Students in Professor Lisa Phillips’ Literature of Journalism class were assigned to immerse themselves in the unfamiliar. Here’s what they found:
Emily King, farm girl at heart accompanies the Sustainable Agriculture club at a local farm to see how non-farmers but passionate agricultural people handle farm life and what they believe about the future of farming.
In the main lobby of the Sojourner Truth Library directly across from the cafe, a group of seven women and one man are gathered in a circle. On a coffee table sits a plastic bag filled with bruised Red Delicious apples,
carrots and a poppy seed bagel that has been communally torn apart. Every Thursday evening Students for Sustainable Agriculture, more colloquially known on campus as SUS AG, have mandatory E-board member m
eetings. As I approach the group, I overhear the president, Choker, admonishing a fellow member, Leah, that she has one strike on the watering schedule.
“Who here watered today?”
Conversations among members are cut off as a silence reverberates across the group. The tension mirrors that of a classroom when the teacher asks a question and the entire class stares into their desks waiting for the moment to pass.
“Isabella was supposed to do it today, and when I went in there today it hadn’t been watered, but it was still pretty early,” pipes Leah.
“Well don’t worry Leah, you’ve already got a strike. Whoever doesn’t water gets a strike. And if you get two strikes, you’re off the goddamn schedule. If you’re not a fit parent then you get your children taken away.”
Leah tries to muster a defense which includes a lot of stutters of “I have uh, I have.”
I sit uncomfortably on an orange and blue plastic chair waiting for the awkwardness to pass. I was surprised to witness this scolding.
From their appearance, the members of SUS AG resemble the cast of the television show “Portlandia.” Almost all of them wear outfits consisting mostly of oversized denim. Their hair is purposefully messy and put up with a clip.
What I discovered, however, was that their E-board meetings are something more akin to my interactions working for my brother and father on our family farm, where the severity of not watering seedlings on time can have detrimental effects on the growing season. I am not going to lie, seeing Choker act stern towards her fellow member made me respect her.
Choker acquired her nickname while on the SUNY New Paltz Women’s Rugby Team. A number of SUS AG members have ties to the women’s rugby team. Choker was introduced to SUS AG via her friend Billie Golan, the former president of SUS AG.
Billie serves as the unspoken matriarch of SUS AG. She wears a bright orange knit cap on top of her shoulder length messy brown hair. Stained and discolored work pants are cuffed above her tightly laced tan work boots.
Billie is a self-described farmer. Her grandparents were instrumental in developing a love for the natural environment and gardening. “My grandmother was the one to introduce me to composting. I’d visit her at the Botanical Gardens and she’d show me how to separate food scraps from landfill waste. We would go to her compost heap and search for worms,” says Billie.
Billie spends her summers working on local farms, such as Phillies Bridge. Whenever there is a question pertaining to the germination rate of beets, heads turn to Billie for the answers. If Billie is stumped, then questions are directed at Google.
Choker has a few notches of farming on her belt too. Choker is a frequent participant in the program World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). “It’s basically a work exchange where you can go and stay on all these farms and live and eat for free. I learned about sustainable, organic agriculture,” Choker explained. Choker has WWOOFed locally and even abroad in Ireland.
But she does not want to make farming her career. “I love sustainability and agriculture and being in the fields and what-not up to a certain extent. It’s very exhausting and I don’t think I have the patience. The thing with farming is that you have to stick to a schedule. If you don’t then you’re gonna fuck up and all of your crops aren’t going to grow,” said Choker.
As a farm girl, I admire that Choker acknowledges how hard and grueling the life of a farmer is. Often, people have a preconceived notion that being a farmer is a hobby for people and not a way of making a living.
The respect Choker evidently has for farmers is also cultivated within SUS AG. Although they may not act or look like the farmers I grew up with, it does not mean their work should be dismissed. Sure, their seedlings may not germinate into robust and fertile kale and broccoli plants, but the group is successful in other areas. All the group needs is a little support and nurturing in order to thrive.
While leaning against their newly built workbenches, Choker informed me of the volunteer and community work SUS AG frequently partakes in. Every fall, SUS AG leads a gleaning program at several of the local farms.
“Gleaning, or as I call it ‘green cleaning,’ essentially entails going to farms and collecting crops that lack market value due to their shape, size or color. Rather than have this food go to waste, SUS AG goes in and picks that food before it rots.”
Once the crops were picked, SUS AG spent two days in the kitchen of a nearby church prepping the food. When the meal was served, SUS AG fed over fifty people from the community. “It was a lot of work, but it was really satisfying to see all the people come out in support our program to raise awareness about food waste,” said Choker.
Back in the main lobby of STL, I realize the topics of discussion perfectly represent the eccentric character of the SUS AG members. There are several side conversations occurring all at once with no particular rhyme or reason.
“Crap, does anyone have a tampon?” Danielle, the Vice President of SUS AG, frantically searches through her tan messenger bag with the same ferocity any menstruating woman can relate to.
“You still use tampons? Do you have any idea how many toxins are in those things?” Choker steps up on her soap box. “I only use diva cups now.”
“Here Danielle,” Billie leans across Choker to hand her a Tampax Pearl.
Ella, the secretary of SUS AG, rustles around the plastic bag containing the bagels and produce.
“One time I read an article about a woman who gave birth to a baby. She ate a poppy seed bagel that morning and [the officials] took her baby away from her because she had opioids in her system,” says Ella.
Dead silence is soon followed by a slight chuckle as the rest of the group tries to determine if Ella is joking or not. In my mind, I think that Ella got an episode of “Seinfeld” confused with reality.
“Are you sure? You have to eat so many poppy seeds for it to show up in your system,” said Billie.
“Yeah I don’t buy it,” Choker says.
“Fake news,” Juan Pablo jokingly says.
“I just got an email from this girl who wants to meet with us to talk about putting composting bins in the Student Union Building (SUB), just like they have in the Truth cafe,” says Choker.
“I sent back a sassy response, well it wasn’t sassy, to her saying, ‘Yeah composting on campus is something we’re all really into, especially since despite having bins in the Truth cafe, all that stuff ends up in landfills.”
Danielle, who has been staring blankly ahead, looks up from behind her dark curly bangs and chimes in, “People just don’t compost.”
“No the issue is that it’s not labeled properly. It says compost, but only off on the side. Then people think ‘Oh, this receptacle has the biggest hole let me just throw all my trash in there,’” says Juan Pablo.
After repositioning my recorder several times, I am amused and baffled at the tangents the SUS AG members partake in.
Juan Pablo turns to Choker and hands her half of the apple he has been munching on. “Can you taste this and tell me if this is a Red Delicious?”
One loud bite later yields no response, but ignites an argument over who will finish the apple now.
“No, I don’t want that.”
“You bit into it.
“You asked me to!”
“It’s yours now.”
“I don’t want it.”
“Who wants an apple?” Juan Pablo asks the group.
Hearing the anger and passion the SUS AG group members exude regarding the failure of the compost bins epitomizes how strongly SUS AG wants this initiative to be successful. SUS AG is fighting an uphill battle with the school and students alike. It is an admirable cause for SUS AG to advocate for composting on campus because they find it to be incredibly hard to try to educate and change people’s beliefs and behaviors.
Finally, the reins of the meeting are directed towards the upcoming pride and joy event of SUS AG, their annual Spring Farm Fest. The number of members who show up for meetings fluctuates, but they have a large overall following. Every fall semester, SUS AG hosts “Fall Fest” and a spring counterpart, “Farm Fest.”
Banter concerning the deadline for fund request forms and dealing with unresponsive vendors dominates the discussion. Before the E-board meeting is adjourned with excitement for a farm visit that upcoming weekend, a staple outing for SUS AG members, Ella, who for the past twenty minutes has been sprawled out on the ground near my feet, reaches into the plastic bag filled with produce from the weekly campus farmers market. Holding a deep purplish beet in her hand, Ella asks the group if this is a carrot. From behind her I attempt to contain the eye roll I want so badly to release.
As a child, I always told people that I lived on a farm. Classroom introductions that called for a fun fact were easy for me. “My name’s Emily King and I live on Royal Acres Farm and Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA).” By the time I was in middle school my farm started raising sheep. Naturally, I added this to my introduction as if it were a part of my credentials. That was until fellow classmates began to make fun of me. A boy named Scott called me “llama girl.” At first I thought this was ridiculous since I did not raise llamas; I had sheep. Soon, the tease stuck and with it began a slow but steady withdraw into myself. My identity of growing up on my family farm was reserved for those close in my life. I did not want to risk further ridicule.
The reaction people had upon hearing my background changed when I started school at SUNY New Paltz. This was a really interesting fact that some people wanted to hear more about. This was true especially amongst fellow students in my environmental courses. People would tell me to join the Students for Sustainable Agriculture club, but I always thought the group consisted of people who joined just for the scene. It was not until this assignment that I discovered the value and worth of SUS AG on campus.
Ella’s inability to identify a beet from a carrot is indicative of the consumer disconnect that I have viewed time and again at farmers’ markets. My disbelief and frustration is not directed so much at the person, but more so at the food system that exists now. Growing up, I had the privilege of knowing where the food on my plate came from, and even more importantly, how it was grown.
Days later, I am driving in my rusty orangish red Dodge Dakota pickup truck following Billie’s blue Nissan on my first farm visit with SUS AG. On the back of Billie’s car are “save the bees” and “keep it in the ground” bumper stickers. I am warned by my travelling buddy Juan Pablo, a shy yet personable freshman, to put plenty of space between the two cars since Billie’s brakes have a tendency to fail.
In an effort to break the silence of my truck’s cab, I ask Juan, “Are there any new programs or goals that SUS AG has adopted this past year?”
“Yeah, Choker has been trying to make SUS AG more intersectional and inclusive. Environmentalism has a track record of being a very white movement that overshadows the voices of people of color and lower socio-economic standing,” says Juan Pablo.
From my time spent with SUS AG, I realized that nearly all the members are white, except Juan Pablo, who is Argentinian. I am impressed and admire the group for wanting to address these issues that plague the environmental movement.
“We want to do an urban farming day, but the spring semester goes by so quickly. It is a really cool concept that you don’t have to live in the country or the suburbs to have access to healthy, nutritious, locally grown organic food.”
Juan Pablo tells me the group is still in the works of how to make this change occur. Most notably though, SUS AG is sponsoring a talk from Amani Olugbala, a representative from Soul Fire Farm, for the week after Farm Fest. Soul Fire Farm is located outside of Albany, New York and serves as a nonprofit organization and farm with the goal to address injustice in agriculture.
“We’re hoping Olugbala coming to speak will direct SUS AG and the community on how to uproot racism in the food system,” says Juan Pablo.
“Are you going to come back to SUS AG next year?” I ask as I lean over to change the station on the radio.
“Yes, the full circle of learning, advocating and teaching is one of the main reasons I will be a part of SUS AG for the next few years,” Juan Pablo says with certainty and a smile.
It is an especially bleak and cold Sunday afternoon as our two car caravan sees the sign for Seed Song Farm in Kingston, New York. As I throw my truck in park, I notice an old farmhouse under construction, a single plastic covered greenhouse and a converted trailer used as a chicken coop with a handful of barred rock hens and one rooster scattered around it.
Cozmos Jaya, one of the staff members at Seed Song, greets us in the driveway. Cozmos Jaya is an enthusiastic middle aged woman with a smile that never leaves her round face. A faint Latin accent accompanies her outfit of purple corduroy pants, a pink vest and a colorful Andean chullo hat. Cozmos invites the five of us inside a sixteen foot tall plastic sealed greenhouse to sit in a circle on the hay strewn ground. She leads the introduction and happily tells us the mission of Seed Song Farm.
“The whole idea is to connect people to the land through food, through music, through joy, through walking barefoot in the woods. We could [walk barefoot], but it’s too windy,” Cozmos laughs.
The faint rumble of truck engine approaches and moments later the director and head farmer of Seed Song, Creek Iversen, lumbers through the door. Creek wears a light blue checkered button down shirt underneath his brown Carhartt jacket. Beneath his frayed baseball hat with the initials “NOFA NY,” North Northeastern Organic Farmers Association, his face has the ruddy color of those who work outside. Creek beams down at us and thanks us for volunteering to help take down the drips and taps supplies from their maple sugaring season.
Creek confesses that his decision to get his hands dirty was made late in life. The man with the goateed face and square frame glasses worked as an environmental educator for ten years at an experiential school before choosing to farm. Seed Song Farm started in 2016 as a CSA, but has since expanded into a community center. As is common amongst small farms, Seed Song incorporated value added products to increase their revenue.
“It’s very hard to make a living growing vegetables. The true cost of food is so devalued, so many people are able to produce it cheaply through shitty methods. It’s so frustrating going to a farmer’s market when you put out all this work; you harvest it, you wash it, you put it into crates and drive it there and you set it up, pack it up, drive it back and compost half of it,” says Creek.
A faint giggling directs my attention to Cozmos Jaya who sits with her legs crossed and shoes off on the ground. Each time she quips in with her faint giggle, I am reminded of Professor Umbridge from the “Harry Potter” series. “Our inspiration comes from the native peoples’ monthly celebrations. Every moon there was a corn fest, a strawberry fest. We’re recreating those celebrations,” says Cozmos Jaya.
Huddled against the wind, the five of us follow Creek across a number of barren fields. Creek points to the fields where he and his workers have spinach, lettuce (salad mix), peas and mustard greens planted. The ground looked freshly rototilled, with clumps of wet dirt protruding from the flat ground.
Creek leads us to the edge of the woods, turns to face us and unzips his jacket. I notice two of the newcomers, Nicole and Patrick, exchange sideways glances as Creek begins the educational portion of the tour. Creek simulates a scenario in which his chest cavity serves as the xylem and phloem systems within the maple tree. “The sugar in the sap moves within the transport canals inside the bark of the tree. When the weather gets cold it all goes down to the roots and sits there until we have freezing cold nights and days above 40 degrees. Osmotic pressure in tree causes the sap to rise building pressure within the canals. This is when we take a brace and a bit and tap into the tree,” Creek instructs.
Above the wind, Billie asks, “So we tapping today or taking the buckets down?” Creek reiterates that we are taking the bits and buckets down. It’s the end of the season and trees start putting out milky sap which is not good for syrup.
Juan Pablo approaches the first bucket, and to everyone’s surprise, finds clear sap inside. “Wow I’m delighted. You’re more than welcome to drink some straight from the bucket,” says Creek. Juan Pablo eagerly takes a sip from the cold metal bucket. I gauge his reaction as the sap makes contact with his lips.
After I judge that Juan Pablo was not repulsed from it, I hold my finger under the dripping tap and taste the sap. I try it, but find that there was not a definitive taste to associate with the sap. It tastes unrecognizable to the finished product that we drown our pancakes in.
Walking through the woods, I observe this group of motivated and eager members of SUS AG. I realize that their actual farming skills need improvement, but it would be wrong of me to doubt their potential. I cannot write that I am afraid for the future of farming and not try to help those who have a desire to learn more about it; hat would make me as much a part of the problem as well as the solution. SUS AG succeeds at public outreach and social activism, something that everyone can benefit from. They take on bold endeavors with the hope to enact change.
I chose not to disclose my background of farming for certain reasons. For this assignment I was Emily King the journalist, not Emily King the farmer’s daughter. I wanted the members of SUS AG to treat me as they would any random SUNY New Paltz student interested in joining. My thought process was that the less they know about me, the more information they will be willing to share. I was not sure if they would feel intimidated or self-conscious about their work if they knew my background, or if by telling them they would assume I know certain information. I wanted to hear their own definitions and approaches to farming.
The other syrup buckets yield sap dotted with dead bugs floating in it, which is expected at the end of the season. With all the buckets, lids and bits we can carry, Creek leads us back to our cars. As we trudge out, Billie gazes upward with arms outstretched and announces to the sky, “Thank the trees.”
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