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, December 10, 2012

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.

Friday, November 30, 2012

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.

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Pizza and Events intern Onagh MacKenzie ‘15, who grew up on a sprawling rural livestock farm, on how she learned to appreciate the bite-sized Yale version:

Farming, to me, has always meant land. Lots of it. It has meant being able to turn 360 degrees and not see a man-made structure. Or hear anything other than the cows and their cud.

When my parents moved to Naples, New York over thirty years ago, they bought half an old dairy farm, the worn-in house, and its fifty acres. My brother has since used the entire farm, our fields and woods, along with the other original half, to establish his own sustainable meat farm. No more of my dad’s disorganized, motley crew of Scottish Highland cows. We have a “real” farm operation now, with ear tags and rotating pastures and three strands of fencing instead of one. (Sometimes I find myself missing the weekly call from the neighbors telling us our cows were in the road, or, sometimes, their garden.)

The main constraint on my brother’s operation hasn’t been lack of manpower or customers, but land. The 100 acres have long ceased to be enough. The cows and sheep now spill over onto neighboring land which we lease from its owners. To compensate for the distance in grass, we need to have sheep road moves between pastures. “Sheep in the Road” signs go up on either end of the journey, and in the middle it’s a sea of wooly bodies, swarming around the cars and invading the ditches. We’re reminded just how much we could use those extra acres of our own.

The idea that a farm could exist without acres of fields and with sidewalks, passing traffic, and a city skyline in the distance was a foreign concept to me. Urban farming seemed too much of an incongruity. Then I found my way to the Yale Farm. Instead of road sheep moves, we have perfectly aligned greenhouses and beds of veggies measured to take advantage of every last patch of earth. At 345 Edwards Street, lack of land is an inspiration: rather than focusing on what we don’t have, the small space encourages innovation.

But it’s more than just a space to be utilized: the Farm is a space to enjoy, a space to appreciate farming for more than just its fields and its time in nature. At the Yale Farm I have learned to love sustainable agriculture for its desire to spread good food and to appreciate where it comes from. The Farm is a space for the people, and the parts of friends that only come out when picking carrots. Space for the pause in my life that Friday afternoons provide, a time to breathe after the sprint of the week. And you know what? When I’m bent over in the garden bed, proudly checking out the dirt under my fingernails, or with my head stuck in the pizza oven, monitoring the cooking dough, I don’t even notice the skyline.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Yale Farm is no stranger to natural disasters— in the last year, it’s survived a tropical storm and a surprise October blizzard— and our staff are no strangers to what it takes to make sure that all of our crops and chickens make it through relatively unscathed. Above, check out a series of photos showing how we prepared for Sandy, and what the old acre looked like after the fact.

If you’re curious to see how we fared in person, stop by our workday this afternoon from 1:00-5:00 pm, or celebrate the season at Friday’s Harvest Festival with cider, pizza, music and dancing.

The Farm and the New Haven community were incredibly lucky to make it through with minimal damage; our thoughts are with everyone who’s struggling to rebuild and move on in the wake of the storm.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

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. 

Photographs by Elif Erez.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Pictures from last week’s Big Stink planting, which took place in community gardens across New Haven, are up on our Facebook page alongside images from yesterday’s Morse Master’s Tea with Sandor Katz. Check ‘em out!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

When we say that Farm workdays happen rain or shine, we mean it— and we proved it this past Friday, as interns harvested for the next morning’s farmers’ market in some pretty bleak weather. These hearty souls were rewarded with plenty of hot, delicious pizza at the end of the day— plus the satisfaction of a difficult job well done, of course. It’s really heartening to have an intern crew and a corps of volunteers who show up on damp and dreary days ready to work, knowing that harvest has to happen whether it’s nice out or not. So thanks to everyone who lent a hand, and a special thanks to our photographer Elif, who captured everyone’s goofy raingear and exceptionally good spirits.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011