Friday, July 23, 2010

what I leave behind

At our big start-of-the-project celebration last August, Julie asked each of us interns to put something on the mantel of the community room as a symbol of our presence on the farm this year. At our closing gathering a few weeks ago we each took those symbols and were asked to replace them with something that signified what the Project has meant to us or what we would be leaving here.

A couple of days before the service I decided that my contribution would be a beautiful jar of different colored carrots from the farm given to us by one of Casey's (many, and generous) farmers' market friends. It fit - something from the Farm, made from scratch by a member of our community; something reflective of the amazing diversity of vegetables you discover when you grow for people in your local area and focus on taste rather than appearance or durability on a cross-country journey.

But it was missing something. I had no real personal attachment to that jar of carrots, and leaving it here would be easy. Leaving here is anything but easy.

Though I tried to avoid it the whole afternoon leading up to the service, I knew what I had to leave – a piece of my experience, both what brought me to the Farm and what the Farm has meant to me. A piece of myself.

So instead of the jar of carrots I left this…

It’s a bag I was given several years ago, made by a woman named Rose who lived in a refugee camp in dry, drought-prone northern Kenya. The bag is made from the sacks used to deliver US food aid, usually in the form of corn and soybeans grown in surplus in the US because of subsidies. This aid often ironically exacerbates famine by flooding markets with under-priced food and putting local farmers out of business. It acts, at very best, as a band-aid on the deep structural problems of our global food system. It was interactions with these unjust, destructive globalized systems that brought me to the Farm in the first place, and it’s appropriate that what I leave represents my continued passion for these issues.

But that bag is something else as well. It is creativity and an assertion of beauty in the midst of a very difficult situation. It is personal, with Rose’s name written lightly in ballpoint pen at the top. It came to me through relationships, as a gift. This, to me, is what the Abundant Table is about – something small and faithful and life-giving done creatively in the heart of the system. The daily sight of spray rigs and hazard signs in the fields around us and the sound of fighter jets landing less than a mile away at Point Mugu are a reminder of what this community strives to create an alternative to, but opposing these systems has never been the point. The Abundant Table has been about creating good food and gathering a diverse community at the table to eat it, a community that in turn has fed us. On just five acres in a corner of Ventura County, it’s only a whisper in the face of the problems, but has been transformative to those of us at the center.

I started my intern year knowing I had a strong sense of how I wanted to live but little idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I hoped that spending a year living out many of the things that are most important to me would help give a little direction to the career-path end of things, but this is perhaps the only way the ATFP hasn’t met or exceeded my expectations. In March of 2009 I planned on moving from Chicago to D.C. in the summer (and was wrong – I moved to Oxnard). In March of 2010 I planned on moving from Oxnard to D.C. (and again I was wrong – I’ll be moving to New York City). In March of 2009 I planned on getting a job doing research or administrative work, and ended up farming. In March of 2010 I hoped to find work doing research or advocacy related to food systems or international development, but at this rate who knows where I’ll end up . Though there is very little certainty in my plans for the coming months, I do carry with me a deep sense of gratitude for the Abundant Table community and for the ways this year has shaped me.

Thank you.

Monday, July 12, 2010

the beginning is the end is the beginning

9 days of work and 11 days of living. That is all the time that I have left here in the farmhouse that has become my home over the past 11 months. I've spent the last few weeks moving quickly, filling my minutes, because the moment that I stop I come to feel the weight of what I am walking away from, and it is quite difficult to bear. It was not an easy decision to leave this beautiful place, this joyful and supportive community, this trying and rewarding work. But sometimes there are moments of clarity when we realize that it is time to share what it is that we have learned, rather than to stay comfortably put. I recall a conversation I had a few months ago with Tezzo, one of the South Central farmers. He asked me what all of the interns were doing after the year ended. As I was about to respond, he said, "You're all going off to start your own farms, right?" He believes, as I do, that our farms and the communities that are supported by them are not isolated occurrences, but rather signs of a movement, a movement that we hope to see grow. So that is what I am doing. I'm following the movement. I'm hoping to discover it and play my part in furthering it in new places.

Yesterday I finished my application for a farm job in Arizona. The farmer I'm hoping to work for asked me to write my agricultural "mission" statement, basically a collection of my farming experiences, educational knowledge base, and vocational aspirations. I can think of no better way to sum-up what it is I am taking away from this year than with the final paragraph of that piece.

"Through learning, through working, through failures and successes, I hope to be able to learn enough to start-up small-scale, truly sustainable farms in and near urban areas. How many, I cannot yet say. But I know that I want the fruit of these farms to provide food security and food access to people regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. These farms will incorporate permaculture design techniques with animal husbandry, biodynamic, and integrated pest management practices so as to conserve water and not rely heavily on outside inputs to maintain the health of the soil and plants. These farms will save seeds when they can and strive to grow heirloom varieties in the hope of preserving crop diversity. I wish for these farms to be economically viable, to provide living wages to those who work them full time. It seems that I want it all. And I do. I want to continue to work with and learn from those who are actually living my dream, so that I may one day be able to teach others. This organic farming thing that we are doing is all-consuming, time and work and labor intensive, unpredictable, insecure, and (from the outside) quite foolish. But we on the inside know that there is something old that we are remembering. We know that there is honor in working the land, in growing food, in preserving Earth, in providing for our families. I want to be a part of sharing and practicing that knowledge. That is my work."

This year I discovered my vocation: to be a thought-full farmer. Though my time as an intern with the Abundant Table Farm Project is ending, what I have learned, what we all have learned, this year is only beginning. The farm goes on! Food continues to grow! The soil continues to live! We all continue to feast. It has been a joy working with, eating with, and rejoicing with you. This is my best year, my fullest year, the year where I came to honestly know and love myself. This is the year I found peace with God. This is the year that I discovered family in 4 strangers. This is the year, but it's only the beginning. There will be many more to come, for all of us interns and for all of you. This year has changed us all.

Should you like to keep up on my adventures, feel free to peruse my personal blog. I was rather infrequent with my postings over the last 11 months, but I can only imagine that I will have a great deal more time for writing and processing living in the basement of my parents' house in Arizona. And if this is where we part, know that I will continue to remember you and this place and this year. I will re-member in thought and in practice. Blessings. Peace. Joy. Gratitude.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

birds of the air

A couple of weeks after moving the Farm I noticed something odd…in the middle of all this farmland, I only rarely saw or heard birds. A few more weeks passed and we were exiled from the Farmhouse for a night while a fumigant called chloropickerin (re-purposed WWI tear gas) was being pumped into the strawberry field next to us. Things started to make sense.

When you sterilize the soil, you kill all the bugs.
When you kill all the bugs, there’s nothing for the birds to eat.

A few weeks later I noticed something else. What sounded like bottle rockets being set off every 15 or 20 minutes were actually flares being shot in the fields around us to scare away birds that might want to eat the crops. The scarcity of birds on the Oxnard plain is more than just the passive result of the conventional field environment.

Looking out at the hundreds of acres of monocultured specialty crops (which require high pesticide application) that surround our farm, I doubted that what we were doing on 5 acres could make much of a difference.

But at least where the birds are concerned, I am being proven (happily) wrong. A group of students from Casa Pacifica (a school a couple of miles down the road from the farm that serves abused, neglected and emotionally disturbed kids) recently conducted their science fair project on our farm. They wanted to compare organic and conventional fields, and decided to count the number of birds they observed on different plots as a way of comparing biodiversity.

The Casa Pacifica students (Jackie, Matthew and Thomas) hypothesized that there would be more birds on our organic field, and here’s what they found:
We observed three different agricultural fields within 40 feet of each other in Camarillo, we found that there was an average of close to 16 birds in the organic field and less than one bird in the same amount of time at each of the conventional fields. Not only did we not see birds, when we looked at the produce in the furrows between the plants, they were not bitten off of, which we think tells us that birds had not been there at all. We talked with the farmers of the organic field and they stated that they think the birds are good to have around and they do not worry about the crop loss due to the birds eating the produce because they think that because there are so many bugs, the birds that come to their field eat the bugs, not the produce. It is our thought that the farmers should attempt to provide nesting grounds in the area of their fields for birds that eat the bugs that eat their produce. This nesting ground would provide permanent organic pesticides…birds! Our hypothesis was that there would be more birds in the organic field when compared to the conventional field, and we were correct.
So here's to the difference we can make by doing things well, even on such a small scale.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

a CSA meditation

Every Tuesday we start our farm meetings with a "zero moment" - a pause to reflect on why we do the work that we do here. Often these moments are inspired by words of feedback and encouragement shared by visitors, friends of the Project, and our CSA members.

In honor of Tuesday farm meetings, here's this week's zero moment, written by one of our subscribers:

Meditations on My CSA Box by Meenal Kelkar

Kris is out of town today, so I had the exclusive pleasure of picking up our CSA box, as well as washing the contents. I find myself reflecting on how much I have changed in the past 6 months since we first subscribed for this box. When we first joined, there were often pick-up complications with the friends who were splitting the box with us, and we would both feel overwhelmed and even drained at the thought of the washing and drying that proceeded the storage effort. But as we know … given time … things can change! Here are my musings from today …

I was the first to arrive at the YMCA today, so I had my pick of boxes. I felt happy to see that there are more subscribers at this spot than last season – word is spreading about this bounty! And then I felt eagerness at seeing the purple beans on top of one box, the drops of water on the heads of lettuce in another … the four boxes in a row looked like a cornucopia! How lucky I am to have such a mouth-watering, freshly picked decision to make!

As I fill my two sinks with water, clear the counters on either side of the sink so that there is a flow between the create, washing, rinsing, drying and my refrigerator bin, I reflect on this chance to take a much needed mid-day break from the computer. A break that I generally intend for myself and usually forget, so I intentionally timed my pick-up mid-day to ensure I took a break. My one day each week where I do honor my promise to myself.

And as I wash, I get to soak my hands in the lukewarm water, swishing the greens back and forth, first in the soapy water and then in the rinse water. Occasionally, my focus changes to dry leaves in the spinner or pat them dry with the towel. As I reveal layer, upon layer of produce, I find myself anticipating what awaits me underneath. Often a surprise lays hidden: a few weeks ago, it was a handful of artichokes … later, a bag of lima beans … more recently, purple beans! Last week, there were two perfectly shaped globes of zucchini nestled amongst the carrots and turnips. I’ll confess to my dirty little secret … sometimes there are so many greens that my refrigerator is bursting at the seams, so often the carrot and turnip tops go directly into my compost bin. I feel a twinge of guilt at that confession, knowing that my grandmother would have ensured that every little piece would have been savored … cooked, canned, dried, pickled … so many ways to preserve this bounty.

And as I watch the dirt and water spiral down the drain, I feel an enormous sense of privilege at what could be perceived by many as a chore. You see … this past Sunday, another layer was added to my appreciation when I got to be a part of the community celebration for Casey, Cristy Rose, Katerina, Sarah, and Erynn, the 5 interns who grew, harvested, and distributed the vegetables for the CSA. Each one of these women are pioneers in the Abundant Table Farm Project, sharing a passion for radical progressive change, the need for spiritual connection beyond existing religious affiliations, the desire for food equality, and the sheer joy at providing nurturing, wholesome produce to their ever growing circle of subscribers. On one hand, it is so lovely knowing that the fields are blessed by interfaith clergy each year. But the level of both intention and attention that these 5 women devote to each box of produce is stunning. … And humbling. Everything that it has taken to get this box to me comprises a devotional practice for them … as it has now become for me.

Do I really have to get back on the computer?!