The inspiration and desire to begin this blog have been building up for quite some time. It began last summer right there under that wooden sign – “Pay It Forward Farm”. As a 22-year-old senior at a liberal arts college, I’ve spent many summers working in offices of truly wonderful and impactful organizations where I gained valuable experience and made lasting connections. But (oh, the infamous “but”), there was always a part of my inner self that wanted just a little bit more. It was the part of me that didn’t want to sit behind a desk from 9:00 to 5:00 just yet, but wanted to explore and experience the world around me. So, last summer I decided to ditch the desk and do just that – explore. Explore self. Explore life.
I’ve always been interested in food and have been a supporter of the “organic” movement for some time without actually having a real grasp of the term’s meaning, which I’ve found to be the case for many. I took a suggestion from a friend last spring to venture onto the WWOOF USA network (greetings to any fellow wwoofers reading this!). I spent hours going through the many pages of organic farms in locales across the country. The farm bios were compelling, detailing their mission, operations, and tasks for which assistance was needed. Many owners simply seemed eager to have open natured and hard working visitors to add to their communities for one, two, three weeks to several months. The photos from each farm absorbed both my attention and imagination for several hours – scenes of coastal and mountain landscapes, vibrant flora, collections of gorgeous produce and value-added goods, smiling faces, and dirty hands. My mind was reeling at the thought of rolling around laughing in the soil as I sat at my desk in my dorm.
“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
That night I sent inquires to a handful of farms, and the first response I received came all of (wait for it) … 34 minutes later. As fate would have it that first response came from Sophie Viandier, owner and founder of Pay If Forward Farm, who is now one of my closest friends. Her message was full of excitement for the upcoming growing season and the ensuing projects and plans. After a few days of back and forth correspondence we established 3 main things:
1) We were both extremely excited individuals by nature
2) I was coming to her farm, which was a permaculture farm
3) We organized an internship geared toward regenerative and sustainable agriculture (which later evolved into an intensive crash course in permaculture)
With the reality of the upcoming farm internship, the excitement I felt (both natural and situational) made me realize that this was a step in the right direction for me. This was something I wanted to do with my life. That “something” wasn’t exactly clear to me yet, but I knew that a farm, dirt, and growing things with excited young people was greatly appealing to me.
With all that said, traveling from my home in North Carolina to New Hampshire was quite the journey, and also quite the expense. I decided to pursue an opportunity to receive funding for my internship on a Thursday, 5 days before the application was due. Sophie and I were able to get a proposal together within 48 hours, but one component of the application was missing: an interview with a professional in a related career field. Shoot. But, (there’s that “but” again!), fate took hold. Earlier that spring I expressed interest to my aunt about pursuing environmental work after school, and she put me in contact with a family friend who works with multi-party engagement and decision making, often within natural resource management issues. We had been meaning to set up a time to speak about future careers, and thankfully, fate connected us on the Monday before the application was due. 3 weeks later, funding was gratefully received, and a few weeks after that I hit the road for New Hampshire.
My experience at Pay It Forward Farm (PIFF) was phenomenal. No, exceptional. No, remarkable. No, life changing. Words have yet to do it justice, but I’m still trying. For six weeks, I lived with a dynamic influx of young people: travelers, a timber framer, a poet, a musician, a photographer, a barista, a dancer, a Phish addict, and a Selectman of the town (aka Sophie the Wonder Woman), as well as different versions of myself with which I became better acquainted. My housemates, my PIFF family, they were intellectuals, artists, change-makers – they were absurdly inspiring. Adding to the absurdity were the friends that passed under the “Pay It Forward” sign, who were of that same spectacular caliber – writers, scientists, sailors, politicians, artists, flower essence farmers, war veterans, architects, outdoorsmen, homesteaders, and just all around good people.
Our days were spent planting, watering, harvesting, working in community gardens, teaching kids about where their food comes from, moving green houses and compost toilets in unconventional ways, shoveling and transporting truck beds of compost, meeting other farmers in the area, visiting farmers markets, helping on our friends’ farms via weeding or emotional support during animal slaughtering, supporting local events, attending policy and permaculture meetings (sometimes separate meetings, sometimes one in the same), finding places and uses for the plethora of donated riches (futons, artwork, chairs, beds, tables, shelves, supplies, you name it) to the farm, and preparing meals for our farm family.
We cooked for each other, sharing favorite recipes and stories.
We held parties with our farming friends, where any and all we ran into were invited and offered any and all food and drinks we had.
We spent our nights under the stars talking, sometimes about heady epistemological ideas and hopes for the future, and other times about joys and frustrations from the day.
We laughed a lot, sometimes we cried, I think once or twice there was some yelling, but man, we just lived.
During these weeks my existence was materially simple yet spiritually rich, and I felt much happiness as a result. What resonated most was that the nourishment of my body (and by extension my soul) mainly came from less than 50 miles away. We ate salads, radishes, beans, and herbs from the gardens we managed. Our eggs were fresh every morning from our 4 chickens. We baked our own bread. Mountains of kale, basil, swiss chard, beets, and garlic from our farming friends. Rich New Hampshire Maple syrup from a friend’s sugar shack 5 miles down the road. Raw milk from the town over. Insanely delicious French pastries from a friend basically next door. The hay and goat manure used in our gardens were local. Almost every step along the way, from planting, to harvesting, to purchasing, and consuming, we knew the face of that member of our local food system. This was the ideal.
“Food is not rational. Food is culture, habit, craving and identity.” – Jonathan Safran Foer
The not so ideal was that we were a group of young farmers and workers facing the hardships of financing projects, inadequate compensation of time and money, dependent on weather in determining the day’s market success (or lack thereof), and mustering up the necessary energy each day to work hard while oftentimes lacking the necessary support – economic, social, and political. This life is hard, but the benefits, progress, and community is what keeps it going. I am so grateful to everyone from my time at PIFF for sharing their inspiration and unstoppable drive with me. Sending love to you all.
So, I’ve shared with you some of my journey to now. My inspiration has been ongoing and accumulating over the past few months to the point of creative explosion, thus manifested in this blog. But hey, better a delayed beginning than none at all, right? My hope is to share stories from local food systems across the country – the good, the bad, the pretty, and the ugly, and along the way share a few of my own. With food being high on economic, social, and political agendas of the day, I hope you’ll join this journey with me to hear stories of what those in our food system are hungry for you to know. Stories of our hungry food: the spiritual and physical hunger of those who produce it as well as those who consume it.