There’s a book I used to recommend to my farming students called “It’s a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life.” Written by local (AND famed) garlic grower Keith Stewart, of Keith’s Farm, it’s a moving and intimate portrait of running a small farm, month to month.
I read the book probably more than 10 years ago, but titular phrase, “It’s a long road to a tomato,” often pops into my head when I’m reminded of how long the road can be to a harvest, whatever that harvest may be: garlic, tomatoes, tulips, or dismantling white supremacy and my own conditioning in a racist and white supremacist society.
(Important note before proceeding: if it gives you pause to think about white supremacy as something more pervasive in society than isolated hate groups tracked by the ACLU,
I recommend reading this article, or “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad. Or, head to @sonyareneetaylor on Instagram and listen to a bunch of her “What’s up Y’alls.” )
When it comes to farming, that “long road” is often peppered with a dozen mishaps, accidents, and inimitable factors (the weather that season, the staff you hired that year, the seed you sourced, etc.) that will never repeat exactly in the same way again and that inform the outcome of your crop. Your learning curve is long – you often can’t put your learnings into practice until the following season when it comes time to seed or harvest that crop again.
When it comes to unlearning harmful conditioning – racism and prejudice – so deeply embedded in our society, I know that our unique paths and positions in terms of race, class, and the people and experiences we come across in life can and will have impact on our abilities to see through that conditioning. And, currently, due to societal conditioning in a white supremacist culture, so many of us white folks see our inevitable mistakes as failures. I personally have experienced the ways that that fear of being bad, wrong, and the fear of messing up, gets in our way.
Two tragedies — on wholly different scales — reminded me of these somewhat interconnected truths last month. I’ll start with the local lesson, then move to the more global.
So first, about local flower sourcing in March – it’s a little complicated:
With the Seasonal Flower Project, and in my business as a whole, I’ve always sourced flowers close to home – within 200 miles – because I believe that in order to grow a local flower farming industry that honors the earth and develops green jobs with living wages, we need to support local farmers and pay the true costs of farming sustainably. That means paying for the additional labor and cost it takes to grow a variety of flowers organically: time consuming crop rotations and composting; investments in organic certification; devoting valuable acreage to companion plants for wild habitat, etc.
While I’ve flowered dozens of March weddings, this is the first time I’ve attempted a flower CSA in March, in our region. (Last year the Seasonal Flower Project launched in May). Throughout this initial month of the “SFP 2.0,” I was humbled on a weekly basis, learning week after week just how thin our current grip on a “sustainable, local” flower farming industry is, and that the road to some kind of purely local flower farming industry is going to be imperfect and littered with accidents that ultimately teach us how to grow smarter. I had felt confident about the sourcing, and then the sheer interest in the project was met with rough weather conditions and a couple truly harmless but nail biting accidents and purely local sourcing quickly became
much more complicated than I rosily imagined it would be.
Week 1 was fairly straightforward and mercifully glitch-free, aside from some errors in our deliveries, which despite my triple and quadruple checking of 100+ orders, were inescapable. We sourced Anemones from Battenfeld & Son, a 5th generation Anemone and Ranunculus Farm in Rhinebeck, NY. This farm has an interesting history, originating in the midst of the violet-growing boom of the late 1800s, later converting to growing Anemones under glass greenhouses in the early 1900s. Needless to say, this team has their systems dialed.
In Week 2, I planned for Ranunculus. I had always planned on ranunculus for march, as I hadn’t ever run into issues sourcing it for events before. While field-grown ranunculus (or ranunculus grown in greenhouses without supplemental heat) won’t be ready in our region until late April / May, there are a couple growers who produce it in minimally-heated greenhouses. Unfortunately, this year’s particularly cloudy and snowy February weather created major delays in production. To abbreviate, I was short about half the quantity I needed and made an emergency order for ranunculus from California which was overnighted to me.
While the vast majority (80%) of the flowers bought and sold in this country are grown overseas and arrive by plane, this was a first for me, in 10 years of working as a florist. While the purist in me suffered imposter syndrome, I also understood well by this point that in the US, domestically-grown is still often more local than whatever is being sold next to it.
In Week 3, our featured tulip farmer, Linda D’Arco of Little Farmhouse Flowers in Jay, NY (wayyy up there, close to Montreal), faced an unprecedented loss when a freak overnight power outage on Sunday evening. She awoke to hundreds of frozen tulips at peak bloom, including our intended order – which I had organized nearly a month in advance. And so, just like that, months (if not a year) of planning and work growing them, as well as thousands of dollars, were lost.
A pretty catastrophic, heartbreaking loss for Linda.
To further outline how small the local flower growing industry is, the next closest producers were in Canada, Georgia and Ohio. Funnily enough, when I called them up, their first recommendation was to call Linda! That’s JUST how small this world is right now. Especially for winter-grown flowers). Nonetheless, I continued to be dogged by self-doubt and worries that I was misleading customers, purchasing outside my 200-mile radius.
And then, the next morning, on Wednesday, March 16th, the awful world reared its head. In an instant, I was reminded me that in the grand scheme, the loss of the tulips, and my internal conflict around replacing them were very, very tiny and privileged concerns in the face of yet another racially motivated mass shooting, this time that leading to the deaths of 8 people, 6 of them women of Asian descent.
In that moment, I was reminded of why I’m in this work at all: sustainability. While sustainability has become a soundbite, associated with reusable to-go mugs, composting, and shopping in thrift stores, I want to share that for me, it’s more.
What originally sparked my passion for food sovereignty and sustainability in my early 20s was my awakening to the pervasiveness of racism, and the ways it was impacting the health, wealth, and well-being of people of color – specifically through our food system, but also in housing, jobs, and education. The right to simply walk down the street without fear of an attack by a racist cop or other person. The right to breathe clean air, let alone breathe.
Figuring out how to build a sustainable business within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is a challenge. And, figuring out how to show up when that ugliness creates violence and harms people of color is also challenging. Something I’m continuing to practice – awkwardly, no doubt, is how to show up and respond. I will never know exactly the way.
The fearing and doubting thought patterns instantly flare up:
“I won’t say the right thing and I’ll do more harm.”
[FYI, I’m feeling that RIGHT now, as a I write this].
“It’ll look performative.”
(As in performative allyship, explained here by author/activist layla saad).
Or, more relative to my business, “If it’s not 100% local right now, it’s not sustainable.”
I’ve learned (from Black women antiracist educators) that this kind of perfectionism is, i’ve learned, a symptom of white supremacy. I can attest to being a perfectionist raised by a perfectionist (who was raised by a perfectionist…) and that HAS impacted, at times, my ability to show up for communities of color. A certain tongue-tiedness, I think, probably gets in a lot of white folks’ way. And, I think perfectionism has also dogged me up in building the Seasonal Flower Project, in feeling that an inability to provide 100% regional flowers in March was a failure.
After the 2016 election, I joined a book club of mostly white ladies looking to re-educate ourselves on black feminism and intersectionality. so much of what we read – Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Janet Mock, and others, was just amazing to me, and these many years deep into my farming journey, and gave voice and vocabulary to the interconnections I’d been witnessing and learning about my whole adult life.
Self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde wrote,
“Sustainability is dependent on a respect for life. It may be easy to demonstrate respect towards people who are similar to us. But expressing and showing respect for the life of someone, or a group who are different from us is more difficult. However, humanity shares a “common interest, survival, and it cannot be pursued in isolation from others simply because their differences make us uncomfortable.
Brooklyn-based creative, lawyer and co-founder of Sustainable BK Whitney McGuire recently shared this Lorde quote above, and added her take on Lorde’s meaning:
“In other words, the pursuit of sustainability cannot exist in a white-centered vacuum wherein the discourse is predicated on standards that disrespect differences and life itself.”
In a recent interview with Keys SoulCare, McGuire said the following in response to the question, “What are some of the myths around living sustainably?”:
“The number one myth is that it’s expensive, and that you have to buy into it. Rejecting that is where my perspective on starting Sustainable Brooklyn came from. I think about the way my grandmother taught me to save foil and plastic bags, or that you can put anything in the Country Crock butter container. These ways to cut down waste are really embedded in our culture. To be told that people who shop at fashion retailers are wasteful, and the shame that comes from some environmentalists, is really coming from a colonial perspective. The guilt and the shame model doesn’t work because we need all hands on deck. It’s like what can you do right here, right now, and build upon that. We’ve been sustainable in the most poignant ways. Our existence is proof of sustainability.”
This last sentence deeply moved/moves me. Sustainability is about respect for life. All life. human, plant, animal. and as a soil nerd, I would most definitely add microbial life.
So now, perhaps you can see where I was headed with all this…
I’m committed to sustainability not merely in the “eco-friendly” sense. The reason I’m interested in keeping flower waste out of landfills, and avoiding plastic at all costs, isn’t just because I know that these problems are contributing to global warming and loss of species and natural habit. It’s also because I know that landfills, our trash, our plastic and textile recycling – and on and on – disproportionately impact communities of color around the globe in negative ways. Pollution – at its core, a disrespect for all life.
Last year, Black environmentalist activist Leah Thomas coined the term “intersectional environmentalist,” to help bring attention to the ways white supremacy and racism underpin environmental destruction, and lead to Black and Brown communities bearing the brunt of pollution and climate change impacts (displacement/migration/financial loss due to rising temperatures, drought, and rising sea levels). Leah’s coinage was inspired by the work of professor Kimberle Crenshaw, who studies and writes about critical race theory at Columbia Law School.
When we consider the floral trade as a whole, just like almost any other industry, we find race and class-based hierarchies of power and privilege. When we look at the organic farming industry, as well as the sustainability and eco-friendly industries, we also see lingering patterns of colonialism and oppression: mostly white people in positions of power, management and land ownership. When we look at the histories of farming and land ownership in the US, we see it leads back to a history of genocide and land grabbing, enslavement, and systemic oppression that continues to today.
Farming is in fact one of the whitest professions in the country.
How we see racism embedded in our food and farming system and what we can do about it was written about by Black farmer/author/activist Leah Penniman in “Four Not-So-Easy Ways to Dismantle Racism in the Food System,” (YES! Magazine, 2017). If you want to learn more on this, I wrote a bit more about systemic land loss in the Black farming community due to predatory lending and discrimination by the USDA here.
Intersectional environmentalism is such a useful phrase because it draws necessary attention to this fact (if you have done your research and understand what intersectionality is all about).
Looking back on the past four weeks, I have to look at the decisions I made — to buy Ranunculus from a Latino-owned farm in California, and also, to source flowers from (minimally) propane-heated greenhouses in upstate New York as decisions made on two sides of the same coin. There are very few flower farms left, in comparison to 100 years ago (though that’s changing now!). There are ALSO very few farm-owners of color locally – and nationally – due to the legacies of enslavement and continued oppression. Flower growing did not purely shift overseas in the 1960s because of advantageous growing climates (that was part of it). It also moved to countries where land was cheaper as was labor. Where polluting and labor protection laws were more relaxed. farm labor in general in the us is done by undocumented workers and is deeply underpaid. It’s a whole system of values – of disrespect of life and of land that has brought us to this moment and crisis in climate, and economic disparities.
I’m committed to a broader definition of sustainability, wherein the lives of all microbes, farm laborers, and owners are valued. where the lives of florists and consumers are valued.
I’ve committed to donating 15% of profits from the Seasonal Flower Project to Black, Indigenous, and other farmers of color. Just as I celebrate the beauty of locally-grown flowers and the return and regrowth of a local industry and think tank of farmers growing their expertise; just as I compost floral waste each week (currently in my mom’s back yard); just as I speak with farmers and wholesalers about dialing down their use of plastic sleeves; i am committed to supporting a future flower farming industry that is truly representative, diverse, and thriving.
It’s a long road to building a just world, so what I can do is commit to striving to do my best to continue to show up, name racism when I see it, dig deeper into my re-education, and to learn from Black and Asian + Latinx women and trans women. I will support local BIPOC farmers + women/BIPOC-owned businesses, and do what I can to show solidarity, period. And, I’ll apologize and do better when I inevitably mess up.
My heart continues to go out to all Asian Americans + Pacific Islanders (AAPI) that are still reeling from the recent tragedy in Atlanta, especially the victims’ families. I’m sending love to any AAPI folks reading this and supporting my work. I do not know your pain, but I am angry and anguished that you continue to feel threatened, misunderstood, stigmatized, and vulnerable to everything from painful ignorant remarks to outright violence. We all lose so much, every day, as a collective, every time a racially motivated attack — verbal or physical – happens.
It’s unsustainable, plain and simple.
Thanks for reading – LORD, if you got this far. And as always, leave me a comment with your thoughts!