Finding one’s roots (literally)

When I grow up, I want to be a farmer.

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This is what farming life is like, right?

I was sitting on an airplane, reading Jen Sincero’s “You Are a Badass”, when this realization first struck me. To that point, I had dabbled in spring and summer gardening, casting “ooohs” and “aahhs” as seedlings emerged from the soil and pollinated flowers transforming into peppers and tomatoes. Owning the title of “green thumb” still felt far in my future. Yet, I savored the moments spent in the dirt, checking each plant’s progress, and nurturing those in need of extra care due to rising temperatures or a hookworm infestation.

I want to have a farm that provides organic, healthy, local food.

I laughed at myself, embarrassed, after a beat. What did I know about farming? I had never even set foot on one to that point. Besides the three years of backyard gardening and the occasional interaction at the Durham Farmer’s Market, I was as green as the crops I so badly wanted to yield.

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This sums up the amount of interaction I had with farm animals to that point. Is that how one properly holds a sheep?

I want to create a place where young people can work, acquire skills, earn an income, and reconnect with the earth.

This pursuit, while ever evolving, stems from my core values of connection to earth, animals, and people; stewardship of natural resources; promotion of well-being; and access to one’s humanity and the skills, values, and temperament to build stronger communities.

During my time teaching in Vance County, my students became intrigued with the various fruits and vegetables I packed for lunch. Upon seeing a bag full of red bell pepper slices, one of my students, Ahmad, gasped: “You’re going to eat those?”

“Yes…?” I responded with that questioning lilt trailing off to signfy my confusion.

“Aren’t those hot?”

I smiled and opened the bag, letting Ahmad know that these red bell peppers slices were far from hot; in fact, they were sweet and crisp. He warily eyed the slice he plucked from the bag, looked at me once more for reassurance, and then took his first bite.

He smiled. “No, these aren’t hot at all!”

Such interactions with Miss Paulson’s lunch offerings took place with jicama, mangoes, and sugar snap peas. While most students lived in a rural county, their ability to access fresh food was minimum. Nearly 1/4 of Vance County residents are below the federal poverty line and 30% of children live in food insecure homes. But, don’t worry folks: there are dozens of fast food restaurants in the county seat of Henderson:

Henderson_fast food

I’ve thought about my students, their families, and the broader Vance County community a lot since leaving in 2009. Often, these reflections are tinged with guilt and sadness. I left. I had the choice to leave, and I did without hesitation. On the surface, I became an example of “white privilege tour of poverty” levied at Teach For America.

But, I promise you that while I physically left Henderson, I’ve never forgotten it.

Back to the plane: here I am, seeking out my purpose. And images of Vance County surged from my past and plopped down on the tray table in front of me, wriggling with anticipation. What if such a place could exist in Vance County, partnering with the school system, community leaders, and other organizations? Do such programs and projects already exist within Vance County or in surrounding places that I could support and learn from?

I want to create a place where young people have the opportunity to learn and demonstrate empathy and compassion to creatures and crops.

I want to develop a platform for them to build strength — physical, mental, and spiritual. I want to give them the tools to cultivate the earth at their homes and churches to transform our food system from reliance on processed, transactional products to homegrown, transformational produce. 

This lightbulb moment took place two years ago. At first, it was easy for me to shrug off taking further action. Between work and professional commitments, I was too busy. There wasn’t enough time; I didn’t have enough energy.

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I’ve done two volunteer shifts at the Piedmont Animal Farm Refuge in Pittsboro. Nothing says getting more hand’s on experience than cleaning out goat barns!

Alas, I have cast those constraints to the side. The call rings louder and louder each day for me to do something to work towards this dream. This past week, I finished Will Allen’s “The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities” about his project to transform the food system starting in his Milwaukee home. There are a multitude of stories similar to Will’s where people just starting doing. He emphasized that call-to-action in his book on several occasions.

Just start doing.

One theme I heard from two of the #NonprofitSTRONG Summit conference breakout sessions I attended involved honoring one’s roots. Our ancestral histories can be fraught and painful. And, they are still part of us.

I’m sorry that I know so little of my family lineage. One thing I do know is that I come from a line of agricultural stock. In fact, I still have extended family members operating farms in Minnesota. Perhaps the seeds of my dream were planted for me by past generations. Perhaps it’s part of the social awakening that the systems we have to nourish and feed us are failing us instead. Perhaps its a selfish quest to marry all of my passions — education, food, conservation, mentorship — under one perfect umbrella.

Perhaps it will all be a bust. But I won’t know if I don’t do.

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