Farming state of mind

It’s so easy to feel creatively numb in winter. Being a farmer helps. Just over a week ago, my boyfriend Ben and I pulled on a few extra layers and headed to the rooftop farm he co-founded in Long Island City, the Brooklyn Grange. There, we met up with Bersi, a farmer-in-training working with me at the educational farm where I grow flowers, The Youth Farm.

We’ve made an annual event of sowing the first seeds of the season together, a welcome escape from the spreadsheets and computer screens we get mired in over winter months. Our seed sowing days in early February are like a soft opening to spring and a helpful mental thaw in the dog days of winter.

We sow Onions, Sweet William, Foxglove, and Snapdragons – crops with long maturation periods, or crops that need colder environments to “germinate” or sprout. Entering a hoop house on a bitter cold (but sunny) day is like taking a direct flight to the Oaxacan coast in January (spoiler alert) – it’s always surprisingly warm, slightly humid and smells like a trail in a redwood forest, the moisture captured inside mingling with whatever organic matter is festering there: open bags of potting mix made of peat and compost, a volunteer sunflower patch shot up from fallen seeds,  forgotten, and now bursting with charming green life, algae growing on the interior of the house’s plastic walls… Once we get to shoveling soil into trays we begin ripping off those layers as quickly as we put them on and it almost feels like May. Add hot coffee and music to this equation and I begin feeling like a whole person again. Here are some pics from our Foxglove crop from last summer – if you stare long enough, you might trip and think it’s July:

Once the onions and cold-hardy flowers are nestled in trays, gently being roused from dormancy, it’s back to the desk and the numbers and Google Docs. The Youth Farm’s flower crop plan needs finishing touches; our CSA needs promotion; after 6 six years, the Propagation and Growing Soils courses I teach in spring for Farm School NYC are in desperate need of a syllabus makeover; there’s long-range fundraising and program planning for the Youth Farm, and organizing curriculum and holding interviews for this year’s Urban Farm Training Program (UFTP), a 30-week intensive farm training program I co-lead at the Youth Farm. This program is one of my greatest passions and sources of joy. It’s modeled after my certification program at the 30 acre Farm and Garden, part of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems/ UC-Santa Cruz. It’s been in operation since 1971 and was recently dubbed the “mothership of organic agriculture’ by Mark Bittman:) For me, this six-month live-in farm apprenticeship was the perfect combination of hands-on farming and sit-down workshops on everything from 5-acre farm budgets to the Solanaceae family; it was also an important period of incubation where I immersed myself in learning and was surrounded by like-minded people, and had precious time to think and read and hike and play and forage for mushrooms. Finding ways to continue to be a learner is important. I feel like I’m doing that this year, making farming take a back seat to the floral design and trying to identify and strengthen my weaknesses as a designer and business owner. Here’s me in Santa Cruz, 2008, jotting notes in a workshop; contemplating in the fields:

Back view of my tent, the stunning UCSC campus; front view of my tent, the 10 acre tractor-scale farm we worked on as part of our training:

An unforgettable spring dinner of fava beans and artichoke soup on the back porch of our Farm Center; me and Karen Washington, one of my earliest inspirations, friends and mentors in the food justice and urban ag movement – we completed the training together:

Yesterday, my Youth Farm co-Manager Erin and I began interviews for UFTP 2016. These interviews, like the greenhouse trip, the Mexico interlude, and the daydreaming are always welcome sparks of warmth during gray days. I love getting to 61 Local – one of the farm’s longtime supporters and where we hold interviews – a little early for a hot coffee or tea. It’s cozy and humming with the steady keyboard clicking of freelancers.

Every year I’m re-energized by teaching and farming with the ten student farmers we take on. They’re from all corners of the world and all phases of life, at a turning point in their lives, excited and ready to learn how to farm, just like I was at 24. They’re motivated by the injustices and dangers of our globalized industrial food system. They’re athletes, dancers, recent college grads, retirees, actors, lawyers, med school drop outs, wall street defectors – all ages, races, genders, faiths – essentially everyone. Here’s the 2015 crew in the Youth Farm hoop house; planting garlic in 2014:

Bersi and Erin processing Bearded Iris last spring; a CSA vegetable harvest from fall 2015:

In between interviews Erin and I  traded stories from our winter vacations (winter is when farmers take vacation). I told her about the dry heat and colorful beauty of Mexico – in particular Mexico City and Oaxaca City, where Ben and I spent two weeks in  January, visiting farms, incredible botanical gardens, indigenous Zapotec ruins, and as many markets and street food vendors as possible:

She told me about New Zealand and Australia, skipping Hobbitville and the sheer majesty of the landscape. (Summon New Zealand mountain-valley moonscapes in your mind).

I often feel most insightful and inspired in the shower – interesting how actual heat stokes the imagination. The other place I feel most creative is at the end of a long day in the hot sun when I’m exhausted, dirt-covered and sweaty, but happy. Or after a wedding design marathon and the energy of the event seeps in my bones as I deliver and set up the flowers, to the point that when I leave I feel like hitting the dance floor instead of collapsing in my truck.

I think that the “farm” is a deep space in everyone’s conscience, a place of freedom where we access the desire to ignite ideas and projects that were just flickering fireflies in the darkness, hard to grasp when we go about our daily grind. It’s where forward movement can root down and become tangible. People come to the physical farm to make space for something new in their life, and to inherit a new language, to share and develop new modes of identity, perception, communication, political structure, community. What I see over and over is that like me, people want to connect to something real and produce something beautiful; that that feeling and process is priceless and essentially human. As folks join the daily routines of planting, watering ,weeding and harvesting, I see people actually talking to each other about meaningful stuff, or just laughing with each other. The shared experience with diverse people and the vibrant growth of vegetables and flowers and insects around them parallels that inner movement and production of new ideas and plans; urging it along, encouraging it. When we can access that state of mind, and sow seeds for new ideas and projects, (and its not easy), its pure joy.





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