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Archive for September, 2011

Coming from Florida – the home of hurricanes – I wasn’t really batting an eye when the local NY news began terrorizing the airwaves with threats of Hurricane Irene.

I helped friends with hurricane preparations…storing away loose yard items, shopping for too much food and too many candles…but I shook my head at the fear-frenzy the media was creating. And it only got worse as the hurricane neared.

A few “NYC lies in the cross hairs of Irene” and “No one is safe from the wrath to come”  headlines later, she finally hit. I was in the city, and the damage there seemed minimal. I tried to suppress my “told-you-so” attitude.  But I had no idea what was in store for us and so many other farmers back upstate.

The focus of the predicted damage was New York City itself and other coastal areas, but the real damage affected all of the low-lying rural areas – farms particularly- which were practically wiped out by flooding.

When I returned back upstate, word started pouring in from neighboring farms and friends’ farms all across the Northeast, stretching up into Vermont:  farms were literally floating.

Rivers and streams were carrying squash and pumpkins washed away from the fields. Entire crops were taken out, diseases like wilt spread overnight killing neighboring crops instantly. Many farms lost everything, forced to finish for the season.

Our farm here in Wassaic, was a little lucky. But only slightly. All of our squash and pumpkins were wiped out. Salvaging what they could the day before the storm, my farm-mates were able to save a stash for our CSA members. Potatoes yet to be harvested were drowned and rotted out, along with other root crops like carrots and turnips. New seedlings recently transplanted were wiped away, leaving our fall crop yield potential looking scary. We managed to come out with our tomatoes pretty untouched, other than a yield full of fat, split tomatoes (from being over-watered by the rain), the next batch was back to normal and still trucking along for a few more weeks.

But that wasn’t the end. About a week after Irene, another tropical storm, Lee, came through and caused even worse flooding. Our farmhouse was under water again. Black mold is currently exploding through the walls in what used to be our herb-drying room.  Wet soil has been postponing the tilling and prepping of fresh beds to plant fall crops in. We had to move our greenhouse (it was built to slide and move seasonally, luckily) due to flooding and the impending need to use it as the first frost nears.

And we made it out easy compared to many other farms; farms that supplied large CSAs in the city like Just Food’s CSA farmers, who had to shut down for the rest of the season.

About a month later, we are still working and living in the effects of the flooding, with rain continuing on a pretty steady basis.

This kind of risk is what farmers face every season. And small farmers don’t have the subsidies and support the agribusiness farmers do to get back on their feet so quickly.

Just a little something to remember next time the news is blowing up the airwaves with over-dramatized headlines. Learn the lesson that I did and read between the lines. The next hurricane or natural disaster may not be the end of the world (though we know all too well they have the power to be and have been for many), but all it takes is a little too much rain and farmers lose everything, just like that.

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There were ten of us. Some rooted in different generations, others in different cultures, and some living in separate places. A few of us had never met before.

But all of us shared a passion for feeding our communities.  And together we were setting out on a journey… to the mushy center of fighting racism.

Sixteen long hours later we all arrived, sleep-deprived, at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Milwaukee. This was the site of Growing Power’s Growing Food and Justice for All Gathering 2011.

This gathering was to be about dismantling racism in the food system, coming together as food activists and growers to understand how to do this work with one another and take what we learn back to our communities.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d been to conferences like this before where there are often hard discussions, emotional sharing circles, and intense anti-racist and leadership training. But for this conference, I was slightly skeptical.  Mainly because Growing Power has been developing relationships with corporations like Wal-Mart and Sysco recently, and I didn’t get how an organization funded by the king of screwing people over was going to lead a conference on how to keep people from getting screwed over.

Immediately in the welcoming speech, I was rolling my eyes. Will Allen, the head of Growing Power(GP), was trying to rally us around the idea of working harmoniously with corporations. To be clear: the same institutions responsible for sustaining systemic racism and oppression within society for decades.

My crew and I weren’t buyin’ it. And apparently we weren’t alone. Later, on the mural “tagging wall” in the conference lobby, someone drew a big red box with the words “Wal-Mart !?” written inside of it.

There was a general “WTF?!” buzz when on the tour of GP’s different farm sites too, where we rolled up right in front of Sysco. This multinational food distributor conglomerate had given GP a slice of land, stamped with their brand. My thoughts immediately jumped to whether this compromised GP’ s growing tactics. The crops looked pristine – Were they spraying pesticides? Chemical fertilizers? Using GMO seeds?

But as the tour went on, I learned this wasn’t the case at all. Growing Power did not compromise their growing tactics. In fact, not only did they not spray anything on these Sysco crops, nor use GMO seeds, they also didn’t irrigate or even use organic fertilizer at this particular site. They simply relied on the rain, sun and hard work of their farmers to grow copious amounts of healthy food. It was impressive.

Lesson #1: Don’t Assume

I also seemed to soften up on the fact that they were working with Sysco. Not to the point of wanting to walk hand-in-hand with corporations, but just to recognize that this meant the public schools in Wisconsin would now source their food from a healthy farmer instead of many other farmers Sysco would normally source from.  However, I wasn’t as easily swayed with justifying the whole Wal-Mart relationship.

But I was blown away by the amount of production GP was making possible on only 2.7 acres of land. (17 greenhouses, goats, chickens, turkeys, tilapia, mushrooms, compost, solar water and rain catchment systems)

The question of sustaining the integrity of one’s work while sustaining the finances needed to do that work, was a recurring debate throughout this journey.

Lesson #2: No One Seems to Have the Answers to This Vital Question

Once we moved past the skepticism and debate however, we finally arrived at the beautiful, mushy center of love and traditions.

It made perfect sense to me that those two themes were woven into a conference about dismantling racism. Love and tradition are important themes that I think get lost in most gatherings like this.  Many conferences I attend are all full-speed-ahead action steps and networking, but this one reminded us of why we are doing this work. It gave us time to connect with each other’s cultures and honor each other’s traditions.

I heard stories from many people about what calls them to this work. From Bean, whose ancestors immigrated from Japan to grow pineapples here, to Dawoud who began working on a goat farm to heal his post-traumatic stress disorder as a war veteran. I learned about Michael’s native wisdom on the herbs of tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar. We rallied with farmworkers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at the local Trader Joe’s to demand more money for the tomatoes Immokalee farmworkers grow.  We listened to the beat of the drums played by the brothers from the Oyotunji African Village.

We paid respects every morning at sunrise to indigenous burial grounds nearby.  We kept a sacred fire burning the entire gathering, and shared stories, wisdom, songs, languages and hopes around it.  We had Capoeira and Bembe sessions and even the women gathered for a Mother Moon full moon ceremony.

These moments outside of the workshops were vital to creating a space for understanding, love and respect, which are the only ways we can even begin to approach the beast of racism.

Lesson # 3: Every Fighter Needs a Mushy Center

Now we’re ready for anything.

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