Several months ago, I asked for input from my readers on how to make this blog better. One of the suggestions I got was to create a book list — what I’m reading and what I find useful. Easy Shmeasy, I thought. I’ll do it! And like most of my well-intentioned resolutions, it never happened …until now!
Recently, I was given a copy of The Wisdom of the Radish by Lynda Hopkins, who co-runs Foggy River Farm in California. Lynda and her husband Emmett, just like Travis and me, are young farmers. They began on just a few acres given to them by Emmett’s grandfather, and in her book Lynda tells the story of her farm’s birth. From flea beetles to foxes to pasty butt, Lynda and Emmett battle a number of foes the first year on their farm, and it was especially useful for me not only to see how they learned to work on the farm, but how to work together.
I must add that, given all the grief Travis and I are going through just to get land to farm, Lynda and Emmett cheated by having land in their family. Still, it’s no easy task starting a farm, and I wish them the best of luck over in California. I highly recommend people read The Wisdom of the Radish for a glimpse into the life of a young farmer. And what’s more, this week you can win your own copy!
I thought long and hard about how to give away my copy of The Wisdom of the Radish. I was fretting about it one morning over breakfast, flipping through a New Yorker when it came to me: a New-Yorker style caption contest! If you’re not familiar with New Yorker cartoon caption contests, here’s how it works:
The New Yorker provides a picture like this:
The readers then submit captions that fit the picture. Like this one’s winner, submitted by Roger Ebert:
“I’m not going to say the word I’m thinking of”
The picture posted below is one of Travis and me at the farm, and it needs a caption. Provide a caption for it by posting in the comments or tweeting me @farmerneysa. Make me laugh, because I’ll choose my favorite one on Friday and you’ll receive your own copy of The Wisdom of the Radish. Good luck!
Photos: Sasquatch Books, Newyorker.com, Austin Prince
I have some big news.
After months of reflection and internal searching, weighing the options, and talking (read: arguing) with Travis, I have decided to resign from my job at Johnson’s Backyard Garden. I gave two weeks notice on Friday.
This will probably come as a shock to most of you. There are a lot of reasons for this decision. Unfortunately, this is not the time to divulge the entire story of everything I’ve been going through at Johnson’s. What I can say is that Travis and I have discussed my future there, and we both decided that my staying was no longer contributing to our goal of getting our own farm. It makes more sense for me to find an off-farm job, begin a small farming project on the side, and try to grow our business that way.
I want everyone to know that this certainly doesn’t mean I don’t like farming anymore, and it doesn’t mean the end of Dissertation to Dirt. This is just another chapter in my path to owning and operating my own farming business with Travis, and I’m confident that this is the best step forward.
I wish I could tell you more, but for now let me just say that in my year and a half of working on organic farms, I have learned a lot of what I expected to learn–that broccoli and cabbage are part of the same family, that garlic is ready to harvest when half of the leaves turn brown, that tomatoes are a pain in the ass to grow, and that hot peppers are way more productive than they should be. But I’ve also learned a lot of things I didn’t expect. Like that farmers, organic or not, can’t pay their workers a living wage because of the demand for cheap food. That wholesaling to large food companies is a quick ticket to bankruptcy. That there are all kinds of ways to farm and still be considered “organic.” And that we better get our heads around just what we’re looking for as we’re trying to make a change in our food system. As I look for land to farm on my own, I’m keeping all these things in mind so they may shape the kind of operation Travis and I have. Farming is not just about making money to me. Viewing food as just a commodity continues to plague our food culture.
I also want to say that since I announced my resignation to my friends, everyone has been incredibly supportive and helpful in trying to connect me to other employment. I’m looking, predictably, in academia since that is where most of my experience is. I expect to stay connected to the farming community in Austin through volunteer work, the Austin Grower’s Guild, community gardening, going to the farmers markets, and any other way I can think of.
On a related note, there are some exciting opportunities in front of Travis and me:
- My cousin Thanos put me in touch with a development company in Florida who is looking for a couple of farmers for a small organic farm within a new low-cost community. We would be charged with developing and running our own CSA and farmers market.
- Our friend Jon has connections to two separate pieces of land, each under 5 acres, that we might be able to rent together and begin a small farming operation.
- Thanks to the Austin Grower’s Guild, I just found another 2.3 acres in Webberville. The owner is willing to rent in exchange for a share in the vegetables.
- Travis’ mother has put us in touch with a couple of farmers in New York who are looking to retire and pass their land onto a young farmer.
When I told Brenton I was leaving, he seemed to think it was because I wanted to do something else. Quite the contrary. I am more motivated now than ever to farm, and to get something started of my own.
As I mentioned in a previous post, Travis’s new job is as the greenhouse manager. Which means he spends most of his days in the greenhouse, secluded, with baby plants. Every time I walk into the greenhouse I get this waft of serenity. It’s quiet, the doors are closed, and the transplants are so dense, it’s like a mini rainforest at your feet. Travis assures me that this isn’t always the case, but still, my new job is somewhat more hectic.
I have been appointed the harvest coordinator. That means I have 20 acres, soon to be 70, under my charge. It means it’s up to me and the group leader, Vicente, to monitor the fields for what’s ready to harvest, decide the right combination of crops to go into the boxes for the CSA members, and note any problems like pests, disease, or excessive weeds.
Back in New York, Travis and I led the harvests 2-3 times a week. I do have experience harvesting most vegetable types, running a CSA, and keeping harvests organized. But Brenton’s farm is nearly 7 times as big as Betsey’s. In New York, you could stand in one place and see the entire field. This farm is a completely different animal, and Brenton has placed an intense amount of trust in me since I began training. Granted, this probably has less because to do with confidence in my abilities, and more with the fact that he’s getting ready to triple the size of his farm and it makes a guy busy.
So, the last few weeks I’ve steeled my jaw and done my best to make good decisions. But I keep feeling like I’m one step behind the vegetables. Today and yesterday were especially crazy. Remember the post about the pecan and mesquite trees? Well, apparently, when spring comes, the established plants know it, they flip out, and they start trying to spread their seed as quickly as possible. They’re all desperately trying to shoot up flowers, which means they won’t grow anymore, so I’m desperately trying to stop them. Something tells me I shouldn’t be embroiled in an epic battle with broccoli, but that’s how it feels right now.
Today, I woke up to rain. I got to the farm at 7am and sat at my computer to print out the harvest list to give to Vicente. Brenton came and said in his most chipper voice, “Man, it’s raining!”
I said, “yes, I know.”
“We really needed the rain. I’m happy about it. It’s going to make everything grow so much!” He walked out of the office again, whistling.
Normally, the prospect of our crops growing faster would fill me with a sense of contentment and anticipation. But today, all I could think was, “shiiiit.”
I went out into the field ready for battle. This morning I would be fighting an overabundance of ginormous lettuce. Like, thousands of heads, all huge and getting huger, and I only had so many places for all of it to go. Two weeks ago, I swear, it was tiny.
So, Vicente and I improvised and decided not to give everyone a head or even two, but to chop it up and make a salad mix, so we could give everyone a full bag, making use of more lettuce. Harvesting 20 bins of lettuce mix in the pouring rain is not a great time, in case you’ve thought of trying it. But we got it done, and I think if we can keep harvesting like that, we will make it.
On top of that, the bok choy already bit it last week. Last friday they were fine, and by Monday two beds of it had flowered. After I finished the lettuce, I began picking the last remnants of the flowered bok choy. Vicente warned me against putting it in the boxes, because flowers might not look good. So as I was cleaning off the flowers (which are edible and taste like bok choy), I began thinking about our collective expectations when it comes to the appearance of our produce.
I think about this a lot, especially at markets. Often (but certainly not always), I find that people will treat farmers market stands like a grocery store. Produce is inspected closely and expected to be spotless, uniform, and abundant at all times of the year. But I can tell you that that’s not how it works. Farmers are just people, and they make mistakes just like anyone. Sometimes they do everything right but the weather doesn’t cooperate, like the three months of rain we got this winter. Or, the weather cooperates too much, like the transition to spring that made everything shoot up to godzilla size in a matter of days. Sometimes, veggies are blemished just because, you know, they’re outside … on the ground.
Unrealistic expectations fostered by mass produced fruits and vegetables at large grocers is detrimental to small, organic farmers. Unlike the local HEB, if some produce is blemished, we can’t just order more from California. Instead, we have to rely on our communities to support us, through both the lean months and the harvest.
*Photos thanks to Alberto Martinez
Get this: Brenton has decided he’d like to hire Travis and me. That’s right, we are employed, being trained for positions that we will fill after our internship ends in May. That’s right, we have real jobs again. In farming, too. I know I wrap up my identity too much in my work, but having a legitimate job, getting paid a decent wage, having a place of my own, being self-sufficient, and most importantly feeling like I was contributing to something–lacking all these things made me start to question my self worth. It shouldn’t have. But it did.
How did I get here? Things seem to be coming together, and I have to step back and reflect. When Travis and I first moved to New York, we wanted an introduction to farming. We wanted to see if we could hack it, number one, and if we liked it, number two. We quickly found that yes answered both of those questions, but we were still at a loss for how to progress in organic farming, where it seemed like everyone who would be doing it in the future was already doing it now… in other words, there aren’t a lot of farmers, but there are fewer would-be farming entrepreneurs.
By the time we moved to Austin back in November, we were already burnt out on the aimlessness of interning–the inherent transience, the lack of real engagement with farming, the awkward living arrangements. Young people often enter internships with the expectation to learn about the job, but usually they find themselves doing a lot of mundane tasks with little real training. Although we took on a lot of responsibility in New York, because we could never feel any ownership in the total process of farming, Travis and I often felt that we were doing the farming equivalent of stuffing envelopes.
Not that you can’t learn anything from just being on a farm. And to be fair, after I moved to Austin and began working for Brenton, I was surprised at how much I had learned in New York without even realizing it. But it’s also true I’ve learned more in the past two weeks, training for a real job with real responsibilities, than I did in the all my time as an intern up to this point.
It makes me wonder, is my path replicable? Is interning the best way for young people to get into organic farming? Or is it an only-choice in a field with a tiny pool of colleagues? Could others sort of stumble-jump into fulltime employment on an organic farm like I did? And still, Travis and I aspire not only to work on an organic farm, but to own one of our own, and that remains a giant question mark.
Brenton and I figured it out one day: if his farm is 70 acres, and there are about a million people in Austin, that means it would take over 200 farms of the same size to feed the entire city. So, the need is there, and in a city like Austin, so is the demand. But the question is, who will supply it? And how?
Organizations like the Crop Mob (thanks, Esther) I think are less an idealistic excursion or an attempt to reconnect with nature, and more a testament to how haphazard and makeshift are the paths of people who are genuinely interested in growing food.
But back to the point, Travis and I are gainfully employed, we live in a great apartment in a great city, and we are doing something we really enjoy. It’s been a long, uneven road, toward making a career of organic farming, and we’re certainly not near the end of it, but it’s good to at least see that we are making progress.
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.
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.
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.
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.