Just after 9/11, Nathan and I attended a week long Good Agriculture Practices workshop in Memphis, TN. What stuck out to me then, and resonates with me now, is that locally distributing farmers are “lay” emergency workers in waiting.
It played a part in us becoming full-time farmers.
While we are already distributing real food to real consumers we also know that from time to time, in our lifetime or the next, we will need reliable and nutrient dense food that doesn’t have to travel very far and isn’t handled by more than a couple people.
It’s one of the reason our farm has focused on production, diversity, beginning farmers and leveraging supplemental nutrition programs. It’s why we work with schools, public health and dive deep into collaboration and policy.
This moment in time is fleeting, but our commitment to creating generational changes to small-scale farming and fresh food consumption will continue.
I’m home from my last speaking commitment of the season. Five conferences each with a different focus, but all with a certain feeling of hopeful change. It was impossible to say all that I wanted during sessions, but in the planning stage and one-on-one conversations I experienced what felt like sacred moments.
While there are very real political, religious, cultural, and method divisions in our country there are certain things we all agree on: children shouldn’t be going to bed hungry, we need more farmers, everyone should be washing their hands😉
My work as a female farmer feels timely and I'm making a commitment to show up for it. We need a re-positioning of power so the overworked have more time for contemplation and those who have been overlooked gain ground. It really is as simple as showing up, listening (even when it's hard), and stepping back so that others can come forward.
We will be doing that on the farm this year with help from our friends at Black Soils: Our Better Nature, Top Crops, and the voices of the people we feed.
If you are wondering if one taste of fresh food can make a difference I'd like to share a sacred moment that I experienced at 7 years old at a time I was experiencing trauma in my life. Unknowingly to the dietetic intern who was doing what she had been assigned to do, the taste of kiwi she gave me with the sincere words, ”Every time you get the chance to eat fresh food, you should, because you are worth it” watered a seed inside of me that has now become my life work.
A sacred moment.
We want to create many more sacred moments over the year here on farm and in the community and we invite you to join us:
-The Celebration of Women Art Exhibit to Benefit Hope Harbor on March 20th
-The Community Farm Alliance Farm Party here at NMA on March 22
-The showing of ”Kiwi in Kentucky” at the KY Green Living Fair 2020
More events to be scheduled soon.
*all events have been cancelled due to COVID-19
I was standing on the arm of the couch, about 4 years old, wearing my newly prized Wonder Woman underwear with my blanket as a cape.
My father came through the door and said, “Take that stupid thing off and stop being so silly.” On my father's lap, a slow and intentional spanking replaces my inner power with a deep sense of shame.
Disassociating would serve me well as my girlhood was taken from me within the year. Womanhood appeared to be my escape route, and the patriarchy was waiting for my arrival.
I slowly woke up to the suffering of others and wondered,
How can I help women advocate for themselves,
Create better access to food,
Hold space for others hurts?
Years had passed since I had seen him last. I traveled to his death bed, fell to my knees and pressed my forehead to his. It took ten days for me to forgive, ten days for him to die.
When I returned home to less support than I expected a part of my ego fell away.
After a dark night of the soul I finally surrendered to contemplative action and wondered,
Is any justice movement worth the sacrifice of its women?
What if I let go,
Loosen my grip,
Take a nap?
I discovered that real power is flown in by small acts of hope.
My daughter approached her own womanhood coming toe to toe with me and said, “I see you, mama, I know exactly who you are, and I don’t want to be just like you.”
My Wonder Woman moment had arrived.
I held her close for one more moment and then I let her go.
In any movement work there are certain topics of conversation that come up easily and therefore regularly. What can happen is a looping around those few things that in the moment make us feel as if we’ve found a solution towards progress when it might be no more than a flash in the pan of centuries of work.
That’s why it is vitally important, while excruciatingly slow, to dig deep into history through wise mentors, untold stories, and overlooked common sense. Listening to where you join in to the movement, combined with voices from the past keeps us open to this fruitful work.
That’s something Nathan and I took very seriously about a decade ago as we made the decision that the realities of full-time farming would place us into that deep work more efficiently than a focus on growing methods, consumer trends, funding, or even organizing.
We respect those things, but find silence in the field and listening to those who aren’t always heard of value to movement that sticks. A willingness to become irrelevant in one area opens up space for the relevancy of what’s so often lost.
An overwhelming goodness has come alongside this work for our family. A small food system built on what we can grow that matches the diversity of our community. We’ve prioritized our time and the time of others. We’ve set down image and ego, as needed, to do what we intuitively know is right. We’ve built capacity and security to the food we grow and the weekly availability of locally grown food based on cooking methods and a consumers free will.
I’ve been calling this below the movement concept “farmer choice”, but it’s equally built by the food buyers who apply the reality of what we grow to the cooking techniques or distribution methods they use week after week, year round.
We hope to create something that can be passed onto the next generation for them to make even better.
I’ll be briefly speaking on relationships and farmers choice as innovation at the OAKS 2020 conference on Saturday March 7th and would love to carry on this conversation with anyone who is interested.
Going into March can be a lean time on the farm. The winter tunnels are at the end of production and the fields aren’t quite ready for seeding and planting. This is where farmers and local food eaters get innovative. We’ve got a new, larger late season tunnel that’s got fresh greens, roots and specialty crops nearly ready, even still, we’ve educated our farm members to know that we make use of everything on the farm even when it’s not at its best. Greens with burnt tips and nubby carrots that aren’t at perfection are still plenty good enough. It’s the making do with what we have that makes us sustainable over time.
If you find yourself leading younger folks, as a parent or otherwise, into any sort of life that goes ”off course”, it's so important to regularly talk through what's happening around them.
When Nathan and I went from two incomes to self-employed, a plan to have 2 children that became 5, a decision to give birth at home with a certified professional midwife, a business plan that prioritized the success of other farmers and accessibility of fresh food to those who may not otherwise receive it, we were acting on years of experience, research, knowledge and reasoning.
Nathan would often say, ”We are doing this because it's the right thing to do and there will always be more work to do because we never ”arrive”. I'd tell stories, ”I won't leave my childhood self behind and justice is served best from a place of contemplation and love.” This resonated with folks out there who had similar life experiences and knowledge, but this life we were living was all our kids had ever known. As they get older they are being lead by their own personalities and opinions, and at the same time the world is sending different messages than the ones we once heard.
As they learn to balance life here with an increasingly louder call to go out and do good, the most valuable thing we can do is consistently remind them of the price paid for the privilege they now enjoy. The value of the work they do and the people we serve and are served by. The heavy responsibility in that privilege and the opportunity to either sleep in peace, or not. Then, we hold them loosely as they learn what all of this means for them, their hopes and their future.
In our home, we gather twice a week with the intention to express blessings, sorrow, and to pray together over them. We've learned by actively listening to them not to ever take for granted their understanding of justice, mercy and humility. We all can forget so quickly.
The most common thing I hear and whisper to myself is that building routines and rituals around eating the way we want to eat is hard. HARD.
Here’s a little something that helps me, and seems to be helping my sons and daughters too.
I first read about limbic attachments (the way we build our habits around the things we do) years ago and I’ve remained curious.
We create limbic attachments that are either life giving like taking a walk, drinking water, or cooking a healthy meal OR coping mechanisms like scrolling social media, vegging out on Netflix and grabbing fast food. The good news is that both are created in the same way.
These attachments are created by the intensity of the experience and how often we participate in them.
Taking fast food as an example. Our regularity in building that habit is curated just as much by the experience, added sugar & fat, and intensity provided by how quick it is served or the toy that comes with it.
If that’s how our brain works and companies are making a killing, pun intentional, getting us hooked, could I use the same science and psychology to create attachments to preparing healthy meals with locally grown foods at home?
Here are a few ways I’ve done that:
-Keeping research, history, storytelling, beautiful cookbooks and my own personal notes on food and health in front of me.
-Lighting candles, burning incense, wearing comfortable clothes, playing music, using good knives and supporting local potters and artisans that create an “inner fire” to the experience.
-Reminding my family that we use calm and kind voices in the kitchen. It’s got to be sacred to be sustainable.
-Using spices, salts, sauces, and flavor to make our food taste good and memorable. Creating cravings in the good way.
We are a generation removed from healthy and home cooked food giving us life. We’ve lost the intensity and frequency, but we can get it back and feel good by doing so.
The first photo was taken in January 2011, the day after Nathan gave his 8-week resignation notice. We would become full-time farmers dependent on our community to support us. The evening before had been filled with anxiousness, but on this morning we walked the gardens and dug the first radish.
These brightly colored veggies, in contrast to the many greens we had been harvesting felt like a miracle. Radishes, a vegetable few people enjoy a miracle. We hadn’t even learned to dream about carrots and rutabaga and beets. Little did we know about fennel, celery, and Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts!
I spoke this story recently the day after my dear friend Susan gifted me this icon as a birthday present. An icon, I’ve heard it said, stirs something inside you. An inner knowing of God’s love. A love that replaces anger and guilt with the creativity to transform power into goodness.
This icon of Mary gently bringing Joseph a cup of water stirs up memories of transformation inside me. We had four children in six years and during that time I learned to sit in silence. A painful learning that I didn’t I understand and often questioned. Nathan took on similar learning as he became not only a full-time farmer but father.
We learned to work with children underfoot and as Nathan learned that farming was more than just production: breaking ground, planting, and harvesting I discovered that motherhood: carrying, birthing and feeding babies had nurtured wisdom inside me that held answers to our nervous questions.
In what was messy at first, but eventually became commonplace, we learned that Nathan needed more than a cup of water for sustenance. He needed my centering presence as he labored. He began to pause his work for my careful guidance. In what was very unexpected we discovered that I carried the knowledge he needed and when I offered it with patience there was a peace that fell over us.
The gift has been more than the harvest of many vegetables. It has been Nathan’s ability to connect to a more gentle nature and my strength to speak truth to the right thing even when it’s difficult.
We quickly snagged this photo at the Embassy Suites in Lexington. We were missing Sterling who was here the last three years when I could keep him in arms or stroller and Lilah who skipped her first Fruit & Vegetable conference in her decade on earth.
If you are a mama you’ve likely got spaces where you have carried, fed, rocked, strolled and kept your babies occupied while something bigger and beyond yourself carried on. I did my time here in this space.
16 years at this hotel, every year, right after new year, one baby at a time. Hidden in the room and at the pool most of the time.
This year I stood on stage during the opening session and shared the fruits of my labor as mother, wife, and farmer.
While Nathan was learning both in the field and among his peers I was learning in silence and solitude. There in the quiet moments while babies nursed and napped, or poolside while kids played, I contemplated and questioned until answers slowly made themself clear.
Now, more than ever, I feel committed to becoming increasingly inclusive to voices that aren’t often heard, but are relevant to the circumstances at hand.
“You’re making me tired, mama”, Sterling has started saying when that inner voice of resistance is challenged.
What a beautiful expression of what it feels like in the body when our ego doesn’t get it’s way.
His shoulders get heavy. His face somewhere between anger and tears. A soul begging for something to break inside. Tired.
If we stay in either the ego mind or the tired body too long we risk narcissism or depression. Either one makes us sick.
What Sterling needs more than avoidance or criticism is encouragement to get out of his head, to get outside, play, jump in muddy puddles.
In a moments time the voice of resistance is gone and he’s not tired anymore.
Mama makes a cup of tea.
This is a portrait of Michelle Howell, a hardworking farmwife, mother of five, author, and advocate. On the left side of the bust you can read text from the poem “Anyway” that was on a wall of Mother Teresa’s home for children in Calcutta, India. “If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.” “The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.”
Leslie Nichols, Artist