Five years ago, living amid the concrete congestion of New York City, I was inspired to become an organic farmer. This surprised some of my colleagues and friends, as I was raised in the suburbs and had lived in major cities for most of my adult life. Until recently, I had never met a farmer or spent any time on a farm. And yet, a small seed inside of me was struggling to make a greater impact in my work and attain a deeper connection to the earth. Over the past decade, I began to grow food, and later, to work the land, because once I started, it felt rewarding and essential to saving the planet. For me, organic farming is the intersection of environmental stewardship, political action and health consciousness. It is about protecting valuable farm land and the ecosystems that surround it and it’s about creating sustainable communities and real food security by knowing who grows your food and how it’s grown. And, on a deeply personal level, it became the most beautiful, rooted natural experience in my life.
In 2004, I volunteered through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) at two organic farms in Costa Rica and in Nicaragua. Later, while living in Manhattan, I volunteered at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, in Pocantico Hills, a short distance from mid-town. For seven months, I would take the subway to a train and then bike to the farm several times a week. And on the other days, I worked in an office in the heart of Times Square. One situation paid for the other and it was the beginning of my secret split life: part-time media gal, part-time farmer. Very quickly, the farm became my salve and the only way I could survive the city. The plants commanded my presence, and I heeded their call. I decided to work hard, save money and take the year off to find out what it all meant.
In March, I left for Washington to be part of one of the largest and oldest organic farms in the state, Helsing Junction Farm—forty acres of rich chocolate-cake soil nestled between crystalline rivers and verdant emerald valleys. One day, as the crew and I spent hours packing the week’s harvest into card, Jessica, our farm manager’s oldest child, asked me why I wanted to do this kind of work. “This is the real work that keeps us all alive,” I told her, only then realizing my own reasons for wanting to be part of this world. She smiled as the crew nodded in agreement. The season there changed my life forever and I learned what farming really means: the long hours of physical labor that it takes to grow organic food; the true commitment of our country’s real heroes—the hundreds of thousands of farmers and migrant workers without whom we would have no food; and the importance of community in recognizing, supporting and valuing this work.
I also learned firsthand the importance of community food systems. Working with the local Gleaners’ Coalition, we harvested thousands of pounds of food from our fields for hundreds of low-income residents who otherwise would not have had access to fresh produce. We planted extra crops and asked the 800 members of our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to match our contribution, so that every week we could deliver 10 extra boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables to local food shelters. We sold our produce to local schools at a discounted rate, so that each child could have at least one piece of fresh fruit a day. And, in between planting, tending to and harvesting over 100 crops, I led educational tours for local schools and the Boys and Girls Club. Our goal was to educate children about organic farming methods, instill in them a sense of natural wonder and, hopefully, life-long healthy eating habits. Most of the children had never seen how food grows. The highlight of the summer for me was witnessing the incredible transformation from disinterest (or disgust!) to utter joy as they helped harvest carrots and fought over digging up potatoes.
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And then, the seed that had been growing in me found itself an old patch of dirt. My background in law and media and my deep passion for sustainable agriculture seemed to merge at a pivotal time of consumer interest in organic food. The weekly newsletters I wrote for the CSA were as much about food security and tainted spinach, as a crop report on our corn and tomatoes. I decided that my seemingly conflicting urban professional and rural farming experiences were not at all at odds. In fact, I discovered that by applying my legal and media skills to use in the world of sustainable agriculture, I wanted to help shape the national policy of our food systems. I began volunteering and working with organizations whose work I most respected: the National Family Farm Coalition, the California Coalition for Food and Farming, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.
My summer at the farm still lingers within me, as I search for the next planting opportunity. Whether part of the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden we helped bring about in San Francisco over the summer, or the urban gardens and rooftop gardens of friends and colleagues, I am rooting for the next opportunity to green the world and continue to contribute to the growing sustainable food movement.
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Naomi Starkman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Civil Eats. She was a 2016 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford and co-founded the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Naomi has worked as a media consultant at Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, WIRED, and Consumer Reports magazines. After graduating from law school, she served as the Deputy Executive Director of the City of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Naomi is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms. Read more >
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