Aug 24 2015

Incremental Steps to a Healthier Community

America is a collection of untethered individuals. My generational peers have worked diligently to shake off constricting labels and expectations, choosing to opt out of careers with traditional job ladders, to eschew the religions in which they were raised, to move across countries or across continents in search of like-minded communities. We’re often spiritual instead of religious. We think of our careers in terms of goals, abilities, and satisfaction instead of hierarchies and label plates. We define our homes by the communities in which we live rather than the places we were born. This flexibility extends to family values and composition: we’ve exchanged nuclear family expectations for values that promote hopeful tolerance, active participation in a global culture, and the freedom to be whomever we want to be.

As such, it’s often incredible to live as a white, middle class American woman in 2015. I don’t face the same boundaries that my female predecessors pushed up against, nor the isolation and subjugation many faced daily. I can accrue degree after degree, none of them entitled “MRS”. I can choose to work at an office, or work as a mother, and have both options respected as valid choices. I can be an athlete and support other female athletes.

But for all of its positives, this cultural promotion of individuality isn’t without negative repercussions for societal health and even food security. For my entire adult life, I’ve sprinted as fast as possible away from any political or religious ideas that seem to be operated by a “hive-mind”, no offense to bees intended. I, and much of my fellow generation, would rather drive through life as that unique fuel-efficient hybrid zipping past the slow creaky kerosene-fueled buses full of the same old, same old. But while many of our world’s cultural norms, social structures, and various innovations are the results of strong individual action and creativity, new ideas and resulting societal change only happen when one person’s idea is adopted by a series of individuals: a group.

Besides shoving ideas out of the conceptual realm into reality, at its most functional, a group offers support and guidelines, and can provide comfort. I, and all of the fascinating farmers and artisans that appear on this site, have found a group of sorts in the larger, interconnected picture of sustainable food.

I recently met David Wills, a former Zenger summer intern, who is currently a field-hand at Dancing Roots Farm in Corbett, Oregon. David is also connected to this broader picture of agriculture’s role in society, yet his personal identity is guided by principles and morals that he could just as easily apply to any situation, agricultural or otherwise.

On a hot late June afternoon, David and I sat facing each other on a weathered picnic table in the shade of a few large trees, out of sight of Dancing Roots’ cultivated vegetable fields. David had already led me on a walking tour of the farm’s property, an influential organic farm just outside of Portland. He’d found the time to give a quick rundown of his educational and agricultural background, to introduce me to a few co-workers, and to give one of the farm dogs many head scratches. When we eased into the picnic table, David had just finished a full day of farming in the direct sun, though his manner didn’t hint at exhaustion or hunger.

David had wanted to be a full season farm intern at Zenger Farm. When he wasn’t accepted into the main internship program, he expressed interest in Zenger’s newly created summer internship program, and was brought on to assist and learn from the 2014 interns, including Justin Moran. Even before last year’s summer internship, David had already connected with Lents-based Zenger Farm through his childhood friend, Gareth Stacke, a 2013 farm intern, as well as friends involved in Zenger’s Healthy Eating on a Budget program. Inspired by the non-profit’s message and impact, David became a CSA member that year. “I was like a classic CSA win,” David recalled. “I was curious about unusual ingredients and willing to push myself. I didn’t care at all about getting chard every week for a month, or squash every week for a month or more.”

Originally from California, David graduated from Reed College in 2013 with an ancient history degree. Never quite taking to school – he took an extra year to finish both high school and college – David still assumed he’d end up in a more sedentary job. While at Reed, David grew his first garden, laughingly remembering how stressed he was about crop planning and spacing, and how little he knew. At school, he connected with the leader of the campus Christian Fellowship group. This man left Reed to move to Walla Walla, Washington; David followed for a summer, creating and tending a large garden with his mentor and a few friends. David admits that he didn’t learn much in the way of irrigation or farm management specifics. Rather, he “learned what it felt like to be out all day in the sun, banging T-posts or weeding. You go back at the end of the day and you dream about the feeling of [the] tension of pulling pigweed.”

Before and after that summer, David read essays by Wendell Berry, essays which brought clarity to the links between agriculture and social justice issues. “Writers like Wendell Berry helped to clarify how living on a working class income is actually a very eloquent position with which to engage the positions of our day,” David explained. To David, a career in agriculture seems the ideal way to involve oneself in complicated societal problems, from the environment, to labor and immigration, and even “to the structure of the federal government’s budget”. “Why is minimum wage what it is?” David asked rhetorically. “Why do we have a fleet of migrant workers that keep our economy afloat when we pay them unjust wages?”

And yet, David recalls, “I did not think I’d become a farmer.” With his skills in writing and research, and no skills in farming, he assumed he’d work in an “allied field” of writing, advocacy, and non-profit work. It wasn’t until he began working at Zenger that he realized “it’s very easy for someone new to the field to get involved” and that no one would be “sneering at this college kid”. The Pacific Northwest is dotted with sustainably-minded farmers, many of whom frequently exchange ideas, seeds, and animals, some of whom have trained one another, most of whom support each other through victories and hardships. This was the open community of learning and camaraderie that David sought, and when it was time to figure out next steps after Zenger’s summer internship, he chose to work at Dancing Roots, joining the crew just in time for an epic squash harvest.

He’s worked part time as a field hand since, the part time aspect entirely his choosing, and supported by Dancing Roots’ owners Shari Sirkin and Bryan Dickerson. The couple moved to their current property in 2002, after looking for a farm of their own for almost eight years. Over the ensuing years, Shari and Bryan grew their farm into a dynamic, large CSA community (200 families, at the height), but in this past year, the farmers made the difficult decision to transition their business away from a CSA model and towards restaurant and wholesale accounts, each believing that their CSA no longer worked financially.

Bryan stopped by our picnic table when David and I were talking. He was boisterous and friendly, but became serious when talking about the farm’s transition away from a CSA model. “People loved our stuff, we had good feedback, but our numbers kept going down,” Bryan explained. But this decision to turn away from the CSA has allowed the couple to turn their focus towards a different kind of person: aspiring farmers looking for a supportive, educational, community-based environment in which to learn. This decision makes even more sense when you consider a quote of Shari’s from an article a few years back. In it, writer Craig Beebe explains that Shari previously worked as a schoolteacher and environmental advocate until she realized she could make more of an “impact” by becoming a farmer. The article also notes that Shari and Bryan believe in the power of farmers working together: the health of our farming community depends on it.

This past year, Dancing Roots became a member of the Rogue Farm Corps network, and the farm owners currently share their house with one of the interns, as well as an employee. In addition to training these year-long interns, they also seek farm employees who share similar values of learning, generosity, and reflection. David remembers that during his interview, Bryan asked him about his values and heroes. “I hadn’t been asked that at other farms,” David noted. “I said that one of my highest values is love for others, especially the marginalized. One of my heroes is Dorothy Day”, the founder of the Catholic Workers Movement. David then shared a quote from Day, a quote that Shari herself had recently recorded in her quote journal:

People say, what is the sense of our small effort? They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time. A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that. No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.

Day co-founded The Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933, a publication that then spawned the Catholic Worker Movement. The Catholic Worker movement, then and now, focuses on social justice through the prism of Catholic religious principles. Day was an outspoken leader who expressed strong opinions on state welfare programs, believing that government funds took away attention from “basic necessities” like leaking plumbing and the lack of coal. Though she preferred working in an urban environment, she believed firmly in farms and agriculture, calling them “the heart of the work” and viewing access to land as the solution to a variety of social struggles. “How can we teach our children about creation when there are only man-made streets about? How about life and death and resurrection, unless they see the seed fall into the ground and die and yet bring forth fruit?” she asked.

David has adopted a similar mindset to his current agricultural endeavors. He told me that he believes in “small, incremental steps [like raising awareness and curiosity about food] towards closer economic relationships with each other.” If David’s religious beliefs were a piece of clothing, they’d be somewhere between a cape and cozy Pendleton blanket. Raised Protestant, today David is an Anabaptist Christian. “The path to a good, satisfying, and whole life is through humility and service,” he succinctly said, elaborating that though “we’re called to love each other”, our modern world and trappings make it really hard even to “know each other.” “I don’t know if we’ve ever lived in a more socially isolated environment than now,” David remarked.

Through the prism of food and with his beliefs as his guide, David is dedicated to connecting to a variety of communities beyond the crew at Dancing Roots. He’s aware that “not everybody has the luxury to be curious about food”, telling me that most people are “moderately interested [but] are trying to make their life work.” I previously mentioned that David works at Dancing Roots part-time. His other ventures include playing organ at his church, and work with two different youth communities. Last year, through a Catholic Charities’ connection, he began tutoring and playing soccer with a number of Burmese refugee families who live in a housing development near the charity’s headquarters. Playing soccer eventually became something more fully integrated: casual friendships that now involves bike rides, cooking, and even growing a garden. For David, it’s exciting to connect with children who are “separate from any of the assumptions that Americans make about products.” Instead, the kids are curious. They want to know to know why a certain product is priced a certain way; they “only want to buy things that support a fair living wage for the workers involved,” David shared.

This year, David also began working with Portland Youth Builders, an organization that works closely with young adults (ages 17-24) who are either at risk of not graduating from high school who or never completed their schooling. In addition to the classroom work that will lead to a high school degree equivalent, students at PYB learn trade and technical skills aimed at putting them in a good position for a future apprenticeship as a plumber, carpenter, or electrician, to name a few options. The PYB property has a large garden plot, a plot that hadn’t been properly used for awhile, with staff members bringing in “extra kale starts” and no one taking control of a larger crop plan, plant rotation, or even a curriculum around growing food. David is now that person, and during the school year, he talks to the teenagers in the garden in a casual manner (no worksheets or reading), and preps the planting plan and concurrent discussions around soil fertility and irrigation.

David was quick to admit that many of the youth aren’t as interested in the garden as he’d hoped, for reasons that may include an unfamiliarity with science, a lack of curiosity about vegetables, or merely because they have more of an interest in something else, like working with power tools. But the adolescents are more than willing to dig and weed, and David has hope for the future of this program, including an idea of broadening the curriculum in the model of a university extension service experiment to connect discussions with reality. As an example, David would lead a discussion about soil fertility and then the PYB students would plant two beds in the exact same way, using one plot as a control bed and changing a specific variable (fertilizer, water, etc) in the other bed.

David is drawn to farming, and to working with other populations through farming, because he feels that people are at their most genuine and most real when working in an agricultural environment. “The whole person gets to be there. You get to be with people in a genuine way. There’s a reason that early Christians celebrated communion as a meal. Eating together should resume its pride of place as the height of our spiritual life,” he emphasized.

It’s easy to see the impact that reading Wendell Berry had on David’s developing consciousness in agriculture. Berry, an eloquent writer, poet, and farming evangelist, is a modern day figure frequently referenced by farmers, as well as agriculture writers. Each of his essays is a quote-keeper’s dream: his prose is engaging, eloquent, and thought-provoking, and many of his sentences are constructed in ways that bear repeat reading. Though not overtly religious, Berry is profoundly spiritual, and many of his essays make reference to this spirituality and the impermanence of our lives in the natural world. It’s no wonder that David was so strongly influenced by Berry’s writings, a man who has written that the “practice of religion is economic”.

In his introduction to a book on scripture and agriculture, Berry writes that the Bible is a story of a “gift”: the gift being the use of a particular piece of land, land that comes with strict guidelines for its use and care, and how it fits into a nation’s economy. And in an interview with Organic Consumers, he states that “Christians conventionally think they’ve done enough when they’ve gone to the store and shopped. But that isn’t an economic life. It isn’t an economic practice. If you take seriously those passages in the scripture that say that we live by God’s spirit and his breath, that we live, move, and have our being in God, the implications for the present economy are just devastating. Those passages call for an entirely generous and careful economic life.”

In a different article, Berry applies the religious principle of “loving thy neighbor” to agriculture and economic limits. “If you’ve got a neighbor, you’ve got help, and this implies another limit,” he writes. “If you want to have neighbors, you can’t have a limitless growth economy. You have to prefer to have a neighbor rather than to own your neighbor’s farm.”

David, like Berry, believes that the health and well-being of those around him, including his direct network and his regional community, depends on the health of the land, and the connections made with each other through the practice of growing and eating food. This is a concept promoted throughout many religions, from Christianity’s focus on stewardship over the environment, to Islam’s belief that we are trustees of this world, to the Buddhist message of the interconnectedness of all of our actions with the natural world.

David is part of America’s youngest adult generation, and as such, he possesses many characteristics of this generation, including an intentional distancing from the status quo, a desire to forge his own path, and a confidence in his future. But, in our conversation, I also felt that I could have been chatting with a 50 year old version of himself. I could even almost imagine what talking with a 70-something David would feel like, assuming that our present conversation would be just as engaging, but further deepened by his experience, his successes and failures, and time.

David is guided by something grander than his personal needs, and by putting his life into something bigger than himself, he moves through each day with a set of guidelines, a “calling”. At a relatively young age, he doesn’t feel the pressure to assimilate into a new personality, or to toss aside a value when put in an uncomfortable situation. Instead, in life’s challenging moments, he can reference a hero like Dorothy Day, a mentor like the one he met at Reed, or turn to broader religious teachings.

The Zen Buddhist tradition talks of the concept of “vows”. In Taking Our Places, Norman Fisher writes that as kids, we probably made vows all of the time. Vows like: ”I vow to never treat someone like that,” or “I vow to never read my future child’s diary and to respect their privacy”. These vows came out of a moment that felt intrinsically right or wrong, and as children, the vows we made seemed solid and unwavering. Unfortunately, adult life is unpredictable and messy, and if you’re anything like me, the vows you might have whispered to yourself are by now long-forgotten – and though you might think you have a moral code, it’s probably ambiguous, and thus flexible.

It was empowering and eye-opening to talk David. The difference in conversation with him compared to many other people I’ve interviewed (and I don’t mean specifically in this series, but in my collective interviews) was that David didn’t have an agenda of how he wanted to come across or points he had to make sure I understood. Equally comfortable with long silences and deep insights, he never tried to prove himself to me or impress me. Sitting across from him, I noticed how he reflected this ease, this purpose, back to myself. I imagine that the various people he works with and for – whether at Dancing Roots or the adolescents he mentors – also benefit from his unwavering openness, kindness, and reflection. Like Dorothy Day and her calling of service, David is motivated by bigger social themes, and whether he eventually becomes a full time farmer, or shifts his focus to education or social justice, he’ll do so guided by this calling, referencing his heroes that came before him.

For now, David “loves this line of work”. And whatever he eventually does as a career, he has dreams for Portland’s agricultural health and well-being. “I would love to see a higher percentage of Portland engaged in a small regional economy of grains, vegetables, dairy, and growing and saving our own seeds,” he said at the end of our conversation. “I’d like to see farms become the kind of workplace where people can earn a living wage. I’d like to see farms operated in a way where we’re free of the crutch of synthetic nitrogen, or any source of fertilizer [that’s] caught up with economic injustice elsewhere,” he concluded, sitting on a farm property with owners who believe in precisely the same things.

In honor of David’s interest in quotes that speak to the bigger picture of interconnectedness, I recently read this quote by Berry from his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”. Though written over forty years ago, its prose remains sharp and relevant, speaking to both the need to apply a level of spirituality to one’s personal life – and subsequent connection to food – along with the hope that we will free ourselves from the rigid boxes we ascribe to in our daily lives.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.