The global food system is a house of cards. Here’s how to fix it.
May 18, 2010
Temra Costa is a sustainable food and farming advocate and author of Farmer Jane: Women Changing the Way We Eat. Civil Eats will feature her profiles of some of America’s women farmers and food advocates over the coming weeks.
Molly Rockamann (pictured: Karen, Molly, Vicki, Danielle) will forever be remembered as the apprentice at UC Santa Cruz’s Farm and Garden Program that made “Farm Grease, The Musical,” happen. This 28 year-old farmer grew up playing in the racks of her grandmother’s costume shop and with a family that made variety shows a priority at nearly all functions. So it’s not surprising that Molly continues to weave art, dance, and music into her farm in Ferguson, Missouri.
EarthDance FARMS (Food, Art, Relationships & Music…Sustainably) is a 14-acre gem that started growing food for the farmers market of Ferguson in 2008. It expands a little each year both in number of farmers and in food produced. The apprenticeship style of learning and teaching is something that Molly brought home from her travels. The program has more than doubled in its second year – from twelve to 30 – with support of the Missouri Department of Agriculture. (The state applies for Specialty Crop money from the USDA and redistributes to local organizations.) A unique attribute of the EarthDance apprenticeship program as they are open to any age. This year’s group ranges from fifteen to 65. They also just started their first foray into CSA growing their program by starting with the apprentices. For the 2011 growing season, they’re planning to start with 75 people.
When I traveled to St. Louis as a speaker for the Livable St. Louis Conference, I contacted Molly to see if she had time to tour me around on that particular weekend. Her name had come up repeatedly over the past two years as I researched women for Farmer Jane and she just so happened to be hosting a farm fundraiser that weekend. So we partnered up on the event where I would speak and sell books (with proceeds going to the farm), and she in turn would host me for two night while showing me around Ferguson and her farm project. When you’re moving in the right direction, everything lines up.
Ninety-year old Caroline Mueller still lives on the property that has been in her husband Al’s family all those years farming it as nature had intended, without chemicals. When chemicals came on the market in the 40’s, Al’s father pressured him to adopt the latest farm-based technology. But as soon as he tried them, he had health problems that he attributed to the chemicals and he swore them off of the farm forever. The farm started with 200 acres and has slowly shrunk down to fourteen and has slowly been encroached upon by suburban houses with huge grass lawns, bumping stereos, and people sitting on porches. If you blinked, you would pass by it without even seeing the sign that says: Mueller Organic Farm – Established 1883 – Health begins in the soil. The day Molly and I visited the farm there were apprentices working on weeding and irrigation and I had the chance to meet her farm manager Vicki that works on the farm part-time and as a yoga instructor the rest of the time.
When I asked to interview her, Molly says, “It’s not just me!” She explains that she couldn’t do it without Vicki, her farm manager, and the apprentices that work the rows, weed, plan, and plant. Now that Vicki has come on board, Molly spends more time responding to public inquiries, and grant writing and reporting, but still does the Ferguson farmers market every week (when in season). While we picked a bed, I picked her brain about where she came from, what it’s like to be a 28 year-old farmer, and be living her dream.
TC: So Molly, did you grow up on a farm? Why so much interest in farming?
MR: I grew up in a small neighborhood in West St. Louis County, aka the suburbs. We planted tomatoes in the backyard a few summers, and in high school my parents succumbed to my whim and a family friend brought over his tiller to help me till up a sizable plot for me to grow other veggies (which quickly became an entangled jungle because I knew virtually nothing about gardening). My grandparents had a large backyard vegetable garden and I still remember the monstrous size of their cantaloupes and cauliflower. My interest in farming started with my interest in nutrition and my love for nature. I majored in environmental studies in college but chose a lot of international relations and anthropology courses as electives. After taking a course on “Hunger, Plenty, & Justice” I came to realize that food and farming were at the intersection of everything I was passionate about – social justice, nutrition, environment, education, cultural traditions. I also became a member of a CSA in college and knew that one day I’d work on an organic farm. While I worked in a few gardens and read all I could, it wasn’t until 2005 when I did the UCSC apprenticeship program that I actually immersed myself in farming. I’ve been hooked on soil ever since.
TC: You told me a story of two of your first food heroines, Anna and Frankie Lappé, two outstanding women. What is your opinion about the role of women in changing how our country eats and farms?
MR: I’ve found that women are natural collaborators; the sustainable food and farming movement would not be where it is today without a lot of collaboration. Women are also innate nurturers – we take care of our families and often show our love through food – cooking and preparing meals. We make a lot of the household decisions and have a huge impact on what items move off the shelves at the grocery stores. As decision makers and as food providers we have changed the commerce of food and have told the food industry that we want more organic food on the shelves. The role I would like to see more of us women step into now is working for political change on behalf of good food. We have lots of women in the movement working for nonprofits and running farms that are changing our country’s foodscape – this is excellent – but we still need more women in political offices legislating change. We need more Kathleen Merrigan’s in Washington!
TC: Twenty-five of your thirty apprentices are women. Why do you think this is?
MR: Again, women are natural collaborators. I think the cooperative working situation we’ve set up appeals to a lot of women. Men might be more inclined to just go and start their own farms, learning on their own as they go. Of course I’m making gross generalizations though! The five men in our program are certainly collaborators too. It is an interesting trend though… last year 9 of our 12 apprentices were women! Also, the apprentices in our program are in it for a wide variety of reasons – many are wanting to start their own commercial operations, but there are just as many who are wanting to start school gardens, community gardens, and/or become urban homesteaders.
TC: I’m glad we were able to go out dancing one night to see EarthDance in action. After seeing your moves on the dance floor, I have to wonder how you became such a great dancer?!
MR: Ha ha! Thanks. Dancing is my favorite thing to do…although hula hooping is a close second. I took dance classes as a child but stopped when I was about ten to play team sports. If I’d continued I think I would have loved it so much that I may have become a professional dancer. Now, I get to engage in the very fun alternative: being an unprofessional dancer. When I studied in Ghana as a college junior, part of the draw for me was taking West African dance classes. Then when I was living in Fiji in 2004, I joined the Cook Island Dance Troupe since I was living with some ‘Cookies’ and wanted to learn how to shake it like they could. Actually, dance is something I really want to include in our organization’s programs eventually. (You may have noticed it’s in the name of our organization.) Our mantra is celebrating the culture in agriculture. Food, art, and music are three things that help to define a group of people; they’re at the very essence of our human cultures. While traveling I developed a deep appreciation for food, art, and music in other parts of the world, and realized that art and music are as embedded into many agrarian lifestyles as farming itself.
TC: Fun! Almost all of the women in my book have had an international traveling experience that changed their life focus. I can definitely see that traveling impacted you too. So what are your plans now that you’re rooted close to where you grew up?
MR: We want to incorporate dance into our programs, I have dreams of our farm (and other farms) being not only a center of food production but also of art and music production. We’ve started to show our artistic side in small ways, like doing a community mural painting to install on the farm, and hosting a small outdoor concert there. Eventually I’d like to create an artist-in-residence and musician-in-residence program, where in exchange for living on the farm (and eating our veggies) they’d host free workshops for the youth in the neighborhood and contribute a lasting piece of art to the farmscape. I’d also love to re-construct an old barn on the property and use the space to host concerts, workshops, and barn dances! Once we’ve really built a solid foundation for the organization in Ferguson, where we’re currently farming and running an apprenticeship program, I want to help start organic farming training centers/cultural celebration centers in other parts of the world. I’ve worked with farmers in Ghana, Thailand, and Fiji and would love to go back and see if they’d want to partner on such a project.
TC: The farm you’re on has been organic since the late 1800s, which is amazing. How much “land security” do you have on your fourteen (14) acres? What if you had to move?
MR: Virtually none. We have a single year lease and this is really our greatest obstacle right now. The farm we’re growing on has been in production since 1883, and the third generation, Al & Caroline Mueller, do not have any children to pass the farm onto. Caroline, who is 90, still lives on the property today and is a great inspiration to me. When her husband Al passed away in 1999, she started renting out the land by the acre. When my dad took me to visit the farm in high school (when Al was still living) I remember thinking that one day I’d like to work on their farm. When I returned to St. Louis in 2007, I met one of the tenant farmers, John Wilkerson, and after helping him out during my lunch breaks from my office job, I decided I wanted to do whatever I could to keep this particular farm preserved. Thus began EarthDance – where we are growing a community of farmers who are learning the very skills that Al & Caroline spent their entire lives practicing.
My goal with EarthDance is to preserve that agricultural legacy, but unfortunately we haven’t been able to convince Caroline and her family to give us a multi-year lease. They want to be able to sell the farm should someone walk up and give them ‘a suitcase full of money.’ One of the things I love about Caroline is that she never farmed to be trendy. To her it was a hard life and she doesn’t wax poetic about the beauty of farm life. The unfortunate side of this is that she hasn’t been receptive to our plea of preserving the farm. We’re still working on that. Our security has had to grow from our community, since we have no land security. If we had to move hopefully we would be able to find another ideal spot to grow not only food but also more farmers. But I’d sure hate to leave that good soil that Al and Caroline spent their lives building up.
TC: Anything else you’d like to share with folks?
MR: Yes – spend time with your elders. This may sound completely unrelated, but I think they can be our best teachers when it comes to food and farming. What I would give to be able to ask Al Mueller all my farming questions! (I do ask Caroline, but her mind has slipped.) And oh man, if I’d just spent more time in the kitchen with my Grandma Marie learning how to make her pie crust! You want to can, preserve, pickle? You want to know what’s eating your broccoli leaves in the garden? Find an elderly neighbor who would love to tell you all about it. (They’ll probably wonder why you’re asking though; it was so easy and run-of-the-mill back in the day!)
Caroline is still in the house and so on our way out we stop by and check out some of Al’s old crop records that he used to write every night while listening to music. Fuel, seeds, equipment, it’s all there to the penny since the early 1900s. One line makes me laugh out loud as he had jotted down notes about his seasonal pickers, “good picker but eats berries.” We ask Caroline what will happen to the books and she says that she doesn’t care. It’s all going to stay in the house for people to deal with when she’s gone.
Pulling out of the driveway, Molly points out the other side of the sign that announces Mueller Farm. The side that faces into the farm. It reads: Thank you for being a connoisseur of fine foods. Molly marvels that Al thought of that phrase in the early 1900s – a phrase that means that the people who were eating their organically grown food would have to appreciate the flavor, the homegrown taste. We head over to the church for the screening, organic popcorn, Farmer Jane books, live music, and beer. After the movie it was my turn to take the stage. I talked about soil, the amazing activists in it, and all of the great work community members were doing right there in the St. Louis region. After I spoke, a community open mic spontaneously happened. Molly, an intuitive, open-hearted leader, wanted to give some room for others to share what they were doing. She steps away from the mic and resident after resident took the stage to talk about what they are doing for food in the community. One thirteen year-old gets up and beams about the garden that he and his mother just planted. There is hope in youth, and community, and in food and art. And at age 28, Molly Rockaman is demonstrating a level of leadership that excels that of people who are twice her age, by her commitment of living her dream.
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