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.