Winter Farming

The eve of Seattle’s third consecutive snow day felt like the proper moment to behold the power of pause. Today we remember that our daily planners are mortal, that snow tastes good with syrup but better with friends, that the natural world can stop us still.

This snow day, I cooked toe-curlingly delicious kale gratin and then hunkered down to meditate on urban agriculture and Americorps for this blog post. Especially: how have I sought to shore up the strengths and challenges of these two fierce and flawed approaches to anti-hunger work?

At the Lettuce Link/Marra Farm giving garden, the one-acre urban farm where my Apple Corps position is based, volunteers cultivate organic vegetables that are primarily donated at two local food banks. On an immediate level, the vegetables feed people who would otherwise struggle to afford them, and particularly in the South Park neighborhood which experiences very poor food access. We work hard to grow a lot of food — 18,500 lbs this year — and yet alone, Marra Farm will never be able to produce enough for South Park residents.  This one acre is a tiny skirmish against the vast industrial food system, where big farms grow monocrop corn, soy, and wheat — and big profits. FACTOID: 8% of farms get 75% of federal subsidy aid. Almost none of that money goes to fruit or veggie growers

Part of what makes Marra Farm so important, however, is that it provides a space for people to learn and organize  in creative ways. As farm manager Sue McGann always reminds visitors, “the most important things we grow here are new farmers,” referring especially to our gardening classes with youth. The very act of growing food cooperatively builds crucial relationships amongst people and with land. We need these relationships for survival. For many of us who did not grow up in farming families, growing food in new settings, such as at an urban farm,  humbles and  empowers us.

What about people who have experienced the violence of our food system firsthand?

South Park is a neighborhood with a particularly high population of Latin@ residents, and through getting to know those who visit the food bank, I have learned that several worked on (big, big) farms prior to settling in Seattle. It is also a working-class neighborhood where many residents work multiple jobs and have scant time or interest in volunteering time on a farm. Former farmworkers have graced me with different perspectives on community agriculture, and pushed the Marra Farmers to be better. As the farm aspires to be a community project, run with and for South Parkians, we are consistently challenged to advocate and educate around different questions:  How can we dignify agriculture so that farming is celebrated, exalted, and rewarded? Why are farmworkers — through whose labor and skill, we are nourished — the lowest paid occupational group in the United States? And especially for Marra Farmers: how can we follow leaders in South Park to build a project to responds to community need and builds resiliency “from seed to table”? In response, we are developing an affordable CSA, offering more vegetable cooking demos to food bank clients, and especially promoting a bilingual work-trade every Tuesday of the growing season.  We continue to educate our traditional volunteers on anti-oppression values and food sovereignty.

The project of urban agriculture at Marra Farm reminds me a lot of Americorps. Apple Corps members spend 10.5 months engaged in direct service promoting nutrition, access and education on food, and healthy, active lifestyles. We receive a stipend of 110% the poverty line and qualify for government assistance programs such as SNAP (food stamps). Many of us are able to choose fulfilling work over filling paychecks because we already receive other privileges from society.

Our work does make a difference — the testimonies of Apple Corps members on this blog, for example, prove that point — and yet I would be challenged to find an Americorps member who felt their impact exceeded their individual learning. Take my experience in a position of “community outreach and development,” as a person who hails not only from a different geographic community but from a different class, race, educational background, primary language, and customary palate from most of the people I am serving. Safe to say, I have learned more than I have contributed. South Park is full of lively leaders who have been mobilizing their friends and neighbors for many years, and will continue to do so long into the future. Through my service, I have learned to be more honest, inquisitive, and resourceful. I have become a better listener, teacher and advocate for justice — and as a result, I have become a more effective service corps member. Instead of initiating projects, I have learned to support ones that already exist, to develop youth leadership at the farm, and to ensure that our project is accessible for non-English speaking residents.

So thank you, snow day, for slowing my body down and my brain up. Winter gives that crucial chilllll for farmers, and especially for those concerned with cultivating community as well as vegetables.

Read more about Lettuce Link’s work in 2011 on our blog. and pssst, green thumbs: take a drool — erm, look — at these organic, non-GMO veggie & flower seeds from high mowing. any purchase supports lettuce link’s work!

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