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Hug a Farmer—Grow a Tomato—Work for Justice

Photo credits, clockwise from upper left: Kristine Wook, Cristina Eisenberg, Nathen Domlo, wusa9.com

By Melissa Tuckey

During the reign of terror waged by the president who for now will remain nameless, my garden provided hope, nourishment, and an opportunity to connect to the web of life. I have raged with a pitchfork, wept with a watering can, and communed with worms. Whereas some have living children to inspire their hope—I watch for seeds to sprout magically into plants that grow into food. By August, I am giddy with plants and food.

In the winter, when the fields are asleep, I miss the smell of dirt and become despondent. Reading about gardening offers some reprieve. Seed catalogues also help. Last winter, I started reading about farming. One of the books I read The Organic No Till Farming Revolution by Andrew Mefferd offered a glimpse at the future of farming and carbon sequestration. From this book, I learned that tilling makes nutrients in the soil available to plants, but it also releases carbon to the atmosphere, and mines the soil of nutrients, depleting it over time. Conversely, adding organic matter to the soil increases carbon storage. While research is still underway and we do not yet know the full impact of tillage on climate, we do know that no till agriculture builds healthy soil and increases the capacity of soil to hold water, two necessary elements to a livable future, especially in a time of climate change. The fact that it may also be a carbon sink— is an exciting possibility.

For organic farmers, building soil is always a central concern. Healthy soil equals healthy plants that can survive without pesticides. Nonetheless, many organic farmers till and plow. There is a new subset of farmers, however, who are committing to organic no till methods. In addition, no till methods have become more and more popular at non-organic farms. Unfortunately, many so called “traditional” farms are using herbicides instead of tillage to kill off cover crops.

Last spring, in my enthusiasm, I took a job as a farmhand at a local farm. A neighboring farmer is trying to retire and having trouble finding someone to take over her U Pick berry CSA. Working at the farm would give me the opportunity to learn more about farming and explore the possibility of becoming a farmer. COVID 19 was raging, the president was insane and I welcomed the opportunity to work outdoors.

I spent the season learning how to prune, weed, and care for the crops at Kestrel Perch Berry farm. The work was exhausting and as you can imagine, much more challenging than gardening. Whereas I could be queen of my garden— creating a beautiful abundant space while intimately managing each crop— a farm is larger and more overwhelming. There is a sense that you will never be caught up, especially when you do not have enough funds to keep up with the need for labor, and it can be very hard to get ahead of things. Farming is highly skilled and physically demanding labor. Many young farmers spend years working at farms, interning, and working with mentors. Imagine what skills migrant laborers are bringing across the border. And yet, we do not value these skills and our country is losing farmers faster than they can be replaced.

Last year was an excellent year to learn how difficult farming can be. A late frost reduced our black currant and strawberry crops. Excessive heat and drought followed. The stress on plants led to disease and insect damage. My farm mentor, Katie, told me it was the worst year she had ever seen. I quickly came to appreciate that in a bad year, work on the farm is not reduced. It increases. The farmer has to able to manage all of these crises.

And yet, being a Community Supported Farm (CSA) with dues paying members, we had some financial stability. CSA members pay for a share of the farm upfront and during bountiful years, they share the bounty, during hard years they share the burden. That said, the farm does not make enough to pay for all of the labor and materials it requires.

Add to this the cost of health care and the hardship of working multiple jobs in order to be able to afford your farm job and it’s a bust. As one farmer I spoke to told me— the success of an organic farm depends on money. You need either financial backers or a trust fund. Many large farms receive government support. Smaller organic farms receive very little federal support and we also now know that farmers of color have historically been discriminated against in these government programs.

While working at the farm— I listened to the debates and read the rhetoric coming from the presidential campaigns. Despite Trump’s failed economic war with China and the resulting need to bail out farms, most rural people continued to support his candidacy. Whereas, Biden won strongly in urban communities. But what if the democrats became champions of rural communities and small farms by promoting restructuring and support for small local farms. Food security is going to be a major issue in the coming years of climate change. Currently nearly 50% of the food on our plates is coming from California and most of that is coming from large mono-crop farms. California has been experiencing drought for the past ten years and drought is expected to continue as the climate shifts. If we want to have food on our plates ten years from now, we will need local sustainable agriculture in our communities— and it’s going to require a major shift of priorities.

The good news is that new the stimulus includes support for farmers, especially those who are underserved, allocating 5 billion dollars as reparation for black farmers. This is an excellent first step. There is more we can be doing. Invest in farms; help young farmers create a viable life; encourage the resettling of farm land by a new generation that will be poised to help keep our communities. Support urban agriculture, food forests and community gardens. Legalize immigrant labor and raise the minimum wage. Create not only a path toward citizenship, but a path toward land access for experienced farm workers who are willing to do this work.

Address historic wrongs that have led to loss of land for black and indigenous farmers. Reward soil conversation and no till farming. Reward sustainable farming practices. Make land available to those who are committed farming and restoration of the land, habitat and soil. Reduce food waste. Rethink the design and the role of food production within our communities. Imagine walking out your door and to a local farm or garden where you can access fresh grown produce. Imagine grocery stores filled with food grown from within your food shed. Materialize access to healthy food for low income people. We have so many opportunities to repair both the planet and our communities.

And yes, I will be working at the CSA again this year.

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Melissa Tuckey is author of Tenuous Chapel, a book of poems selected by Charles Simic for the ABZ Press First Book Prize (2013) and editor of Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. She’s an emeritus fellow at Black Earth Institute. Other honors include a winter fellowship at Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and writing awards from DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and Ohio Arts Council. She teaches poetry workshops in Ithaca, New York and works as CSA manager at Kestrel Perch Berry Farm.

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