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Mountain Roads and Learning Curves

By Justin Séguret, Phase I Fellow

Looking back, what steered me in the direction of AMI was the year I spent as the sole intern at a high school community garden. I excitedly took on this role with the naïve confidence that, because I’d helped my family grow our summer vegetable gardens growing up, I would be well-equipped to manage a garden throughout the school year (in use all but the summer months), all while guiding high school students through the process. I rapidly realized how little I knew about garden planning, cold-season growing, and teaching effectively. I also learned how hard it is to get high school students to slow down and take notice of things in the garden when their heads are filled with questions like who is taking more AP classes than them, where they might soon be going to college, and whether anyone noticed their new shoes (appropriately worn on a rainy day in the garden). If the best thing to know is knowing what you don’t know, then this experience taught me something very valuable. And so, I began to seek some sort of mentorship, looked for work on a farm, and landed here in the Allegheny Mountains.

During college, no one around me was interested in agriculture as a career, and my friends put up with me as I talked their ears off, recounting the cool farming things I read about. But without anyone to engage in these critical conversations, my learning trajectory was sluggish. And despite my environmental studies major, I was frustrated by how little my peers knew about agriculture. There are a lot of terms offered up as alternative movements to Industrial Ag; organic, sustainable, permaculture, biodynamic, and regenerative agriculture are a few of the things you’ll hear about. Among environmental circles, people often throw these terms around interchangeably as savior solutions to our current agricultural models, with only a surface knowledge of the ecological, socio-cultural, and economical interactions and mindsets of these management practices.

Upon arriving on the AMI farm, I became surrounded by folks who had practical experience in farming and similar inquiries to my own. My mind started racing a mile a minute, and it hasn’t slowed in six weeks. I finally have people as a source of information; people with whom I can interact and converse over agricultural topics that no one in my college surroundings knew enough about to satisfactorily discuss.

I remember our first night on the mountain hearing someone casually mention their disillusionment with the permaculture world. This was the first time I had heard anyone challenge permaculture, so I probed into what they had meant. They described having seen people standardizing a supposed “best” way to practice integrated agriculture without acknowledgment that the source of knowledge for many of these practices come from indigenous traditions. Of course, this is all the while commoditizing permaculture under courses which can be taken for a certification of this stolen knowledge.

Through some of these early conversations, I suddenly began to have back to back realizations of the problematic issues in the food justice and sustainable agriculture world, as well as morphing visions of a more responsible and just food system. The general feelings I’d been having as I navigated learning about these topics on my own were finally being put into words, and what a sense of satisfaction that offers! It can be really hard to reflect on things critically enough without engaging in discussion. These peers and mentors have offered many moments of just the reflection I’ve been seeking.

Being surrounded by a group of people where everyone is on the same page as to what makes a healthy soil, where you don’t have to explain what a CSA means, and you don’t have to defend the ecosystem biology which makes well-managed grazing practices a carbon sink and a boost to pasture biodiversity leaves more time and energy to go into deeper topics of conversation. It feels like we’re being met where we’re at, allowing for more critical conversations of these systems.

Finding myself in these surroundings has also allowed me to learn about topics I wouldn’t have explored on my own, simply by listening to other people’s questions. For example, earlier this week someone’s question led to a discussion about controlled burning as a land management practice to invite native grasses into a pasture, which in turn invites native birds. This was a practice I had previously only heard applied in forest management, and had no idea it could help restore native species and ecosystems in agricultural lands.

In school, I was rarely one to ask questions, and preferred to stay as quiet as I could in my corner of the classroom. But, I guess I was also never studying something which truly made me click. Now that I have the chance to find answers to the questions I’ve been asking myself, my inquiries grow by the day! Being surrounded by people who care about agriculture the way I do has accelerated my learning tremendously. I’m very grateful for the power of community in creating a sense of purpose and providing a space for conversation. That sharing knowledge does not deplete one’s reserve, but rather offers to expand the knowledge of everyone involved, is a beautiful thing. May we always continue seeking to understand!

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