A couple of months ago, three other women and I moved approximately 2300 pounds of food waste into compost piles. By hand. And afterward, I wasn’t alone in feeling a surge of pride, strength, and self-sufficiency as a woman – as well as a sense of kinship with all the amazing women out there feeding the world.
Women are, and always have been, the givers of food. Around the world and throughout human history, they’ve usually been the ones who provide most of the food for their families – not only in cooking, but in production. Women are also intimately tied to water procurement. In regions without in-home water supply, it is women and children who usually haul water from community wells, springs, or rivers.
In the United States, our cultural conditioning teaches us that women are physically weak and delicate. Despite women doing crossfit, mixed martial arts, and marathons, the general pervasive cultural attitude is one that acts as though these women are the exception, not the rule. But this gendered way of looking at strength and endurance isn’t held up by history. All over the world, throughout human history, women have demonstrated strength and endurance – usually through demanding routines for procuring and providing the basic necessities for their families.
There is something very satisfying in the feeling of connection to this history and to all the women in the world at any given moment who are planting, harvesting, hauling water, processing and preserving food, tending animals, and (often) managing children at the same time. Composting in the heat, just us women, helped me remember our collective strength.
A short while ago, I was reassigned to the nursery and chickens. In the nursery, we water baby plants. Very baby plants get a soft misting spray. Older, adolescent plants get a rain shower. We were told that it is really important, whether watering a tree, a vegetable, or anything else, that water must be delivered slowly. A torrential downpour flattens baby plants, even uproots them. It can wash away soil. And most importantly, it doesn’t percolate properly down into the soil. Much of it runs off and is wasted.
As I slowly and methodically water plants, I meditate on slow living. Slow cooking, slow waking, slow weekends. So much of our culture’s unhealthy patterns is because we are too busy… and not just too busy, we’re too fast. We wolf down food that was cooked in minutes as we drive on the freeway. We don’t give any attention to the food we’re eating and ensuring its full nutrition is given to our bodies, and we scarcely pay mind to the beings who gave their lives and labor to nourish ours. We eat densely-calorically-packed fast food so quickly that our stomachs don’t have time to signal to our brains that we are full.
We hop out of bed in the morning to a strident alarm, often sleeping as late as possible, and rushing to get ready in the morning. People bustle from sleeping to waking, two very different brain states – rushing their children through showers and backpack-packing and lunch-packing and breakfast and into the car. We don’t pause to let our brains fully wake up, to gently process dreams and envision the day we want to have. We don’t sit quietly with a cup of tea and gaze at the sunrise, or the dew, or the opening flowers. Quick, quick, we tell ourselves – we must get to the job, clock in, and start to labor.
On the weekends, we attempt to cram most of our personal lives into two days. We clean our homes, we run our errands, we try to connect to our spouses and children and family and friends… we rush from this social event, scheduled activity, or child’s extracurricular to that one. No relaxing is allowed, life is too busy for this. There is too much living to cram in too small a window of time.
We pour activity over ourselves like turning the hose on full blast, day after day, week after week. Some of our babies and adolescents are flattened by the deluge. Some manage to cling on. We do it until our soil is eroded and we feel uprooted and unmoored and lost, deeply unsatisfied despite all our events, activities, material goods, and achievements. Our water table isn’t replenished, and we wonder why, deep down, we’re always thirsty.
Somehow, we have to resist a culture that strips us of our joy and peace, because joy and peace don’t increase our Gross Domestic Product much. We need to learn how to let our time collect and pool so that we can renew ourselves and care for others. We need to learn again how to live slowly: how to let our minutes and days trickle gently into the roots of our soul.
National and international events this year have been increasingly stressful. Unlike many people, I can’t unplug and ignore them. My job as a social scientist and educator means that I have to stay engaged, even when I find the world anxiety-producing.
The farm has been my anti-anxiety medication. I often arrive at the farm with muscle tension and a sense of stress, my mind mulling over all the issues of the world and my small place in it all. And then I pick up my pruners and harvest some squash or plant some kale and I feel better.
Gardening for food is a whole sensory experience that demands presence. It makes mindfulness easier. I don’t have to push away distracting thoughts if my mind is already engrossed in a farm task. Yet these tasks are repetitive and soothing, and so they become a form of moving meditation.
One of these days in the summer, in the height of plum production, I was having a difficult day. National news was disturbing and my own family was having some challenges as well. I went back to the orchard with my bucket to pick plums. The anxiety melted away as I reached up and stretched toward the sun, looking at the plums for the perfect color, touching their smooth taut skin to feel for ripeness. Beetles buzzed occasionally past, their hum momentarily taking over. Midmorning hunger was soothed by a bite into the perfect plum: sweet but tart, juicy, with crisp skin.
There is increasing research that suggests that soil microbes help our bodies stave off anxiety and depression. At least for more mild anxiety, the cure may lie literally in the earth. But in my experience at the farm, gardening is offering us more than just contact with soil. It’s a total sensory experience that gives us moments of being fully present and joyful. It reminds us, with just the right balance of ease and demand, to notice the earth and to be grateful for it.
The world’s stressful events, large and small, march onward. But so does the garden. I’ll keep looking for those perfect plums and in finding them, find inner peace.
Two gophers have been trapped and died since I arrived at the farm. They’re terrifically destructive little beasts. One of them took out 15 tomato plants before he succumbed to his love of peanut butter, smeared on a trap. I have uncomfortable, mixed feelings about this.
Food is the result of a cycle of life and death. Plants can manufacture their food from sunlight, soil, and water. We are not so fortunate. Our lives are the result of the death of many, many beings. Even vegans’ lives depend on the death of not only plants, but also of pests. Without control of any kind, gophers, beetles, and caterpillars would consume our crops. Even an organic farm with a respect for life has to consider how it will control its pests so it can yield food for humans.
Still, it’s uncomfortable.
It’s uncomfortable for reasons of both empathy and cognitive dissonance. As a person who is highly empathetic (and also animist, believing all living things – and even some non-living ones – have souls), I feel for the beings I eat. I can imagine their feelings, their suffering, their desire to keep living. All beings have an innate desire to keep living, and my desire to do so takes that capacity from others.
Silly or not to others, with every gopher trap, inside I am saying a little prayer to the gopher. I say I am sorry. I tell the gopher that it could live, if it would leave the farm. And I hope that if it doesn’t leave, and is trapped, that its death is swift and without suffering. A gopher’s death, or a chicken’s death, or a carrot’s death – should make us pause and reflect. We should feel a sense of the sacredness of these beings’ sacrifice for our own lives to continue. Perhaps if we felt this, we would be more insistent on farming in ways that are humane as well as sustainable. We can’t live without death. But we can treat death with the respect, sanctity, and compassion it deserves.
It is Summer Solstice, which is a holiday in my religion. But I’m a bit on the tired side (it’s been over 100 degrees, and I’ve also had a lot going on), and I have a 6 am wake-up for hydrating adequately before I arrive at the farm tomorrow. Usually, when I overwork myself, as I have so far this week – and it comes at the cost of my meditative and ceremonial time – I feel much more of a sense of inner resistance and discord. But tonight, I keep thinking – there is no need for ceremony. God is in the garden.
You see, I’m an animist and a pantheist. For me, the divine is in everything. It’s everywhere in nature. Divine wisdom is in every being, from rocks to tomato plants to bears. Divine connection is in my own heartbeat if I choose to feel its pulse resonate in the other surges in nature – the tides, the ocean waves, the drop-drop-drop of water in a dripline, the purring of my cats. All beings are miraculously and vibrantly alive and conscious for me. They are willing teachers, and I need only listen.
So, God is in the garden. And it is OK that I am tired, and instead of doing my prayers and meditations, I will go to sleep. Because in the morning, as I wind trellis string around tomato shoots, I will be attending to God. As I water newly planted pepper plants, I will be showering the green veil of God with the nourishing water of God. As I sweat in the sun as the temperature soars, I will feel the heat and fire of God, and my body will respond with its own microcosm of a whole world of cells working together in unison. And I will feel the connection to my ancestors, who farmed for thousands of years until my grandparents decided to leave the soil… before my mother, my aunt, my sister, and I started to reclaim it as our inheritance.
I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate Summer Solstice.
I lived for most of my 20s in rural or semi-rural locations. Exercise was built into my routine: shoveling snow or horse manure, carrying firewood, hiking right outside my front door, carrying hay bales – the endless tasks of keeping the household alive. I spent two years in Seattle, but I commuted on public transit. Miles of walking was built into every day. It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles that I struggled. Suddenly, I was neither in a dense, public-transit friendly environment – so walking was out – but I also wasn’t living a rural lifestyle anymore. The hours each day of low-impact, high-repetition, varied exercise that characterizes many rural lives suddenly ended and was replaced by me working on a computer 60-70 hours per week as I began my professorship. Within a few years, my sciatica flared, my neck and shoulders pinched, and my anxious stress-related energy mounted. I tried joining a gym and doing Crossfit. The result was a torn oblique abdominal muscle, frustration, and a growing realization that I hate exercising indoors and I dislike having no purpose being physical labor.
Then I came to the farm. I’ve been here a month now. And I can feel my body returning to its former state, before I moved to LA six years ago. My neck and hip pain have receded. I expend anxious energy pruning tomatoes, harvesting cauliflower, and focusing on how soil feels. I expected to feel really tired in returning to 13 hours of physical activity each week, often in heat. But I don’t. Instead, I feel buoyant and energetic. I get home and still have lots of energy to clean, tend my small but growing home garden, and write. The type of activity I’m doing is just right: it’s low-impact, it is natural and semi-repetitive motion (but not too repetitious), and it incorporates lots of different muscles. But it’s more than this: it makes sense to my brain, and it makes me happy rather than resentful or tired.
As human beings, we evolved to do physical activity in order to procure food. There is something deeply satisfying in doing so. It makes sense to us on an intuitive level. Recent studies are also pointing to increasing evidence that our mental health and our gut health are entwined, and that encountering microbes that exist in healthy soil – on our bare hands or feet – help generate a healthier GI tract and improve our mood. An organic, sustainable small farm like Sarvodaya Farms is a holistic health plan: the right kind of physical labor is expended as an input, and the farm provides returns in the form of healthy, fresh, whole food. So many of our health issues in the United States – heart disease, diabetes, depression – are linked to not sedentary lifestyles and poor quality food. A return to the garden, the small farm is just what Nature ordered: providing the right balance of exercise, sunlight, soil microbes, focused activity, and healthy whole foods to make us not only healthier, but happier.
This week, I pruned and trellised tomatoes for the third time. On one of my very first days on the farm, I learned how to remove the lower branches that touch the ground and to select one strong shoot and trim the others, so the plant can put its energy into producing more tomatoes. So far, I have a (very imperfect) experiment going: my two tomato plants at home (which are unpruned) and the farm tomato plants. The farm is winning. In one of those first days, I also learned how to use string to wrap the plant loosely and provide it with support as it grew toward the trellis.
In that very first session, I was unsure of myself. Was this a branch or a shoot? How low is too low for a branch before I prune it? Was I wrapping this plant correctly? This last week, I found myself noticing on my own when the tomatoes needed more pruning and trellising, and leaping in with doing the task. It felt gratifying to be able to complete it on my own, and I also noticed that I was less clumsy in doing it: my body was beginning to have its own memory of the task.
As this sense of knowledge – in both mind and body – washed over me, it dawned on me that farm labor is skilled labor. So often, in the justification of the exploitation of migrant farm workers and physical laborers in general, the argument is offered that it is somehow justifiable to pay them so little because they are “unskilled” labor. But this is not true. They are skilled labor. Take it from anyone who has ever tried to garden or farm: even without factoring in efficiency and overall productivity, gardening and farming involves many tasks that mobilize an array of knowledge and embodied skill. I have a doctorate degree, but it still took me a few weeks to feel like I really understood how to prune and trellis tomatoes. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of tasks on the farm I still do not understand well enough to do independently – and at which my body is still clumsy. These are skills I am just beginning to learn. We need to stop justifying low wages and poor benefits for farm workers with the argument that they are unskilled. Aside from the questionable ethics of arguing that some workers deserve to live in poverty (for any reason), the argument is a false one. It takes skill to farm, and food is the foundation of human life. It’s time we recognize and value it!
I’ve so often been told that there is no way to feed the earth’s people through organic, small-scale horticulture. How would we feed 7 billion people (or more) without the bread basket states’ monocultures? The rice paddies in China? The plantations of Central and South America? Farming is so land intensive, and there isn’t enough land for everyone… right? On Sarvodaya Farms, I am beginning to see a vision for the future that bends these commonly assumed parameters, and that vision begins in the nursery.
Using a nursery, the farm can propagate plants under ideal conditions for the first half of their lives so that most plants spend minimal time in the vegetable beds, thereby maximizing the space available for close-to-mature crops. In doing these, they manage to support produce for dozens of families on only a half-acre. Planted seeds are carefully tended in the nursery, which provides diffuse sunlight, protection from excessive heat and cold, regular fertilizing with organic materials (using seaweed and fish), and frequent efficient watering (both by hand and by misters). This womb-like space keeps the plants as protected and nourished as possible, ensuring that more of them start growing and reach an age for transplantation. In this way, the garden beds are maximized for close-to-maturity crops – but there also is minimal loss of seeds, which reduces cost.
Rishi explained that no process is perfect, however. In propagating plants this way, the selective pressures that would usually operate on the plants, causing weaker plants to fail to come to maturity, are removed. Therefore, the mature plants that result may harbor genes that are suboptimal for surviving in harsher conditions. Rishi emphasized that there must be different selective pressures on plants you save for seed than those you eat. There is an elegance to such a system that is striking to me: we can imagine many home and community-based urban farms that use small spaces and individual or collective nurseries to maximize food production, while nearby, a larger community seed farm and seed bank could ensure the maintenance of the strongest, most resilient plants. Working on Sarvodaya Farms is more than providing me with knowledge and skills I didn’t have before. It’s providing me with a vision of the future that I hadn’t thought possible. We need to dream big through dreaming small, knowing that we could be much more self-sufficient in urban areas if we use our space carefully and efficiently, keeping in mind all the goals important to farm (and ecosystem) health.
At the end of my first week at Sarvodaya Farms, I think what is most striking about my shift in myself is my heightened awareness of waste. It’s a shift in perceptual awareness, and it is uncomfortable – but necessary. At Sarvodaya Farms, almost nothing is wasted. Everything has a purpose, a way to give back to the earth and the cycle of food production and consumption. Because people are encouraged to bring reusable water bottles and dishes are provided, there are no trash bins filled with disposable cups, forks, or food containers. People bring their plastic containers that held tomatoes or small cucumbers from the store to house microgreens and berries on the farm. Used egg cartons are reused for new eggs. Unlike the other CSAs I’ve been a part of, produce is stored in reusable plastic bins. To keep the produce fresh, moist beach towels shade them from the summer sun, rather than paper towels. Vegetable waste is composted. Everything feeds back into life.
I am finding a deep sense of peace in this when I am at the farm. It appeals to my minimalism, my earth-centric spirituality. There is a beauty to it: the plywood bins of green waste, the neat stacks of plastic bins and egg cartons, the little lessons about how to use parts of vegetables I hadn’t known were good for anything. It feels good not to waste. It feels respectful toward all the lives that are involved in the process of my living another day. It also appeals to my sense of efficiency.
Now, I think what is striking to me is that I already knew this. I’ve taught sustainability classes, and yet it was extremely difficult for me to shift my everyday lived perceptions and actions. In one week at Sarvodaya Farms, this is rapidly changing for me. I am spending time in an environment in which waste is planned for such that it is no longer waste – but rather an input. If it can’t be an input, it is creatively worked around such that it doesn’t need to exist at all. There is no substitute, at least for me, in the process of being in such a place, seeing it work, helping it work.
It is causing me to rethink waste in my household – not from a theoretical or intellectual space, but directly as the waste occurs, because I notice it, and it makes me uncomfortable. When I would have thrown out the decaying celery, I find that with some processing, half of it can be salvaged. The other half bothers me as I throw it away. I need to figure out a way to compost at my house in a very space-efficient manner. When I look at take-out containers from a restaurant, I realize that this could be circumvented if I simply brought my own glass food storage with me. We already have a large system of reusable spill-proof glass containers. Why don’t I take one or two with me when we dine out for the inevitable leftovers? I realize that the yard waste filling my bin each week – most of it leaves from my large, historic live oak – would be great high-carbon material for compost. And what’s amazing me is that, though it all adds up to a substantial shift toward zero waste, it’s not hard or time-consuming. It just requires an extra minute or two and some creativity.
Waste doesn’t need to be waste. Waste could be thought of as an opportunity: either the item is an input, and we haven’t recognized it, or the item isn’t necessary. All I know is that at my house, one major summer project will be starting compost. I can’t bear to throw out any more inedible vegetable bits. They’re practically screaming at me to have a second life in the soil, in the land. It’s up to me to honor this shift in my ability to hear that call.