By Lucy Garrison and Chaw Chang, Stick and Stone Farm
Photos by Heather Ainsworth
It seems as if the world is being pulled apart at the seams, by the virus, by jolting reminders of racial injustice, and by the threat of climate change. Like most folks, we have struggled to see how we fit in and where we can help. As farmers, our natural inclination is to farm more.
As we do annually, we planned out our farm in January but with each new advance of the coronavirus and with the renewed attention to the extinguishing of black lives, an urgency grew to put more plants into the ground. Our community needed to be fed and we wanted to feed as many as we could to maintain the strength of our community. At the same time, we are rethinking how our food might best be distributed, and how to do so equitably. This may not be the most effective way of making the world a better place, but it’s the thing we know how to do.
At first, our decisions were small and perhaps unconscious. We rounded up the number of plug flats that we planned on planting. Next, we increased the number of flats by 20%. Four beds of kale ended up being six. Six beds of summer squash became nine. While our crop plan called for three acres of winter squash we “accidentally” ended up planting six acres. We took on 10 additional acres of rented land and promptly cover cropped it to prepare for more beets, kale, cabbage and collards this fall.
Planting more acreage means a lot more work and sweat. Who will help us tend these crops? Over the last few years we have struggled to deal with how and where we get and manage the labor for our farm. As is the national trend, we have increasingly relied on migrant farmworkers for portions of our labor. We have done so with some mixed feelings. It is uncomfortable for us to think that our community cannot feed itself without help from the outside. But the migrant workers we’ve hired have been eager to do the work; work they have grown up doing in their home communities, and with much more experience than the many local people that want to find out what it’s like to farm.
It has brought a greater perspective and joy to our farm as our local workers work side by side with workers from far away, sharing new ideas, languages, foods, and standards. We feel some reassurance knowing that the income these migrant workers receive enriches not just their lives but others in their home communities. At the same time, we know that the immigration policies of today are inherently racist, deliberately preventing these workers from establishing permanent residency in this country.
Our society has steadily been moving towards the belief that farm work, indeed any manual labor, is both unskilled and demeaning. This has been considered progress by some. The result is that we now import most of such labor, either in the form of products through the global supply chain, or directly as people coming on foreign labor work contracts. Either way, neither the product nor the people are well understood or highly valued by the majority of Americans.
The disconnect from this kind of labor is making people feel vulnerable as we come to realize how essential such labor is. For us, our reaction is to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.
It appears that this sentiment is not uncommon. The food supply disruptions created a shockwave awakening us all to something we knew all along: ultimately food comes from farms, gardens, and nature… not supermarkets. Our CSA shares sold out in record time, we get constant calls for gardening advice and resources, and an unusually high number of people are inquiring about working on the farm.
It has been surprising to see how many people feel they are up for a job they have no experience in, and what they feel makes them qualified. The most important attributes we look for in farmworkers are common sense, critical thinking, and experience in other “manual labor” jobs. This work requires hard, repetitive physical labor in all kinds of weather. It requires flexible thinking, endurance, a petite ego, the ability to observe and listen, and a well-developed sense of humor.
All important, and essential, skills for these times.
Lucy Garrison and Chaw Chang own Stick and Stone Farm, a 40 acre certified organic vegetable farm in Ithaca, NY. They are members of the Full Plate Farm CSA which has a summer and winter program.
Heather Ainsworth is a regular contributor to a myriad of publications and serves as chair of the National Press Photographers Association’s NY/Int’l region.