Monday, May 2, 2016

Week 6 on the Farm 2016: Poetry

Weather Forecast: Tuesday, high of 64 degrees F, sunny. Wednesday, high of 50 degrees F, 50% chance of rain.

After all the rain we've had this past week, the fields and woods are really greening up around here! Now we very much need the rain to stop and the sun to shine for a few days, because it's planting time and we need to be able to work with the soil.

It sounds like Tuesday will be lovely. Tuesday folks, we'll take you out ramp foraging and then come back to the strawberry patch to see if we can't get the rest of the weeds cleared away from the plants and some compost spread around them so they'll have a good shot at producing nice berries this year.

Wednesday people, we'll have to see what the weather does. If it doesn't rain, we may try to get some plants and seeds in the ground! We may also check on our compost pile and see whether it's time to turn it.

One of the highlights of my time at the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit was meeting Rowen White, founder of Sierra Seeds ( Here's a two and a half minute video in which she talks a bit about her approach to healing the wounds of colonization through food and seed:

In one of our conversations, Rowen reminded me about the poet David Whyte, whose degree in marine zoology landed him on the Galapagos Islands. In an interview with On Being's Krista Tippet, Whyte says "I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention." (This isn't assigned listening/reading, but if you want to hear the whole interview,  you can find it here:

This rings true in my experience--that there are things afoot in the world that the "objective language" of science isn't able to comprehend and express at this time. I think that may be because there are certain things that you can know only when you give up the separateness required by objectivity and enter deeply into relationship (perhaps symbiosis is another word for it, connecting back to Rowen's video). The language of poetry is better suited for this kind of knowing. And so, this week, I give you poetry:

One by Wendell Berry:

The Man Born to Farming

The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout,
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down
in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
descending in the dark?
© Wendell Berry. This poem is excerpted from "The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry,"  Counterpoint Press. (

And two by Marge Piercy:

The Seven Of Pentacles

Under a sky the color of pea soup
she is looking at her work growing away there
actively, thickly like grapevines or pole beans
as things grow in the real world, slowly enough.
If you tend them properly, if you mulch, if you water,
if you provide birds that eat insects a home and winter food,
if the sun shines and you pick off caterpillars,
if the praying mantis comes and the ladybugs and the bees,
then the plants flourish, but at their own internal clock.

Connections are made slowly, sometimes they grow underground.
You cannot tell always by looking what is happening.
More than half the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.
Penetrate quietly as the earthworm that blows no trumpet.
Fight persistently as the creeper that brings down the tree.
Spread like the squash plant that overruns the garden.
Gnaw in the dark and use the sun to make sugar.

Weave real connections, create real nodes, build real houses.
Live a life you can endure: Make love that is loving.
Keep tangling and interweaving and taking more in,
a thicket and bramble wilderness to the outside but to us 
interconnected with rabbit runs and burrows and lairs.

Live as if you liked yourself, and it may happen:
reach out, keep reaching out, keep bringing in.
This is how we are going to live for a long time: not always,
for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting,
after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.

~ Marge Piercy ~

To be of use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

from Circles on the Water. Copyright © 1982 by Marge Piercy. 

As you think about moving across the threshold of graduation and into this next phase in your life, what work calls to your heart? How will you put your love to use in the world?

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Week Six - Farmworker Legal Services

First, I would like to thank Abby for outlining so much of the farmworker context in her blog post.  As someone who is committed to working in solidarity with farmworker communities to bring awareness and action on issues faced by farmworkers, I’m always glad to see other folks starting conversations about farmworker justice.

Farmworkers are among the most invisible communities within the US, despite the fact that they provide each of us with an essential service – providing the food we consume every day.  As Abby illustrated, and many of you mentioned in your responses, the capitalist system is built upon the exploitation of certain groups of people.  This is certainly true in our current agricultural system, where farmworkers bear the brunt of numerous intersecting social systems – especially race and class – that cause harm to farmworkers mentally, physically, and emotionally.      

As an outcome of these intersecting systems, farmworkers face many barriers to accessing services and realizing their rights.  Potential barriers include: immigration status, not speaking English or speaking English as a second (or third) language, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, low-economic capital, low formal education levels, and transitory status.  Due to these barriers, farmworkers often find themselves in exploitative or harmful situations with little institutional support.

These barriers are the reason Farmworker Legal Services (FLS) exists.  FLS is a legal aid office based in Kalamazoo that provides free and confidential legal services to migrant and seasonal farmworkers across the state of Michigan.  In addition to the legal work that the FLS attorneys conduct, FLS also has an active outreach program through which we try to locate and connect with as many farmworkers and their families as possible.  Due to the nature of farmwork, in addition to the intent of many growers to “hide” their employees, farmworker housing is often very isolated and difficult to locate.  Throughout the growing season, FLS staff and interns visit camps four nights a week – speaking with workers about any concerns or issues they might be experiencing, as well as sharing our informational resources.

One resource that I invite you all to look through before class on Thursday is the FLS Calendar.  This calendar is the base of all our outreach because it provides detailed information about farmworker rights in both Spanish and English.  As you look through the calendar, are there any pages that stick out to you?  Why?  Do you see anything that surprises you?

Once FLS has made contact with a worker who has a question or concern, we begin to investigate their situation and develop a strategy about how to address their issue.  The strategy depends on each client’s specific situation and might include a legal process like making a housing complaint to the MI Department of Agricultural and Rural Development or bring a case to trial, or it might simply mean referring them to another agency, such as Intercare (a community health care organization) or the Department of Health and Human Services (for help receiving food stamps, child care and other public benefits), and then following-up to make sure they have received the necessary help.   As I will discuss more in-depth with you during Thursday’s session, FLS handles a wide-range of cases.  For some context on types of issues FLS deals with, please take a look at this Michigan Radio report about migrant housing conditions and this just released WMUK Radio report on a current FLS case regarding whether the minimum wage will continue to cover farmworkers.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on these two reports.    

While farmworkers are often invisible to much of the greater US, they are actively organizing and fighting for their rights.  This article, “Farm Workers Are Taking On Poor Pay And Conditions — And Winning,” highlights some of the successful work of farmworker organizers around the country.  Have you heard about any these examples before?  Why might be some reasons they have been successful and what could we learn from their efforts? 

Additionally, here are some other of innovative ways that try to address abuses against farmworkers. Fair Food Standards Council and Food Justice Certification are two organizations/coalitions that encourage farmers to become certified as ”just” employers, meaning that their products were raised/harvested in ways that protect the dignity and rights of farmworkers.  What do you think of these programs?  To what extent do you think they are effective in changing the culture of exploitation around farmworkers?

Finally, I just want to include these two articles for you to read because I think they give some interesting perspectives on farmwork – “How the produce aisle looks to a migrant farmworker” and What's it like to be a migrant farmworker?”  

Please bring any and all questions, thoughts, and reactions you have to our meeting Thursday - I’m looking forward to talking with you all then! 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Week 5 on the Farm 2016: Fruit and Foraging

Weather Forecast: Highs in the high 50s, partly cloudy.

Well, spring is definitely in full swing here on the farm! With the little bit of moisture we got last Thursday plus the warm temperatures over the weekend, the peach, plum, and cherry trees have all bloomed out. In a couple of days the apples will as well. With bloom comes another layer of tasks in the orchard: insect pest and disease prevention. As you should know by now, our primary strategy in dealing with pests and diseases is to support the health of our plants so that they are less susceptible to illness and predation. One thing we'll do over the next several weeks is to feed the fruit trees with foliar sprays which include things like liquid kelp and fish emulsion to make sure they've got adequate nutrition at this critical time of growth, pollination, and fruit set. We'll also be taking measures to make the lives of insect pests just a little more difficult. About a week ago I set two sticky traps in the orchard baited with pheromone lures that mimic the pheromones that female Oriental Fruit Moths (OFMs) send out to attract males for mating. Today I found several OFMs stuck in the traps, so tomorrow morning I'll begin putting OFM pheromone dispensers in all of the trees. These dispensers will flood the orchard with female OFM pheromone, making it a lot harder for the male OFMs to find the female moths. Less mating = less egg laying = fewer worms in my apples. Pretty clever, huh?

You don't need to read this entire article, but the first graphic ("Mating Disruption") is a nice visual aid to help you understand how this process works:

Speaking of fruit, one of the things we're going to have you help us with this week is weeding and thinning our strawberry patch. Though Michigan has a reputation for growing tasty strawberries, 80% of this country's strawberries are grown in California. Here's an article on some of the problems created by conventionally grown berries: Note the sidebar: "Why Are Strawberries Getting Bigger and Blander?"

And this article talks about the effects of conventional strawberry production on the farm workers who plant, cultivate, and harvest the berries: It ends with a statement by Dana Geffner, executive director of Fair World Project: "Consumers do not value fresh berries more than the lives of those who pick them." Do you think this is true? I'm not sure . . . .

What's the solution? Well, one solution might be growing your own. We'll teach you how to plant and care for a strawberry patch while you help us weed ours. 

For those of you who are interested, we'll take a detour from the gardens and head into the woods to do some foraging. And we'll talk about the role of foraging in the local foods movement. This article gives a good example of what can happen when a marketplace mentality is applied to wild foods: We'll see if we can't do better with our own foraging practices! 

Abby's Post: Migrant Farmworker Justice in the U.S.

One element of the current food system that I would like us to spend some time exploring are the lives and labor conditions of the workers who harvest the food we eat. While I’m sure Mariah will guide our conversation towards the context of Kalamazoo during week 6, I wanted to kickstart the discussion and begin by looking at the state of migrant farmworker justice on a national scale. My interest in this facet of our food system stems from both my studies in sociology as well as personal experiences working with migrant farm workers in my hometown in Illinois.

While machinery has replaced a significant amount of human labor in the agricultural sector during the 20th century, certain crops, such as tomatoes and berries, still rely on human hands to harvest. In this respect, our current food system maintains a very human element that is likely to remain unmechanized. Farmworker justice is an issue where race, class, and immigration status converge in interesting ways. In the United States, the majority of farmworkers (an estimated 70%-80% according to the Agricultural Worker Protection Act or AWPA), who harvest crops on large scale farms are seasonal workers who have immigrated to the United States from Mexico and Central America, and at least half of the individuals in this group are undocumented workers (see page 4 of the AWPA report). To get a sense of the of farmworker demographics in the U.S., check out the graphs and statistics published by the USDA in 2015: (pay particular attention to the graphs in the second half of the article). These reports also provide comprehensive outlines of the state of migrant farm work in the United States:

AWPA Assessment Report
Oxfam Report and Recommendations

Like many undocumented workers in the United States, farm workers are frequently subjected to various forms of abuse on the job including child labor violations, detrimental health hazards, wage and working hours violations, and work safety hazards from equipment, heat exposure, or pesticide use. The documentation status of migrant farm workers exacerbates the frequency and severity of abuse that occurs as these workers are often unable to seek legal assistance when violations on the job occur or speak out against supervisors who have the power to terminate their employment if complaints are brought against them. Language barriers also influence the power dynamics of these situations as English is often not the first language of many migrant farm workers, leading to many being taken advantage of due to communication difficulties. This article, (NPR Article) which details the sexual abuse that occurred on a Salinas, California farm, demonstrates how gender also plays a significant role in this issue and connects to Isabelle’s post about gender dynamics, power, and farm work.

There are currently a significant number of organizations working to combat the abuses of farm workers, such as Farmworker Legal Services here in Kalamazoo which our guest speaker Mariah will talk to us about next week. Other national and local organizations include faith based groups, 501(c)(3) NGO’s, and legal service providers (often pro bono). On the legislative level, the Agricultural Worker Protection Act (AWPA) has contributed to significant progress in the area of farm worker justice, but there are still violations that frequently occur. See a summary of the aftermath of the act in the link below.
As this is a solutions based class, I want us to look at these issues in light of what might be done to improve them. In the comments section, feel free to respond to any or all of the following questions or ask a few of your own.

  1. How does the current political/legal climate surrounding immigration influence the state of farmworker justice in the U.S.? How does U.S. immigration policy directly influence the working conditions of migrant farmworkers?
  2. Who/what forces enable abuses of farmworkers to continue? At what level should interventions take place? (Federal/legislative, state, or individual farms, etc) How should individual farms be held accountable for the abuses that occur? What would justice look like in these situations?
  3. How might we use our various skills, knowledges, and interests to contribute to solutions to the aforementioned issues of farmworker justice (healthcare, labor, legal, environmental, etc)? *When answering this question, keep in mind the agency of farmworkers themselves and be mindful of how certain solutions might portray individuals/families as passive victims rather than active participants who are capable of shaping their lives and well-beings. Feel free to pull from past experiences and/or future goals when answering this question.

I’ve included a few other articles I came across in my research that folks might find interesting. Feel free to comment on anything you read in your response.

Isabelle's post: Gender and Food Production

Questions surrounding gender and the role of the patriarchy keep coming back into my mind throughout my time on the farm and participating in class conversations. Though the male farmer is a popular and dominating image in our society, as a child and an young adult I associated the production of food with the feminine, with women. I believe this is in part because, though I lived on the border of Kansas, I never visited many farms (except to pick blueberries). Gender dynamics on the farm was something I was unfamiliar with and didn’t have a lot of knowledge about. Additionally, as a child it was my mom who first introduced me to gardening and taught me how to take care plants (she always said I was the best weeder ever...which I know see as a trick to get me to help.) She also always took me to the farmers’ market with her and was always in the kitchen experimenting with a new recipe. As I got older and gained greater knowledge of the food system my understanding of how gender plays into the system expanded. What I see are contradictions. The Earth is a “mother,” but it is men who are expected to work large farms. To “plow” the Earth. They are the ones who are considered to have the strength to complete the work. Small-scale gardening and cooking are the activities advertised through the media as appropriate for women and often not depicted as work but instead as leisure activities. How else is farming and food production gendered and how is it damaging to our society? How does it impact our physical and mental health? What expectations and limits does it place on people? How does it reinforce the gender binary? Additionally, I am wondering how the fact that most farmers are white men connects to the removal of people from land, the idea of private property and needing to own land in order to be considered successful, and property rights.

Farming has been a profession dominated by white men, but individuals are pushing back against this trend and more women are entering the profession. The following story by NPR explores this trend and why it is occurring: The article discusses how a number of women who are going into farming are entering organic farming. Why do you think this is? An article from the Atlantic claims that it is in part because women are more capable of empathy and compassion than men and thus they are attracted to small-scale organic farming. I have multiple issues with that argument because I think it reinforces traditional gender norms and expectations. What are your thoughts? What ideas or strategies do you have for building a food justice movement that combats the patriarchy?

I also think it is important to draw connections between this post about gender and Abby’s post about farm workers. What ties do you see?

This is a really large topic with many angles that can be explored. Thank you for engaging in this conversation with me. I am excited to read your blog posts and work on deconstructing how the patriarchy and gender binary manifests itself in the food system.  

Class plan for the beds behind Hoben