An Accomplishment Measured in Potatoes

At points I’m adverse to talking about food.  That’s right.  I don’t always love it.  There are times when seeing a bunch of kale does nothing for me.  During this period of working as an intern rather than a full employee, living on someone else’s property, knowing my time in any location is transient—I’ve found it can be easy to lose interest. I long for some ownership: my work, my home, my product, my land.  That is something I do miss about grad school.  My writing was mine, and I was building my research on a topic that I had created.

Today, Brenton took me around his field.  He was showing me how he labeled his rows, which crops were ready and which needed more time.   He drove me up and down the fifteen acres in his mud-splattered maroon minivan, with a cracked windshield and questionable braking capacity, vociferating about his business ambitions and jumping out occasionally to examine a row of crops.  As we came to the end of a block, two beds of stout, leafy plants waved up at us.  Brenton came to an immediate stop (as immediate as possible in that van) and shouted, “oh the potatoes!”

He fell to his knees and stuck his hand wrist-deep into the muddy soil, laughing.  Ten seconds later, he had three baby red potatoes in his hands.  I would say he “gushed” at this point, but I’m afraid it’s too understated.  The man was euphoric. 

“Are you surprised?” He asked, leadingly.


“No,” I said.  “NO?!”


It was honest.  What do I know about growing potatoes in Texas?  But, he explained, no one else in this area has potatoes right now.  Most potatoes are harvested in Texas in the spring.  This was the first time he, or anyone he knew, had grown autumn potatoes on a large scale. 

Alright, that’s pretty neat then.  But by his reaction Brenton may as well have pulled diamonds out of the soil.  Will I ever be that excited about potatoes? I’ve put seeds in the ground and watched them grow.  I’ve harvested them, sold them, and watched them fade off.  But I have yet to do it with any purpose.  My work in farming has so far been for someone else, under someone else’s systems, for someone else’s profit and name.  That might explain my lackadaisical reaction to the potato phenomenon of ’09.  This realization has led to another one: that farming is intensely personal.  It’s like academia in that way.  Breakthroughs in my writing and research exhilarated me because they were products of past hard work, and open doors to new, exciting opportunities. Those breakthroughs can be compared to Brenton’s potatoes.  Brenton wasn’t just excited about tubers; he was excited for his career, for an experiment that paid off, for the acquirement of new knowledge.  In other words, it wasn’t just the potatoes, it was what the potatoes represented.  Legitimacy.  Achievement.  Status.

I remember that feeling.  Of progressing in something I had made my own.  I’ve taken a step backward in that regard.  I’m back to learning rather than doing.  I’m bound to bump up against my own sense of pride during this process.  I’m also, though, pursuing a path that I chose, and I have to be okay with not knowing exactly where it will lead.  I’m trying not to define myself too precisely.  But I do hope I have a potato-worthy breakthrough of my own, soon.

Tractor Rides

Betsey’s pride and joy at Ryder Farm are her tomatoes.

They have been growing in the greenhouse since April, and yesterday they were ready to come out to “harden off” before being planted in the field.  Around 2pm, Bestey, Rich, Travis, and I had formed an assembly line, passing tomato plants out of the greenhouse and onto Betsey’s tractor cart.

With around 100 flats of 20 plants each, the project would take several tractor rides back and forth from the front greenhouse to a large tarp laid out behind the far greenhouse, about 100 yards away.  We had just unloaded the first batch when Betsey got called away for work. Wanting this job finished today, she looked at Travis and said, “Do you want to try the tractor?”  Travis forced (I could tell) a nonchalant nod and swagger to the tractor’s metal seat.

Learning to drive the tractor had been a prospect since we came to Ryder Farm, and now Travis was about to get a first, rapid lesson.  The tractor was a stick shift, and the controls were unwieldy, but I knew Travis is such a fast learner that he wouldn’t have a problem.

It took him a few tries to get it going once Betsey left, but by the end of the afternoon, he was handling the tractor with apparent ease. As I watched him maneuver the tractor back and forth around Bestey’s gardens, I felt pride swell inside me.  I reflected on that feeling a minute.  Was it just the large grin on Travis’ face that made me happy to see him driving?  Or was it something more?

To me, watching Travis drive a tractor was an exciting moment because in it I could imagine doing this with Travis on our own.  Our own gardens and our own tractor. It signified that Travis was improving in his techniques and abilities, and that he had learned another skill would allow him to farm independently in the future.

I realized I was glad for that.  But I’m not sure yet if it’s because I categorically want to keep farming after this growing season is over, or merely because Travis and I both have a stubborn determination to be good at whatever we do.  Either way, after a month Travis and I are feeling more comfortable and capable with farm work, and our private musings about farming for ourselves one day are full and vivid.

Finding a Routine: Week 2, Day 1

Travis’ alarm went off at 6am.  We pulled our covers tighter and wrestled with the cold morning air for the next half hour or so, the alarm re-beeping at us every 10 minutes.  I conceded and got up at 6:48, threw on some clothes from an open basket Travis and I have casually titled, “farm clothes,” then shuffled up to the farm house in a fog, craving coffee and in need of a bathroom, and kicking myself for not waking up earlier and utilizing the beautiful, wild mornings in Brewster, New York.

I should be communing with nature, I thought.  Meditate or do yoga or something.  If nothing else, my aching muscles could use a good stretch.  I walked into the house—the door is never locked—and found Betsey sitting at the kitchen table watching the weather report.  About 70 degrees all week, rain on Thursday, which meant we could get away with not watering the fields today.  Betsey and I chit-chatted for a while, before she hustled off to work. 

On top of managing a farm on her own property and hosting 6-8 apprentices every summer, Betsey works full time as a nurse at the nearby hospital.  She is also active in the Brewster community, serving on several town boards and projects.  I’m not exactly sure when she sleeps, but I’ve never seen her tired or cross.  “It’s a good thing I love my job because I do it a lot,” she has a tendency to say.  A part of me thinks she would rather devote all her time to her farm, but farmers in the United States aren’t provided with health insurance, and since both Betsey and her husband are Type I diabetics, she has to keep working. After Betsey went to get dressed, I dumped some cereal in a bowl and chomped on it loudly.  Travis walked in a minute later and began making coffee.

I began reading a book of poetry another apprentice had let me borrow—Stephen Dunn’s Local Visitations.  I wasn’t really enjoying it, but I was making myself read it to be polite.  I found one poem I could say something intelligent about, made a mental note, and closed the book. Travis and I ate, a phrase here and there breaking the familiar silence.  Then Betsey’s husband, John, came downstairs, poured himself a cup of coffee and nuked two frozen egg and cheese sandwiches.  No, they weren’t organic.  Not even close.  Betsey and her husband don’t even think of eating organic.  They buy what’s cheap and what they like.  This is a surprise that I’ll have to write more on later, but I think it points to a certain disconnect between an intellectualized ‘organic movement’ and what really happens with growers.  John is an extremely good-natured, straight-forward man, who barely opens his mouth when he speaks.  He began asking Travis questions about guitars.  John owns 14 guitars of every variety, except classical, which are too “snooty.”

Travis and I finished breakfast and looked at the written list of tasks Betsey had left for us. Mostly transplanting.  Betsey had basil and several varieties of flowers that we were supposed to pluck out of large flat trays and place into pots for sale.  There were at least 100 sprouts per tray, and about 8 trays.  Travis and I got to work, just the two of us, at 8am.  At 9, Rich, the apprentice who had given me the book of poetry, joined us.  The three of us sat on buckets we makeshifted into chairs outside Betsey’s greenhouse all day, taking small flower sprouts out of large trays and placing them gently in filled pots.  We took a lunch break at noon.  By 4pm, we had gotten about four trays potted. 

Many of the jobs Betsey assigns us are big and monotonous, and I find sometimes I have a hard time doing one thing for that long.  Luckily, there are always smaller, ongoing jobs that can be done, like watering, weeding, planting, or just tidying up, and often I’ll go do one of those things for a few minutes when I find myself staring off into the distance instead of doing the task at hand.  After work, I went for a jog around the neighborhood, something I’ve been itching to do all week.  Running in a new place makes me feel like its mine.  Plus it gives me a chance to listen to my music and be in my head for a while.  But I realized quickly that I’m surrounded by country highways with small shoulders—probably not the safest place for running—so I’ll have to find another way to expend my energy at the end of the day.

When I came back Travis and Rich were in the kitchen laughing, and Travis was trying to organize Betsey’s explosion of a pantry (Betsey and John seem to have a hard time throwing things away).  Travis and Rich are becoming friends; he always wins people over by making them laugh.  Normally at this time, around 6pm, I would have begun making some dinner for Travis and me and whoever else was in the kitchen who wanted some—usually consisting of whatever veggies and protein I can scrounge from the fridge or freezer—but tonight I wasn’t hungry so I just took a shower and came to a coffee shop to write.

Tomorrow will go much the same, but Betsey will be home, and will hopefully show us some more techniques.  It’s always better when she’s there because we can ask her questions.  Every day I just try to soak up as much knowledge as I can and enjoy this beautiful place I’m in for the summer.  Tomorrow I’ll try to wake up at the first alarm.

Six days till the move to the organic farm

Travis and I will be living on an organic farm in T minus six days. We started packing up our apartment yesterday afternoon. Until I started putting stuff in boxes, the fact that my life is about to radically change was an abstraction. As we sat on our porch last night eating rice and veggies out of the two bowls I left unpacked, I started reflecting on our decision to move, and how hard our last two years in Boston have been.

In short, our time here has made us question if the conventional American life is really for us. Two recent college graduates, we both saw our move to Boston as the beginning of our adult lives: full of hardship, sure, but softened by a sense of progress and achievement. We found, instead, that our skills were consistently undervalued, at the same time that the cost to satisfy our basic needs was exploding. Even with our demanding work schedules, we had little to show for it, and no time to enjoy the most important things in our lives: each other. Coupled with a constant, nagging demand to consume coming from all directions (buy more, eat more, earn more, work more, do more), our new, adult life provided us with a half-furnished apartment that we couldn’t afford to heat, and an unconscious sense of duty to keep working towards … what exactly? But before I get too far ahead of myself, let me start at the beginning…

For the first six months after Travis moved here with me, he was out of work. That was scary enough. Then, just as he was about to run out of money, Travis found a job with a Boston non-profit. We were excited about it at first—the group worked on behalf of progressive causes like global warming and world hunger. The only problem, though, was that the organization’s culture put its cause before the well-being of its employees. The average work week was 70-80 hours, people were hired and fired at the drop of a hat, employees were chronically underpaid, and few, even among the management, really knew where all that fundraising money was going. Travis was exhausted and unhappy. He’d leave at 8am and come home at midnight. We never saw each other. But people told him that when you’re young, you’re supposed to work hard, and because he was working towards something good, he should do whatever it takes.
Then there was me.

I have been pursuing a PhD in genocide studies, and over the last two years I have grown increasingly frustrated with my field. I became interested in genocide as a broad topic as an undergraduate at the University of Texas. After learning about 20th-century atrocities in Darfur and around the world, I concluded that genocide was the most important issue we faced. I became an activist and felt that, armed with a doctorate and a passion for human rights, I could make a real difference in the world. I went into higher education with the intention of working for an NGO that might help broker peace in war-torn countries.

But as I became more involved in genocide studies, I’ve realized how naive I was in my thinking. As I studied cases of mass violence around the world, I learned two important lessons: First, that two sides of a conflict are rarely, if ever, divided into a clear moral right and wrong. And second, that my attempts to create these lines where they didn’t exist, especially in a country I knew nothing about, might end up doing more harm than good. I continued to read papers and books calling for American military action in foreign countries in order to stop genocide before it began. I wondered where my colleagues’ confidence to solve such gargantuan problems was coming from. Not feeling it myself, I started to detach. I thought about changing topics, but graduate school for me was never about getting my PhD, it was about using the PhD as a tool for social activism. Although I was aimless, I stayed in school because people told me a PhD was the best career choice I could make.

I don’t blame anyone, of course; they were just giving their opinions. I do find our collective priorities interesting, however. Travis and I worked to solve global problems by day, and came home to our freezing apartment at night. We could barely buy food, but it was prestigious for us to try to save the world. To put it another way, we live right next to a government project that later became section eight housing, and the poverty in the surrounding neighborhoods is palpable. If we are looking for a house to put in order, why are we looking further than outside our front doors?

So Travis and I made a kind of command decision that, for us, the conventional ladder isn’t worth climbing. If we are going to play the game, we are going to make the rules. If a normal career won’t provide enough money to eat good, healthy food, then we can grow our own. If a normal career focuses us on the entire globe, then we will find a way to laser point on our own community. If we can’t attain wealth in the conventional sense, then we’ll redefine the word. So, this move to New York is our hope to hit reset and create a new life that is about more than endurance, consumption, and dependence. We hope to make a new path and keep our focus where it belongs: on ourselves, our family, and our community.
Neysa is currently farming an acre of organic vegetables in Austin, Texas. For updates on her farm, visit www.dissertationtodirt.com or follow her on twitter @farmerneysa.

Christ is Risen! …. you are limiting your earning potential

Travis and I just got back from a weekend in Dallas to visit family for Greek Easter.  Lamb, Spanakopita, Tsoureki—Easter is the biggest feast day of the year for the Greeks.  Travis and I are dead tired because we stayed up talking after dinner.  Between us, we got about 2 hours of sleep last night, then flew all morning.  We had a lot to discuss because this trip was an important one–it was the first time I saw my family, Travis’ family, and their friends since I announced I was leaving my PhD program to begin organic farming.  Over the phone, my parents have been … less than enthusiastic.  As Travis and I boarded the plane to Dallas, I was dreading what sort of cornering finger-wagging I was in store for.  Although I never intended to take their doubting and refutations seriously, somewhere over the weekend I realized I was actually learning about how our society defines success.

My parents don’t like this idea.  Over the month or so that I’ve been talking about it, their position has changed from outright hostility to grudging acceptance, but only with the caveat of an indefatigable delusion that this is only a summer excursion, and that I will go back to finish my PhD in the fall. Travis’ parents are much different.  His mother is an eternally supportive woman.  She sees the positive in most everything and trusts Travis and his decisions, even if she doesn’t understand or agree with them.  She’s just happy for us, and it’s a breath of air.

On Easter Sunday, my mother had a big dinner party.  Julie, my mother’s well-to-do friend, arrived first with her (also well-to-do) husband.  Sunday was the first time I’d seen Julie in two years.  Before that, I’m pretty sure I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had any interaction with her.  Still, as soon as she walked through my mother’s door, unopened bottle of wine in hand, she was on top of me. “I heard you are leaving your program!  You are limiting your earning potential for the rest of your life if you don’t get your PhD!”

My response was a pointed, “uh, er, ok.” 

The lecture she was about to embark upon was especially jarring at this point, because I had just spent the weekend getting the same sort of head shaking from my mother and father.  “No one else in the family has a PhD,” “Your mother regrets not staying in graduate school,” “You are so academically-minded,” “You will needa PhD!” “You are unnecessarily closing doors.”  Now, apparently, I was limiting my earning potential.   

Julie followed me around telling me about her graduate school experience, then prodding Travis with a bony elbow and telling him it was “his job” to convince me to stay in school.  “The only thing you’re qualified to do with a master’s is teach high school!” she bellowed.  … I guess that’s bad?

Through all this, I kept looking at my parents, but quickly found that they weren’t prepared to offer up any defense for me, because, although they weren’t as abrasive as Julie, they agreed with her.  My “talent” would be going to waste growing food on a farm in New York.  “You’re going to a farm?!” Julie snickered, “oh that will pay really well!”  During the dinner toast, my father said, “Neysa and Travis are going to a farm this summer.  I still don’t know what all of that is about.”  Thanks, Dad.

In the end, I remained cordial to Julie.  I let her finish, said “ok,” and then stuffed myself with pastitsio.  After all, what does her antagonism really do to me?  But it took some self-control to bite my tongue.  Where does this woman get off telling me how to live my life, number one.  But my personal indignation aside, Julie perfectly articulated the theme of the reactions Travis and I continue to get when we tell people about this little career change of ours.  One person asked if this was some sort of cult we were joining.  What everyone is saying, really, is that farming is not considered a real job.  Growing and selling food is considered beneath someone with any intellectual capabilities.  Some of these stereotypes reflect associations of manual labor with low-class and low-intellect.  But there’s another aspect to the reaction that has to do with the basicness, the fundamentality, of food.  Doing something so essential to human survival, so simple and vital in life, has come to be seen as a “waste” for anyone with an education.  Where did this disconnect come from?  Have we bought into our own sense of industrialized modernity so much that basic sustainability and self-reliance have become “primitive”?  Why is intellectual work necessarily separated from physical work?  Hell, since it’s Easter, wasn’t Jesus a carpenter?

And more than that, why is getting a PhD “successful” but operating a profitable farm is not? Success, in America today, is defined by money and stuff.  Well, I choose not to define it that way.  Success, for me, is a sense of fulfillment, contentment, and contribution.  If I have to “limit my earning potential” to do that, then so be it.  My life is not an economic projection chart.