Community Philosphy Blog and Library

Why We Farm: Radical and Mundane


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.

Radical and Mundane
Adapted from original post in May 2009

Everything is packed. We put most of our belongings in a storage unit an hour away.  Now it’s just me and Travis and our two cats—Churchill and Mordred—driving down Highway 84 to the tiny town of Brewster, New York, where we’ll be farming on a 200-year-old organic vegetable farm for the next six months.  As we approached our new job and home, I had a moment of sudden, unwelcome reflection.  I used to put up a fight when my mother asked me to water her house plants; how the hell was I going to go be a farmer?  I began to hyperventilate.  Why was I doing this again?

My mind went back to one morning in my kitchen in Boston.  I was eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch before going to teach a class.  I’ve been eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch since I was seven years old, but this morning, I started to ponder high-fructose corn syrup.  It was in my cereal.  Hm.  I got up and snatched a loaf of bread from my pantry.  High-fructose corn syrup, the third ingredient.  Hm.  I went to the fridge and picked up a carton of yogurt.  High-fructose corn syrup, second ingredient.  Hmph. A glass container of jam, high-fructose corn syrup.  Salad dressing, high-fructose corn syrup.  Dried fruit, ice cream, crackers…
I didn’t know what high-fructose corn syrup was, not really.  So I googled it.  The health effects seemed to be debated.  Either it was going to make me obese and give me diabetes, or be completely innocuous, just like table sugar.  I sat back and thought for a minute, then noticed I was late, and I went to school.
When I came back that night, Travis and I talked about high-fructose corn syrup.  We concluded that adverse health effects or no, whatever it is, we didn’t want to eat it constantly.  So Travis and I made a sort of pact that we would try to avoid it at the grocery store.  The first time we went shopping with this new mission, it took us three hours to get everything.  We had to look at label after label of each product before we found something without HFCS.  Then, when we finally found something without the dreaded acronym, it was unfailingly more expensive, and we’d have a small round of economic debates about whether we could afford it.  Sometimes we would buy the non-HFCS product. Sometimes we would admit defeat.

That continued for a few months until we started realizing the HFCS was only one of numerous things in our food that had us resourcing Google.  Since I wasn’t about to start scouting out sodium stearoyl lactylate and diglycerides in all my food, too, I felt a better solution was just to reduce my overall dependency on the grocery store (or put better, on processed foods).  In other words, Travis and I began cooking.  Soon our recipe lists multiplied.  I began learning how to make more things from scratch—staples like tomato sauce, and other snacks like granola.  I found that most of the stuff I made at home—not only was it easy and cheaper, but it also tasted better and could be a great creative outlet.  And perhaps most importantly, I knew what was in it.  I had put it there.

Several times in the months leading up to this moment driving through Somewhere, New York, I asked myself an important question: “Do I really know if all these food additives are bad for me?  Am I avoiding them for no good reason?”  I would mull that over, maybe read a bit more on the interwebs, but in the end, I would always come to the same conclusion: it doesn’t matter.  Avoiding processed food might be saving my health, but more tangibly, it was enriching my life by encouraging me to cook with whole, fresh ingredients.  The reduction in salt and sugar was making room on my palate for the varied, rich tastes and textures of food.  Food, not the amalgam of corn and soy that had dominated my diet since my youth.  Avoiding artificial additives could be just a footnote.  What did I care? I was in love with real food.

But I did notice health benefits, too.  As we enjoyed our food more, Travis and I also began feeling better.  We had more energy; we didn’t feel dehydrated or overly full after we ate.  Imagine that:  enjoying food and being healthy–such a contradiction to the modern American eater.  This new relationship with eating inspired me to read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. By the time I finished, I knew I was going to do something dramatic.  How far from reality had I wandered, had we all wandered, that Pollan’s thesis to just “eat food” was groundbreaking?  Why didn’t I know that?  Why had I needed him to tell me?  I felt like I had been punched in the face.  I knew nothing about something completely necessary to my basic existence: food.  I knew something needed to change for me.  I needed to do something real.  I needed to see how the earth worked.

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. Read more of “Why We Farm” here.

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