The following speech was delivered by New England Farmers Union member Tess Lavoie-Brown at NFU’s 110th Anniversary Convention in La Vista, Neb.
Thanks to folks at the National Farmers Union for inviting me to speak. I am a new voice, and it takes enormous confidence for them to bring me here. I say I am new, and I am. In many ways. I am new to farming, new to the Farmers Union, and new to agricultural discourse. This is only my fourth year working on the land, and my second owning a small farm operation. I grew up in a large town bordering Boston, and my parents are schoolteachers. When I was little, my experiences with agriculture were limited to trips to apple orchards in the country, and the farm stands we visited on the way home. I went to petting zoos, and planted tulips in the strip of soil between my house and the sidewalk. But mine was not a farm family. Even the title “beginning farmer” is one that feels almost too proud. I cultivate less than an acre, and I can’t remember when I chose this vocation in earnest. Maybe when I registered for my last library card, and filled in the occupation as farmer. Even after that great and affirming victory, I address you with the humility of a greenhorn, and the joy of person who found a life that she believes in, in a place she didn’t expect: the land.
I grow food in vacant lots in the city of Providence, R.I. One of the lots that comprises Sidewalk Ends Farm was filled with lead soil as recently as last March, and my sisters and I excavated it, and brought in clean compost. As the act of importing soil to grow good food suggests, the life of a city farmer is one filled with incongruity; my roommates work at schools and non-profits, and in mid-season I have the dirtiest knees and messiest hair of anyone in the post-office, library or bar. The other farmers in the Little City Growers Co-op—the 8-year-old urban/suburban co-op under whose banner I sell produce at market and to Providence restaurants— are the only ones who look like me as they sneak in the back doors of the fanciest restaurants in their Carhartts, carrying sacks of green beans, herbs, and watermelons. Neighbors see me ride past on my bike with a pitchfork on the handlebars and trailing a cart filled with tomato starts. My family didn’t see this coming for me, and neither did I, so when aunts and uncles ask what’s next at our Thanksgiving dinner, it’s hard to explain to them what this life means.
What I should tell them is that I learned to love this country through farming. I grew up with what I think is a typical American cynicism in a post-9-11 world. When my seventh grade class was learning about civics, it seemed that the Founding Fathers’ ideals were obscured by the degradation of the environment, the moral opacity I saw in my government, and what looked to me less like cultural diversity then cultural confusion and discordance. So in this cynical time, the question of patriotism was a difficult one to answer. Ultimately, I found it not in the Constitution, or our nation’s political ideals, but in the land itself. I learned to love this country on the farm. I learned to love this country as I dug my shovel into its dark earth. I sewed seeds into my country, and harvested the abundances that grew from it. My stewardship of land is my greatest act of patriotism.
I learned to love my city by digging into it too. My vacant lot farm produced lead poisoned weeds before last season, but I love my city so much that I excavated the contaminated soil, and brought in compost, and now my neighbors eat tomatoes grown in their backyards. My city isn’t always lovable. It is dirty, and my neighborhood is peppered with abandoned houses, sometimes with their contents pouring out the door as if blown by a powerful wind: mattresses, broken shelves, and clothing littering the front step and the street. The “for sale” sign in a vacant lot can read like a dark joke, and investing in this space is crazy, or it sometimes feels that way. But it is also a crucial labor of love. In occupying unwanted city land, and cleaning, and planting it, we have shown our neighbors what it means to us to love our city. It means making it beautiful, productive, and alive.
I especially love my farm, even though it is small, and used to have poisonous soil. Still I love the land, this land, as ardently as one who calls herself a patriot. I have given to the ground, and it gives back. I depend on its fertility, and so I put down roots and invest. I love my tools so I keep them clean. I love my seeds so I keep them dry. I love my sisters, so we keep each other well fed and strong. Farming is a vocation of care, and from it is born an expansive love: for my country, for New England, for Providence, for the people who grow food in situations very much like mine, or very different, and for the people in all of our communities who are sustained by our work.
This love is the source of a very real desire to be partners with people who grow food in any circumstance. That’s what brought me to the farmers union as a first generation city farmer. I have only benefited from my membership. The Beginning Farmer Institute presented me with opportunities to learn about the logistics of running a farm: management and leadership skills, and financial planning. It has made me further interrogate the role of the farmer as an advocate and educator in my urban community, and more broadly as a resource for my representatives in office. I have met a number of wonderful and hardworking people through the Institute, and I share with them many struggles and aspirations, even with those outside of New England—inspiring people, with nth generation wheat farms or cattle ranches spread across the other sides of this nation.
Meeting these individuals encourages me to clarify my place within the landscape of American agriculture, as an urban farmer with access to urban markets and populations. It also compels me to articulate and advocate for urban production interests in national and New England ag policy. In Providence, we too are rebuilding local economies. The Little City Growers Cooperative represents 11 jobs, and thousands of food dollars that are kept within our community every season. We too are working towards greater food safety, food security, and the health of our communities. In the past two seasons, three trash, weed, and lead ridden vacant lots have been reclaimed and turned into beautiful, productive gardens.
Still there are great impediments to our work. Land acquisition and tenure is an issue that we too are constantly struggling with; one of my sub-acre lots is valued at $63,000—far more than I could ever pay for it and dream of making a profit. Our landlord doesn’t want this land— he doesn’t pay the taxes on it— but it is difficult to conceive of replicable methods for the transfer of an abandoned city lot to an agricultural producer. We’ll have to get creative.
Also, an NRCS representative who recently visited my farm told me that it would be hard to develop a remediation plan with his office because urban soil remains unclassified. Remedaiting soil is a conservation bind, because the soil only becomes a “natural resource” once the lead has been removed, and it is being used as a growing medium. Standing in my field, on the ground from which I harvest my dinner and my livelihood, it seemed that I was being told that urban soil is not soil. This exclusive classification fundamentally opposes my work. Let me say too that our local NRCS rep is friendly to my kind of business, and progressive in envisioning ways to work with us despite semantic challenges. Still, I realize—there is much work to be done.
As a city farmer, I work to fight the same food ignorance that damages all of our businesses, our economy, and our environment. For many city people, the farm is generations away, and even the image of an ear of corn on a stalk is unfamiliar and abstract, or even cartoonish. Neighbors have come upon my garden in wonderment, as if it had never occurred to them to look to the earth for food, and suddenly it is alive and real. My greatest hope is that they leave with the desire to learn more, plant something, eat well and locally, and realize that farmers give themselves to the land and its people like the most zealous patriots. City farms provide people— some of whom have never been outside of city limits— with the opportunity to know our land as we growers do.
When I began picking leaves and fruits at my first farm job in Johnston, Rhode Island, I began the slow process of reinvesting myself in my food system, and relearning the importance of physical work. For those who do not grow up driving tractors before they drive cars, urban farms are a crucial link that can instill people with a sense of value for the work that farmers do as producers, land stewards, and advocates. We need support, help, and protection, and without community, and community awareness, we will be alone in this struggle.
Through the union, I hope to reach out to rural farmers. I want to learn from you, and with you, about how we will survive in this world. The blossoming of agriculture in urban centers represents a burgeoning commitment to the rural values that make a people and its country strong: cooperation, loyalty, and hard work. I have high hopes that the growth of urban farming will help to import these integral values into our cities, so that they take root, and begin to positively affect our world. I am grateful to the union for selecting me to participate in the Beginning Farmer Institute; my learning curve has been steep and exciting, and I have left every session with the sense that there is much to yet to do, on my farm, in my business, in my community, and in this country. It is meaningful that we are here, as farmers and friends of farmers, as Americans who enact their sense of duty and care on the land every day. It is valuable to me to see you all as allies. So thank you.