Hi, Sarah here. On Wednesday the farm crew ventured to the Yale-Meyers forest, 8,000 acres of woods in northern Connecticut. Each summer a crew of students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies manages the forest.
The forest is divided into plots of land, a few of which the crew looks at each year. The plots, by the way, get named by the crew; we walked through “White Pine-apple Express”, “Super Dank”, and “Carly Simon”.
"Managing" a plot is a two step process. First, the crew surveys the area and comes up with a prescription. This prescription takes into account a laundry list of factors: the density of the plot which is measured by the basal area (literally the thickness of the base of the tree), how many of each species are represented, the soil type, diversifying the ages of trees. It suggests generally which species or kinds of trees to favor.
Bearing in mind the prescription, the forestry students take cans of spray paint and look at each area closely. They select trees as “crop trees” which they would like to see flourish, trees with healthy crowns and straight trunks that are about 30 feet away from the nearest crop trees. Then they take their cans of spray paint and mark which trees need to go down, which are pretty much any trees that are inhibiting the crop tree from reaching its potential. Dead trees are usually left up since they make good habitats for wild life.
Sometimes when we talk about giving tours at the farm, we use the phrase “seeing the forest through the trees,” which for us means giving the larger contexts of diversity, crop rotation, urban farming etc. to the specifics of transplanting chard or trellising tomatoes. Obviously, the phrase was a bit more literal in this context: the prescription serves as a view of the forest when the crew is looking at a smaller subset of trees.
But walking around Yale-Meyers, I found myself a bit more interested in seeing the trees themselves, looking at the subtleties that differentiate a crop tree from the one that will be chopped up and used to fire our pizza oven. Usually when I’m walking in a forest I see a forest, or at least trees plural, but the crew was analyzing the potential of each and every tree. Julius, who manages the forest, described thinning out an area as a puzzle. As one goes through to mark an acre, she must constantly be balancing the locations and species of all the other crop trees and the prescription she created.
I come from a coding background, and my first reaction was to imagine the way a program might solve these problems. Definitely there were times when lines were blurred, when two beautiful trees stood close to one another and choosing one would then alter the 30 foot radius or the species ratio and therefore all the crop tree selections, There had to be an optimal arrangement. Quite quickly I realized human instinct is actually much more efficient than converting every tree into pieces of data, mostly because each decision has so many incomparable factors. How does one decide whether the knot in one tree might make it less profitable than the bend in another? What about which tree is healthier for the ecosystem? How can one weigh profit against forest health at all? A computer certainly can’t, unless numerical values are assigned to those priorities. I feel like this always happens when we talk about the best forms of agriculture. Grass fed beef have more of a carbon footprint than corn fed beef but also how do we factor in the fact that people would eat less beef if it wasn’t cheap CAFO stuff and then there would be fewer cows? Some things just can’t be compared by exact numbers of carbon dioxide molecules going into the atmosphere.
Then there’s the issue of playing God.When we weed our lettuce bed or trim an area of the forest, we are taking natural selection into our own hands, favoring the big and the beautiful and allowing the potentially weak to live. I remember a Pollan argument that the plants that can survive without pesticides are the most nutritious ones because they are strong or something like that (forgive me it’s been a while since I read the Omnivore’s Dilemma). Continuing that path of logic suggests that we should all be foraging, only eating the fittest of plants since they are the most nutritious. The weird thing is with forests, we already have played God, or at least our ancestors have. Almost all of New England was at one point farm land. These forests have grown back from plowed pasture; managing them might get them closer to a “natural” place. Even Native Americans managed forests with controlled fires.
It wasn’t immediately clear to me why we were going to the forest besides that forests are really cool. But looking at timber as a crop pushed me to think about our farm. Which totally raised the trip from dank to super dank.
Hi, Margaret here. Last week on the farm we harvested herbs from our medicinal berm and hung them up to dry. In a week or so, the dried leaves will be crumbled into bins and stored for winter-time tea-making, but for now, the shipping container where we store most of our tools has been turned into a cave full of aromatic oils.
Olfaction is older than any of our other senses. The olfactory bulb, where scents are processed, is separate from the rest of the somatosensory cortex, but has close access to the amygdala (emotions) and the hippocampus (memory). More so than taste, sight, hearing, or touch, smell has the ability to form direct associations among memories, feelings, and sensory stimuli. I remember this because the hippocampus is curved like a seahorse and means “sea monster” in Greek. When I was little I was afraid of the ocean; I associate salt water with that phobia, that time in my life.
What do I associate these herbs with?
- Mint. According to dictionary.com, mint is both noun, “an aromatic herb having opposite leaves and small whorled flowers,” and verb, “to make or fabricate; invent.” I associate mint with the imaginary people I thought lived in my backyard as a kid, and the houses I made for them out of sticks and grass and other plants. I think of my mother, my childhood home. In Greek mythology, Wikipedia tells me, mint is the herb of hospitality. Its first known use in Europe was as a room deodorizer.
- Chamomile. Those same medieval women who hung mint to dry probably also brewed tea with chamomile flowers. They read bodies of people the same way they read plants, isolating what was useful, what was problematic, and assigning different herbs for different conditions in a subjective and inexplicably gendered care practice. I associate chamomile with an upset stomach, with anxiety, with being unable to sleep as kid sitting up late at night at the kitchen table my mother watching me as I slowly sip a mug of tea.
- Lemon Balm. The Wikipedia page says lemon balm may be the “honey-leaf” mentioned by Theophrastus; also it was in the herbal garden of a famous (but not to me) 15th century man. No mention of the women witches and herbalists who cured their communities with its calming, soothing properties. The only promising phrase on the whole page: “in North America, melissa officinalis has escaped cultivation and spread into the wild.” Google: Melissa is Greek for “bee.” The melissai were Ephesian priestesses of the great mother goddess. I associate lemon balm with this new knowledge, these associations. I escape cultivation. I fabricate, I invent.
- I am making mint, chamomile, and lemon balm tea right now as I am writing this, so that later I will associate these herbs with the process of fabrication. I am sitting at my computer with twelve tabs open. I am sniffing and thinking, and wafting the olfactants of the herbs towards me in order to remember, to feel, to invent.
This week we hear from student farm manager Ryan Mera Evans. A note on the following passage from Field Coordinator Jeremy Oldfield: Ryan’s story contains a graphic scene that is endemic in farm life. The Yale Farm, an acre of cropland surrounded by urban and suburban realities, is no exception. We keep a careful eye on how our compost is produced and where it is spread to ensure maximum safety and fertility. Enjoy!
“Find a pile of gold and sit on it.”
― John Gardner, Grendel
Over the past two days, I unearthed six mountains of feathery, airy, crumbly, black humus from our compost piles. The six piles were the result of months of food scraps, crop refuse, and weeds. Over hours, under sun, and after plenty of turning, the piles shrink. Weeds are cooked, earthworms and woodlice feast, and old meals are broken down. What is left is a light, amorphous, and fertile substance, where one can’t distinguish between microorganisms, plant matter, minerals, or earthworm poop. Humified plant matter. We spread the black gold over our berms, where they provide flowers, herbs, and vegetables with the conditions they need to grow well. Our six compost bins, like all fluid components of the farm, are a concentrated visual reminder of the fuzzy boundary between new life, old life, and stasis, and kinesis.
But, in order to lubricate the spinning life wheel, our compost must be turned. So, two days ago, I set out with a shovel, a pitchfork, a strong back, and a weak mind to facilitate a “proper” compost.
I think about
- The parallels between compost and human digestive process.
- The differences between hot and cold compost.
- Time, and the degradation of human byproducts (whether they are biologically, agriculturally, or commercially generated.
- The suburbs of Northern Denver, and my family’s “just-throw-it-in-the-garden-bed” approach to composting.
- How my fingers look suspiciously like earthworms, color, shape, and all.
- How funky it would be if my fingers moved like earthworms.
I was on my third pile of compost, in the groove, muscle memory on lock, when I hit something that wasn’t compost. I pulled the shovel away, pulled a drink from my water bottle, and, while resting, saw a pink and gray sausage poking out the compost.
That doesn’t belong there.
I leaned in, water dribbling down my chin, towards the compost nubbin.
A rat. I just decapitated a rat. It was about four inches long. As big as the sausages I ate for dinner the other night. The top half of its body stuck out the soil, legs weakly pawed at the air, blood spurted out of the neck hole. Pink and Red, surrounded by a gray casing. This death didn’t belong in this compost. It was fresh, mammalian, still alive.
There must be more. A Nest. A click in the head. Out Out Out. Shovel in, shovel out. Rats out. Memory out. Remove the rats as quick as possible, cover up the hacked carcasses with soil, make the squeals and the unwanted movement stop.
When I was sure there were no more rats, I went to get a drink.
I finished my job. I turned the compost, and made sure that I didn’t approach it without care. Instead, I turned the compost softly. I didn’t stab, I folded, and created a new nest: one that cradles the future life in the compost. One day, the compost will nourish our acre, but this week, it is okay to care for the mobile mountains.
Last week, I was in charge of landscaping duty. With a weed-whacker and mower, I waged a war against tall grass and weeds. I still feel the rumble of the mower. What other tactile sensations exist at the farm? The tickle of our asparagus forest, the sweet, sticky juices from plucked gooseberries, the moist soil after it’s been kissed with fish emulsion. There are countless others. What helps me feel the farm? Hands. Soft hands, with small calluses on the top of the palms.
In middle school, I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. One character, Curly, wore a glove “fulla Vaseline.” An unlikely detail, and definitely not practical, but the glove did create a barrier between man and the work-tools, or man and the soil.
Back to my hands. I inspect the scabbed over blisters on the insides of my thumbs. I should’ve worn gloves.
Sometimes, agricultural-workers are called farmhands, a synecdoche that evokes a cloud of hands that till the soil and turn the compost. Popular images show the farmer, cupped and calloused hands pooled with soil. I wonder, what is a grower’s most important tool? Can it be the hands, that weed or transplant? Or is it the mind, filled with years of listening to the soil and other growers? Maybe season after season fuse the two together. I imagine two carrots, corkscrewed around each other, underneath the earth.
At the Wooster Square market, an exchange of crumpled bills signifies the trade between the grower and the consumer. Contact is one thing farmer’s markets provide. You put a place to a face. The interaction reveals the invisible fingerprints that cover our food, that are hidden under bright super market lights. When we trade, cash for veggies, or veggies for cash, we say: Yes, this food grew on an acre of land in Downtown New Haven; yes, we are students. You can tell by our hands.
Hey there y’all. It’s Ryan here again from the YSFP, writing about this week’s farm action. Surprisingly, this week has been less involved on the Yale Farm and more community-based, out and about in New Haven. Tuesday involved traveling to Woodbridge, CT down yonder to help Massaro Community Farm with their Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Wednesday involved lots of work planting ginger in the Yale Greenhouse as well as an in depth class on the economics of small-scale farming taught by Mark Bomford. Thursday involved a day of food preparation and cooking on West Campus for a much-needed almost-end-of-the-week Happy Hour event at the West Campus Urban Farm. But no matter what, farmers still return to their farm for maintenance, harvesting, and market as is the usual rhythm of Friday and Saturday.
With the laundry list of event updates on the table, it’s interesting to see how each event has one thing in common: community. Despite Massaro and West Campus both being located down the road, each farm serves its own micro-community that, too, is separate from the Yale Farm community. And stretching further, the Yale Farm YSFP micro-community differs from the active volunteers in the New Haven community, school-centered volunteers, City Seed produce buyers, and even the managerial staff behind the scenes. Even further, at Massaro, the workers we helped this week share a very different micro-community compared to the Massaro owners, the CSA families coming for produce, and even the residents of the houses across the street. And finally the combination of graduate students, faculty, researchers, scientists, PHD students, and interns that interact on the West Campus farm all find themselves coming together.
On the surface, each farm represents a geographical location; a single establishment for the purpose of producing foodstuffs for a local community. That local community, however, has an amorphous identity, molding to each person or program individually according to their desire. Each establishment, as articulated best by Mark Bomford in his lecture, sells much more than produce; they sell hope for a better tomorrow, sustainable food production, and interpersonal relationships among customers and producers. All of a sudden, farming becomes much more than merely growing and selling or supply and demand. Instead, farms transform a group of people separated in their daily actions and desires, bringing these individuals together in one central location.
This very concept of micro-communities on such a small scale underlines a much more important point: food has the power to promote change. Three farms, all within a ten-mile radius of one another, have the capacity to connect different peoples for different reasons in different ways. Further expanding on the positive externalities of micro-communities, farms have the capacity to promote healthy morals, greener thinking, food literacy from the ground to the kitchen table, and even interaction with a wider group of New Haven residents. So much change and so much influence in only a small fraction of a city let alone a sand grain of the world. But what if the change wasn’t positive? What about times of war, poverty, infertility of soil, natural disaster, drought, flash floods, or depression? What about the negative externality of pollution from industrial facilities, premature soil infertility from over-tilling land, or even illegal labor wages? Sometimes promoting change can mean preventing change.
So what did I learn from the farm this week? Food matters. From the geographical location where the crop is planted to the people taking care of that crop to the community collecting that harvested food to the people being served with what one buys, food is involved in a much more complicated and important process than meets the eye. We witness that process every day from sunrise to sunset and yet remain ignorant to how many struggles were labored through to make each part of the food-chain puzzle align perfectly. And, inversely, we remain ignorant to how drastically life can change when just one of those steps does not fit exactly right. Food is important and we need to think before we eat.
Hi, Margaret here. I’m a Lazarus summer intern from Iowa City, Iowa. This is the first summer I’ve spent entirely away from home, and I’ve been thinking lately about the differences between farming in New Haven and the rural Midwest. It has to do with a lot more than geography: the Yale Farm’s categorization as an urban farm has all sorts of ecological, economic, and cultural significance, all of which I am slowly starting to learn about.
Maybe the most obvious signifiers of the Farm’s urban setting are the pieces of glass and metal that occasionally surface, but this land’s tenuous status as agricultural area is also manifested in the composition of the soil and in the topography of the Farm itself. In the field closest to the road the soil has tested high for lead contamination, so we only grow flowers there, no edible food. In a month or so, that field will be full of blooming zinnias, sunflowers, and other brightly-colored plants; a lovely yet somewhat surreal buffer zone with truck exhaust on one side and poisonous metals underneath.
I think this strange paradox is at the heart of urban farming. Earlier this week, Stacy Spell, a New Haven community organizer and gardening guru, came by to pick up some tomato seedlings for the many community gardens he runs in the city. He talked to us about his experiences with his newest project, which involves planting vegetables and flowers in empty crates and barrels around some of New Haven’s roughest neighborhoods, and described how these micro-gardens give people something to take ownership of, a reason to be out in the streets. But he also stressed the aesthetic aspect: “we’re bringing beauty into a place that’s not supposed to be beautiful,” he said.
For Spell, this is a constructive contradiction; the process of creating societal change is closely linked to the difficult, labor-intensive work of carving out a fertile green space in an antagonistic environment. The struggle of transforming land has deep parallels with the struggle to construct societies.
While Spell’s aims involve food justice, I can’t help but think of more pernicious uses of agriculture as social engineering in American history, including the plantation economy. The intersection of food, place, and the past, was something that another guest on the farm, Michael Twitty, discussed. Twitty, a culinary historian, Judaic scholar, and food writer (check out his website http://afroculinaria.com/) shared with us some of his experiences investigating food as cultural connector in America’s various diasporic communities. He spoke particularly about African American food stories, about how the terrible isolation of being transplanted from one place to another could be alleviated by communal cooking and sharing of cultural knowledge about food.
Here too, a paradox is at work: the pain of separation, of oppression, creates the conditions in which a new kind of connection and power can be formed. Twitty doesn’t hold any utopic vision of a perfectly integrated, perfectly multicultural society, but he thinks if we make any progress towards understanding those different from ourselves, it will come through food, and the places where food is grown.
So far this summer, I’ve loved getting to know my fellow interns in the shared space of the Yale Farm, but I can’t wait for the community to keep on expanding. This Friday is the first volunteer day of the summer. If you’re in New Haven, feel free to stop by 345 Edwards St: eat a strawberry or a leaf of kale, and tell us a little about where you’re from and your food story. We’d love to see you there!
Hi! My name is Sarah, and I am a Lazarus Summer Intern from New York City. This week has been pretty wet and chilly on the farm, two weather phenomena for which I’m sure the six of us will be aching come mid-July. On the farm we’ve been productive despite this gloomy weather. We transplanted eggplants, peppers, potatoes and lavender; cleared a huge jungle of weeds and vines behind our Prophaus; and moved the chicken coop so that we can put our hens to work fertilizing a bed.
Off the farm, we’ve had an amazing trio of afternoon activities. On Tuesday, we sat in on a dissertation defense at the school of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Jen Gaddis summarized—thankfully—her argument for a 250-page dissertation entitled “Fit to Feed: Labor, ecology, and the remaking of the National School Lunch Program.” On Wednesday Mark Bomford, the director of the YSFP, taught the first of two classes on farm economics, and on Thursday our farm manager Jeremy Oldfield, gave us an introduction to soil.
Each experience was incredibly informative, and Jen’s and Mark’s seemed intimately linked. Jen’s primary argument is that the school lunch program will be much improved if we place more value on cafeteria workers. A decades-long effort to reduce the price of school lunches and get all students fed has led to a culture where “lunch ladies”—and they are, it seems, mostly ladies—are both forced to “heat and serve” pre-made lunches of which they are not proud and valued at how many meals per hour they can “make.” There is no economic value attached to the extra time cafeteria workers put in preparing tastier food and caring for their students which help prevent these children from taking the legally-required vegetables and whole grains and dumping them straight into the trash bin.
In the same way that we undervalue the work cafeteria workers do because we do not place economic value on it, we can also look at agricultural laborers as undervalued workers. Mark explained that agricultural jobs are “at the bottom of the barrel” because on large, monocultural, mechanized farms, the work a person does becomes dull and repetitive. Because it is unskilled work, workers can be paid less, much like cafeteria workers who merely heat meals. These jobs become undesirable and unrespectable. When we look at the food kids take and not the food they actually eat, how do we account for the time a lunch lady spends making sure a student will enjoy his veggies? When we look at how many calories or cabbage heads per hour a farm can produce, how do we account for the extra care a farmer puts into a task because she enjoys it? Ultimately, it’s impossible to quantify the cost of the environmental impacts of spraying a bed of plants versus the cost of paying workers to hand-weed it or the cost of the impact that student’s unbalanced meal might have on her future health bills versus the cost of preparing a more delicious lunch from scratch. Which leaves us in a difficult position.
Tomorrow, to continue with a theme, those of us who aren’t selling at market will be canvasing with the Food Policy Council, spreading the word that New Haven continues to provide free and reduced-price lunches to qualifying students over the summer. I hope those lunches will be both delicious and nutritious; according to Jen, New Haven is taking strides in that direction.
Hey there y’all. Ryan here. My hometown is North Andover, Massachusetts, and I’m the first of the 2014 Lazarus Summer Interns to post about our time on the farm. Overall, I couldn’t ask for to be part of a better group or program. One week has felt like one month, already binding the group together in a short period of time. But despite all the summertime bonding, there was one event that topped them all this week: the Big Apple Barbeque Block Party this past weekend located in Madison Square Park.
While my hometown up north might deceive you, my true nature is as a country boy. I love the tales of heartache and love, I love the culture of farming and family closeness, I love the banjo and campfire memories, and most importantly, I love the food. All my life, I had waited for a chance to truly stamp myself as a country boy beyond just the terrible tan around my neck and arms. This past weekend, however, my fellow interns and I became official country kids thanks to Jimmy Hagood and his South Carolina BlackJack Barbeque grub. With over a hundred hogs cooked for a minimum of eleven hours, the Lazarus crew handled more meat than any of us had had ever dreamed possible.
Though Jimmy’s meat may have fallen off the bone, the sandwiches certainly didn’t make themselves, which we were constantly reminded of throughout the day. As soon as we arrived we were forearm deep in luscious, juicy, mouth watering shredded pork, tearing it into pieces and following the mantra, “Only keep what you would want to eat yourself.” I speak for us all when I say that we were tempted to taste check every piece of meat we saw. After stripping the meat came the seasoning, adding a bit of spice and zest without losing the natural flavor of the hog itself. With the meat ready, next came the divide and conquer tactic: the gang was split into various stations, each with a time-sensitive and critical task. With only 9 paper sandwich boats fitting per tray, there was a constant stream of boat making, tray stacking, bun preparing, coleslaw stuffing, sandwich packing, BBQ sauce pouring, tray distributing, empty tray pulling, empty tray washing, and repeating. With so many hogs, so many people wanting Jimmy’s food, and meat galore, it’s safe to say we averaged a tray per minute for six full hours. Though our first rodeo on the BBQ bandwagon, we kept the food coming along quite nicely, each taking turns at the different stations, and managing to sneak a quick five minute “quality control” taste test of the food we were preparing.
Most importantly, however, we all learned the key to great BBQ: great people. Barbeque has many shapes and styles, names and textures, places and preferences. But the key ingredient to making the whole thing worthwhile is enjoying the work one does, enjoying the people one works with, and engaging in serious fun the entire time. With commentating from the sandwich maker who cried, “This ain’t our first rodeo!” and “Pork Party people! We got a Pork Party on our hands!” and “Come on y’all them people look hungry so let’s give them what they want!”, the BBQ helpers lost sight of all our efforts. We internalized the fact that our labor was for a greater purpose and we valued that purpose more than the food itself. Not a minute went by without a smile, a laugh, a friendly conversation, or a cry of motivation during our time with Jimmy and his pit. And while the food at the Yale Farm may not be glazed in a savory sauce and roasted for at least 11 hours, we go to work each morning knowing that the people we impact are more important than the soreness at the end of the day. That’s where farmers, country boy wannabes, and the BBQ pitmasters all share a common thread: making food for yourself is necessary but making food for others is priceless. Savor that moment, understand it, and relive it as much as you can.