By Alex Tone, Community Fellow
I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed working with plants.
When Bree, Olivia, and I rolled up the sides of the tunnel at the Waynesboro Educational Farm, I had to gasp: in the middle of a snow-crusted field, this patch of ground was spilling over with the bright, strong greens of kale, collards, scallions, and more. Somehow, despite the odds against them - little sunlight, cold temperatures, hungry aphids, and more - the plants have made it and had enough energy left over to feed us too. Working alongside these plants was an important reminder for me as I start my second phase of this Fellowship: navigating the balance between uncertainty and possibility is central to growing both food and community.
I learned early on that uncertainty is a central part of the farming package. You can fill your computer with spreadsheets and do your best to plan and prepare for a growing season, but so many of the fundamental aspects of growth are out of your hands. Luckily, plants tend to know what they’re doing, but even their millennia of experience can’t protect them forever against an unforeseen frost, a wily strain of powdery mildew, fluctuating weather patterns, chickens gone rogue, and more. Coming out of university, where I saw my academic success as largely in my own hands, learning to deal with this lack of control left me quaking in my work boots.
This isn’t unique to my experience. Farmers in the US are facing even more difficulty and uncertainty in recent years as commodity prices and land values continue to fall. In 2019, 595 Chapter 12 bankruptcies - also known as “family farmer” bankruptcies - were filed, jumping 20% from the previous year and marking an eight-year high (Reuters, 2020). These bankruptcies went down in 2020 and 2021 from some federal support and a jump in commodity prices, but the true shocks of the pandemic to the American agricultural industry are expected to soon emerge (Forbes, 2021). The inherent uncertainty of growing food - compounded by the barriers of unpredictable climate patterns, gender and racial inequity in access to land and funds, and exploitative agricultural labor markets - make it difficult for people across the world to make a living from farming (BBC, 2021).
These odds can be pretty discouraging, but rather than being paralyzed by them, I’ve been awed by how farmworkers solve these problems using diverse toolkits of knowledge, resilience, communication, and plenty of humor. From running and catching escaped cows to almost losing our tomato plants to roving chickens, our time at the Allegheny Farm last year was chock-full of plans going awry. At the same time, each obstacle made us learn how to work better together, communicate and solve problems more effectively, teach each other more meaningfully, and have good stories to tell at dinner that night. Grappling with this unpredictability is profoundly humbling, and teaches you how to be grateful and hopeful in the midst of what sometimes feels like chaos.
Working within uncertainty also requires a huge amount of imagination, and the ability to be fueled and energized by it. Many of us walked onto the mountain not knowing what a stirrup hoe was, let alone how to build a functioning community in the middle of nowhere. However, I look back on the start of the Fellowship as a magic time: after some initial frustration and despondency in trying to imagine what ecologically and socially sustainable communities would look like, here was our chance to build one ourselves, and work and learn from other amazing people of whom we were becoming more and more in awe.
I’m only wrapping up my first week at Waynesboro, but it’s already clear that dealing with uncertainty is going to be crucial for this job. In the first week alone, the Waynesboro team faced closed schools, COVID scares, and canceled meetings, keeping us from really getting off the ground. Looking ahead, Julia - the farm manager at Waynesboro - and I need to figure out how to meaningfully work with school and community food distribution networks to help them get fresh produce to Waynesboro families, the logistics of which become murkier as the pandemic continues. I’ll be helping with planning a farm camp in the summer as well as designing a hedgerow plan for the farm at Berkeley Glen Elementary School, neither of which I’ve ever done before. Coming fresh out of college, I’m a bit daunted by all of the blank space on this page.
At the same time, this blank space also offers possibilities. We might not know what our donation programs look like yet, but the process of getting there means working and communicating with the schools and communities of Waynesboro, building relationships, and getting closer to people in this area. Farm camp will come with its challenges, but it also presents a chance for me to learn more about my favorite parts of farming and to find exciting ways to share them with Waynesboro students. In researching hedgerows, I’m mesmerized by the old and new plants I come across and energized by imagining how we can introduce them to our students so they can feel just as much wonder as I do. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but I’ve never been more excited and grateful to jump into the unknown.