Since starting the farming program I’ve started looking at things differently. The produce in the grocery store are not just healthy food sources but living, breathing plants tended to by the (hopefully) caring hand of a farmer somewhere. The manicured lawns in my neighborhood bring visions of plant beds and moist, fluffy soil. Every patch of green is just a farm waiting to happen.
When I was writing my application for the Farmer-in-Training program I wrote about my desire to help build infrastructure for communities to increase food sovereignty, sustainability, and cooperative living. I’ve often joked to Rishi that I’m a nomad, without a stable housing situation to make my personal farm dreams happen at the moment. But I am happy to report that I am making good on my commitment to take my farming skills into my community!
My friends have just moved into a new home in Mount Washington and I am helping them set up their garden and compost system. The biggest challenge is their house is on a lot of land that is entirely paved over. We decided to try and build a two feet deep wooden box along the perimeter of the fence with a trellis behind it. Then there’s the problem of drainage: how do we make sure that the water doesn’t get trapped at the bottom causing all sorts of yucky anaerobic respiration? Rishi recommended that we put gaps in the bottom of the wooden box, and then have a layer of gravel to make sure the soil doesn’t get washed away.
Here’s a quick link I found for how to build your own planter box on concrete: https://verdancedesign.blogspot.com/2009/03/q-planter-boxes-on-concrete.html
Meanwhile I’m getting started on setting up their compost system and paying close attention to which vegetables we’re starting to plant for the spring. Excited to share the progress of this project with everyone!
Between the tweetstorm surrounding Nordstroms pulling Ivanka’s line and the viral campaign to leave Uber during protests at airports over the Muslim Ban, consumer activism has come into the spotlight as a powerful tool for people to express their views on various issues. In some ways, when people commit to buying organic foods or advocate for labeling of GMO produce, it is part of a larger movement toward conscious consumerism. By subscribing to a CSA for example, we help support local farmers and their organic farming practices, while not giving our money to large corporations that pollute the environment and push out family farms.
Last week I questioned whether or not this type of consumer consciousness is something that is accessible to everyone – whether it’s accessibility of information as to which products are deemed ethical or not, or whether the pricing was accessible to your average everyday consumer. As I’ve thought more about this topic I also wonder about the viability of this tactic in terms of its effectiveness in changing how our food is grown and consumed across the world. While there are many reasons to buy organic foods (more nutritious for my body, I can feel better about supporting businesses I believe in), it doesn’t ultimately do much to stop large-scale factory farms from continuing their harmful farming and corporate practices. This is the ultimate pitfall to conceptualizing the solution as a matter of individual choice.
During our check-ins this week people discussed a lot of the ways that they think they can make change happens, whether it was conversations with their loved ones or discussions happening in the workplace. Many people were of the opinion that you can only change yourself and hope that others follow suit, or that there were some people who might be stuck in a certain mindset and could not be persuaded by logic or reason.
As an organizer, I have a different take on how social and political change happens. I think if we want to see a true revolution in terms of how we produce, distribute, and consume food we have to tackle the structural problems that empower corporations to wreak havoc on ecological systems and contribute to rising inequality. In community organizing we acknowledge the limits of what one person can do, and the possibilities of what can happen when we bring people together to build a better, healthier, more sustainable world. I am hoping that as a farmer I can not only educate people on how they can make better decisions for themselves, but work with other farmers, environmentalists, and consumers to help shape better systems to keep these large corporations in check.
Organic foods have always seemed like luxury items to me. Throughout all the years I was a student I would buy the cheapest produce at the local grocery store, trying to find ways to eat a healthy well-balanced diet while scrounging up every last penny I had (I ate a lot of bananas, curry, and natto!). After I started working full-time I began buying more organic produce. More than any great attentiveness to the food I eat, this was based on a conscious consumerism, trying to support businesses that were making steps toward being ethically produced and environmentally friendly.
Before Elinor’s lecture last Friday, I had only this narrow perspective on the importance of organic foods. I had noticed during our meals that I had gotten full much faster than I normally do, and even when I wanted to power through and keep eating, I had completely lost my appetite. When Elinor brought up the tables comparing the nutritional content of conventionally grown vs organic foods it was like being hit with a lightning bolt. Organic tomatoes have 500 times more nutrients than conventionally grown tomatoes? Lettuce has TWO THOUSAND times more?? As Elinor explained, when your body is still craving certain vitamins and minerals it will encourage you to keep eating, which oftentimes means consuming empty carbohydrates.
On top of that, these foods that we consume on a daily basis are sprayed terrifyingly wide array of chemicals with little known side effects. I was taken aback by the possible connections between consuming these many different chemicals and the increasing rise of allergies, gluten sensitivities, and obesity (I shudder thinking about all the unwashed apples I’ve eaten in my lifetime). What if my digestive disorder is also a result of ingesting pesticides? The fact that there is so little research into these possible connections is very disquieting.
So, Elinor won me over. Organic foods are not just an ethical choice, but probably linked to a wide variety of public health problems. But what about the issue of accessibility? Navigating our food choices might not just be costly, but it can also be confusing parsing through all the competing messages and labels that are present in our supermarkets. All-natural versus non-GMO, versus Organic, versus Locally Farmed – sometimes it feels like you need a degree just to fill up your shopping cart! After the lecture, many of the interns were approaching Elinor asking, where do you buy your meat? Where do you buy your coconut oil? Thankfully for us, Elinor is a fountain of knowledge about organic foods. But how do we make this information accessible to folks everywhere? How do we break down the many barriers that stand in the way of people’s ability to live healthy lives?
As advocates of organic farming and organic produce, it’s clear that we will have to do more than just increase awareness of the dangers of modern day agricultural practices. We will need to push for systemic change that relieves the burden on the individual, and instead strives for new regulatory and economic structures that support sustainability and human health over corporate profit. Organic foods can’t remain a luxury for the few, but must be attainable for the many. Because if it isn’t accessible to the poor, it isn’t radical.
I missed a couple days this week at the farm because I came down with a bad cold. So instead I have been reading up on One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka. It has been kind of a surreal experience for me to read at this juncture of my life. At the age of 25, Fukuoka, who was working as a scientist, has a crisis about his work and quits his job abruptly and begins to work on a farm. It was only a couple months ago when Donald Trump got elected that I, just on the brink of turning 25, also had a crisis, quit my job working in science, and decided to try my hand at being a farmer! Spooky.
It was also refreshing for me to read an account of organic farming that was connected to my cultural heritage, and many of the images of rice fields and the Japanese countryside brought back nostalgic memories of the year I spent living in Shiga teaching English. He also has many of the same qualms and criticisms of science that I’ve been exploring through Free Radicals. Basically, this book is falling into my lap at the exact right time.
But the part of the book that I’ve found the most empowering is his take on environmental justice. Fukuoka points out that a lot of our approach to ‘environmentalism’ is about trying to consume less. Drive less, buy less, waste less. All of those things are important strategies for fighting climate change, but I often find that they sometimes require the luxury of time and money to undertake. Personally, I find myself in a spiral of guilt every time I throw away some rotten veggies or fill up my gas tank. And on a broader political scale, it’s unfair to ask poor folks to commit their already scarce resources to buying pricier locally sourced organic produce.
Through Fukuoka, and what we get to do at Sarvodaya Farms, is a different approach. Instead of trying to take less from the Earth, we have the power to help regenerate the land. We can improve the soil and air quality, create habitats for wildlife, and provide healthy foods for our communities! Rather than trying to make as small a ‘footprint’ as possible, we all have the power to positively contribute to ecological revitalization.
Now, whenever I see a friend’s yard, or a little patch of grass, I see its untapped potential to be a site for ecological renewal. I lament the challenges of living in Los Angeles, confined to a concrete sprawlscape. But I’m hopeful that in the future I can have my own little plot of land, and I can do a small part in helping repair the Earth, one straw at a time.
I have long had a contentious relationship with food. A couple of months after I began college, I started vomiting regularly. My regular bouts of nausea made it difficult for me to eat, and I began to feel weak and malnourished. After many tortured nights on WebMD with a wastebasket situated securely within reach, I was finally diagnosed with gastroparesis.
Like many other chronic diseases of our modern era, gastroparesis is a disorder whose prevalence has been increasing over time. Gastroparesis is a disease in which you have a slowed digestive system, making it difficult to digest food. My gastroenterologist, as is typical with the medical profession, wanted to treat me with pharmaceuticals. When my mother asked, “but what about dietary changes?”, he simply waved her concerns away insisting, “just take the medication and you’ll be fine.”
While the medication did help me stabilize my digestion in the short-term (I had lost a significant amount of weight during this time), I was determined to figure out a lifestyle that would work for me and my body. After much trial and error, and developing a much keener awareness of my body’s reactions to various foods, I came to realize that I couldn’t just think of my body in an isolated way. Improving my digestive health meant more than just eating well, but also exercising and managing my mental health. I began to see my body and health less as individual isolated organs, and more of an interconnected ecosystem, each with an important contribution to the whole.
Now in the first week of Eleanor’s nutrition class, I feel like I am making another step on a long journey to understanding the relationship between my body, the food I eat, and now the conditions which we grow it in. In this ever expanding web of interconnections, I am beginning to understand that we cannot separate the ideas of our personal health and environmental health.
Although I had always understood that the farmer plays an indispensable role in helping their communities survive and thrive, I was struck by Eleanor’s insight that in some ways we are also fulfilling the roles of doctors and psychologists, in keeping each other healthy through nutritious food. From the increased nutritional content of pasture raised eggs to the ‘happy signals’ sent by Lactobacillus, a microbe that grows on fermented vegetables, it’s clear that our human health is not limited to our own bodies, but everything we are connected to in our vast ecological web. And it’s hard for me to wonder that if it were not for the industrial practices of modern capitalism, the sacrifices and shortcuts we make to our food in the name of efficiency and profit, if I would have been afflicted by gastroparesis at all. And as ‘advanced’ of a society as we think of ourselves, often it was our ancestors who understood better of how to care for themselves, each other, and the Earth around them. And now I can situate my training as a farmer as more as just a grower of food, but also as someone with the power to heal and uplift the ones I feed.
My family has always joked about having black thumbs. Whenever we tried to plant anything in the rocky Connecticut soil, it would either quickly wither or fall victim to a deer’s appetite. So convinced was I of our family’s cursed botanical skills that I steered far away from anything plant-like, afraid to even purchase a cactus or terrarium for fear of being responsible for taking another life.
I certainly never would have predicted I’d become a farmer.
Where to begin? I’ve always had a natural curiosity about the world, wanting to understand the mechanisms behind how things work and why things were the way they are. I was fascinated by the human mind, and the squishy organic matter in our skulls that orchestrated our human experience. Having a younger brother with mental disabilities heightened the stakes of my knowledge quest; I thought my neuroscience degree would give me the keys to untangle the interlocking neurons and neurotransmitters that dictated my brother’s erratic behavior.
Although I still encountered moments of falling under the magic of science’s revelations, more often than not I was listless in lab, breaking glassware in my organic chemistry experiments or accidentally euthanizing fruit flies. I simply couldn’t muster the pretense that I cared about the percent yield of my chemical reaction or the anatomy of a sheep’s brain. They were all abstracted facts that had no bearing on the way I lived my life or fundamentally understood the world around me. I saw laid before me an arduous path in academia, investing years of schooling (and lab time!) developing expertise in increasingly specific and esoteric topics. Not only was this life not well suited for my action-oriented personality, but I felt that studying the brain in such intense isolation ultimately limited a comprehensive understanding of the human mind.
Many people in college did not even know that I was a neuroscience major – instead they assumed that I studied Asian American studies as I was most known on campus for my work in our college’s Asian American community. It was in social activism and community engagement that I could situate my experiences into broad theoretical frameworks, and then use that understanding into work that benefitted communities I cared about. During my time as a student I tutored local Pacific Islander students, organized an arts and activism program for youth in Chinatown, and coordinated campus events to raise awareness of Asian American issues. But my academic and social justice work remained in mostly separate realms.
After I graduated I mulled over this internal dissonance, one that I had seen many of my friends fall victim to as they felt forced to choose between science or social justice. If the personal is political, if our media is political, if our food is political, then surely our science must also be political? It was with this inkling that I co-founded Free Radicals in 2015.
Free Radicals began as a small group of four of my friends, reading critical studies of science and exploring the role of imperialism, race, and gender in shaping the institutions of science we are familiar with today. We condemned the inaccessibility of science, the billions of dollars funneled into research for the purpose of warfare, the dismissal of alternative systems of knowledge production. We envisioned a science that was centered around community needs and imagined that each and every one of us could be a scientist contributing to a global knowledge project. With this in mind we launched a blog, hoping to educate people on our newfound ideas and engage likeminded people around the world.
But always I asked myself what our vision of science would look like in practice. What was a liberatory way of understanding the world, one that was accessible, one that honored all of our interconnections? What type of science could be grounded in social justice, yielding tangible resources for our communities?
That’s how I came to farming. Some of our first scientists were farmers, carefully observing and experimenting with nature until they developed many of the crops that we eat today. It is on the farm that I am always learning in our living laboratory, experiencing nature in its full context rather than trying to divide and conquer its separate parts. I feel empowered by the possibilities of applying this knowledge – not into journal articles only accessible by the academic elite – but into new ways of living that enrich the earth, our communities, and ourselves.
And hopefully by the end I can leave with two green thumbs.