Zoe Reich-Avillez ‘15, on how a favorite farm task transforms the mundane:
I first worked on a farm (rather, I first stepped foot on a farm) during my freshman year of high school. The trip to Gaining Ground was posted on a school bulletin board under “Community Service.” Gaining Ground, the sign proclaimed, is a non-profit farm that donates all its food to local food banks and meal programs. Located just ten minutes from my high school, it was the perfect destination for a mid-afternoon volunteer shift. Never one to turn down an outdoor field trip in early spring, I immediately signed up. Looking back now, the memories of that short shift are beyond foggy. What I do remember though, is the feeling of being engaged in manual work. I couldn’t articulate it then, but something just felt so right about working my hands through the soil and crouching over a bed of newly planted seedlings.
A year later, I heard about Gaining Ground’s summer internship. I had barely given my workday a second thought, but remembering that still-so-poignant feeling, I decided to apply. Through the summer, I weeded, planted, harvested, weeded, prepped beds, and weeded some more. As any farmer will tell you—and as I discovered that summer—there will always be more weeding.
For some reason though, I relished that never-ending task. What is often the bane of the farmhand’s existence became my favorite job: hand weeding. Massaging the soil, grasping for weeds, pulling the unwanted plants from their roots, and finally looking back to see a bed of head lettuce surrounded by dark brown soil, was deeply satisfying. I found myself looking forward to the days when I would be sent out to the field, with or without a partner, to weed for hours on end. Even now, when I crave a task that is comforting, that will re-orient me with myself, I crouch down in a pathway, dig my hands into the soil, and start to weed.
When I try to understand my love of hand weeding, I often turn to the physicality of the work. Search and pull, search and pull. So easily, I can lose myself in the repetition, in the sheer simplicity of the action. At my best though, it is not just my body put to work; my mind too, is engaged in that repetition and simplicity. When I say that I lose myself in the task then, I mean that I am completely and totally present. I’m reminded what it is to find home in myself. This groundedness, I now realize, is the feeling of “rightness” that I knew but couldn’t name during my first shift at Gaining Ground. Now, I know its name and I know it’s what keeps me coming back to the farm time and time again.
Triple Bottom Line
by Sophie Mendelson, ‘15
So I have this crazy idea.
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.
Memories of a Summer Spent in Food: Praiano, Italy
Kyra Morris ‘14 reflects on the way that food shaped her summer farming in a coastal Italian town:
If you were to go to Casa L Orto you would fly to Naples, take a train from Naples to Meta, and then take a bus from Meta to Praiano. The bus winds along the coast road that skirts the edge of the cliffs and by the time you arrived in Praiano your stomach would be wound into knots. As you climbed out of the bus and into the sun, you would have in front of you what my friends and I call “the Vettica hill”—a hill that just keeps going up. It starts out steep and then it climbs to a point before dropping down sharply into the other part of town. The Vettica hill will take you past the grocery store Tutto per Tutti, past Pasquale’s barber shop, and up a steep ramp to the gates of Casa L Orto. You stop, out of breath. Through the ironwork of the gates you can see only the domed white roof of the villa and the surface of the water sitting still as fabric below the cliffs.
I spent this past summer farming at Casa L Orto, a villa in Praiano, Italy. Praiano is a tiny town an hour south of Naples “in the heart of the Amalfi Coast.” Casa L Orto belongs to Carol Lewitt, the widow of the famous American contemporary artist Sol Lewitt. The property includes nine terraces available for farming, all of which had been abandoned for period of ten to twenty years before Carol began a project to restore them. The process is still very much in its initial stages, but she hopes to turn the property into a eco-tourism destination with an outdoor kitchen and outdoor cooking classes.
During my summer there, the farm at Casa L Orto was a farm without an outlet. The farm had three interns and a farm manager to maintain it, but without a partita IVA we could not sell any of our produce or even set up a farm stand. Instead we simply gave food away. In the mornings we would go down to the terraces and weed or stake tomatoes until the sun became so hot we felt our bodies baking. After a break for lunch we would walk into town (up and over the Vettica hill) and distribute vegetables. Sometimes we would bake or cook with our produce before distributing it, but other times we would simply carry a bag full of cherry tomatoes on each arm and a bag of eggplant in our backpacks. Sometimes it was difficult to find a home for our produce because though Praiano no longer has an agricultural economy, almost every family has a small garden. But where we did find a home for our vegetables, we always received something in exchange.
One of our first afternoons in Praiano we made zucchini bread. I had never thought about the oddity of this American dish until we were met with skeptical looks when we declared to Pasquale the barber that we had made him “panne di zucchini.” The following evening Pasquale called to us from the opposite side of the fence that separates Casa L Orto from his shop and passed a plate of cookies over to us.
This was only the beginning of our food exchange. In exchange for tomatoes and peppers we got gelato-making lessons from the guys at the gelato store, in exchange for eggplants we got free drinks from Luigi who owns one of the hotels in town, from Salvatore at the restaurant Bare Mare we got donuts and cappuccino. One morning we woke up to find that one of the construction workers who worked alongside us had left us a box of fifty plums from his plum tree. I hesitate even to call it a food exchange, because there was no calculation involved in this exchange of goods, only an ingrained tradition of generosity.
With all the vegetables that we did keep for ourselves we cooked everything from the simple pasta dishes to elaborate risottos. Toward the end of the summer, every night turned into a dinner party. Our friends would begin to arrive around ten thirty and then cooking process usually began around eleven. When we were too tired to cook, we would walk down the hundreds of steps that led down to the beach—La Praia.
We always ate at Bare Mare, run by our friend Salvatore and his mother Clelia. The experience of eating at Bare Mare is difficult to compare to any restaurant experience I have had in the US. The restaurant consists of about fifteen tables arranged on a cement patio overlooking the rocky beach. The restaurant has no theme or idea, just has really good food, and especially good seafood. If we wanted to order from the menu, we had to ask for one. Otherwise Salvatore would start bringing us dishes.
The dishes at Bare Mare are not fancy and they have probably been approximately the same since the restaurant opened. Each dish is designed to showcase a specific seafood and that’s about it. Your fish doesn’t come with vegetables on the side or any complex garnishes. Yet I hesitate to call the food at Bare Mare “simple food” in the way that Alice Waters might use the term because it is not consciously simple. It is prepared with care and with an eye to taste and tradition.
I lived closer to food this summer than I ever have this summer, not only because only a few sets of stairs separated garden and kitchen, but because food embraced me on all sides. Food was the thread that tied together our friendships with Pasquale, Salvatore, and others. It was also the first topic of conversation. Whenever we ran into a friend the first question, “how are you doing?” was quickly followed by “what did you eat today?”—“che cosa hai mangiato oggi?” Sometimes when I am walking across cross campus, I wish a friend would stop me and ask: “what did you eat today?”
Sadie Weinberger ‘13 reminds us that the Farm Bill isn’t the only piece of legislation that affects farms and farmers in this country:
About a week ago, the satirical “news source” The Onion published an article headlined “Congressional High Priest Concocts Farm Subsidy Bill In Legislative Cauldron.” Despite its utter absurdity, I often feel that the Onion writers are pretty much the only ones who really know what’s going on these days. You don’t have to read the article to get the joke: the process of creating the Farm Bill has been, and always is, so complex and inaccessible to the public that it may as well be some dark ritual conducted by men in black robes in the dead of night. And, in fact, I read one more jab into the quip, which is that even the members of Congress do not completely understand what they’re doing when they “concoct” the bill.
This might seem like old news; after all, the Farm Bill is renewed every four years, and that should have meant a clean adoption of a new bill—or, rather, a revised bill—by the end of the 2012 session. That was me making a little joke, since we all know Congress doesn’t work like that. The fact is, Congress is even now introducing new bills that would affect the provisions of the Farm Bill, and we ought to be keeping them in sight. The end of 2012 didn’t mean the end of farm-related legislation, despite the cessation of talks and workshops revolving around Farm Bill activism.
In fact, just in the last week, Congress has introduced two such bills: the Farm Program Integrity Act and the Protect Our Prairies Act. The former, a bipartisan bill introduced on February 12, aims to close the loopholes in farm program payments that allow non-working or absentee farmers to receive subsidy payments. The bill allows for payments to working farmers and one additional non-working manager per farm. In fact, the House Agriculture Committee considered this proposal last year as well, but did not adopt it. Many sustainable agriculture organizations, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, are strongly in support of this bill, especially as we consider the new Farm Bill.
The Protect Our Prairies Act is part of a conservation effort folded into the Farm Bill that basically pays farmers not to farm certain areas of land in order to prevent erosion and development of valuable landscapes. This bill, also bipartisan, is a bit different in that it is actually designed to save taxpayers and the government money by prohibiting federal commodity payments on newly broken native sod and reducing federal subsidies by 50% on that land. Loss of grassland in prairie areas has led to erosion, fewer opportunities for small ranchers, and damage to local ecosystems and economies.
We should keep in mind that even though the New York Times stopped publishing articles about it, the fight over the 2012 Farm Bill is not over yet. Agricultural legislation is being introduced and passed all the time. Let’s all keep an eye out and keep ourselves informed.
Farm intern Justine Appel ‘15 gives a personal account of the Lazarus Summer Internship:
It’s impossible to pick which day of the Lazarus Summer Internship was my favorite, but here are some contenders: The day we pressed 1,300 soil blocks (imagine eleven large wooden flats loaded with brownie-like cubes of soil) and filled them with lettuce seeds so tiny they looked like coffee grounds. The day I hung hundreds of feet of twine from the top of a hoop house so that our climbing beans could grow upwards into a beautiful curtain of vines and leaves. Maybe the day we sliced up 25 basketball-sized cabbages, soaked them in brine, and packed them into big white buckets to ferment into incredible sauerkraut (if you think sauerkraut is gross, you clearly haven’t tried making your own). Perhaps the day we visited the gorgeous Thimble Islands, and when the tide was too high to continue clamming, went trolling through the water at such a high speed that we would go flying whenever we hit a wave and couldn’t contain our screams and laughter. Definitely the evening of our visit to the Yale-Meyers forest, eating blueberry crisp out on the porch and sharing stories as the sun went down.
The Lazarus Summer Internship is the Yale Sustainable Food Project’s summer-long program in which six Yale College students manage the Yale Farm. This includes preparing beds, seeding, irrigating, and harvesting crops, and finally selling them at the CitySeed farmer’s market at Wooster Square every Saturday. But what the internship offers beyond that is what makes it extraordinary. The interns get to go on weekly field trips to organic farms around Connecticut, and take weekly classes on topics such as the economics of small farms, food lexicon, and soil science. The educational dimension of the internship showed us how the principles and techniques of organic farming could apply to farms much bigger than our beloved acre, and farms that were more animal-based (including a sustainable oyster farm!) than ours. We picked the brains of brand new farmers, struggling farmers, farmers who managed large heated greenhouses, and farmers that had experienced significant losses due to pests and diseases.
At the end of the summer, we went to the Northeast Organic Farming Association summer conference: three days of classes and workshops taught on everything agricultural, from worm composting to efficient irrigation to increasing food access in impoverished urban settings. Between the beginning of June and the end of August, all six of us had gained not only an understanding of how to grow and care for a diverse array of crops, but also tremendous insight into the world of sustainable food and the many paths we could take to get more involved. The YSFP staff taught us not only how to make perfect pesto and how to properly grow leeks, but how to think critically about the big picture issues inherent in our food system.
The internship, like the Yale Farm itself, demands real effort from your mind and your body. Most days, I would come home and collapse on the couch with a book and a big spoonful of peanut butter, lacking the energy to even hop in the shower and wash all the soil out of my hair. But, also like the Farm, the rewards far exceeded the amount of work we put in. Fresh vegetables to take home every week, the opportunity to pick up several new skills and experiences every day, and the lasting bonds we formed with each other and with the incredible staff far surpassed the value of our monthly stipend.
I cannot recommend this opportunity more strongly. All of this past summer’s interns had different areas of interest, and different reasons for wanting to work on a farm all summer. If you love to learn, and more importantly, if you love to eat, you should spend the summer on the Yale Farm and see what crazy adventures it brings.
Ad-hoc intern Kendra Dawsey ‘14 on her trip to a conference on racial equality in the food movement:
On October 5th, college students and others with an interest in the food movement gathered for a panel on Race and Place in Food and Co-op Movements, which doubled as a fundraiser for CoFed. CoFed, short for ‘Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive’, is an organization that started on the West Coast, devoted to equipping college students with hard skills to create cooperatively-run food enterprises on their campuses. The event took place at Colors restaurant in New York City, a restaurant that uses local ingredients and trains local employees, and is owned by a national organization that prides itself on respecting restaurant owners. I was fortunate enough to attend the panel with the help of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, and it was so exciting to see tons of young people interested in promoting racial equality in this movement.
The speakers at the panel included many prominent people in the current food movement such as Kolu Zigbi, the Program Director for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems and EAT4Health and the Jesse Smith Noyes Foundation, Curt Ellis, co-director of King Corn and The Greening of Southie, Tanya Fields, an entrepreneur who founded both Black Girl Inc. and The BLK ProjeK, and Karen Washington, founder of two farmers markets and a board member of NYC Community Gardens Coalition. To start the night off Yoni Laudau, co-director of the organization, spoke about CoFed with praise. He noted how much the project had blossomed from its roots in a borrowed minivan. Then Christine Johnson, the Northeast Region Organizer for CoFed, greeted the excited crowd. Afterward a brief speech, she sat down and asked the panelists questions on their experiences.
The first was a personal moment when they became interested in the intersection of race and place. Karen Washington, who has been growing food for 20 years, realized the importance after calling the census bureau for statistics on farmers. She was astounded to find out that there were only 110 black farmers in in all of New York State. She said, “We have to do something … We are talking about an equitable food system but it can’t be equitable if a portion of people aren’t farming.”
Curt Ellis became interested during the production of King Corn. In one town where filming took place, all of the farm workers were from the same town in Mexico, one that had its own corn to be harvested. However, working in America gave the families of workers enough money to send back home. Curt Ellis is currently co-director and Executive Director of Food Corps, an organization that seeks to address systemic food issues at the local scale. The organization takes into account the realities of race and poverty and how it affects food access. He says, “It is our priority to understand how the food movement discriminates in race and in class.” Food Corps uses service members with a specific knowledge of the area they are to be placed in, and involves schools in the process of giving youth a lasting relationship with healthy food.
Perhaps most illuminating was the situation described by Kolu Zigbi. At the age of 17, before attending college, she went to visit her father’s rural village in Liberia. The farmers of the village constituted most of the population, and they grew enough native rice to feed themselves and also sell outside the community. However, the people lacked the automobiles and other means take their goods to the market, located far away. There was one bulldozer available in the entire village, but to use it, you had to take out a loan from the World Bank in the form of expensive seed—despite the fact that the farmers had seeds of their own. Therefore, they had no means to sell their natively grown rice without being forced into debt by the World Bank.
Additionally, US aid to Liberia is frequently given in the form of free rice. This rice was sold by the government to the citizens to pay off loans. Zigbi asked herself why international aid was putting farmers in debt instead of helping them develop. Reflecting on this point, she concluded, “race is a tool for exploitation.” She went to talking about her experiences with organizations in general. “Too many foundations are colorblind … the idea of talking about race becomes so personalized, no one looks at it like an academic reality.” By claiming not to see race at all, some organizations turn a blind eye on the unique histories and realities of each race, especially with regards to the food movement. Lack of access to healthy food disproportionately affects people of color in America, due to the complex way race and city planning have played into each other in this country.
Tanya Fields was the last to come in due to a babysitter flaking out; she walked into the room with apologies and two of her children. Hearing her speak from experience as a single mother and entrepreneur in the food movement was an excellent and moving way to end the night. Fields talked about how she had struggled to get grants when she wrote honestly about her background. “I thought I would list what I had done and people would make it rain,” she said, drawing laughs from the audience. “But that did not happen … ” She went on to explain that those who give out money for grants will still go for a college graduate over someone with a lot of experience, but less formal education. There is also the constant barrier of try to get jobs as a black woman, when many in charge place stock in having a white face on their organization. Later, she said, “When I submit a proposal to philanthropist … we have to start dealing with institutional racism.”
The panel ended with a conversation on how to start change. Washington said that overall, movements need to be grassroots, not political, and change must start within communities. Fields reiterated this point: “There’s a myth that people in poor communities don’t know anything, or they need help. They don’t need help, they need liberation.”
The entire night, I heard comments that articulated feelings I had regarding the general food movement in America, and helped open my eyes to the complexity of situations regarding race in the environment. I get to spend more time at Yale and afterward learning about these issues. I hope everyone in the room came away from the meeting with a desire to continue this very important discussion.
Farm Intern Nace Cohen ‘14 on the costs—both explicit and hidden—of the modern food system:
There is an economics term, externality, which means that part of the cost of a product is not passed on directly to the consumer. This cost is still inherent to the product, and because the consumer doesn’t pay it in dollars it often ends up being paid out in other ways by society as a whole. An example of a product with an external cost is gasoline. In addition to the price paid at the pump, Americans pay for an oversized military with bases throughout the Middle East, oil spills in the gulf, pollution, and climate change.
One of the major problems with our food system is that there are too many externalities in the food that we buy. Americans spend less than the members of any other nation on their food— less than 6% of their income, according to the USDA. The next closest country, the UK, spends 9% of their income. This could be hailed as a great success of industrial food production, and an affordable food supply is not a bad thing— in fact quite the opposite. However, while we may directly spend less than other countries on food, if you factor in externalities this isn’t the case. By demanding that our food be cheap before anything else, we are getting food that is making us sick: more than one seventh of the US GDP is spent treating diet related diseases, according to the New York Times. By ignoring the harmful production of our food, our food system is destroying our environment: there was a 9,400-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico in 2011 due to agricultural runoff, according to Science Daily.
These are costs that aren’t being paid in the grocery store, and certainly aren’t being footed by the corporations producing food for our industrial system, so who is picking up the bill? The answer, sadly, is us. The consumer is not simply paying the healthcare costs upfront, with his or her own body: the dramatic increase in diet-related diseases, many of them chronic, has lead to an increase in healthcare costs across the board. The costs to the environment are such that we haven’t yet started to pay for the damage that has been done, but oceanic dead zones, soil depletion, climate change, and other adverse effects of farming are real, and society will end up paying for them one way or another.
So how should these costs be assessed and covered? I believe that the people who should be responsible for paying for the externalities of the food system should be those who benefit from the system, the producers. Anybody who has taken basic economics will tell you that this will lead to an increase in the cost of the product. Increasing the cost of food is a complicated issue because everybody has a right to life, and therefore to affordable food. However, this right does not need to be ensured by ignoring the external costs of the food system. How do I believe this should be done? I believe that food producers should be ranked by an independent party on how their food production effects the environment, and that food processing companies should be ranked on how damaging their products are to consumers’ health. Based on the rank and the scale of operation these companies should be fined accordingly.
What does not matter is the solution that we agree upon, what matters is that we agree upon a solution. The food system that we live in is endangering our health and our environment, and the government has yet to admit that it is a problem. This is not a problem the market will fix, if we want to live in a safe healthy society it is something that we will have to change.
“It turns out that fertiliser can be as deadly as a pesticide.”
That phrase— not even a whole sentence— is slipped quietly into this little piece about new technology that will help weed and thin lettuce beds on massive conventional farms in California’s Central Valley. The machine in question has found a way to put fertilizer’s deadly strength to good use, its makers claim: by spreading it directly on unwanted plants, it first kills competition and then provides nutrients to the surrounding survivors.
It seems to me, though, that this idea raises a number of questions relevant to the state of agriculture as a whole; for starters, why are we putting poisonously strong chemicals onto our food and our land? Issues with fertilizer runoff are numerous and well-documented, including everything from tainting groundwater to creating massive dead zones along nearby coastlines; soils managed with chemical fertilizers have been proven to fare very poorly under conditions of drought and flood (the coming effects of climate change, which is caused at least in part by manufacturing chemical fertilizer and then using fossil-fueled machines to spread it). A system that insists on a fertility source that is in every way toxic can’t possible be in very good shape.
There is also a larger question, though, raised by the notion that we need technology to do this work in the first place. The current system is inefficient because “labourers, who tend to be paid per acre, not per hour, have little incentive to pay close attention to what they pull from the ground, often leading to unnecessary waste.” The modern tendency is to view jobs like this one as irredeemably menial, and so to compensate them minimally (if at all) and try to tech them out of existence. For a country in the middle of an employment crisis, this seems like a shortsighted way of thinking about things. What if we took manual labor seriously, protecting workers and paying them a fair wage, making it possible for them to take real pride in their jobs? Agriculture is tough work but it’s absolutely crucial, and there’s no reason to continue to treat it as if it were an expendable process.
This is not to say that technology is inherently evil, or that we shouldn’t be modernizing and mechanizing at all— it’s only to suggest a more comprehensive way of thinking about where technology and agriculture meet might benefit workers in the field as well as the land they tend. Especially given this report that increasing wages for food workers, which includes field hands, would only cost the rest of us a dime a day.