I have come to understand that like it or not, part of my job description reads ambassador. Only 1.9% of Americans currently list agriculture as their occupation, which means most visitors to my farm have no personal connection to farming or farmers. Many have formed their perceptions of agriculture from behind rolled up car windows, thru glossy magazine photographs, or increasingly rarely, from the distance of childhood memories spent “at Grandma and Grandpa’s farm.”
Today, Americans collectively know little of the life cycle of any one plant, yet alone the distinct differences and characteristics of many of our basic crops. In the news, the few articles about farming are decidedly one-sidedly, written by reporters without any agricultural background. With respect to growing food, public discussions are reductionistic. Impatiently we ask, is something “good” or “bad”? In the case of agriculture, what we don’t understand, we overly simplify.
My primary goal as ambassador is to help restore a basic level of agricultural literacy in our community. Because so many do not have a personal connection to any aspect of the farming cycle, everything from seed to table is foreign. The fundamental tenants, the crucial processes, even the language of growing food is a complete mystery to most.
It use to baffle me, given this foreignness of agriculture to so many, given a societal reluctance to get ‘dirty’ and to think about the cycles of life and death, why year after year, so many people want to spend time at farms. But then I came to witness first hand how visitor after visitor is captivated by the experience.
At the beginning of each farm tour, I use to work very hard to explain with great seriousness the entire system and structure of my farm. But this approach was entirely unnecessary. For how can you listen to the encyclopedia being read aloud when there is a pack of grunting, rooting pigs at your feet? How can you pay attention to statistics and crop rotation maps when the air is perfumed with tomato leaves and you are bursting to ask the name of the most delicately beautiful flower you’ve ever laid eyes on?
No matter what the purpose of the tour, I notice that a comprehensive overview of what the farm is and how it “works” is less important than allowing tiny connections to spontaneously happen. Any more, I don’t try to bombard visitors with the seriousness and sanctity of growing healthy food. Instead, we walk and talk and experience small vignettes of today’s farm, which is different than yesterday’s or tomorrow’s farm. One woman has “the best conversation of her whole day” with my hen Marigold. Another peers closely at the tiny blue flowers carpeting the recently disturbed soil, declares them gorgeous and then bashfully asks, “But are they a weed?” A gentleman sees the unique shape of our curved hoe blade and it reminds him of his summers spent in ‘Auntie’s pole bean patch.’ A young boy just wants to know if he can touch his very first pig snout, declaring afterward, that “it is definitely softer than most.”
In my ambassador’s quest for agricultural literacy, I field seemingly simple questions: why some sweet peppers are yellow, why there are sticky tiny bugs on broccoli heads, why some lettuce heads have a pointy top, and why tomatoes don’t grow in winter. I patiently explain the connection between cilantro and coriander, and why can’t you plant one Brussels sprout if you want to grow more Brussels sprouts.
The questions come at me with a black and white innocence, revealing deep assumptions about how we position ourselves in relationship to Nature. Some of the questions take me aback with their honest ignorance; surprisingly, there exists little common understanding between humans and the land we walk in.
What is a weed? How do you grow a grape plant from a seedless grape? Do you need roosters to have eggs? A-B-C. Agriculture Literacy 101. First we learn the letters, their sound ringing strangely off our tongues. Then, slowly, over time, because we begin to care, we learn how each piece goes together.
Interestingly, on my ambassador tours, it matters less whether I explain the life cycle of an onion or describe why pigs need wallows. What matters is the flickering connection 98% of us never knew we yearned to restore. What matters is that, without fail, every first time visitor to my farm sounds out one new letter, one strange consonant or vowel, and they do it happily, curiously, without any sense that “important, serious” knowledge about our basic human needs is being forced upon them.
Farm systems teach us much of the natural cycles of life, and in doing so, inform and affect our perceptions, our perspectives and our sense of possibility. Most of us have not spent our childhoods weeding gardens, canning tomatoes, milking cows or watching Mom butcher the mean rooster. Most of us do not have the luxury of agrarian knowledge accumulated over the course of the two decades of our childhood.
So letter by letter, word by word, concept by concept, I answer the curious questions. It is brutally slow and an entirely un-comprehensive approach. But I hold out hope that each naïve question I answer sincerely will lead to another. I hope that each person who visits will leave yearning to gain a simple fluency of the language of our food. Yes, here and there, I can only hope a tiny seed germinates common understanding.
It is an absolute delight to bear witness to obtuse misconceptions falling away, sloughed off like one’s heavy, dirty coat at winter’s end. My own perspective and understanding is deepened by such experiences. This is because, plant by plant, row by row, hand by hand, a small question leads to conversation, leads to philosophical ponderings, leads to more questions. Question by question, I become a better ambassador.
Of course lessons from the soil affirm and provide perspective, of course they ‘ground us.’ Regardless of if we have ever kneeled to earth in wonder or not, we too, are of the soil. We forget often and easily, but we humans depend entirely on the generosity of Earth. Doesn’t it make sense we rekindle this fundamental relationship?
What are the primary agricultural lessons? Watching the seasons come full circle, again and again, each year different, but each year with the common and comforting wild moorings affirms for me: Life, beautiful, miraculous life, goes on. Food, beautiful, miraculous food, is not to be wasted. We, beautiful, miraculous creatures, plants and humans, and our fates, are all connected. ~AJ