Archive for March, 2011

I’m driving alone on a pitch-black empty road, coming from the train station after catching the last train back from the City.  Next thing I know, there’s a state trooper’s over-excessive spotlight glaring into my eyes.  Here goes, I thought, interrogation from the tiny rural town’s chief A-hole in charge.

But the interrogation was of another kind. “You’re a farmer?!!”  was all he could manage through a mocking grin with eyebrows raised so high I thought they would jump off of his face.  I tried to soothe his confusion, and then found myself explaining why I had a Florida driver’s license, but lived on a farm in upstate NY, had previously lived in D.C. and just came from NYC where I was also farming last year.  This didn’t seem to help.  “Farming… in Brooklyn??!” he blurted out through refrained laughter as if I’d just told him that pigs could fly.

He was a brother from the Bronx-turned-state trooper Upstate. I was tired and didn’t feel like trying to figure out whether he was just bored and wanted to hear someone’s life story or if he was truly perplexed about my occupation. I couldn’t help but think it was the latter…this was not the first time I’ve received this reaction.

Just hours before in fact, I had met friends in the city for dinner – old friends from D.C. that I hadn’t seen in a while. We did the usual catching up, telling the other what we’ve been up to. Although they’ve known about my food and farming passions for a while now, they still performed the usual chuckle and lifted eyebrow routine when questioning me about actually farming, being in the country, and being the only brown girl out there.

It frustrated me a bit, but it’s been pretty common ever since I decided to delve into this world full time. This reaction is ultimately what sparked my interest in starting this blog – because I found all the different reactions to what I wanted to do so  interesting, for a few reasons.

One, was a lot of the confused reactions to farming as an occupation in general – we are all so disconnected from the land and from our food that we find it unfathomable to pursue a career in agriculture; and/or that the fall of small-scale farming has been so great over the past 50 years that farmers are not even visible anymore and a career in farming isn’t an option for our generation. This has to change.

Two, was the different reactions I received depending on race – when I’d tell my friends that I wanted to farm, some of my Black friends would scrunch their nose up at the thought and make some reference to picking cotton, while some of my crunchier white friends would give me a “hell yeah” and mention their own interest in joining the WWOOF circuit.  But in that crunchy circuit I felt like a transplant…

Come full circle after setting off on my journey to find farmers of color last year, and I find myself transplanted again – as the only brown farmer on the team and the brand new brown in town.  I was in the town’s only bar last week, and the same reactions continued; but they were coming from other farmers, so this time I couldn’t help but think the surprise at me farming was because I didn’t look the part.  “You look like a city girl” was the theme of the night from the guys lining the bar, as I stood there in my muddy boots and hoody, wondering exactly what a “city girl” looks like.

So what I’ve gathered is that “city farmer” “brown farmer” “young farmer” maybe even “female farmer” or just plain “farmer (in the modern world of 2011)” deeply confuses people.  I really think this negative or exclusive perception of farming as a career is multifaceted. It’s due to a racial divide, but also an urban/rural divide, a generational divide and a gaping separation between humans and the land. We have to start changing this perception so that we can all begin to feel rooted, instead of transplanted. Then we can spread those roots more easily and make some real change for agriculture.

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Force of Water

I know nothing about real evacuation. I cannot fathom what it feels like to be vacated from your home in the middle of the night with the threat of aftershocks splitting open your bedroom floor, or mother nature’s most powerful liquid force carrying your family’s house away like a bottle in the sea.  Or fleeing from the threat of radiation.

All these things that our brothers and sisters are going through in Japan are so terrifyingly real. They remind us that our situation here – our frustrations and inconvenience with a flooded farm and home – are blessings compared to real disaster.

Our evacuation last week was merely a measure of precaution. Wassaic sits below an earthen dam that holds 5 acres of water, water that  flooded the dam 50 years ago and swept this little hamlet away killing 30 townsfolk. So, to avoid a repeat of that, the chief of police came ’round to evacuate us. Our landlord let us stay with him in the next town, and we spent the week camping out between neighbors’ houses.  And looking pitifully at the entire farm sitting under 3 ft of water.

This meant that the long, ambitious schedule we’d set out for the farm while in NYC, was going down the drain (pun intended).

This is farming.  Nature could give two shits about your schedule. It’s mid-March, we were supposed to start seeds last week, but everything’s under water.   That’s the way it goes.  We’re lucky nothing was already planted. That’s the kind of risk farmers take. We could have had a full field and our whole crop, our whole season would have been wiped out; just like that.  It happens all the time to farmers around the world: flood, drought, blight, frost, disease, pest infestation. Every plot tilled, every seed sown, is a gamble.

Japan reminds us, there’s only one force on this Earth in charge.

But, we have to be thankful for such minimal damage.  We took advantage of the indoor time all week and finished our succession planting schedule (when to plant what), organized all of our seeds (108 varieties!) and organized for our CSA meetings and farm workdays.

Yesterday we were able to move back into our farmhouse and today we were able to borrow space in a neighbor’s greenhouse to start some of the more urgent seeds ( leeks, parsley take a looong time).

We’ll get back on track in no time.  It’s not us I’m worried about.

The real question is, will we as a global community get back on the right track, and take note of the power of the Earth as we move forward.

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Friday I hopped on a train to the City.  60 hours later I was sleep deprived.  I wish I could say it was from a raging good time in the Big Apple.  But I think that only applies if a raging good time is defined by workshops on CSA model pricing and long conversations on crop layout.

In that case, this weekend, I tore it up.

I successfully packed in meeting with: one of our farm partners in Brooklyn – someone I consider a mentor in the work of food justice and black community health and empowerment; the market manager for Wassaic Community Farm’s long-standing farmers’ market in the south Bronx; more farm partners from the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement who we will be providing land and farming guidance to this season; a few old friends for dinners and catching up; the rest of my farm crew for a looong season planning meeting…aaaand, attended a 10-hour conference day on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) hosted by Just Food.

I was feeling so hyped about all the potential for the season that I couldn’t even sleep on the train back  – or maybe it was the 4 cups of coffee I’d downed all day to keep the last meetings going (my Chai indulged veins are not used to caffeine overload).  But when my farm partners and I got back to our beloved little hamlet in the bottom of the Harlem Valley (note the word bottom), the caffeine wore off and I was ready to crawl into bed and dream about farm workdays, feeding Bronx families, and driving veggie-oil buses….or so I thought.

Back at the farm, I was happy to see a lot of the snow had melted over the rainy, warm weekend.  What wasn’t cool, however, was that all that melted snow had ended up in our house.  It came into our basement farm office/living room…along with the town’s creek, the hilltop’s ice and every drop of rain that fell to the bottom of the valley over the course of the day.  Our couch was floating around trying to win at water-bumper-cars with our herb drying rack, and our books on “Sharing the Harvest” and “Soil and Seeds” were acting as lily pads to the 4 ft deep pond now growing in our basement.

I’d been looking forward all winter to wearing big fancy rubber farm boots, but I didn’t know my first pair of waders would be dawned indoors.

Sleep, I realized, was not in the cards.

Next >> getting evacuated to avoid the dam breaking, how to cope with farming setbacks ’cause Mother Nature said so, and reminding ourselves that this is nothin’ compared to real disasters around the world.  Look out for the next post, right now it’s time for me to get some sleep.

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Somewhere, in the deep woods of some sleepy town, next to a frozen creek, way down under the snow…life has begun to stir.  Soil has begun waking up from its winter hibernation, lying in that dreamy haze we all know too well between the alarm and snooze button, planning out what’s next to come.  It’s begun to think about shaking off the heavy snow soon and breathing in the fresh spring air. It can almost feel what the future holds when it will open up, letting earthworms spill out into the rain, and welcoming new roots to fill itself with again…

At least that’s how I envision what’s going on beneath my boots as I crunch and slide over the packed snow on the Wassaic Community Farm.

I just arrived here on this little farm – what will now be my new home and workplace for the 2011 growing season – last Thursday night.  I made my way from the JFK Airport, through the tangle of NYC subways and subway-goers (who were clearly understanding of the fact that I was dragging my oversized piece of luggage as well as my intrusive backpack through the 1/2 inch of space that MTA leaves us all to walk through ), and out of the City to the tiny hamlet (hamlet meaning the little town that could…not quite make it as a town).  I arrived to a lovely surprise welcome dinner hosted by the sweet farmers who have added me on to their team as the third farmer and food justice/education coordinator.

Ahhh. I am instantly happy to be back up north where local, farm fresh food is much easier to come by – and incredibly good.  I also, in spite of feeling like it took me longer to get out to this Harlem Valley farm only an hour and a half from the City than it did to get from Florida to New York, am immediately relieved to find myself in the perfect balance between the country-farm life and the city that never sleeps.  I, being the girl of blended contrasts, am excited to enjoy the best of both worlds this season… that is, if I find the time or energy to leave the farm once the real work kicks in.

As my time in south Florida came to a close, I tried to savor every last drop of sunshine from my parents’ garden oasis or from my seat at the seaside with a book in my hand.  I was completely spoiled this Winter, but don’t feel one bit guilty about my overindulgence in free time and serenity because -all along I knew – the end of February would be about that time.  Time for the fun to end and for my very first full season as a for real farmer to begin.

This truth became an ice-cold reality today as my boots plunged down three feet into the melting snow, my coveralls caught on the barn fence, and my dirt-caked fingers threatened to break off like icicles as I struggled to dig our seedling tables out from under six inches of solid ice.

Sure as hell glad I soaked up that 79 degree weather last week. At least the insides of my four layers of clothes are appreciating the tan lines I worked so hard on all winter.

woot. bring it on.

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