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.
The Yale Farm, Hyperlinked
by Adam Goff ‘15
None of the tomato varieties grown at the Yale Farm are light blue. Our hoes, broadforks, seeders, and shovels aren’t blue either. The pizza oven is made of red bricks, the sinks shine a titanium silver. There are no blue eggplants, blue beets, blue compost piles, or blue weeds. Aside from a couple pairs of jeans, one or two blue harvest buckets, and the sky above us, the farm is blue-less.
Yet I often expect to see light blue hues on the farm to mark all of the hyperlinks. On Wikipedia, Facebook, and much of the web, light blue marks a hyperlinked word, which when clicked will whisk you to another article. I can hyperlink surf from a Wikipedia page on Cooking to an article on Caramelization and end up reading about Aminio Acids. Light blue text marks a portal from one idea to another.
On the farm I see these hyperlinks everywhere. Our Winter Mustard Greens link me to Season Extension which takes me to Canadian Hothouse Tomatoes and their Ecological Footprint. When I am Weeding my mind hops from Migrant Farm Labor to Unionization. I weigh fresh-picked Cabbages and wonder how to improve Yield Data Collection on Diversified Vegetable Farms.
I look at our one-acre urban farm and I see nested ideas and stories, one connected to the next connected to another, just waiting to be clicked on. So don’t be surprised if you dig up one of a Yale Farm potatoes and find it tinged light blue. Be curious, for that blue potato isn’t crawling with mold and disease. It is brimming with connections for you to explore. All you have to do is click.
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.
Farm intern Justine Appel ‘15 on why caring about food and agriculture doesn’t make her a hipster:
When I found out I was going to be a summer intern at the Yale Farm, I felt like I had secured a dream summer for myself: working outdoors, growing and eating wonderful food, and learning from and with people who cared as much about sustainable agriculture as I did. After volunteering on the farm throughout my freshman year, I was seriously looking forward to further developing my comprehension of the problems and challenges of our food system. But around the same time my interest in the sustainable food movement heightened, I started noticing a strong, adverse reaction to it.
One morning, I opened the Yale Daily News magazine to find myself labeled a pretentious hipster. When I expressed my frustration with factory farming to one of my close friends, she told me that I was developing extremist tendencies. When I told my mom that I was going to try to eat more seasonally, she became defensive about buying strawberries in December. “Don’t you like strawberries, Justine?”
Whether being gently mocked by a Portlandia episode or accused of attempting to make food into some sort of religion or art form, I can’t seem to escape the stereotypes associated with passion for farming and concern for how we can feed seven billion mouths without contaminating our air, water, and soil. What I thought were good intentions are often perceived as idealist, naive, and, most disturbingly, elitist.
I reject being placed in special category of people who think about the way they eat, one that is characterized by privilege and even by extravagance. Being food conscious is not something inherently white, wealthy, or seductively bohemian. Moreover, such a discourse is dangerous because it strips everyone outside a certain social category of his or her agency to eat well, affordably, and ethically. Accepting that eating sustainably and locally is somehow bourgeois is both denying history and legitimizing a system that restricts access to fresh, healthy food within poor communities.
Don’t dismiss the sustainable food movement because it seems like a hipster’s cause. People who think of it that way will tell you that you can’t afford to buy organic. But with the world population expected to reach 9 billion within our generation’s lifetime, what we really can’t afford is ignorance or denial of the agricultural challenges ahead. No, we probably can’t feed the world on small-scale organic farms, but we certainly can’t go on burning more fossil fuels in order to have our winter strawberries while 870 million people go undernourished. We should strive to create a world where no one is too poor, too disadvantaged, or most importantly, too busy to exercise their right to healthy food.