I remember the instant I sealed the deal on this future.
I was sitting in a car with my then boss, filled with the nervous conviction teenagers have during break-ups, when I told him I was leaving the city in a month and going to work on a vegetable farm in New York. “I’m not meant to save the world this way,” I said. “I want to feed people.”
Liz Wagner: Queen of Dramatics.
Weeks have gone by when I forget this end goal, this purpose, this reason I had for dropping a 180 on everything and everyone in my life and vanishing into a world of soil and green things. But whenever someone asks me my farm’s mission statement, or I’m faced with the sobering need to defend my new(ish) career choice, I remember why I wanted to do this in the first place.
I want to feed people. I want my friends and family and acquaintances to be able to eat delicious, healthy food and be able to see where it’s growing if they want to come for a visit. I want people to learn how to trellis peas and the best way to weed onions and what hardneck garlic feels and tastes like. I want to get green food to people who haven’t had a grocery store in their neighborhoods in years. I want chefs to expose their customers to new and unusual foods that will make them want to start eating differently or try their hand at growing their own foods.
With the food culture the way it is right now, it’s really easy to lose sight of your purpose in the wake of the social stigmas and villianization that is happening with farmers today. This is something I’ve been thinking about for years now but have never really been able to articulate until now.
I was sitting in a park in Northwest Philadelphia the other day where my newest market will be starting in a month or so. It’s a newly-renovated park with a brand new rec center, benches and trees. The center is run by two women, and I was meeting with two of the awesome women who lead The Food Trust to talk logistics and get to know each other. This amazing organization promotes food accessibility within neighborhoods and institutions, and does a lot of education on a now-national scale.
I sat on a bench reading a book, a collection of stories about new farmers, and the excitement I felt about this upcoming market and the anxiety I felt about being away from the farm all morning still couldn’t compare with the frustration I felt toward many of these new farmer/writers and the sentiments expressed in this anthology.
Don’t get me wrong – I think the program that spearheaded the book years ago is an amazing one, full of opportunities to share ideas, socialize and work with like-minded folks, and their hearts are a thousand percent in the right place. And a fair number of the stories do feature the hardworking, humble, financially-draining trials of folks looking to break into the farm world.
But over and over again there was the same sentiment – this sense that what these new farmers were doing was so novel, and so noble, and so much better than what you do with your life. There were younger, anti-establishment folks who wanted to fight the powers that be. There were folks coming from a white-collar background with years of savings and capital who wanted to set out to start “doing the right thing,” with subtle and not-so-subtle digs at the farmers who had been supplying their food throughout life up to that point.
I took a new farmers class through my extension office last year, and I met a number of people my age who had no hesitation in expressing similar opinions. The farmers renting the land and monocropping in the area were barbarians who gave no thought to what they were doing to the environment and blasted their crops with chemical fertilizers and pesticides just to turn a buck. What we were setting out to do was to fight these evil agricultural tyrants and return to the old world of good, clean food the way it was supposed to be. It’s easy to switch from the mindset of a challenging career and the want to grow food to a crusade, and pick up the swagger that comes with such thoughts. I’ve caught myself doing it from time to time, when I’ve forgotten why I’m really here, but thankfully someone or something has knocked me off that high horse before I’ve made too much of an ass of myself.
Every time someone does this, it’s like they’re scoring a goal into their own team’s net. Farming is farming is farming, and if you’re doing it feed people, or to feed the animals that feed people, or to power the vehicles that get us to places to feed people and your head and your heart are in the right place, you’re on the same team. If you’re trying to start a farm because you think it’s cool to work at a market or because you’ve seen Union Square and Headhouse and thought, “Yeah, I can do this and make fistfuls of money,” or because you want the cred, you’re in the wrong building. And if you think that just because you have this idea the government and crowd-funding and local groups should throw money at you to combat the evils of other food growers, you’re not even in the same complex.
All you’re doing is severing the already tense relationships between the commercial, traditional, conventional, small, sustainable, diversified and local farmers that work – literally, with the geography of our region – side by side in the fields every day.
Our PASA president cautioned against these farmer-on-farmer combative vibes in his address at this year’s conference. Though we can’t maintain a “separate but equal” mentality – not with chemical drift and industrial giant heavy-handedness as it is in marketing and government decisions – we can’t attack each other the way a lot of activist and small-farmer groups are.
Many farmers went to school to learn what they are doing, and continue to follow industry-promoted standards. Many are living hand-to-mouth and following a path that was laid down for them before they were born. And many don’t have the resources, finances, time for educative reform or, really, time at all, to completely change an operation that is more mechanized, more organic and yielding more product than their counterparts, even if public opinion is swaying away from their practices.
I worked at a dairy this past year that cared adamantly about the quality of their milk and their animals, and many would consider them a commercial or conventional farm. They didn’t feed their calves soy-based milk replacement and would tend meticulously to a sick or injured animal. They cared passionately about their work – it was what they were educated to do and grew up doing. And these farmers talked to me all the time about how they felt they had to be on the defensive with these “new farmers” who came in and tried to tell them they were doing it wrong, and how they were insidious in their actions as supporters of Big Agricultural.
And I hated it. I hated feeling like I fall into that demographic of a young/new farmer who picks fights with their comrades. We’re all heading the same way. We’re all trying to feed people. But we all have different ways of getting to that end result. If science and evolution proves that what one of us is doing is harmful to the other, I want to believe we’ll work together and not in opposition to do what’s best for each party. There are so many combative and differing studies on everything – so many that each side ends up looking (and feeling) like the bad guy at some point. And at this point there’s people saying, “But what about the antibiotics, Liz? And what about the pesticides and the Round-Up Ready corn?” and “How can you say these things and practice what you do?”
To those people, I say, “Hey, look at my broccoli.”
My beautiful, giant – and completely worm-ridden – broccoli. We spent hours cleaning the worms out of the broccoli last season and still didn’t catch them all. I didn’t use a single chemical in my field last year, and that is what I saw. Yes, there are organically approved substances to use. But some of them are just very diluted forms of what conventional folks use. Yes, there are homeopathic and natural remedies that are somewhat effective. But can you imagine the expense and scope, and the time to commit to trial and error needed to use these methods on, say, the amount of broccoli a grocery store needs to supply an area of people? Because let’s be honest – I don’t see a near future (maybe distant, but not near), where the majority of folks are heading out to their local markets once or twice a week for all their needs.
And I can’t imagine cleaning out that many worms, for sure.
I know there’s a middle ground in there somewhere where lots of successful growers reside, but that’s not me, not yet. I didn’t go to school for this – my education if a few years clawing around in the soil – so I can’t pretend to be overly-knowledgeable – but I also can’t be cocky or judgmental in my approaches. There’s just no reason for it.
And not to say roles aren’t reversed, as well. Sometimes I walk into a store around here for cover crop or fish emulsion and am immediately not taken seriously by the staff because I’m the 25-year-old female asking what is the best winter cover to use in my area. Sure, that may be a stupid question to an old hand, but I’m happy and unashamed to admit I’m still new to this. A tattooed friend who comes to help me on occasion gets carded at my hardware store. I’ve had people laugh at me when I tell them what I do. People ask me how my garden is doing at least once a week. At market, people kept asking me who I worked for (until I made my tag-line “Lady-Run,” anyway). And a number of folks didn’t take me seriously until I survived and thrived my first solo year because so many idealists get into this venture without the real drive or plan you need to make it work.
I’m not sure where I fit into all this. I am the mutant of the agricultural world. My parents run an auto body shop. Their parents had family farms, but until we bought the land that I’m farming now, my hands didn’t dig further than our backyard garden. Until I was 22 I thought wholeheartedly that I would be a journalist, and then for another two years I thought I would run a social services program in a city. I got straight A’s in school and ran extra-curriculars. I hug my parents regularly.
I’m not a disgruntled chef, an anarchist, a tattoo-covered train-hopper looking for seasonal work , a girl caught up in the notion of working the land with her romantic partner, or someone who is trying to take down big ag singlehandedly or plunged into this adventure with a blind ideology, a soapbox (but look at me now! Hah!) or a wish to fall off the grid. I wanted to feed people. And this is the way I am choosing to do it.
Maybe I’m talking in circles. I’m sure I’m talking in circles. I think about this stuff for hours at a time in the greenhouse or weeding in the field and don’t draw any significant conclusions or resolutions from it. I’ve straddled this talk from farmers and customers on both sides of the line. Sometimes I just feel like a pretentious bitch. Sometimes I feel defeated. Or exhausted. Mostly just confused. But I keep reminding myself -. practice patience, practice empathy, and keep trying to feed people.