On May 28, I represented the Young Farmer Network at RI Ag Day. That morning we harvested for our very first market of the season (Thursdays 3:30-7 at Armory Park from now until don't worry about it!) and Sarah hustled to drop me off at 1:59 when I meant to be there by two. I was dirty and glad to be. Among various stakeholders in the RI food system—farmers, members of the state legislature, service providers, and people involved in food service, health care, land trusts, and other fields—I was overwhelmed by a feeling of gratitude for the work being done in soup kitchens, state offices, community gardens, Narragansett Bay, and all over this state and region to make my work as a farmer and farm organizer possible.
I am so encouraged by efforts in recent years to make Rhode Island a more hospitable place to start a farm business. The Local Ag and Seafood Act Grants—the recipients of which were celebrated at Ag Day—is a prime example; lack of capital is a significant barrier to entry for young farmers, and Rhode Island has created innovative vehicles for creating opportunities for beginning farmers to access land and capital (e.g. LASA, Snake Den Farm, and the Lots of Hope Program). Young farmers notice this type of commitment to small agricultural businesses, innovative ideas and unorthodox models despite an “old boys club” reputation shared between both Rhode Island and traditional agriculture. As a first-generation, woman-identified farmer, and as a young business owner, there is a particular nature to the obstacles I have navigated entering spaces for the first time: the masonry aisle at home depot; the back doors of restaurant kitchens, and even the State House itself. Some are spaces are simply unknown, but others are openly hostile.
I am proud of the work RI is doing to attract and make space for beginning growers, but I am also cognizant that it is critically important to make sure the pathways opened are accessible to a diversity of people. I have been to city hall and the state house to argue my case for secure land tenure on our vacant lot farm on numerous occasions with my education, my command of language, and my skin color all corroborating my right to essentially squat on land. Over the past five years, we have poured hours and resources into transforming a blighted lot into a productive and beautiful growing space with the fundamental confidence afforded to us by our privilege underwriting our efforts and lubricating our success.
My experience starting a farm in the city has been one which has exposed me to my neighbors' wisdom sourced from different countries, neighborhoods, and landscapes across the world. We have to remember to think on both a microcosmic level—to ensure the viability of farms and healthy families within their specific landscapes and communities—and also holistically—with an inclusive, multi-ethnic, interclass food systems approach.
I am hopeful about the future of RI agriculture, thankful for the support extended to young farmers right now receive even as we insist the language of agriculture applies to 5000 square foot parcels, even as we build bizarre foam outbuildings to house our walk-in cooler robots, and come to Ag Day covered in dirt. We are eager to be agents in the construction of a livable future here.
It does not get old to receive a text message from a CSA member who just had her first 2015 salad. When people say our greens are fresh and beautiful and taste like they are from some other stock than the curly kale from supermarkets, I am immodestly pleased. It's our Seekonk soil. It's our Rhode Island rain. It's our teachers—human and plant alike—who have taught us to hone our instincts and refine our practices when we see yellow edged leaves or an over-abundance of pests in our rows. We are thankful for the needed rain, which drenched our soil more thoroughly than drip line ever will.
I am still astonished when I taste the first greens of spring. Still surprised at the security and joy it brings to look at rows of deep green filling out the formerly brown landscape, plants with blossoming future fruits, bean leaves soaking in the same light absorbed (to more painful ends) by my skin in order to alchemically produce my favorite vegetables. Even in damp weather, the opportunity to spend hours kneeling among plants that will feed my neighbors and friends feels like a great gift. I hope our region continues to develop its value for inclusivity in the production and consumption of good food, and a diversity of food cultures.