The Yale Sustainable Food Project aims to educate students about the links between food, agriculture, and the environment, creating community around the pleasure of physical work and eating well together.
We run a one-acre farm on campus, the produce from which is sold at CitySeed's Wooster Square Farmers' Market or donated to hunger relief partners. We also run a variety of educational programming designed to introduce students to the national and international conversation about food and agriculture.
This Tumblr will feature photographs and stories from the Farm, pieces written by our students, and links to news stories we think are interesting and relevant to our mission.
Starting June 20th, we will be holding volunteer workdays on Fridays and Saturdays from 9:00 am to 4:00pm.
No gardening experience is necessary; just bring a water bottle and wear weather- and work-appropriate clothing. If you are a group of more than five people, please give us a week's notice of your planned visit: call us at 203.432.2084 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s an idea about what the farm of the future could look like. Big topic, I know, and right now the idea is still pretty half-baked, I’ll be the first to admit. It’s fanciful and incomplete, with untested foundations, erratically constructed extensions and a leaky roof. But seeing as it’s an idea about collaboration, and the first step toward any kind of collaboration is communication, I’m going to lay it out for you anyway.
This idea, like so many, starts with the identification of a problem: loneliness. I believe that loneliness is a problem that is often overlooked in the discussion surrounding sustainable, small-scale farming. When trying to envision the farm of the future, we spend a lot of time talking about economics and chemicals – how can farmers make a living? How can they reliably produce food without harmful technology? What new economic models and low-impact technologies can we implement? These are all important questions, but I think equally important is the question: how can we make the farming lifestyle sustainable? In other worlds, how can we help farmers not to be so darn lonely?
In my personal experience, loneliness has been THE NUMBER ONE hardest part of farming. Isolated geographically and socially, farming is often a solitary business. There is a huge difference between working fourteen-hour days with a group of people and working those same hours on your own, and I’m not just talking in terms of productivity. For me, the former is exhausting but satisfying, while the latter leaves me flattened and struggling to suppress a creeping sense of desperation. It’s no wonder that so many young farmers start out with enthusiasm only to quit after a couple of years in the field!
So here is my crazy idea: the farming cooperative. I may be twisting the word “cooperative” to fit my purposes here, because I don’t mean a totally consensus-based, commune-like farming model. What I have in mind is more closely matched to the Zingerman’s business model (check out A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building A Great Business by Ari Weinzweig if you’re intrigued). I’m talking about a farming model in which several quasi-independent farms, all located in the same geographic region or even the same property, collaborate to coordinate operations and market their products under one front. You could have, for example, a vegetable farm, a dairy farm, a meat farm, a fruit orchard, and a processing facility for value-added products that all run mostly independently from each other, but draw on each other for support and all market through the same outlet and under the same label.
In my idealized and untested fantasy version of this model, the farm cooperative would work to meet “the triple bottom line” (to steal, and then tweak, a phrase from Dina Brewster): economic, environmental, and spiritual. Economically, marketing through one outlet would provide consumers with an incentive to buy from the cooperative, as they could meet most of their grocery needs through the products collectively assembled. Environmentally, the cooperative model encourages a diversified farming approach, where multiple kinds of farming are all taking place in coordination with each other on one piece of property, allowing farmers to close nutrient cycles and feedback loops. And now here’s the biggie: spiritually, the cooperative addresses to major issues for farmers. First, it provides a built-in community. This model of farming necessitates the involvement of many families and many workers, de-isolating small-scale farmers and creating a social environment. Second, it makes it so that one farmer doesn’t have to keep track of everything that is going on in a diversified farm all by his or her self – each operation is managed by a separate set of people, who then collaborate to bring their operations in concert with each other, thus diffusing the responsibility and easing the need for manic multi-tasking. Oh yeah, and each operation can help out other operations during times of particular need, like harvesting tomatoes or slaughtering chickens, strengthening social bonds and reducing the need to bring in extra labor during these times.
So far, that is the extent of the crazy idea. I would love, love, LOVE to talk to people about this, so please don’t be shy! Help me poke some holes in this thing so that we can build it back up even stronger.
Ever year we face a conundrum: one of the most important tenets of Harvest is that it’s a break from the plugged-in technological world, and no one wants to bring a fancy digital camera along to dig in the dirt, but we need pictures of the trips! For our 2012 session we experimented by giving leaders and support crew disposable cameras and asking them to document what they did and saw. The results are hilarious and gorgeous and make us miss summer all over again. Above are some highlights— you can check out the rest on our Flickr page.
Farm intern Maya Binyam ‘15 on what her Ethiopian father taught her about what it means to depend on the land:
Boston is a cold city. In the winter months a biting humidity saturates the air, threatening to freeze car locks and the tips of hair. The sunlight is static, even in the summer, and reflects but never warms.
In this landscape of fractured water and light, my father attempted to make a home. He cranked up the heat and filled the rooms of our house with things he knew would never survive outside—dainty potted basil plants, an ugly bulb too big for its pot. He was proud of this thing he had created for us—this warm oasis—because it meant we were no longer affected by Boston’s characteristically sporadic temperature declines, its unexpected noreasters. We were comfortable.
After a few months he stopped watering the plants. The leaves wilted and eventually turned brittle, but this was something to be proud of. We had begun cultivating things outside of the home, things more important than plants. We were going somewhere.
I think my father was surprised, maybe even a little disgusted, when I told him I was interested in farming. I was a junior in high school and had a naive, idealized understanding of sustainable agriculture. I planned a summer full of spontaneous bus rides and weeklong stints at farms in Maine in Vermont, where I imagined I’d become wise with the weeds and make perfectly asymmetrical bunches of chard. I was sick of my sanitized, increasingly dry home. I wanted to get dirty.
Photo via. Farm intern Shizue Roche-Adachi ‘15 on horses, cattle, and finding yourself by figuring out what to do next:
I held the reigns tentatively as my weight settled into the saddle. The horse was larger then I remembered horses being and I felt precarious as I sat perched upon his back, my legs splayed awkwardly. Boot was restless and I could feel him fidget beneath me. He stomped hard, frustrated, and my eyes went wide. We had lied, saying I was comfortably proficient in horseback riding; my friend wanted me to see this desert of his and the cowboy seemed to trust me enough to fib a little to the others. Truthfully, I hadn’t ridden a horse since elementary school, when a teenage girl had lead me around in circles at one of those roadside farm attractions you find in places that have little else to offer in the way of entertainment. But here it was just open desert: no circles, no trails. We set off, the three of us, my back arching uncomfortably with Boot’s stride. My friend split away in search of a rogue cow who had found its way west and the cowboy and I continued on. I could feel his eyes watching me as I tried my best to fake my commands.
By the time we came to the cattle, Boot’s patience with me was waning. The cows freckled the mountain top, a scattering of brown bodies that stood like statues, their weight sinking into their hips as if they had been promised permanence. “Alright, I guess I’ll take up here and you move down there.” I looked at the cowboy and realized this was not time for faltering confidence—I didn’t understand exactly what I was “taking” but I watched him as he galloped west, wrapping around the cattle, pushing them towards me. I gave Boot a hard kick and he started off with a jolt, nearly throwing me, doing my best to mimic the cowboy as I struggled to reign Boot in.
By the time my friend rejoined us, the cowboy had managed to edge the cattle north, beginning their reluctant migration towards the path that would eventually lead them down to the valley. I, however, was in a battle with Boot. He wasn’t listening, breaking into a gallop in the opposite direction I lead him in as if to mock me. I pulled at the reigns, silently hoping he would forgive me for pulling so sharply at the bit, and yelled “woah”s, but he was stubborn, unamused. My friend chuckled but offered little advice; there was work to be done and so I would have to figure it out by myself.
It took a good two hours before the cattle were rounded up, trailing single file down the mountain. When the valley finally opened up, I caught my breath; it was the most majestic and unforgiving landscape I had ever encountered. The sun was dipping low, now, and the light was colored in honey. “Pretty great, isn’t it?!” my friend shouted from behind me. Despite the vastness of the place there was an undeniable warmth to it.
I can’t be sure what changed his mind but suddenly Boot seemed to hear me— suddenly, he trusted me. We moved together; my body rose and fell in a steady rhythm as I cantered behind the mass of cattle. Sweat dripped down Boot’s back and I gave him a reassuring pat. He followed my lead as I yelled “hey, cow, cow” and chased the cattle towards the green oasis that was our goal, the cowboy’s trailer marking its boundary.
By the time we arrived at the trailer we could only make it out by silhouette, the moon casting shadows as we quietly dismounted. I wore an almost embarrassingly wide smile, the kind that only comes with the sort of self-satisfaction you can’t quite describe in concrete accomplishments. When the cowboy finally came to lead Boot away to tie him up for the night, I gave up his lead rope reluctantly.
Sometimes, on Fridays at the Yale Farm, I find myself overwhelmed with the never-ending harvest list. As pounds of salad greens make their way into the prophaus to be washed and bagged I start to finger the list’s pages tentatively. But there is work to be done, no time for wavering morale, and so you walk forward with blind faith, hoping that somehow the carrots yield to the hands of unsure volunteers and the aphids ignore the Brussels sprouts. There is something familiar in the feeling, in that trust. I’ve worked on farms for many years, now, but I still only know what I’m doing 60% of the time. I just have to trust that that other 40% will work itself out.
By the time the light is fading, the KoolBot is full with crates of produce and bags of greens. Somehow it happens, every week, without fail. By the end of a Friday harvest, a grin spread across my face, the music turned up a bit too loudly not to be noticed by the occasional passersby, I find myself reluctant to leave, hoping that the light might linger.
I never thought I’d end up farming, and I definitely never thought I’d help drive a herd of cattle into a desert valley, but somehow I ended up doing both. I’m never quite sure of my steps as I’m taking them, but I seem to have learned to trust myself at least enough for even Boot to believe.
This year, for the first time ever, we’ve asked a student photographer to attend every Friday workday of the season, documenting the changes in land, crops, and volunteer attendance as late summer turns into autumn and, finally winter. The results are already striking: above, check out the shorts and tee shirts of early September compared to the sweaters and hats interns were sporting during last week’s walkaround.
Sophie Mendelson ‘15, joint Farm and Events intern, on the kind of reflection and conversation that farm work can encourage:
Stoney Lonesome Farm sits tucked away in an unexpected pocket of hilly countryside amidst the mind-numbing sprawl of strip malls and subdivisions that bleed out of Washington, DC into Northern Virginia like a hemorrhaging artery. This summer, there are three of us apprentices tending to the four acre garden that provides for 75 CSA shareholders and their families. On a typical day, we’ll plant, harvest, cultivate the soil, re-organize row covers, stake tomatoes, weed – and weed, and weed, and weed.
Crouching across from each other in the aisles that run along either side of the rows of vegetables, we have been weeding for several hours, tugging out thistles by the roots and (futilely) attempting to avoid grabbing up handfuls of poison ivy. The sun has steadily been gaining height all morning and now sits directly above us, beating down with unrelenting vigor on our sweat-stained backs. The heat wave sweeping across the United States has spared no one: it’s been over 95 degrees every day for a week, with no end in sight. To take our minds off of the heat and the repetitive task, we are talking about faith.
What do you believe in? How do you know what you believe is real? Does knowing even enter into the equation? Does it matter if what you believe is real or not, or is just believing enough? Do you think that faith is a good thing or a bad thing? Do you think that there is anything that you can know that doesn’t require at least some small leap of faith? If you don’t have faith, can you believe in anything at all? If you don’t believe in anything, then how do you decide on your values, make choices, live? Without faith, how do you resist utter paralysis? We reach the end of the row.
Over the course of the summer, the topics of our weeding conversations ranged from the philosophical (what do you really want from your life?) to the political (what is your ideal government?) to the mundane (name your top-five favorite ways to eat blueberries). As our hands went about their business, our minds were free to wander, plunging into territories that may have felt uncomfortable if we hadn’t been partially occupied otherwise. In the same way that many people actually pay attention better in class when they doodle, in the field, we were able to be more honest with our thoughts by virtue of the distraction provided by physical tasks.
The Yale Farm sits at the seemingly unlikely intersection between husbandry and academia. Yet considering that some of the most forthright and provocative conversations I’ve had took place as my hands sifted through some pile of dirt or another, I would say that the combination of agriculture and intellectual exploration is not so far fetched after all. Removed from the stresses and pressures of the classroom, farm work provides the ultimate medium for processing and reflection. At school, I spend so much time trying to think; it’s often the case, though, that my thoughts coalesce most clearly and easily when I allow myself to take a break and do something completely different – like weeding. On a campus full of fervent thinkers, the Yale Farm acts as an invaluable resource to students looking to take a step back, get their hands dirty, and sort through some of those big ideas.
Hannah Sassoon, ‘15, one of our Farm interns, spent the summer WWOOFing in Sweden. What follows are her notes from Östra Gerum:
The parish of Östra Gerum is a single road through southern Sweden’s flat fields of rapeseed and potatoes. At the middle of the parish is a circle of stone wall older than anyone can remember. Inside the wall is a church that does not open on Sundays. You can hear the bells there every day at seven in the morning and seven in the evening.
Down the road to the south is a dairy farm. Out of the back of the barn, the farmer sells some of his milk, unpasteurized, to the neighbors. When they have carried it home, they whisper to each other about the way he keeps his cattle, but they do not complain because the milk is sweet and cheap, and because he is a good man.
Ten years ago, he taught the new neighbor Jonas how to make a haystack. In Östra Gerum, he explained, it is done with seven vertical timber poles and four horizontal wires: Sink the poles into the ground in a zigzag line for strength against the wind. The cut grass, when gathered with a hay fork, must face in different directions in order to hold together. Settle it on the wires and over the tops of the poles. After a week the stack looks like a many-humped camel. After two weeks the timothy stalks break.
Jonas, before he came to Östra Gerum, was a member of the Swedish Parliament. He had studied cultural heritage without ever learning to make a haystack. When he left the city and bought the farm across the road from the dairy here, he had to re-thatch the barn roof himself. Then he sewed himself a suit and married.
At the north end of the parish lives Vanessa with her goats. She is from Connecticut, studied in New York. At twenty-five, she decided to move to Östra Gerum, learn Swedish, and raise goats—at which point, so far as her father in Darien was concerned, she’d gone to seed.
Once, as she bicycled through the parish, an elk galloped across the road and leapt. Its whole enormous mass sailed over a fence and into a cow pasture. The cows looked up from their grazing. The elk did not stop running. Then, all together, the cows turned to follow it, lurching, at first, and then running, running, until the herd glided together like a single shadow, moving with this elk. At the far fence line the elk leapt again, and let itself be swallowed by the spruce forest. The cows stopped. Breathless from this dream of wildness, they bent their heads to the clover and dispersed among its purple flowers.
Writing and Outreach Intern A. Grace Steig ‘15 reflects on the meditative nature of volunteering on the Farm:
Many Fridays at midday, I leave the work of Yale behind with each step up the hill toward Yale Farm. The walk is not a short one, taking Hillhouse Avenue and then Science Hill to completion, and if I were to rush the sweat would collect on my back. So I meander, in ritual, cleansing myself of the past week, its obligations, its ego. Along the way I sustain myself with small wafers of nature: oak leaves and acorns, dropped almost on my head by squirrels. On this sunlit pilgrimage, I pass lower idols – halls, houses, laboratories – without a glance. The last stretch in the sunshine is bliss, and I slow just a bit to enjoy my freedom from work before passing beneath the concord grapevine draped over the Farm’s arched entrance.
The Yale Farm is nature in a deliberate urban space, an acre arranged in 2003 by Yale people who love living things. It is concentrated chaos, where plants grow with no chemicals. They are tended but could naturally thrive or, just as naturally, die. I go to the Farm often but without a schedule. I go, and I devote myself to its work, in body and spirit.
Check out this video on the Yale Bulletin! It was shot during one of our Harvest trips this August, and features freshmen and upperclassmen leaders talking about food, farming, and getting started on life at Yale.
Tips For Getting the Most Out of Volunteering at the Yale Farm:
# 1: Set aside a few hours to come back every week on Sundays or Tuesdays.
The first couple Friday workdays of the school year are a little hectic—awesome, yes, but also insane. Farm managers are stretched thin. Volunteers sometimes get assigned a task with little explanation or training. Fortunately, this is not representative of the majority of farm workdays.
My most rewarding time spent volunteering on Yale Farm was during the fall of my sophomore year. I was taking Atmosphere, Oceans, and Environmental Change and my lab section was Tuesday afternoons from 1:30–3:20. Every week, after lab, I would head up to the farm; every week I would arrive to find Laura Blake, a farm manager from my year, working on some task, often accompanied by a volunteer named Margaret; and every week, as soon as I parked my bike, Laura would ask “Hey Brian. How’s it going?” and I would eagerly tell her about whatever awesome thing we did in lab that week (the best week was when I got to track a weather balloon from the roof of Kline Geology Lab—that was a w e s o m e !)
Typically Margaret had to leave soon after I arrived, so a lot of the time I ended up helping Laura to finish whatever task needed to be completed by the end of the workday. While Fridays are time for frantic harvesting before market and huge tasks that require lots of volunteers, Sunday and Tuesday afternoons provide time for the quieter tasks on the farm, like measuring out and staking beds, or making soil blocks in which to germinate seedlings, or direct-seeding salad greens and radishes. I learned to appreciate the quiet moments on the farm and the time they allowed me to spend working one-on-one with the farm managers.
I also appreciated getting to see how the farm changed over the course of the fall. Before long, covering the salad green beds with Reemay® fabric became the close to every workday. We put up the plastic on the hoop houses and installed the end walls and doors to keep the ground from freezing on cold nights. Eventually, the Friday workdays calmed down too. Even the pizza bakes attract only a hardy few once the real cold hits. “We’ve got eight more balls of dough,” I remember Jacquie saying, “and there are four of us.” Fortunately, that was also the week that Josh invented the honey-chocolate dessert pizza.
Some people love the excitement of the first few Friday workdays. I certainly continued to come on Fridays, but mainly to make friends and enjoy the pizza. It was the Tuesday afternoons that fall when I felt like I became more than just a casual volunteer. I connected with the space in a new way: it started to feel like home; and I started to feel like I knew a thing or two about how to grow food.
Brian Tang is a senior in TD and was a 2011 Lazarus Summer Intern on the Yale Farm. This post is the first in a series about how to make the most of the Farm’s weekly volunteer work hours.