From Table to Farm
Who ever thought that a Jersey girl from the heart of mall country would find herself, years later, on dirty hands and knees, planting peas beside a windmill on an island?
As full-season intern at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, I am learning how to grow good food on Shelter Island in a way that is beneficial to the land and the community. Before this year, however, I had spent little to no time on a farm, most of my interactions with vegetables having occurred while seated at a table, not in the soil. Growing up in suburbia, I gave little thought to agriculture. Food was always available to buy; I had no reason to think about the long distance traveled by a bag of carrots before landing on a grocery store shelf, no reason to think about the confusing additives in my favorite box of Cheez-Its.
L-R: Susan, with fellow farm interns Lev Darkhovsky and Megan Swenson, planting spring crops in Sylvester Manor’s Windmill Field. Photo: Susan Paykin.
This eventually changed. As a young adult newly forced to do her own grocery shopping, I began to question how my food choices impacted others and the world around me. I learned about the tremendous contribution that the industrialized food system makes to climate change, accounting for nearly 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and how the mass-production of goods has led to homogenization of culture and cuisine, replacing traditional recipes with store-bought “easy-to-prepare” meals. It became all too clear just how unequal our country’s food distribution networks are, dominated by corporations that centralize food production and access into the hands of relative few. (In a tragic illustration of this point, while the United States ranks as the largest exporter of agricultural goods in the world, there are still 50.1 million Americans currently living in food-insecure households.)
Many of these issues are due to a lack of transparency and public understanding of how our local and global food systems operate. As a first step in counteracting the detriments of industrial food and agriculture, I wanted to educate myself on how, where, and by whom food was produced. The education I sought started in one place: on a farm.
After graduating from college, however, I followed a more conventional route of employment indoors, working for a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. Although I was writing and teaching about environmental policy issues, work felt unfulfilled: Instead of actively contributing to the sustainable agriculture movement, I was following it from behind a computer. When it came time to think about my next steps, I thought of a famous quote from the Jewish philosopher Hillel: If not now, when? If I didn’t take the opportunity to see if farming was a viable long-term option for me, would I miss my chance?
After one year in D.C., I left my office job to work on a farm in Tuscany, Italy. Arriving with virtually no agricultural skills or experience, I spent the next three months cutting my chops in the vegetable beds, seeding, weeding and harvesting. I loved the work and soon decided that I wanted to spend a full season farming. When I returned to the U.S., I searched for apprenticeships across the country and on farms of all sizes and markets; in the end, I was thrilled to land at Sylvester Manor.
On the farm in Tuscany, September 2012. Photo: Fannie Watkinson.
After only six weeks of living and working at the Manor, I have learned a great deal about the work and care that goes into growing food. Our farm managers, Julia Trunzo, Steve Shepsi Eaton, and Fox June, are a trove of knowledge and experience in sustainable agriculture. Notwithstanding an unusually chilly early spring on Shelter Island, there are already dozens of varieties of vegetables, herbs and flowers thriving in our greenhouse and in the Windmill Field. But through all the work that our Sylvester Manor farm crew has done thus far to prepare for an amazing upcoming season, one of the most resonant lessons for me has been that no one can do this work alone; it takes an alliance of farmers, consumers, and members of the community to build and support a local food system. Because our need for food is universal, everyone can and should play a role in shaping the future of his or her fodder.
What role do you play? The answer might forever be changing. I started at the table but found my way to the farm. Now at Sylvester Manor, I am excited to join the tradition of producing delicious, healthy food and engaging the local community, one pea seed at a time.
Susan Paykin is a 2013 Full-Season Intern at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm. She is originally from Oakland, NJ.
Seeded in early March, the onions have already sprouted and grow larger and stronger every day. Pontiac yellow is just one of several onion varieties the farm is growing this year. Photo: Susan Paykin.