Friday, March 29, 2013

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. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

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. 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"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.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012
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.

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.

Friday, October 12, 2012

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.

Monday, July 9, 2012

If you’re looking for some lunchtime reading, here are two stories that present a top-to-bottom approach to the issues facing farmers and the food community right now: Tom Philpott considers why organically managed soils stand up better to the extreme weather conditions produced by climate change than their conventional counterparts, and The New York Times gives us a look at who decides what gets labeled as Certified Organic. Both serve as a good reminder of all that goes into what ends up in supermarkets and on the table— and that the process is rarely a simple one. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Forget February and any Valentine’s Day blues: think ahead to warm months and the Alpine strawberries that show up at the Yale Farm each June, and apply to be one of our summer interns for the 2012 season. Applications are available here and due Friday by 10:00 pm.

Forget February and any Valentine’s Day blues: think ahead to warm months and the Alpine strawberries that show up at the Yale Farm each June, and apply to be one of our summer interns for the 2012 season. Applications are available here and due Friday by 10:00 pm.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Podcasts

Here are two podcasts, recorded last week, featuring YSFP Director Mark Bomford and the Rudd Center’s Kelly Brownell. There’s one on food and sustainability and another on local sustainability initiatives. Both are definitely worth a listen!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 Thursday, October 6, 2011