Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: Hitting “Reset” on Our American Dream

Neysa working 2

A year and a half ago, my husband Travis and I decided we wanted to be organic farmers. Neither of us had a background in agriculture. In fact, I was probably about as disconnected from physical labor as you can get — I was pursuing my PhD. This weekly series will take you through Travis’ and my journey to own and operate our own organic farm. From a farm internship in a tiny New York town, to management positions at the largest CSA farm in the southern United States, and now our current project of running a one-acre farm in Austin, Texas, our experience has been filled with wild successes, sharp disappointments, and self-discovery. I hope our story can provide others with ideas and resources for their own farming projects–urban or rural, big or small, hobby or professional. I also hope it can shine some light on the new organic movement surging in urban spaces and among America’s young people. To me, our collective attempt to reconnect with food is a testament to the ability of youth to create, even in difficult times.

Six Days Until We Move to an Organic Farm … Hitting “Reset” on Our American Dream
Originally posted April 2009


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 began 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 expected our move to Boston to be the beginning of our adult lives: full of hardship, sure, but softened by progress and achievement. Instead, we found that our skills were undervalued in the work place, at the same time that our basic costs were exploding. Our demanding work schedules barely kept our finances afloat, and we had no time to enjoy the most important things in our lives: each other. Coupled with a constant, pervasive need to consume (necessities alone–food, water, rent, clothes, electricity), our new life provided us only with a half-furnished apartment that we couldn’t afford to heat, and a nagging sense of duty to keep working towards … what exactly? A distant American dream? 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. 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 workweek 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’ were finding their confidence to solve such monstrous problems. 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 every day, but were doing nothing for systemic problems in our own backyard. A generation of college graduates was struggling just to find jobs and earn a living wage. Travis and I could barely afford healthy food, and nearly 50 million Americans lived in food insecure households. Given the hardships that we, our friends, and our neighbors faced, why was all the prestige in trying 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 door?

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 will 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 by delivering good food and responsible land stewardship. 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 on our American Dream. 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. View last week’s post here.

4 Responses to “Why We Farm: Hitting “Reset” on Our American Dream”

  1. This story makes me so happy. I hope I can follow your example.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by HOMEGROWN DotOrg and Kyle England, Del. Del said: RT @HOMEGROWNdotORG: Why We Farm: Hitting "reset" on our American Dream http://bit.ly/aV8iQx […]

  3. WOW…wonderful wonderful story! (am I humbled!) What a wonderful thing to ‘happen’ upon you -or for you to happen upon. Sorry it was the long way, the hard way, but I guess that’s the lesson we’re all learning isn’t it?

    (Try watching the documentary ‘Food Inc.’ and keep consuming fast food- it will change lives, just as every effort people like you are making. Warning, don’t watch it during dinner!)

    I will be excited to read/see what you’re doing, how you’re finding your way through obstacles, being supported, etc.
    Yes, you’re definitely on a path worth taking. I hope one day to join you there myself… meantime, thanks for sharing the experience!

  4. […] I was jolted from my flashback by Travis swerving.  Churchill had grown restless and crawled from the back seat to the top of Travis’ head, and Travis was begging me to peel him off.  I did, and looked out the window again to see that we were entering Brewster.  I sighed and calmed down.  I don’t have to become a farmer in New York, but I am at least going to get some sort of hold on a most basic relationship between my body and the soil.  Doing that might be, like Pollan’s thesis, simultaneously the most radical and mundane thing I can do. – 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. View last week’s post here. […]

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