When I first started farming in 2000, the community-oriented aspects of the scene drew me in and made me able to envision doing this work for a living. I was 21 and working as a farm hand at a small family farm in Arizona while I was studying agroecology at a school that had a deep focus on field-based, hands on, experiential education.
At the time, there was a lot of buzz about Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard project, which brought food gardens to schools in the Bay area while introducing the concepts of nutrition, food access, and crop production to the school curriculum. The visibility and popularity of CSAs and community-oriented farms were also on the rise. I was sold on the potential learning, connecting, and sharing that could happen on a farm, and my idealism is still part of why I continue to do this work today.
But the longer I farmed, the more apparent it became that diversified vegetable production is all-consuming work, especially during the height of the growing season. I’m talking 65-, 75-, even 90-hour work weeks. Farmers I worked with didn’t have time to be a constant presence in the community, interacting with sharers or customers the way I had envisioned I would when I had “my” farm.
It’s not that they didn’t try. Some farms held formal community events, including festivals and harvest dinners that took a lot of time, energy, and people-power to produce. The more well-established farms that were part of larger non-profits had paid staff to coordinate community engagement. Other farms engaged with sharers day to day. Committed volunteers hung around and helped the farmers, or customers stopped to buy from us on a daily basis.
But no matter the scale or the farm’s mission, it turned out farmers didn’t have a lot of time or energy left at the end of the day to engage with the larger community on a deep, deep level. Gathering for meals or holding community work days were very rare occurrences, if they happened at all.
Today, I am lucky to find myself here, at a farm with a long history of community involvement. Having spent my first year getting to know the land, equipment, people, and history of Stearns Farm, I am reflecting on where to put my energy in the coming growing seasons. I am eager to shift my focus to deepening the connections I’ve already begun to make with many of you here while I continue to strive to create a safe, supportive, and efficient working farm for my staff. At the end of the day, we have to find a balance. In addition to creating space for the “softer” experiences our sharers crave, we must also run a financially viable operation, provide a sustainable workplace for employees, maintain the health of our soil, and of course grow the produce.
I see, as others saw before me, that the small and intimate scale of Stearns Farm lends itself well to encouraging at least some of the community building and engagement that I dreamed of as a fledgling farmer. We’re lucky to have the opportunity to gather at this beautiful, peaceful spot to celebrate our shared values of being a welcoming space to all, protecting our earth, and eating delicious and nutritious food. Gathering can be as simple as working alongside each other in the fields and collecting our veggies under the tent, or as involved as sharing the occasional meal on a Saturday after completing our work hours or taking on a special project on the farm.
A few of you have specifically expressed that you want a stronger feeling of community, and I want to know what that means to you. Here’s what I’m wondering:
- How do you define community?
- What would more opportunities for community building at Stearns farm look like?
Please email me your thoughts at email@example.com, or let me know if you would like to talk in person. I’m excited to hear your ideas!
Stay warm as we dip back into winter, literally the week before spring begins!