Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I’m currently lucky enough to be enrolled in the class “Urbanization and the Environment in China and India”, which included a spring break trip to Guangdong Province and New Delhi. As part of the class, I’m working on a group research project about meat availability and changing diets in China and India.

Our research entailed visits to various types of markets in both countries—a fascinating process that allowed us to consider both food production and supply, and social and cultural practices. One major theme: even though urban diets have changed and are changing in both countries, becoming increasingly processed and industrialized, fresh markets remain the vibrant norm.  

Even more fundamentally, I observed in both places a difference in attitude, compared to the US, towards food shopping in general. Most basic staples remain unbranded, which isn’t to say that industrial food isn’t present—it’s just that meat that is produced industrially is not as commonly sold under a brand name like Tyson.

Thus, in both China and India, “consumer choice” in food still implies very physical, very real choice. Rather than choosing between brands and abstracted concepts of food—in the US, the premise of our industrial food system is that one Tyson chicken breast is indistinguishable from another—people rely on their senses, experience with the seller, and personal judgment to select precisely the food that looks best to them. Even in the Chinese supermarkets we visited, people pick through trays of chicken wings, and the plastic-covered Styrofoam package of six chicken breasts remains the exception rather than the norm. Although this kind of shopping may create anxiety about food safety, I think it also points to an attitude that doesn’t consider it elitist to invest time and effort in procuring quality food. 

-Abigial Bok, ‘14

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Singing and Cooking Together

Over spring break, Redhot & Blue, my a cappella group came to my hometown of Rochester, New York. Our favorite activities of the week were singing and cooking. From singing in a church full of hundreds of people to filling hundreds of won-ton wrappers with squash, our week was full of joy. Singing and cooking are both forms of communication that transcend words, fostering a sense of community in creating something together.   

These moments of singing and cooking don’t just happen. To sing together, everyone must learn the words and the notes; someone has to give the tempo and lead the group. To cook together, someone has to plan the menu and find ingredients; everyone must suppress hunger while doing his part to prepare the meal. In our modern world, music comes from iPods and food comes from take-out containers. Current food movements encourage local food that is grown sustainably and prepared with care. Many people believe in this mission; yet, they don’t pursue it often enough. Change in the food system starts in backyard gardens and bustling kitchens. Those seeking more than pad thai and the latest hit single have their work cut out for them.  

-Katie Harmer ‘15

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. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Conservationist in the Clouds

Hannah Sassoon, ‘15

Don Carlos was sitting on the porch when we arrived at Cuerici. We could smell a wood stove burning, and I thought for a moment that it was smoke hanging in the air around us—but it wasn’t dry, it was wet, and it didn’t rise or twist. It rolled under the roof trusses. A cloud. We joined Don Carlos on the porch. From leather rocking chairs and long log benches, we looked across the Talamanca mountains, breathless.

We could recognize the altitude by the flora, too. Compared to the tall palms and Heliconia we’d just seen in the rainforest, this looked like a temperate zone: oaks (Fagaceae), dogwoods (Cornaceae), blueberries (Ericaceae). We’d come to Costa Rica as botanists. Here, 2700 meters above sea level, we found a distinctive habitat: un bosque nublado, a cloud forest.

Cuerici is more than a biological station: it’s a trout farm, and it’s the home of Don Carlos. The land he stewards—including 200 hectares of primary forest, a blackberry farm, and a patchwork of impossibly steep cow pastures—straddles the top of a mountain. Its Atlantic face is wet, its Pacific face dry. Don Carlos’s family has lived here for generations.

The trout operation at Cuerici is less than twenty years old—the result of a government-sponsored economic development initiative. Rainbow trout in the cloud forest? It’s a good question. They’re nonnative, and a notoriously aggressive species. But Don Carlos’s truchas are well contained and integrated into the cycles of Cuerici. 

At the base of the hill below the station is a small dug pond, divided down the middle into two squares. This is where Don Carlos keeps reproductive trout. They’re large—easily twenty-four inches long, most more like thirty. From the bank, we watch them swim around each other, dorsal fins gliding above the pond surface. Don Carlos is describing egg collection. With his thick fingers, he draws two vertical lines in the air. The fish have two sacs, he explains in Spanish. That’s where all the eggs are—hundreds, thousands. When they are ready, he captures the fish and massages their bellies to release the eggs. It’s a skill to know exactly when a fish is ready—something Don Carlos has learned over many seasons. He refuses to buy in eggs.

Up the hill is the hatchery, a dimly lit building. A stack of incubation shelves stands in one corner with water running over it all the time from a suspended pipe. Eggs incubate here for a month before Don Carlos moves the fish to small tanks, also in the hatchery. When they reach three centimeters in length, he moves them again, this time to one of the long, narrow, concrete tanks that run the length of the building. He doesn’t move them all together, though—he selects the hatchlings by size, one at a time. We watch Don Carlos climb onto the ledge above the concrete tanks. This water—he points down—comes from underground. It can’t have organic matter or sediment in it because particles can suffocate the fish at this stage.

Outside the hatchery is a row of larger tanks for juvenile trout. There are thousands of them, flipping and folding and forming schools. Most are sold at this size, four centimeters; the best are kept for breeding; the rest are kept for eating.

Don Carlos cleans the tanks twice a week. He puts the excrement in the compost to feed knotted piles of red worms, which he feeds, in turn, to the trout. He’s always looking to foster these sorts of cycles. Here, sustainability is not an ideology; it’s a necessity.

When Don Carlos’s grandparents moved to Cuerici Mountain, they slashed and burned to create pastures and gardens. They raised cows, they hunted, they felled the biggest trees, they made charcoal. And when the government outlawed deforestation in the 1970s, they began to sell their land, piece by piece, as pastures. Don Carlos saw the forest disappearing, and he decided, with eight friends, to buy the land. They still share it.

They’ve delineated their land use: part of the forest is a conservation site, another part is a reforestation site. Some areas are still cattle pasture (so the residents of Cuerici can have milk and manure); some are kept clear for blackberry bushes.

I’m criticized by conservationists, Don Carlos tells us, for having a cow, for having blackberries. But it isn’t so black and white: the point of land stewardship, he explains, is to balance conservation with human needs. Don Carlos lives by the idea of enough. Conserve what you can—it is enough. And take only what you need—it is enough. The problem, he says quietly, is when people want to make a lot of money from the land. That is more than enough; that is too much.

Behind the station, Don Carlos shows us a spread of palm seedlings—a hundred at least. It’s an edible species, so slow growing that it can take fifty, sixty, seventy years to reach maturity. When Don Carlos’s family first lived at Cuerici, these palms were everywhere. Now in the forest there remains only one.

The seedling project is an experiment. Don Carlos has propagated these palms, and he intends to plant them across the mountain. He knows he won’t live to learn their fate, much less to harvest them and eat them. But he is content as he leans on a bench and gazes at their light green fronds. This is enough.

Together, we head inside for lunch—trout. Above the station, clouds comb through the oaks, mixing with wood smoke.  

Monday, March 25, 2013

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.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Ever year we face a conundrum: one of the most important tenets of Harvest is that it’s a break from the plugged-in technological world, and no one wants to bring a fancy digital camera along to dig in the dirt, but we need pictures of the trips! For our 2012 session we experimented by giving  leaders and support crew disposable cameras and asking them to document what they did and saw. The results are hilarious and gorgeous and make us miss summer all over again. Above are some highlights— you can check out the rest on our Flickr page.

Friday, March 8, 2013

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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Yale Farm vs. Nemo

Some pictures from intern Emily Farr of the impact Nemo’s 34” snowfall had on the Yale Farm last weekend. We were thrilled to weather Irene and Sandy with minimal damage, but didn’t get quite so lucky this time, as one of our hoophouses’ metal frames collapsed under the weight of the snow. We’re in the process of digging out and moving on, and so glad to have two more hoophouses to grow winter greens in for the rest of the season!

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.

Read More

Thursday, November 29, 2012

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.