Photo: Yann MabilleA. Learn everything you can, from books and those older and more practiced. You work hard, and that is the most difficult and the most rewarding thing about it. This year, we’ve had one of the hottest summers that I’ve ever experienced. It’s been devastating to watch what that does to the plants. At the same time, the beauty of agriculture is that it comes in cycles. It gives you a real patience. That consciousness hopefully makes you a better environmental steward, because you have that long-term sensibility. How different that is from the way technology asks us to think today, with such immediate demands.
Q. Tell me about Growing Chefs, the organization you started.
A. Growing Chefs is a team of nutritionists, chefs, green thumbs, and educators dedicated to the simple premise of teaching eaters of all ages how to grow and eat good food, from field to fork. The organization started with my own curiosity for food narratives, and has since expanded to include all manner of programming, including the work we d
o on the Rooftop Farm. We keep a pretty simple philosophy: Broccoli is not boring!
Q. Have you always been interested in food?
A. Food was not a huge part of the way in which we were brought up. When I tried Thai food for the first time as an undergrad, I remember thinking how incredible it is to have the opportunity to be so creative with food every single day.
Q. To whom do you look for inspiration?
A. My hero has always been Mr. Wendell Berry. But what’s really lucky about this kind of work is that farming is built for apprenticeships — you can work alongside the people who are your heroes. I am excited about people like First Lady Michelle Obama, who is helping generate so much enthusiasm about growing healthy food.
Q. Are there books to which you keep returning for guidance?
A. There’s a book called Start with the Soil — it’s actually sort of a technical book. Also, Wes Jackson is amazing. He is doing his best to pull the Midwest back to its former fertility. Of course, Wendell Berry, again and again. I just re-read Murray Bookchin’s writing on social ecology; it’s nice to know that there is a bigger picture outside of the everyday work that I face.
There’s been so much beautiful work written about farming. It’s wonderful because the work itself is so hard and so frustrating, but so many people are willing to over-romanticize it. Reading can sometimes be the metaphorical aloe vera for your literal sunburn!
Q. Do you have a junk food weakness?
A. [Laughs] Yeah! Alas, I love anything that combines peanuts and chocolate.
Q. Company drops by unexpectedly around dinnertime. What do you feed them?
A. You know, whatever happens to be on the countertop. I’m a really simple chef. I like to take three ingredients and make a meal, because with good produce there is not a lot you need to do.
Q. What keeps you up at night?
A. Weather. I say that when I raise children this will change, but right now I spend all night worrying if my plants are okay. The chickens, too.
Q. You like to barter for goods and services. Could you talk a little bit about that?
A. One of the good things about working in agriculture is that there is a lot of giving. Barter becomes one of those simple things that you build into your life. It means that money is not the only way that you communicate with people — actual values are. Bartering can become part of the foundation for building honest relationships.
Q. Anything you’d like to add?
A. People often want to know where this sensibility comes from, this love of farming. For me, I loved chocolate, and now I have boundless curiosity for worms and carrots. But it’s different for everyone. Everyone has different passions. If you can’t see yourself farming, or you can’t imagine taking the time to barter, at least hold true to the simple premise that it’s important to be good to people. The culture of agriculture ties all that together, but it’s something everyone’s life should have.
More stories in this series:
Urban agriculture is a movement in transition. Agriculture has a vital role to play in cities, but it must be done in a way that keeps the urban fabric intact.
Getting fresh, healthy food into low-income urban areas known as “food deserts” isn’t as simple as it appears. For example, should food-justice advocates be celebrating when Walmart is the one bringing an oasis of fresh groceries to these deserts?
Philly’s homegrown ag movement isn’t just about getting more local produce into farmers markets. It’s focused on farming as a source of jobs and skills for city residents as well as a means to provide them affordable, healthy food.
There’s a new kind of farmer in town. Colin McCrate is using his agricultural know-how to convert sprawling urban yards into edible bounty.
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