By Jamie Rudd, Phase I Fellow
Huzzah! Our 2020-2021 cohort has finally made it to the AMI farm. And man oh man, what a journey it was to get here. The emotional rollercoaster leading up to our arrival was full of thrilling highs, unexpected twists, sudden plummets, and ultimately a gentle plateau delivering us to our new home, a bit dazed, but ready for the adventures to come.
The process of discovering AMI, applying for the fellowship, interviewing, and receiving the coveted “Congratulations!” email was its own saga of jubilation and angst. But the surprise onset of a pandemic two months before the Fellowship was set to start really cranked things up to odyssey status. But after two postponements, a narrow escape from cancellation, and many socially distant goodbyes, I’m finally here, surrounded by beautiful landscapes, an incredible sustainable farm, and about a dozen wonderful, inquisitive humans.
And yet, upon my arrival I found myself facing another unexpected complication: guilt for unplugging from the rest of society at a time when so many are facing severe stress and grief, resulting from pandemic-driven economic instability, precarious health, and racism-fueled police brutality.
Was now really the right time for me to leave my job working for a nonprofit that fights for racial justice and gave me the opportunity to grow food to feed local families hit hardest by COVID? Is it fair of me to leave behind friends who I’ve been providing emotional support to for months as they navigate sudden unemployment and tense home dynamics? Is taking the next year and a half to take a step back from my normal life and invest in my personal education and edification really the best use of my time at this particular moment in history?
These thoughts swirled through my head in the weeks leading up to the Fellowship and continued to be at the front of my mind even while I delighted in seeing the farm for the first time, meeting the rest of my cohort, and learning more about how we’ll be spending our days in the months ahead. And then, on day four, we went on “solo walks” through the woods and my perspective began to shift.
Our Phase II Fellow mentors, Matt and Lola, created a path through the trees for each member of our cohort to walk alone, guided by a series of wise words from the likes of Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Masanobu Fukuoka, and Julia Child. We were also encouraged to slow down, take note of the world around us, and consider what being an AMI Fellow means to each of us.
By the time I reached the end of the path, I’d reached two conclusions: 1) this Fellowship is a valid and worthwhile way for me to be sending my time, and 2) taking part in this program and being an engaged, socially responsible member of society are not mutually exclusive endeavors.
It turned out that all I needed was a little nudge to remember why I sought out this experience in the first place: because I believe wholeheartedly that agriculture and food systems have a crucial role to play in creating a more equitable society and healthy planet.
As Julia Child advised us in the woods, “find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” Food justice (the belief that access to healthy, culturally appropriate, and environmentally sustainable food is a human right) is the thing I’m passionate about and have chosen to spend my life being tremendously interested in. As deeply as I care about a range of social and environmental justice issues, I recognize that to help make real change, I need to deepen and prolong my focus on a few select topics rather than defuse my energy across dozens of causes.
Food justice is the field I’ve decided to develop expertise in with the hopes of making our food system more equitable and ecologically sound — it’s the movement I hope to be a leader of rather than just a steadfast supporter. And being here on the AMI farm, learning the ins and outs of growing, preserving, cooking, and sharing food, is an important step in becoming just such a leader. Sometimes, making a difference is a long game — requiring an initial investment of time and attention before effective, sustainable progress can be made. I now recognize that just because participating in a Fellowship like this feels a bit self-indulgent in the moment, doesn’t mean it won’t more than pay off in the future when it comes to helping others and creating a better world for all.
I’ve also realized that living on a remote mountain farm for the next several months doesn’t have to mean checking out from the historic moment. It just means I’ll have to find new ways to engage. While it’s true that we’re all a bit sheltered from the wrath of the coronavirus, living as we are in a small secluded community, supplied with stable employment and an immune-system boosting lifestyle, the significance of the reinvigorated racial justice movement is extremely relevant.
During our solo walks, I was re-presented with an MLK quote I’ve always found particularly inspiring: “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” As students and practitioners in the field of food and agriculture, we have a responsibility to acknowledge the problematic and at times horrifying past and present of the American food system and how we’re situated within it.
With origins in the colonizing of land and knowledge from indigenous people and exploitation of black slave labor, our food system today continues to privilege the white and wealthy, even while black and brown individuals continue to be the primary cultivators and processors of our food. The fact that this is the case and our cohort of next generation food system leaders is predominantly white shouldn’t escape anyone’s scrutiny, least of all our own.
Fortunately, I’ve been heartened to see that a commitment to racial and indigenous justice is something every member of our cohort shares. As I write this, we’re one week in and already we’ve had countless conversations about the racial implications of food, how we can further educate ourselves, and how we can make AMI more accessible to a more diverse applicant pool in the years to come. Initial steps we’ve taken include ordering books like Farming While Black and Black Food Geographies to share among the cohort, making a group donation to Urban Growers Collective, and agreeing to dedicate a portion of our weekly fellow meeting to discussing food justice.
The more I get to know my fellow fellows and the AMI staff, the more certain I feel that I’m exactly where I need to be. Even in these early days, I’m confident that the next year and a half will fortify my commitment to environmentally sustainable agriculture and build my capacity to make the kind of positive impact I hope to have on the food system and my community’s relationship with food.
While I’m sure I’ll still occasionally feel a pang of guilt about getting to live in such a beautiful place with such lovely people learning such interesting and important things when so few others get the opportunity, I’m deciding now to focus on what I can do rather than what I can’t. Rather than dwelling on the ways I’m not doing enough to support other movements I care about, I’m choosing to dedicate my whole self to something I feel tremendously passionate about and refusing to stay silent about the things that matter every step of the way.