Oct 01 2015

Farmers as Community

Writers, policy makers, chefs, and tv personalities love to strike the “food as community” gong, urging us, their audience, to gather around the table, to cook for each other, to know who grows our food, and to connect over a plate of whatever is freshest and most in season. After all, one of the tenants of small-scale (mostly organic) agriculture is Community – it’s the focused word in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), in which a farm’s wider network of customers pays in advance for months of just-harvested food, essentially propping up a farm’s financials at a time when the farmers need it the most (before any of the actual food is ready to harvest). A recent study by the University of Iowa found that so-called locavores eat local produce and meat because it makes them “feel a part of something greater than themselves – a community that shares their passion for a healthy lifestyle and sustainable environment.” The study called this exchange of money and food both “relational and ideological.”

Despite the voluminous coverage of the community aspect of the food movement, one component is frequently ignored: the community AMONGST the farmers. Farmers, working a profession frequently referenced as lonely, challenging, and physically grueling, support each other in ways not frequently seen across other careers, propping one another up with online interactions, with text messages and phone calls, and with supportive networks dotting regions and the nation as a whole.

A few years ago, I met a number of Oregon couples who farm together. These couples draw strength and well-being from each other, rallying one another while working as individuals. These farming couples know when to brew an extra cup of coffee, and also, aware of their partner’s very specific challenges, intuitively understand when to push and when to retreat – a partnership in every sense of the word.

Thankfully, farming as a couple isn’t the only way to find broader, understanding support in the profession. Before I started this Zenger series, I’d given only passing thought to the vast network of farmer to farmer communities in America and the interpersonal relationships amongst farmers. Over these past seven months of talking with the current class of Zenger’s interns and meeting with many of the program’s “graduates”, I’ve been struck by the bond between these crews of farmers, specifically how widely this support network reaches despite the differing backgrounds, opinions, and experiences of each new farmer.

I’ve witnessed the Zenger interns transform from their cordial and slightly stiff interactions around each other in March into a comfortable crew a mere two months later, the interns and farmers joking around with each other, the crew operating more like family members who know each person’s trigger points and strengths. In fact, by my last visit, the division between leaders and interns was pretty blurry: each intern had risen to the initial challenge of becoming a more complete farmer, and their body language and word choices reflected that transformation. In addition to understanding the ins and outs of a complete farming season, all three had learned to navigate relationships with each other, through both the fun and challenging moments.

Brittany summarized this dynamic nicely in July when she shared that “we all really know each other now. We know each other’s buttons. When to take a step back and let the person be. When they need support. Anticipating before they ask. If someone needs a hug. Someone forgot their lunch. Basic support.” And during our final conversation a few days ago, both Brittany and Aaron talked about navigating the skill of patience with others and themselves, and how this was brought to the forefront when they rotated through their two week cycle as farm manager.

To last longer than a few years in this physically taxing profession, new and veteran farmers must develop a community that supports them, the land, and the cyclical nature of agriculture. Entering this internship in March, Brittany, Aaron, and Brad already knew of the importance of community relations. One had witnessed firsthand the negative effects of a poorly organized and run business, another had experience working as a community manager of sorts for a grocery store, and the third has spent years intimately linked with a well-known, well-respected area farm.

But for a new farm to succeed, a farmer needs a network beyond his or her customers. Forget weeding, transplanting, and harvesting. Yes, Zenger trains farmers to work as efficiently as possible at these tasks, but just as importantly, Bryan and Sara have trained their interns to work with others, to integrate into different farming environments, to inspire customers and co-workers, and to strengthen the Portland area farmer to farmer community. The greatest lessons, the most influential insights, that all Zenger interns carry with them into their agricultural future, are the skills of how to work with each other without losing their own individuality, and the knowledge of the importance of a support network in this profession.

The most striking food community I witnessed this year is the network that the interns of present and past have built with both each other and within the broader world of small-scale agriculture. It’s clear that Zenger and farmer training programs throughout the country do more than train this next generation of food growers – they help to strengthen the fibers between all who grow our food, and these connections then criss-cross the country to benefit consumers.

Although none of the previous Zenger interns currently work with each other, many connections remain strong, as former interns are a mere phone call or text away, and new connections are made and then introduced to each other. Brad, Brittany, and Aaron, after eight months of nine hour days of weeding beside each other, showing more vulnerable sides to each other, laughing, joking, and being completely exhausted, couldn’t help but be their truest and most complete selves while at Zenger, the artifice washed away. This breaking down of barriers seems unique among the professions of the modern world. Unlike, say, investment banking, farming is at its most effective and sustainable when one’s work relationships are supportive, freeing, and impossible to fake.

These three interns will scatter, like the previous interns, but instead of the standard clean break from a previous job, this scattering doesn’t have to transform into isolation or loneliness. When they move on, perhaps even leaving the Portland area, each will find connections to the physical farming community of wherever they land, and also to surprisingly meaningful and helpful online farmer to farmer interactions, where message boards and Instagram conversations can run deep and philosophical, this online world serving as a platform for farmers to ask questions, rally around each other during hardships, and promote ideas in an effort to grow better and to feed more efficiently and nutritionally.

When we last met, Brad told me that he’s started listening to podcasts like Farmer-to-Farmer when he’s working in the fields, finding inspiration and motivation even when he’s performing rote tasks in the hot sun. “It’s awesome," he enthusiastically shared. “I really want to grow culinary mushroom now because of the one I listened to about that. Listening to those people’s experiences – how they’ve gone about being able to succeed is inspiring," Brad shared.

While the reality remains that farming is indeed lonely and repetitive, I’d posit that most jobs are. In fact, I’d suggest that most jobs are intrinsically lonelier and more isolating than farming. One of the best things I’ve witnessed from following along with Zenger’s internship program is the awareness that these burgeoning farmers do not have to be isolated – that there are copious people and programs to support and help. This sense of farmer to farmer community positively influences the other communities in each farmer’s life, translating into an environment of sharing and goodwill that fosters more resilient connections to food and health, for each farm’s neighborhood and, when combined, for the nation.

So what changed for Brad, Brittany, and Aaron over these past seven months? In many ways, the three people who entered this internship are remarkably similar to the the three who will leave. Each of them still has roughly the same ideas for what they want to do next, but instead of farming these ideas as distant wishes, they’re a quickly approaching reality, with each person equipped with skills to shape these dreams via practical knowledge and real world experience. Most importantly, the three seem to have fully embraced their farmer identities, in terms of their physical appearances and how they talk about food, and in a keen awareness of the balance between the drudgery and excitement that’s present in every farmer’s life. During an especially hot week (“hell week”), Brittany and the other interns were exhausted and dragging, but had accepted their present reality. Brittany shared, “Farming isn’t always beautiful. This is hell. We’re all rallying. We’re all tired, we all hurt, we’re all hungry, but we’re rallying to make it better. We’re working with what we’ve got.”

Just like the Zenger interns of past, this year’s three interns will probably work a few more jobs to hone their skills and learn new approaches. But wherever they ultimately end up, each will reference Zenger as that first powerful step they took in their agricultural careers.

Brittany Giunchigliani

Brittany arrived at Zenger looking for direction, stability, and a way to use her energy and enthusiasm for something meaningful and sustaining. She entered the program bubbly and eager, and she leaves focused (but not lacking for positive energy). “I know now that this is what I’m supposed to do. I don’t have to search anymore; I just have to navigate within this realm [of] food justice, access to good food, physical labor, being outside, and the non-profit world," she quickly answered when I asked her about the biggest takeaway from the Zenger internship. She said that everyday she comes to Zenger Farm with excitement, comforted by her growing skill, knowledge, and confidence.

In our first interview, Brittany expressed frustration with not being able to explain herself well, and how she wanted to “learn to express myself and what I know and what I want...[while] learning to be a leader.” Yet by three months in, Brittany told me that she and the other interns were already getting better at communicating and critiquing each other in positive ways. “We’re all getting more comfortable talking to each about our methods,” she remarked. All of the farm interns spend two weeks as the farm crew leader. I actually visited on a day during Brittany’s rotation and saw a gentle presence, detecting none of the inner turmoil that she later told me about: “The first week [of being manager] was really hard. I was highly stressed every day and really exhausted." Brittany recounted how she was encouraged to “own it” by a friend and decided to embrace her leadership role – something that’s not in her personality – ending the second week proud of herself.

In the handful of times I met with Brittany, I felt privileged to watch as she grew into her skin and became that person she hoped to be. She’s retained her sensitivity and honesty, but has rounded out her philosophical musings with farming reality – a reality which includes a physical component that surprised an already active woman. “I was confident with my physical strength – I had active jobs,” Brittany said in our second meeting. “But this is a different kind of physical activity.” Her exhaustion led to thoughts on adjusting her diet (currently a mostly vegetarian one, though she’s experimenting with drinking bone broth) and her growing awareness that even as a vegetarian, she’s still intimately linked to the larger meat industry. She can’t avoid animal slaughter on Zenger Farm, which raises both chickens and turkeys. She told me that she’s planning to watch an upcoming chicken slaughter, but will not participate.

Brittany is patient, exceedingly kind, and committed to the food world for the long haul, believing that a non-profit urban farm like Zenger is exactly where she wants to work in the future, whether at Zenger itself or at a similar organization. In fact, she hopes to stick on at Zenger over the winter, shadowing both Sara and Bryan as they crop plan and learning about grant writing from Andrew Hogan, the non-profit’s development director. She has brilliant ideas tucked away about soil health, weed management, and the education around those concepts, and is openly committed to helping Zenger thrive and push themselves as a farm.

She’s transformed from someone who grew a few plants in containers in a backyard to someone who can successfully lead a crew, weed and till efficiently, understand nutrient profiles of vegetables, and can translate this growing knowledge base into meaningful interactions with CSA and market customers. She also learned how to make her interactions with these customers beneficial to the overall farm’s logistics. “It’s been good getting to know the CSA members and hearing their concerns and excitement,” she told me on a visit in July, adding that she’s now aware of logistical things like “getting the newsletter on a certain day so [members] can plan their meals during the week and how certain people go about their meal planning.”

As Brittany leaves the internship, she’s especially aware of the concept of momentum. “[Losing momentum] is a huge concern – it’s happened in the past. I’m afraid to lose it if I get an easy, cushy job [like working at a cafe],” she shared. “Because [that job] wouldn’t fulfill me like this does.”

Instead of losing momentum, it’s much more likely that Brittany, finding a balance between passion and self-awareness, will harness her momentum into a career with longevity. “Agriculture has allowed me to see things within myself that I didn’t think I’d come in contact with right now,” she said at the end of our last conversation. “Am I going to start eating meat again? What’s my burn out threshold? Where are my boundaries? Patience. Patience with other people. And our system. Working the land, you’re so grounded within this amazing thing, in the elements, of course it’s going to make you tap into the deepest rooted issues with your self and the world.”

Brad Remsey

My first impression of Brad was that he existed in a dream-like state, a half-smile on his face, exuding a pleasant demeanor. Yet in our opening conversation, this soft-spokenness transformed into astute opinions, and then matured into an overall goodness balanced with humility. In our first interview, he declared that there are “so many issues with the food system,” sharing that, “I want to be involved and I definitely want to be able to grow my own food, grow it safely, and also be able to [say that] I’ve grown all this without having to use any inputs that could be poisonous.”

I learned that my initial categorization of “dreaminess” was relatively accurate: Brad spent a lot of this internship not getting enough sleep as he struggled to find a consistent place to live and navigated several other jobs, including working as bike-based landscaper on the weekends and helping to farm on other properties.

Sleep, or lack-thereof, was a frequent topic of discussion, and he occasionally voiced that he wanted to take a thirty minute power nap at the beginning of our conversations. And yet by the end of our talks, it was clear that he would have rather kept conversing than sneak in that nap. I can’t help but admire how Brad’s exhaustion never got in the way of his wry sense of humor, his willingness to share, his curiosity in others, and his strong beliefs in doing things the “right” way.

When we first met, Brad talked passionately about the necessity of education and the concept of biodynamic farming, frequently referencing Rudolf Steiner’s writings. Halfway through his internship, he half-joked that he wanted to work in an orchard next season, because at least he’d work in shade! That joke aside, Brad remains interested in biodynamic concepts and finding a balance between his variety of interests that include beekeeping, herbalism, and education of underserved communities. He’s aware of the interconnectedness of nature and cultivation, and is weary of one-size solutions to complicated problems. “We’ve lost so much biodiversity over the past hundred years,” Brad stated in one interview. “It’s a bad sign. We’re picking [plants/seeds] that we think are best and then using them for the whole area, the whole entire state, [instead of] some that would be great in the northwest or southwest region.”

Every time I saw Brad, he was performing farm tasks glove-less and frequently in beat-up Toms. Brad possesses precisely the personality we need in this next generation of farmers – someone who is humble, easy to talk to, not afraid to talk about his own shortcomings, ready to learn, and not competitively trying to get ahead of people but instead working collaboratively with people. He seemed to thrive under the program’s impeccable structure and organization, calling this organization the most “educational part of the program”, and telling me several times that the balance he feels at Zenger has a great deal to do with “having such a good team”.

Unlike his fellow interns, this is Brad’s second full farming season, which put him in a unique position in the crew. On one hand, he’d seen certain things before – how to trellis, how not to trellis, how to harvest, when to weed. But on the other hand, he’d never been guided in such a structured way. Throughout the season, he’s frequently found himself comparing methods from previous experiences to this one, while assimilating lessons that he can will apply to his own agricultural future.

This future potentially includes a move away from Portland to Port Orford, a coastal town in Southern Oregon. There, along with a friend, he hopes to raise bees (50 hives at first) for his burgeoning beekeeping business, as well as cultivate vegetables. He doesn’t know much about the town’s culture yet, and any new business venture is bound to have chaotic moments. But Brad is fully aware of the chaos in agriculture, and he talked to me repeatedly about the importance of having a plan at the beginning of the season; something that structures these chaotic moments, yet is written in a way that allows for flexibility.

Besides organization as the key to a smooth operation, Brad was reminded again and again, both in his personal life and on the farm, of the unpredictable nature of life. When we chatted at Furey Field in July, in between hours of weeding, Brad shared that “it’s upsetting to put all the effort in and have the crops lost. But you can’t get overly upset about it; [instead] it’s like, what can we do to make sure we have other things?”

Aaron Maltz

When we first met, Aaron almost immediately characterized himself as a “cynical dude” who sometimes mumbles while speaking very fast. His self-characterization wasn’t entirely off-base – he does sometime mumble while talking at excessive speeds – but the cynicism isn’t entirely correct. He’s not idealistic, but in our conversations he struck me as an aware realist, someone who keeps moving forward on a positive path, despite an awareness of all that is wrong with the food system. For example, he wishes that food education and the conversations around food were “more direct”, adding that “we treat this food thing as a fun, happy, outdoor thing. Oh, the happy farmer! Everybody wave.”

He knows that a single farmer can’t change everything, but he also knows that picking a profession that influences and helps even a small number of people is a net gain and thus, always worth pursuing. Though he’s had years of experience selling at market for other farms, Aaron is now ready to leave the marketing aspect behind and concentrate fully on growing the food. “I feel more respect for the food,” he shared. “I’m more interested in the physical labor and production side of farming than the customer service side of it. To me that’s interesting – you see the changes, variations, how the tiny things make a difference.”

During my first visit, Aaron was the first intern to volunteer to talk to me, quickly assuming a leadership role amongst the other interns. It was clear from the first moment we chatted that he’d had a broad experience in food and life, and that this history certainly colored his views and our conversations. He presents as a mix of contrasts: confident yet aware, worried if he’s talking too much, adaptable to working within a group and to receiving correction, while remaining focused on a bigger picture and retaining his individuality.

He’s funny, sarcastic, and brutally honest about his perceived shortcomings, including his lack of “common sense”. As he rolled up irrigation line during one of our conversations, Aaron told me that “physically I can do this. Once I’m shown how to do it, usually I can get it from there. Sometimes the basic step, though – even today I was putting this thing together and was like, it’s not screwing on! ...I was putting a male into a male.”

At first I assumed that Aaron might find it a challenge to fit within an internship program that’s heavily educational, alongside two interns a decade younger. But Aaron seemed to thrive within the structure, becoming more confident in tasks each time we met. He was comfortably aware that there are certain tasks he enjoys more than others, but understood the need to “put your head down” and figure out a way to make “those tasks less cumbersome.”

With each passing month of the internship, Aaron eased into his role and absorbed the education and skills until they became second nature. “When we started, I was looking at everything I couldn’t do and feeling insecure. I’m not good at machines, I’m not good at common sense...on the whole my confidence in what we’re doing has exponentially risen,” he told me, sharing that “there’s a sense that if I did my own thing after this or farmed for someone else [I could do it].” He recognizes that “when you have zero experience in something, you have no self doubt. And once you start [a new thing], you realize what you don’t know.”

Before Zenger, Aaron worked for years at various jobs and along different career paths. “I’ve spent so much time in jobs doing things I didn’t really care about, so the whole idea of being successful in those was less meaningful because it didn’t really matter to me,” Aaron recounted. Initially thinking that his previous experiences wouldn’t translate to directly farming, he realized that the “most surprising thing [about the internship] is that I was able to take all the other things in my other jobs and that those translate to this. I think anyone can farm. Anyone can do it; it just takes organization and physical stamina and the will to do it."

As a farmer, Aaron feels part of a bigger story, “this historical trade”. “Agriculture is why we are who we are. It’s nice to feel that you’ve stepped into a historical stream,” he mused. He has plans to start a small farm in the near future with his wife, and because his vision of his future is relatively concrete, he was able to directly apply and filter all of Zenger’s lessons and tasks through this lens. He exudes focused concentration when working, but always seems aware of where everyone else is and, most importantly, how they’re doing. But for all his growth at Zenger, one thing has resolutely not changed: Aaron still hates winter squash and beets with a passion. Don’t try to convince him otherwise!

On my last visit to Zenger Farm, head farmers Sara and Bryan were nowhere in sight, stuck inside the Grange for an all day meeting. Instead, the interns ran the show. If you had walked around the fields, you’d have seen the three of them, along with a fall-season intern, methodically and quietly going about their chores. When I talked with Aaron in the orchard, Brittany was inside the barn, organizing equipment. When I chatted with Brittany, Aaron was harvesting fruit in the orchard and then quietly collecting yellow bins. Nearby, Brad had just returned from harvesting potatoes at Furey Field.

By the time Brad and I finished talking, the other interns had once again joined forces in the field, crouching over a bed of greens, weeding. As I turned away to leave, I saw Brad walking back to the others, joining the group in this task. But I’m sure if I had stayed longer, I’d have seen them separate again, each farmer walking with confidence and purpose, wearing their identities easily and naturally, like a comfortable sweatshirt. The internship ends on Halloween and they’ll continue to learn lessons and deal with agricultural mishaps and successes for another month. But, they won’t officially become farmers on October 31st. They already are.