continue into the future. Equipping everyone — especially rural populations — with policy advocacy skills makes for a food system that is responsive to the needs and wants of all its consumers and producers.
Even so, rural and urban settings face different problems that will require different solutions — a lot of the examples we presented to the ADCs were city-centric, because that’s where a lot of food policy has been theorized and implemented. Bearing this in mind, we charged the groups to think of what bits and pieces might apply to their communities, even if Vanceburg, Kentucky looks entirely different from Milwaukee or Boston. We also clarified that our list was not exhaustive, because surely there are food policies we didn’t think of, or ones that do not yet exist. The gaps in rural food policy became clearer; if we are to have an inclusive and comprehensive movement, we’ve got to mind those gaps. I’m hopeful that the Appalachian Diabetes Coalitions we worked with are doing that. But it’s just as important for anyone who cares about food policy to be cognizant as well.
Austin Bryniarski ’16 is a “rising” junior in Calhoun College majoring in Environmental Studies. During the year, you can find him at the Yale Farm as a Harvest leader (and Farm Intern emeritus) or a local coffee shop as a writer for various campus publications. While he’s upping the ante this summer as a paleo-vegetarian eater, he generally abstains from carbs. He is a Lazarus Global Food Fellow at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. He hates the word “rising.”
Hi, Margaret here. Last week on the farm we harvested herbs from our medicinal berm and hung them up to dry. In a week or so, the dried leaves will be crumbled into bins and stored for winter-time tea-making, but for now, the shipping container where we store most of our tools has been turned into a cave full of aromatic oils.
Olfaction is older than any of our other senses. The olfactory bulb, where scents are processed, is separate from the rest of the somatosensory cortex, but has close access to the amygdala (emotions) and the hippocampus (memory). More so than taste, sight, hearing, or touch, smell has the ability to form direct associations among memories, feelings, and sensory stimuli. I remember this because the hippocampus is curved like a seahorse and means “sea monster” in Greek. When I was little I was afraid of the ocean; I associate salt water with that phobia, that time in my life.
What do I associate these herbs with?
Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program supports the extracurricular study of food systems. In our inaugural year, four students proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system. As a part of their experience, they will be checking in with the YSFP (and the world) through our Tumblr – stay tuned to read their reports and revelations!
One of the most commonly used words in Nepali is “Tiksa,” which means good, I am good, or right depending on the situation. It’s one of those words that sits on the tip of your tongue and comes out instinctively if appropriate. When people ask me what interning at the Asia Network for Sustainable Agriculture and Bioresources (ANSAB) has been like, “tiksa” has become my usual response. The problem is if you were to ask a Nepali who relies on agriculture for their livelihood how their business was going, they probably would not respond with “tiksa.”
During my first few weeks in Nepal, I’ve been amazed by the pervasiveness of agriculture across the country. Even in Kathmandu Valley, arguably the nation’s most developed region, the food system remains rather decentralized. Last weekend I traveled to a small community in the Valley, to visit a kindhearted Nepali family that wanted me to see how they lived. As I stood on the roof of their home, I admired the view. In one direction the international airport and the densely packed buildings of central Kathmandu loomed before me. In another, the small village of Lubhu—with its distinctive Newari architecture—appeared in the distance. And behind the house (as you can see from the picture below) rice paddies, which are still cultivated by the area’s families, offered a different type of view. The range of scenes visible from this single roof depicts many of the challenges facing Nepal as urbanization spreads and threatens many people’s livelihoods and access to food. As I have traveled around the country and started my work at ANSAB, one thing has become clear: there is no silver bullet that will just resolve all of the challenges facing Nepal’s agricultural people, but there are a few exciting programs which are actively moving towards that goal.
Data suggests that roughly one third of all Nepalis collectively manage some of their public lands, through community forest user groups. Due to the mountainous terrain, poor road conditions, and other factors that render several regions of Nepal infrequently accessible (and therefore make it difficult to sell food products), many subsistence farmers generate extra income by gathering Non-Timber Forest Products, such as spices, medicinal plants, and the ingredients for essential oils. By working with ANSAB to obtain Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, they’ve been able to successfully tap into international markets and supply companies like Aveda. Despite the progress made, the use of pesticides on many farms continues to pollute watersheds, the desire to increase agricultural production continues to result in deforestation—which can increase the risk of landslides—and the economic interest in greater development continues to threaten biodiversity.
So thanks to funding from the United Nations Environmental Program, ANSAB teamed up with the FSC, and a small group of NGOs across the world, to pilot an innovative ecosystem services certification. One of my current projects involves creating a resource guide, which will explain how the certification provides environmental, social, and economic benefits. We hope that this guide will motivate many community forest user groups to seek ecosystem services certification, therefore increasing the sustainability of their agriculture and expanding the economic potential of their products. The certification also ensures that all community members are treated equitably regardless of gender, caste, or ethnic group.
In these first few weeks, I’ve learned that interconnectedness reigns supreme in the face of the complexity of Nepal’s economic, social, and political fabric. In other words, addressing any one issue (like pesticides on farms or a lack of access to a distributor for food products) requires resolving a host of other challenges, like poor education or insufficient access to information, inequality based on gender or social position, and difficulties dealing with government regulations. Despite these obstacles, the resilience of many individuals—and the emphasis on local communities—can empower people to seek change collectively.
The interconnectedness of various issues also means that gains made in a specific target area have a much wider impact. For instance, the ecosystem services certification also moves communities towards social justice, promotes improved governance, and enhances access to education. It’s this idea of interconnectedness that has been the most exciting part of my experience at ANSAB. Every day, a committed group of highly educated, highly talented individuals come together to help facilitate change. Instead of seeing the challenges as insurmountable, the staff works to organize communities, unleash the power of collective energy, and help villagers across Nepal to create more sustainable and economically viable lives rooted in agriculture. It is an honor and a pleasure to join them in this effort this summer.
ANSAB maintains a garden at its headquarters in Kathmandu. Many of the ingredients for our communal lunches are sourced from this garden.
It can take days to transport food from farms in the mountainous regions, like these pictured in the Annapurna Conservation Area, making it difficult for farmers to rely on food production alone for their income.
Jacob Wolf-Sorokin is a rising junior at Yale University majoring in Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and an Academic-Year Intern at the Yale Sustainable Food Project. His summer internship at ANSAB is funded through the generous support of the Lazarus Global Food Fellows Program at the Yale Sustainable Food Project, the International Studies Fellowship at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, and the Tristan Perlroth Prize for Summer Foreign Travel at the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies.
This week we hear from student farm manager Ryan Mera Evans. A note on the following passage from Field Coordinator Jeremy Oldfield: Ryan’s story contains a graphic scene that is endemic in farm life. The Yale Farm, an acre of cropland surrounded by urban and suburban realities, is no exception. We keep a careful eye on how our compost is produced and where it is spread to ensure maximum safety and fertility. Enjoy!
“Find a pile of gold and sit on it.”
― John Gardner, Grendel
Over the past two days, I unearthed six mountains of feathery, airy, crumbly, black humus from our compost piles. The six piles were the result of months of food scraps, crop refuse, and weeds. Over hours, under sun, and after plenty of turning, the piles shrink. Weeds are cooked, earthworms and woodlice feast, and old meals are broken down. What is left is a light, amorphous, and fertile substance, where one can’t distinguish between microorganisms, plant matter, minerals, or earthworm poop. Humified plant matter. We spread the black gold over our berms, where they provide flowers, herbs, and vegetables with the conditions they need to grow well. Our six compost bins, like all fluid components of the farm, are a concentrated visual reminder of the fuzzy boundary between new life, old life, and stasis, and kinesis.
But, in order to lubricate the spinning life wheel, our compost must be turned. So, two days ago, I set out with a shovel, a pitchfork, a strong back, and a weak mind to facilitate a “proper” compost.
I think about
I was on my third pile of compost, in the groove, muscle memory on lock, when I hit something that wasn’t compost. I pulled the shovel away, pulled a drink from my water bottle, and, while resting, saw a pink and gray sausage poking out the compost.
That doesn’t belong there.
I leaned in, water dribbling down my chin, towards the compost nubbin.
A rat. I just decapitated a rat. It was about four inches long. As big as the sausages I ate for dinner the other night. The top half of its body stuck out the soil, legs weakly pawed at the air, blood spurted out of the neck hole. Pink and Red, surrounded by a gray casing. This death didn’t belong in this compost. It was fresh, mammalian, still alive.
There must be more. A Nest. A click in the head. Out Out Out. Shovel in, shovel out. Rats out. Memory out. Remove the rats as quick as possible, cover up the hacked carcasses with soil, make the squeals and the unwanted movement stop.
When I was sure there were no more rats, I went to get a drink.
I finished my job. I turned the compost, and made sure that I didn’t approach it without care. Instead, I turned the compost softly. I didn’t stab, I folded, and created a new nest: one that cradles the future life in the compost. One day, the compost will nourish our acre, but this week, it is okay to care for the mobile mountains.
Last week, I was in charge of landscaping duty. With a weed-whacker and mower, I waged a war against tall grass and weeds. I still feel the rumble of the mower. What other tactile sensations exist at the farm? The tickle of our asparagus forest, the sweet, sticky juices from plucked gooseberries, the moist soil after it’s been kissed with fish emulsion. There are countless others. What helps me feel the farm? Hands. Soft hands, with small calluses on the top of the palms.
In middle school, I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. One character, Curly, wore a glove “fulla Vaseline.” An unlikely detail, and definitely not practical, but the glove did create a barrier between man and the work-tools, or man and the soil.
Back to my hands. I inspect the scabbed over blisters on the insides of my thumbs. I should’ve worn gloves.
Sometimes, agricultural-workers are called farmhands, a synecdoche that evokes a cloud of hands that till the soil and turn the compost. Popular images show the farmer, cupped and calloused hands pooled with soil. I wonder, what is a grower’s most important tool? Can it be the hands, that weed or transplant? Or is it the mind, filled with years of listening to the soil and other growers? Maybe season after season fuse the two together. I imagine two carrots, corkscrewed around each other, underneath the earth.
At the Wooster Square market, an exchange of crumpled bills signifies the trade between the grower and the consumer. Contact is one thing farmer’s markets provide. You put a place to a face. The interaction reveals the invisible fingerprints that cover our food, that are hidden under bright super market lights. When we trade, cash for veggies, or veggies for cash, we say: Yes, this food grew on an acre of land in Downtown New Haven; yes, we are students. You can tell by our hands.
Onagh MacKenzie ‘15 writes about her summer in Sitka:
By the grace of the universe, luck, and a generous fellowship, I managed to find my way back to Sitka, Alaska this summer. I happened upon this special island community in Southeast Alaska through a food-related internship last summer and promptly fell in love with its spirit, culture, and mountains that kiss the sea. Needless to say, I’ve been ready to return ever since my plane’s wheels took off last season.
I had been back in Sitka for a week when I got the call. It was a friend’s father, Floyd, on the other end of the line. Floyd was a longtime fisherman, handyman, and an expert in random but countless fields, as all Sitkans seem to be. He invited me out to fish; an opportunity for ocean travel, general fun, and a potential stocking of the freezer. I immediately accepted.
All suited up in my mustang suit, an unsinkable, orange, full body flotation device, and I was ready to hop in the skiff. We headed out to Biorca, an island about forty-five minutes on relatively calm water from Sitka. It was Salmon Derby weekend in town, and the flashy sport fishing boats watched our well-worn skiff amble by enviously. It was the crack of dawn and we had time and the tide on our side. The competing boats couldn’t head out from the harbor until 7 am.
Outboard engine slowed and the waves making their presence known, we began the ritual baiting of the hook. Watching a seasoned fisherman complete this initial task, one instantly becomes aware that fishing is steeped in tradition. Floyd prefers to use herring as bait, meticulously cutting the small dart of silver on the underside, down the belly to the tail. His confident hands hook one hook in the fish’s flesh, leaving the second to snag the too-curious salmon. A needle is then pierced through the fish, dragging the line through the eye. The eyeballs are kept in their socket at all costs, maintaining every possible shred of herring authenticity. The line then wraps around the chin, precisely twice. Floyd’s signature flair comes when he curls the herring, right at the neck and inserts a toothpick to keep the neck turned, giving the fish a realistic spin when trailing in the water. When I ask about this method, Floyd admits that he doesn’t know where he learned this and isn’t sure that it works better than any others, but it’s Floyd’s flourish and he’ll practice it as long as he fishes.
Almost immediately after we cast and start to troll, moving forward very slowly in the skiff, we sense a tug on the line. When Floyd places the pole in my greenhorn hands, I am immediately flustered, worried I don’t have enough arm strength to hoist what I could swear is a record-breaking King salmon on the other end. Floyd is completely unruffled however and clearly amused by my stress. After a few seconds of my unaided floundering, he steps in with seasoned wisdom: hold my pole up and don’t fight the salmon. Let the fish run. A tired King salmon is what we want in our boat.
And a tired King it is. Two in fact by the time we decide to head in, only one short of the three salmon allowed for a subsistence salmon permit in this opening. We stop at a floating cleaning station on our way into the harbor. As we de-head and gut our Kings, Floyd shares more local knowledge. Kings, I learn, have a different shape, tail form, patterns, and purple coloring on the scales, from any of the other four pacific salmon species, Pink, Coho, Chum, or Sockeye. We let our cleaning scraps slide into the ocean, an easy snack for some lucky sea lions.
We pull up to my host family’s driveway and Floyd breaks the news. He already has enough salmon in his fridge and he doesn’t eat frozen salmon. The logical conclusion: I am begged to take home two freshly caught, twenty-pound King salmon.
My host-parents, not fishermen themselves, are clearly overjoyed. Hours later, covered in vibrant orange flesh and surprisingly sticky scales, Peter, my host-dad, and I have learned to fillet a salmon. Definitely not the best fillet job an Alaskan salmon has seen, but it will have to pass. Cleaning our hands up a bit, we can’t help ourselves. We head to the computer and look up Alaskan King salmon fillet prices in an upscale Seattle market. By our rough metrics, we have over $400 of pink protein in our fridge.
After we bury the skeletons in the garden for added nutrients, we break out the phone book, calling up every non-fishing family friend we can think of. Unsurprisingly we’re met with overjoyed responses. Peter and I load up the car and begin the salmon drop-off. Laden with hugs, recipe suggestions, and a dozen fresh eggs from a recipient’s flock, we return home to our own bounty, excited for a week of salmon-centric dining and completing what we fondly coin to be our “circle of salmon happiness.”
Hey there y’all. It’s Ryan here again from the YSFP, writing about this week’s farm action. Surprisingly, this week has been less involved on the Yale Farm and more community-based, out and about in New Haven. Tuesday involved traveling to Woodbridge, CT down yonder to help Massaro Community Farm with their Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Wednesday involved lots of work planting ginger in the Yale Greenhouse as well as an in depth class on the economics of small-scale farming taught by Mark Bomford. Thursday involved a day of food preparation and cooking on West Campus for a much-needed almost-end-of-the-week Happy Hour event at the West Campus Urban Farm. But no matter what, farmers still return to their farm for maintenance, harvesting, and market as is the usual rhythm of Friday and Saturday.
With the laundry list of event updates on the table, it’s interesting to see how each event has one thing in common: community. Despite Massaro and West Campus both being located down the road, each farm serves its own micro-community that, too, is separate from the Yale Farm community. And stretching further, the Yale Farm YSFP micro-community differs from the active volunteers in the New Haven community, school-centered volunteers, City Seed produce buyers, and even the managerial staff behind the scenes. Even further, at Massaro, the workers we helped this week share a very different micro-community compared to the Massaro owners, the CSA families coming for produce, and even the residents of the houses across the street. And finally the combination of graduate students, faculty, researchers, scientists, PHD students, and interns that interact on the West Campus farm all find themselves coming together.
On the surface, each farm represents a geographical location; a single establishment for the purpose of producing foodstuffs for a local community. That local community, however, has an amorphous identity, molding to each person or program individually according to their desire. Each establishment, as articulated best by Mark Bomford in his lecture, sells much more than produce; they sell hope for a better tomorrow, sustainable food production, and interpersonal relationships among customers and producers. All of a sudden, farming becomes much more than merely growing and selling or supply and demand. Instead, farms transform a group of people separated in their daily actions and desires, bringing these individuals together in one central location.
This very concept of micro-communities on such a small scale underlines a much more important point: food has the power to promote change. Three farms, all within a ten-mile radius of one another, have the capacity to connect different peoples for different reasons in different ways. Further expanding on the positive externalities of micro-communities, farms have the capacity to promote healthy morals, greener thinking, food literacy from the ground to the kitchen table, and even interaction with a wider group of New Haven residents. So much change and so much influence in only a small fraction of a city let alone a sand grain of the world. But what if the change wasn’t positive? What about times of war, poverty, infertility of soil, natural disaster, drought, flash floods, or depression? What about the negative externality of pollution from industrial facilities, premature soil infertility from over-tilling land, or even illegal labor wages? Sometimes promoting change can mean preventing change.
So what did I learn from the farm this week? Food matters. From the geographical location where the crop is planted to the people taking care of that crop to the community collecting that harvested food to the people being served with what one buys, food is involved in a much more complicated and important process than meets the eye. We witness that process every day from sunrise to sunset and yet remain ignorant to how many struggles were labored through to make each part of the food-chain puzzle align perfectly. And, inversely, we remain ignorant to how drastically life can change when just one of those steps does not fit exactly right. Food is important and we need to think before we eat.
Sophie Mendelson BK ‘15 has worked as a farm manager and a senior advisor for the Yale Sustainable Food Project. She is spending the summer working for an investment firm.
This summer I am working for an institution named after a park named after a creek named after a rock. The irony is inescapable. What I do each day has very little to do with parks, and even less to do with creeks. Does it have anything to do with rocks? From my desk I can hear the jackhammers chewing through the sidewalk six floors below, feel the vibrations humming through the foundation of the building, up, up, up. What is our foundation made of? This is the question that I am trying to answer.
I have to admit that I felt a small, secret thrill at the prospect of working this summer in an industry that has been deemed conventionally Important. Ah, people who did not know me would say, nodding, as I told them that I would be working in finance. That makes sense, they would think. I would not have to explain myself this time, not have to face the unspoken accusation in their questions, You go to Yale but you’re working on a farm? You go to Yale but you want to be a farmer? (Translation: You are wasting your talent. You are wasting your good luck. You are wasting an opportunity that so many others would use to do something Important). Despite my deep reservations about working for an investment firm, and despite my conviction in the importance of farming, I could not help but feel some amount of relief that this summer, at least, I would not have to stand guilty as charged.
I think it is this matter of Importance, though, that sits at the root of a discomfort with the financial world that I have not been able to shake. When I’m farming, I feel hugely important, though on a very small scale. I matter immensely to the lives of the plants and animals that it is my job to care for. I make a difference in a tangible way to the people who eat the food that I help produce. At the firm, I sometimes feel Important – combing through international financial news, analyzing managers for their potential to make money multiply, watching Bloomberg play over the flat screen TVs that flank either end of the office. The scale of the Importance that I feel at the firm is large, pulsing through a network of relationships that spans the continents. Expanding, contracting, warping – a global economy, changing in constant response to itself. But the grand Importance of this system feels inflated and even empty, a huge balloon floating untethered, tugging us all skyward (or so at least we’d like to think). It is Important because we have all agreed that it is. Where an ecosystem indisputably is, an economy, for the most part, is imagined.
Which brings us back to the question of foundations. I feel myself straying into literalist territory: it’s only real if I can touch it. I reject that notion. But when the connection to anything “real” can only be drawn at the top (the experienced fall-out of profits and losses) and seldom at the bottom (the relationship between price and value), the economic system begins to look precariously top-heavy. The Barbie model of capitalism – she can’t stand up on her own.
The economy strikes me as a system of metaphors. Numbers standing for relationships, for worth, for people’s lives expanding and contracting. Metaphors that sometimes forget what they are referring to: parks and creeks and rocks. Six floors down they are tearing up the sidewalk and planting trees.
Today’s post comes from Global Food Fellow, Vivienne Hay CC’14. The Yale Sustainable Food Project’s Global Food Fellows Program funds students who have proposed an innovative research topic or internship, pursuing ideas that could overturn the ecological, social, and economic deficiencies of today’s predominant food system.
Exactly two weeks after my last Yale graduation ceremony, I began the 27 hour trip to Cuzco (the heart of Peru, the place where Hiram Bingham acquired those Incan artifacts for Yale and also site where some of the world’s most ancient agriculture). My high school self would have been horrified to find that, shortly after graduating from Yale with a Physics degree (a feat that was meant to radically expand my opportunities and open doors that I hadn’t even known existed), I was going to work on subsistence farms.
The transformation in my attitude towards agriculture began between finishing high school and starting Yale, when I took part in Harvest, a Yale pre-orientation program that involved spending a week working on a local farm. I thought of it as an opportunity to learn about agriculture, something that was important but peripheral to my twenty-first-century life and that I would probably never learn about again. Over that week, though, I began to realize how skillful and intricate farming was. My interest was piqued. I applied to become a Harvest leader upon my return to Yale, but only, as I remarked to friends, because Harvest happened during the summer so being a Harvest leader was like getting a whole additional experience ‘for free’, at least in the sense that I didn’t have to spend any of my coveted Yale time on what seemed to be a sideline interest.
But as I gained more practical experience working on farms, I began to want to spend my precious Yale time studying agriculture. I began taking courses on farming, urbanization and food systems and attending as many related speeches and symposia as I could. I also spent a summer consulting for a large-scale poultry producer. What had started as a one-off, one-week visit to a farm had become one of the defining aspects of my Yale career and as I began to reflect on what I wanted to do after graduation, it became clear that I wanted it to become one of the important strands of my post-Yale life too.
Though I’ve learned about agriculture in academic and professional settings, I’ve never spent more than a week at a time working on a farm — a gaping hole in my knowledge and understanding of agriculture. So, over the next two months, I’ll be volunteering on farms in Peru, learning about agricultural techniques and agricultural communities, doing both (academic, ethnographic) fieldwork and (hands-in-the-dirt) work in fields. I’ll be blogging throughout and will keep you posted!
Vivienne Hay graduated from Yale in May of 2014 with a degree in Physics. After her summer examining large and small agriculture in Peru she’ll begin her post graduate work at McKinsey & Company Inc. in New York.