Archive for December, 2011

Season’s End

Last year, around this time, I was tired of being a vagabond farmer. I’d spent six months on five farms in three different places. I was ready to plant some roots.

I began looking for the farm where I would settle down and spend my first full season.

The ad read: Community farm seeking third farmer, room open in our home, an old converted schoolhouse. Located 2 hours outside of New York City in a little hamlet called Wassaic.

It sounded quaint, but too far away. I was interested in urban farming, in growing food in places where rural farmers don’t sell their fresh, delicious produce.  Who would I be growing for at this farm? And where the hell was Wassaic??

Two days later, a woman named Asantewaa Harris, who inspired me at the Harlem Harvest Festival and whom I would soon adopt as one of my mentors, put a flyer in my hand for a community harvest day on some little farm that was doing amazing things. She told me this little farm was growing affordable food and herbs for communities in the South Bronx and working closely with many food justice organizations in the city to engage folks in farming and build community upstate. She said they were offering land to groups like hers to glean and grow food on so that they could distribute to their own communities. This was the kind of farm I dreamed of. I told her I would definitely be there.

As I walked out of the building and made my way to the station at 125th, I looked at the flyer in my hand. Typed at the very bottom, below all the pictures and fun activities planned, was the line that would decide my future for the next year: We can’t wait to see you at our Harvest Day on Wassaic Community Farm.

I smiled as I stepped onto the train in Harlem, envisioning what life would be like in the country.

Country life didn’t take any mercy on me. Wassaic wasn’t at all shy about introducing me to the way of life I so proudly boasted I was ready for.  She showed me who’s boss. Basically, she kicked my ass.

It started with flooding, evacuations, repairing the greenhouse and digging trenches. We pumped the fields dry, we borrowed neighbors’ greenhouses to start our early seeds, we bought sandbags. But in the midst of the chaos, we dried off and warmed up inside planning out the season. I learned about organizing extensive seed orders, budgeting, making crop plans and crop rotation calendars.

Before we knew it, it was time to start recruiting new CSA members and organizing our community workdays to get the fields ready for transplanting. But the rain didn’t stop. My feet were in a constant state of cold and wet. My amateur boots weren’t cuttin’ it.

The soil finally dried out and green began to creep into the landscape around me. I started getting excited about my decision to move to the country. The air was different here. Fresh, clean. I began to smell the soil, hear the birds. It was peaceful, beautiful. I liked living in our bright red schoolhouse.

But that was just the calm before the storm. By the short spring’s end, the easy days of starting seeds and doing construction projects around the greenhouse were just memories. The summer frenzy had begun.

It was as if overnight the barren land exploded into production – mainly of weeds. It seemed like all the seedlings we’d grown were in a never-ending waiting line to be transplanted, and the four of us couldn’t move fast enough.

Farmers’ market season started and our focus switched to harvesting, processing and packaging. On our Bronx market days, we woke up at 4am, loaded the van and began the long drive into the city in the dark, returning back to Wassaic in the dark again.

On average we worked 10-12 hour days, but market days were easily 16-17 hours. I learned a lot about everything it takes to run a farm; About how your focus is pulled into so many different directions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; About all of the risks and sacrifices farmers make to feed people; About all of the work that goes into every ounce of food people buy, and how the prices farmers charge should reflect that.

My first season farming full-time in one place was a hectic blur.  I was beyond tired. ( The farm work alone didn’t kill me so much as juggling farming with working off the farm for income, building community and food justice organizing tools by starting the Vroom Bus Collective and Freedom Food Alliance with my organizing partners, launching the Color of Food and trying to travel to a few farm conferences and community meetings.)

It was one of the hardest and most rewarding years of my life. I learned more than I could have imagined. I really grew. I made friends for life with my FARMily. Ben, Betsey, Winnie and Jalal kept me from collapsing into a defeated heap onto the compost pile. They and our larger community in both Wassaic and NYC inspired me to keep going, as did the precious moments of rest and recreation off the farm, like going for a cool summer dip in the quarry or hiking to our favorite waterfall.

This year may have kicked my ass, but I think I did a pretty good job of kicking back.

Though my season here has come to an end, my relationship with this place and the community I’ve become a part of has not.  Though I will be returning to my life as a vagabond, hitting the road at the first signs of spring to document the lives of farmers of color across the country, I will always have some roots planted in this little country hamlet called Wassaic.

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Oakland was like a bolt of lightning. It split open my mind with a beautiful, powerful energy. It was magnetic. I was drawn to the energy pulsing through the streets of Oakland and intimidated by it at the same time. It is so real and so raw. But people walk around as if the energy harnessed there, running beneath the hot pavement and saturating the mural-covered walls, is something every city could easily have; something not so hard to attain. Maybe the rest of the cities in America do hold the capacity to open your mind like lightning cracks open the sky, but if so, we have a lot to learn from Oakland.

Our plane touched down in the bay area just one day after the largest march our country has seen in decades took place there. Tens of thousands of people marched on the ports of West Oakland in support of the General Strike organized by Occupy Oakland. A sister next to us at the car rental counter in the airport was glowing with love as she told us about marching across the bridge with what she guessed were 30,000 others. “The energy was incredible,” she said. But our car rental agent wasn’t feelin’ it. He raised his eyebrows and warned us about taking the car into Oakland, especially the protest areas; he was clearly unaware that Occupy Oakland was pretty much our exact destination. (I was tempted to ask about their policies on camping in the car or painting f*ck the police across the windows, but I decided against it.)

We – my partner Jalal and I – had come to Oakland for the 15th Annual Community Food Security Coalition’s conference, but we mainly wanted to build with our fellow food justice fighters and urban growers of color in the area and show solidarity with Occupy Oakland after the raid and police brutality that went down just a week before.

Our first few days there, we did just that. We stayed with a mentor of mine Dr. Gail Myers of Farms to Grow, who is an Anthropologist of African-American Agriculture and a long-time resident of Oakland. We toured around the food and farm scene, stopping in at Mandela Marketplace, a cooperative health food store in West Oakland that also delivers food to communities and holds street corner markets and nutrition workshops taught by a retired black farmer. (It’s also where you can find some Besto Pesto made by my new friend Toussaint!) We strolled through one of Phat Beets’ gardens, checked out Mo’ Better Food and stopped in to talk with some of the local volunteers at City Slicker Farms, all of these spots are small garden sites tucked into empty corners or backyards in neighborhoods throughout Oakland. We also met with Nikki Henderson from Peoples’ Grocery and heard about her new adventures of teaching alongside Michael Pollan at Berkeley.

It seemed like every restaurant in Oakland (and Berkeley and El Mission, the Mission district of San Fran) was serving up some fusion of vegan, raw and deliciously healthy grub. On top of that they were either powering their place with solar, composting all their food waste or touting mission statements that combined serving food with a positive message or social justice and cooperative business efforts. Even the food trucks blew our minds. Every one we saw was fitted out with solar panels on the roof and the dopest murals I’ve ever seen painted on the side.  We spent a full hour in the grocery store (Berkeley Bowl), just staring at all the fresh produce and the endless rows of bulk food bins. I was in foodie heaven.

Downtown we soaked in the energy at the Occupy Oakland site.  The vibe among the rows of tents and circles of people sitting on the ground was mellow but weary, like skating on thin ice. There was a feeling of peace and triumph for having re-claimed the site, but it was as if the possibility of another raid hung prickling in the air around us. I had a brief moment of surreality standing there in the middle of downtown Oakland, surrounded by vigils and banners painted in revolutionary graffiti. It made me think of the people that came before us, of the Black Panther Party and of protestors burning flags so many years ago in this city.

The next day we joined Richmond Spokes on a free bike tour of West Oakland, where we gathered in Little Bobby Hutton Park, one of the great sites of the Black Panther Party, and discussed “food deserts” and the level of toxicity the food and water shed in West Oakland endures. (for a visual, basically pour diesel from 300 cargo ships into your backyard, poke around in the soil and see what you find). We ended our tour at the ports where thousands of people held their ground in defiance just a few days earlier.

Oakland by day, however, has nothing on Oakland by night. After the sparkling orange sun slips into the Pacific, the streets come alive. We saw an amazing street performance by a group of sisters who sang about food and tradition while passing out the best black eyed pea soup I’ve ever had. An auto shop by day became an amazing venue at night where we saw Angela Davis speak about the Prison Industrial Complex and our dear friends from Climbing PoeTree perform.

I was so pumped full of energy from within the community of Oakland that when the CFSC Conference started on Monday, it didn’t hold a candle to the movements I’d witnessed outside of the Marriot’s doors. It was definitely the largest food conference I had ever been to, but it also felt a bit corporate and way too academic. By that I mean there was too much talk about the problems in the food system coming from folks that sat at desks too far from the streets they spoke of. Or maybe I was a little hard on them after coming from conferences this year like Growing Food and Justice for All’s gathering and the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference, where most of the participants were on the ground growing food in empty corner lots or organizing youth in their community to take food into their own hands.

There were a few of those familiar faces there too, like Rooted in Community and Live Real from Oakland, but for the most part I walked away feeling like the conference was too big, trying to bring together too many people and cram in so many topics that we were all spread too thin. I felt that we couldn’t really connect, absorb or contribute much.

I did attend some interesting panels despite my complaints.  In one of them, hosted by Nina Fallenbaum of Hyphen Magazine, we heard from tea farmers and food justice organizers in Japan via Skype about the effect the tsunami, resulting nuclear disaster and the government’s lack of support for farmers in the aftermath has had on their food system. It was incredible and disgusting to hear about the Japanese government’s policy to test only exported crops for radiation, while all crops grown for the Japanese is left untested. Not to mention the lack of financial support getting into the hands of the farmers who lost everything, though plenty of money is being sent to the government for aid and support. The message I took away from that panel: Sustainable farming can never be possible as long as nuclear power is in existence.

Though we had been spread thin during the conference, I’m happy to say that with the help of a vegan soul food restaurant called Souley Vegan, The Color of Food was responsible for helping bring some of us together at the week’s end. Jalal and I managed to pull together a last minute fundraiser for my photo documentary project (where $300 was raised!), but more importantly we all got to bask together in that special Oakland light before leaving town.

I got on the plane back to New York feeling a bit speechless,  like I was left standing in awe after a lightning storm.

But I will be back Oakland, you can count on that.

Since October I’ve fallen pretty behind in posts due to the Color of Food fundraising campaign and the mad dash to raise $10,000 in 60 days…But I did it! I will be playing catch up this winter and will be busy planning for the photo documentary trip next year and sharing my experiences along the way…so stay tuned 😉

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