tess' talk at NEFU
New England Farmers Union 2011 Convention Keynote Address
When Tess Brown-Lavoie, of Sidewalk Ends Farm, in Providence, RI finished her keynote address at the NEFU Annual Convention in Concord on December 9, 2011, Concord, NH there were lots of us fishing for tissues in the bottom of our purses and pockets. Her inspriing address left all of us thinking about our own connections to agriculture and how those connections have transformed our lives and our communities. Here is Tess's address:
Thanks to the New England Farmers Union Board for inviting me to speak tonight. I am a new voice, and it takes enormous confidence and trust for them to bring me here. I say I am new, and I am. In many ways. I am new to farming, new to the Farmers Union, and new to agricultural discourse. This is only my third year working on the land, and my first owning a small farm operation.
I grew up in a large town bordering Boston, and my parents are school-teachers. When I was little, my experiences with agriculture were limited to trips to apple orchards in the country, and the farm stands we visited on the way home. I went to petting zoos, and planted tulips in the strip of soil between my house and the sidewalk. But mine was not a farm family. Even the title “beginning farmer” is one that feels almost too proud. I cultivate less than an acre, and I can’t remember when I chose this vocation in earnest. Maybe when I registered for my last library card, and filled in the occupation as farmer. Even after that great victory, I address you with the humility of a greenhorn, and the joy of a person who found a life that she believes in, in a place that she didn’t expect: the land.
I grow food in vacant lots in the city of Providence, Rhode Island. One of the lots that comprises Sidewalk Ends Farm was filled with lead soil as recently as March, and my sisters and I excavated it, and brought in clean compost. As the act of importing soil to grow good food suggests, the life of a city farmer is one filled with incongruity; my roommates work at schools and non-profits, and in mid-season I have the dirtiest knees and messiest hair of anyone in the post office, library or bar. The other farmers in the Little City Growers Co-op, the 8-year-old urban/suburban co-op under whose banner I sell produce at market and to Providence restaurants, are the only ones who look like me as they sneak in the back doors of the fanciest restaurants in their Carharts, carrying sacks of green beans, herbs, and watermelons. My neighbors see me ride past on my bike with a pitchfork on the handlebars, trailing a cart filled with tomato starts. My family didn’t see this coming for me, and neither did I, so when aunts and uncles ask, “What’s next?” at Thanksgiving dinner, it’s hard to explain to them what this life means.
What I should tell them is that I learned to love this country through farming. I grew up with what I think is a typical American cynicism in a post-9/11 world. When my seventh grade class was learning about civics, it seemed that the Founding Fathers’ ideals were obscured by the degradation of the environment, the moral opacity I saw in my government, and what looked to me less like cultural diversity than cultural confusion and discordance. So in this cynical time, the question of patriotism was a difficult one to answer. Ultimately, I found it not in the Constitution, or our nation’s political ideals, but in the land itself. I learned to love this country on the farm. I learned to love this country as I dug my shovel into its dark earth. I sewed seeds into my country, and harvested the abundances that grew from it. My stewardship of land is my greatest act of patriotism.
I learned to love my city by digging into it too. My vacant lot farm produced lead poisoned weeds last season, but I love my city so much that I excavated the contaminated soil, and brought in compost, and now my neighbors eat tomatoes grown in their backyards. My city isn’t always lovable. It is dirty, and my neighborhood is peppered with abandoned houses, sometimes with their contents pouring out the doors as if blown by a powerful wind: mattresses, broken shelves, and clothing litter front steps and streets. The “for sale” sign in a vacant lot can read like a dark joke, and sometimes it feels crazy to invest in this space. But it is also a crucial labor of love. In occupying unwanted city land, and cleaning, and planting it, we have shown our neighbors what it means to us to love our city. It means making it beautiful, productive, and alive.
I especially love my farm, even though it is small, and used to have poisonous soil. Still I love the land, this land, as ardently as one who calls herself a patriot. I have given to the ground, and it gives back to me. I depend on its fertility, and so I put down roots and invest. I love my tools so I keep them clean. I love my seeds so I keep them dry. I love my sisters, so we keep each other well-fed and strong. Farming is a vocation of care, and from it is born an expansive love: for my country, for New England, for the people who grow food in situations very much like mine, or very different, and for the people in all of our communities who are sustained by our work.
This love is the source of a very real desire to be partners with people who grow food in any circumstance. That’s what brought me to the National Farmers Union and its New England chapter as a first generation city farmer. And as of yet I have only benefited from my membership. The Beginning Farmer Institute presented me with the opportunity to learn about the logisitics of running a farm: management and leadership skills, and financial planning. It has made me interrogate the role of the farmer as an advocate and educator in my urban community, and more broadly as a resource for my Congressional representatives in office. I have met a number of wonderful and hardworking people through the Institute, and I share with them many struggles and aspirations, even with those outside of New England—those with nth generation wheat farms in Colorado or cattle ranches in Montana. Meeting these people encourages me to clarify my place within the landscape of American agriculture, as an urban farmer with access to urban markets and populations. It also compels me to articulate and advocate for urban production interests in national and New England agriculture policy. We too are rebuilding local economies. We too are working towards greater food safety, food security, and the health of our communities.
As a city farmer, I work to fight the same food ignorance that damages our businesses, our economy, and our environment. For many city people, the farm is generations away, and even the image of a pumpkin hanging on a vine is unfamiliar and abstract, or even cartoonish. Neighbors have come upon my garden in wonderment, as if it had never occurred to them to look to the earth for food, and suddenly it is alive and real. My greatest hope is that they leave with the desire to learn more, plant something, eat well and locally, and realize that farmers give themselves to the land and its people like the most zealous patriots. City farms provide people—some of whom have never been outside of city limits—with the opportunity to know our land as we growers do.
When I began picking leaves and fruits at my first farm job in Johnston, Rhode Island, I began the slow process of reinvesting myself in my food system, and relearning the importance of physical work. For those who do not grow up driving tractors before they drive cars, urban farms are a crucial link that can instill people with a sense of value for the work that farmers do as producers, land stewards, and advocates. We need support, help, and protection, because without community and community awareness, we will be alone in this struggle.
Through Farmers Union, I hope to reach out to rural farmers. I want to learn from you, and with you, about how we will survive in this world. I am grateful to Farmers Union for selecting me to participate in the Beginning Farmer Institute; my learning curve has been steep and exciting, and I have left every session with the sense that there is much yet to do--on my farm, in my business, in my community, and as an agricultural advocate. It is meaningful that we are here, as New England farmers and friends of farmers, as Americans who enact their sense of duty and care on the land every day. It is valuable to me to see you all as allies. So thank you.
9 December 2011