Monday, June 23, 2014

Weaving the fabric of a community

For those of you that may have missed it, the following is an article I wrote for the Charleston City Paper's DIRT Magazine this spring. I have added some personal pictures to enhance the experience! 

On a cold day in March, I stand bundled up outside the birthing pen at Jeremiah Farm and Goat Dairy on Johns Island while goats of all sizes nuzzle and play in fresh shavings. Farmer Casey Price has invited me to take part in the kidding process that marks the beginning of milking season on her farm. As a mentor farmer in the Lowcountry Local First Growing New Farmers Program, she is passionate about sharing her knowledge of goats, chickens, and homesteading with people of all ages.
As is often the case with Price, our conversation is woven together with the details of our personal lives, questions and answers about farming, and updates on her current apprentices. We fall easily into our long-established role of mentor and apprentice as I stand by to assist two goats being brought into the world by Price's gentle hands.

Four years ago, I started my journey in farming through the Growing New Farmers apprenticeship program as one of the first participants during the pilot year. The experience was a life changer, introducing me to a farming community made up of some of the most hardworking, passionate, innovative, and generous people. Every day brought something new, whether it was riding on the tractor with Joseph Fields or product tasting with chefs in the kitchen during deliveries. As the program came to an end, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my career to working in agriculture. In 2011, I realized this dream when I became the director of sustainable agriculture for Lowcountry Local First.

Since that time the program has experienced incredible growth. The Growing New Farmers Program has expanded to include the Dirt Works Incubator Farm and the first phases of a land-matching service. To date, 95 people have graduated from the program while working with more than 14 mentor farmers. For participants in the current program, a nationally recognized and locally adapted curriculum guides their 10-month experience, which combines classroom training, work-days at Dirt Works, and field trips with on-farm mentorship.

As the first formal farm apprenticeship program and farm incubator in South Carolina, Growing New Farmers has created both opportunities and networks for small farmers and food system leaders to learn, grow, and succeed. Every year the program introduces a thread of new individuals to the fabric of the local agricultural community, strengthening the capacity of the local food system. Past and current program participants often become mentors, advocates, and leaders; each has a unique story and these are just a few.

The educational farmer

"It's in my blood," says Drew Harrison, also a first-round apprentice in the Growing New Farmers program. Like many in the Southeast, Harrison's family has a long history in farming. Raised in Asheville, N.C., he spent a lot of his childhood on his grandfather's cattle farm in Georgia and grew up hearing stories about his mother's family growing tomatoes on Johns Island. But Harrison first sought career opportunities elsewhere before coming back to his roots. He spent time stock trading before his disenchantment led him to Costa Rica where his passion for farming was ignited. Harrison returned to Charleston and found both the Green Heart Project and the LLF Growing New Farmers program.

As a farming apprentice, Harrison learned the climate, market, and community in Charleston while receiving the tools to grow both food and a business. Through his experience, he gained the skills and the support network to help him take the helm as the director of the Green Heart Project, which under his leadership, has grown to two urban farm school sites at Mitchell Elementary and Zucker Middle School with almost 15,000 square feet of garden serving more than 400 K-6 grade students.

With such great experience and knowledge to share, Harrison now serves as a mentor in the program and helps the community continue to grow. He has worked with four apprentices, 36 College of Charleston interns, and more than 850 volunteers since 2011. Working on the Green Heart farms often provides an opportunity for individuals to grow vegetables for the first time, as was the case for Amy Robinette.

The food and beverage farmer

Amy Robinette was raised in Spartanburg and graduated from the University of South Carolina. She initially came to Charleston seven years ago to train as a pastry chef, but, like so many others, found herself stuck in the kitchen. While working at Closed for Business, a partner restaurant of the Green Heart Project, Robinette connected with the urban farm at Mitchell Elementary. Although Robinette's aunt and uncle own a large horse and produce operation in Kentucky, volunteering with the Green Heart Project was her first experience growing food. Before long, she had started her own vegetable garden and adopted her own small flock of chickens.

It was during this time that Robinette discovered Growing New Farmers. Robinette says being in the program changed her life. She currently works on the Dirt Works Incubator Farm alongside John Warren of Spade & Clover Gardens as well as Harleston Towles and Rita Bachmann of Rooting Down Farm. Robinette has been working alongside her mentors (two of whom are former apprentices) to understand how to grow and sell traditional and niche products. "There is so much pride to be had working with my hands," says Robinette. "I haven't gone a single day that I haven't been happy." Robinette hopes to use the knowledge, resources, and network from the program to someday operate her own small farm and bakery. (She just launched her business, The Cake Farmer which is currently operating a pie CSA aka weekly sweet and savory pies full of local ingredients!) 

The second career farmer

Similar to Robinette, Kathee Dowis stumbled into farming unexpectedly. Dowis initially participated in the Master Gardener program in 2007 while still working as a full-time mother. By 2012, she was volunteering at the Hampton Park Greenhouse and looking for the next step when she saw a poster for the apprentice program and "went ballistic." Dowis joined the program in 2013 as an apprentice with Meg Moore at Dirthugger Farm and continued in 2014 to experience the new curriculum and additional mentorship of Casey Price. For her, the most unexpected part of the program was how much emotion is involved in farming: "The excitement of the planting, bloom, harvest, and first taste; the heartache of a flooded field or lost animal; and the return of the joy."

At 53, Dowis is one of four participants in the 2014 class over the age of 40, a demographic that is common in new and beginning farmer training programs across the United States. These second-career farmers are utilizing their personal and professional experience to approach farming strategically. Growing up on her grandfather's expansive tobacco and soybean farm in Darlington, S.C., Dowis watched firsthand as a farmer had a bank note called in. The community met at the Dead End Grocery to "pass the hat" and save the farm. She was looking for an opportunity to learn best practices in farming without the risk of losing a farm. "It gives you a true opportunity to learn what you like and you don't like and what you are good at," she says. "If you decide to cut out, you've had such a lovely experience but you wouldn't have lost tons of money or land."

A food desert farmer

Another over-40 apprentice, John Lloyd is also a second-career farmer. The history of John's family goes back several generations in Cordesville, S.C., one of the oldest Gullah communities in the state. His family-farming legacy was passed from his sharecropping great-grandparents, to his independent farming grandparents, to his aunts and uncles in farming, and now to him. Born, raised, and currently living on the family farm, John grew up in a community built around the growing, harvesting, and cooking of organic local food. In his youth, he spent long days doing farm chores, but the pull of life off the farm led him to a career in athletics.

His lean build, trainers, and track pants echo a lifetime spent as a distance runner, fitness trainer, physical education teacher, and coach. During the last few years of teaching and coaching, Lloyd became increasingly disturbed by the high rates of obesity and health related illnesses. He watched student's diet choices become limited to unhealthy processed foods with little or no access to fresh fruits or vegetables.

In 2013, Lloyd applied to the Growing New Farmers Program, he says, "to learn the business aspect of agriculture to give me the balance between the growing and the business." During his first year he spent time apprenticing at Joseph Fields Farm, visiting Casey Price, and trying to get things started on his own property. At the end of 2013, he signed up for the S.C. Loan Fund's Feeding Innovation business competition to further assist him in the development of his agricultural venture. Lloyd hopes to create an affordable CSA program for families in food deserts interested in fresh vegetables; the business plans include SNAP compatibility and a focus on varieties of produce customers are familiar with. "The only way our health is going to change is if our food source changes," he says.

He is currently participating in the 2014 apprentice program to learn about CSAs with expert Kenneth Melton of Lowland Farms and is working with Harrison of the Green Heart Project to better understand taste preferences and recipes in the garden.

The farmer supporting farmers

As with my own experience, there are a number of graduates who discover their passion lies in helping farmers. For these food system leaders, the Growing New Farmers program provides the perspective, experience, and deeper appreciation of the challenges facing the agricultural community. Frasier Block is one such graduate. "It gave me the opportunity to work hands-on from the ground up with a smaller farm ... and understand what goes into [farming]," he says. Frasier participated in the 2012 and 2013 year with Dirthugger Farm and Black Bird Market. Through her experience working at Dirthugger with Meg Moore and seeing her launch the successful Sunday Brunch Farmers Market, Frasier began to understand both the supply and demand sides of local food.

Earlier this year, she launched the Homegrown Farmers Market on Johns Island. The first farmers market to operate through the winter, it was very well received by the community. Since opening, the market has experienced incredible growth and includes 17 local farmers, 30 local food artisans, 30 local product and craft vendors, educational vendors, and musicians. Frasier aims to create a market that is a one-stop-shop for local products and a place that helps people take that first step in living a sustainable lifestyle.

The multiplier effect

A strong element of the Growing New Farmers program is that it supports a culture built on personal relationships to create a resilient interconnected community. Mentors and apprentices are incredibly supportive of one another and their bonds last far beyond their program year. Each of these graduates touches the lives of dozens of people in the community, providing guidance, inspiration, and support. The Growing New Farmers program is weaving together an incredible farming community, and I am honored to be a part of such a beautiful fabric.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Wild and Precious Life

At first, it was hard to say exactly what was slipping away. Staring into the eyes of my 84-year old grandmother, something had changed. It is no secret, like a thief in the night Alzheimer's has been stealing away her memories for years, but no, this was something all together worse. Aptly nicknamed the “pit-pull in lipstick” the Myra Jo I grew up always had a twinkle in her eye and fiery disposition. At her foundation was the barely contained zest for adventure, an alert awareness of every small rock and creature underfoot, a true passion for life. My friends, this is something I took for wholly for granted and what I was completely unprepared for her (and I) to lose. This disease is a reverse aging of the most unwanted kind, stripping her down to a childlike state and leaving her trapped in a failing body. Every few weeks we are all getting to know a new Myra. She is thankfully incredibly sweet and innocent but she no longer is fueled by a fire to know more, be more, experience more. So as I tucked her into bed during my last visit, I knew it was the last time she would recognize me and surprisingly more heartbreaking, the last time I would recognize her. 

Perhaps it is because I have always seen so much of myself in my Grandmother that watching her fate unfold is all the more terrifying. Like shipwrecked passengers, we are left to cling to what remains of this incredible woman while we helplessly watch as her ship goes down. If I am to suffer a similar fate, I will be dammed if I don't live to the fullest and go down fighting. 

Myra Jo and I on our last road trip through California in 2007

Whether inherited, learned, or cultivated, I have always been a passionate person. I tend to let my fire run so deep and burn so hot that it comes close to consuming me. Some days my passion fills me to the brim and I am overflowing with joy while others it is a burden that exhausts me to the point of collapse. It is almost impossible to explain someone not driven by this same insatiable passion why I am always giving just a little too much of myself and yet I still continue to seek opportunities to give more. Thankfully, I have managed to find a career in which I can direct my intensity and invest myself in the movement towards positive change that Paul Hawken’s appropriately calls the “blessed unrest”. As I stare into the fading eyes of Myra Jo, I feel a sense of urgency to carry on her torch and chase as many dreams as possible. 

In the last month I have had the pleasure of meeting and learning from two individuals whose lives have inspired many of my passion filled endeavors, Will Allen of Growing Power (read my article about him) and Dr. Vandana Shiva. Both are revolutionaries effecting change on a global scale who have dedicated their lives to both celebrating and saving the earth.

Refreshingly, during both of their presentations, they referenced how their own “life’s work” was built day by day, year after year, and neither of them knew they were on the path to a revolution when they started. They did not simply decide, “Here is what I am going to do for the next 40 years to become a revolutionary leader and this is my plan to getting there." Rather, they cultivated their skills, solved problems one at a time, and when the issues called for great change they rose to the occasion. Will Allen spoke to the time this process takes: the years and years of learning and trial and error that simply cannot happen over-night. They are after all both human, operating within the realm of existing knowledge and bound by the same limitations that we all face; they just chose to blaze the trail despite the obstacles.

The audience of these talks, similar to myself, seemed to struggle with the overwhelming complexity of the issues and noted how they found themselves paralyzed by the unlimited paths they could take. To this I say, Amen! If you are not regularly experiencing “holy shit” moments in life, then you are missing something. In my own work, I found the key is to see beyond the enormity of the challenges and instead focus on the opportunities for change in front of us. To understand the problem and determine how your skills can solve it. Let us take a moment to appreciate this as the gift that it is. Having the capacity to understand the issues, the time to debate the best steps in addressing them, and the ability to develop the tools to create change. Not everyone is so lucky.

There are millions in the world that will never have the chance to invest their lives towards something bigger than themselves. To leave a mark so lasting, generations to come will speak their names in classrooms. Whether it is poverty, illness, or death at a young age, so many that will never even have the opportunity to spread their wings. In John Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars, he explores this heartbreaking reality with raw honesty. Through his characters we are able to better understand what it could be like to have neither the time nor the capacity to realize your full potential. In this case, to be a teenager with cancer, living the years of self-discovery under the smothering certainty of impending death. The knowledge that you simply will not have time to pursue your dreams… a fear that has always lingered in my heart.

Green also acknowledges that we are all living on borrowed time and the regardless of the when or how, “you die in the middle of your life, in the middle of a sentence.” There are very few people that wake-up thinking that today will be there last; all the more reason to seize the day.

My hope is that I can one day inspire and motivate the world through my work and write books that allow people to better empathize, understand or appreciate others. I want to motivate others to understand their own gifts and for them to invest time in using those skills to create a better place to live. Poet Mary Oliver makes this call to arms so poignantly by asking, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

I plan to live it to the fullest, delight in the simple things, celebrate even the smallest victories, laugh at the ridiculousness, and love with reckless abandon. And of course, share all of the best stories along the way. 

This post is dedicated to my dear friend Brendan O’Brien and his amazing father Greg O’Brien. Greg is fighting to hold onto his passion for journalism and is dedicated to sharing his struggle against Alzheimer’s with the world. His genuine and honest writing inspires me to share more of myself in my own stories. You can learn more about his story here:

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Cultivating a hopeful future in prison.

As promised, here is a link to one of my latest articles from the Charleston City Paper's "Dirt Magazine" about my trip to a local correctional facility that has an amazing character program that incorporates a farm. I could have written an article about twice as long because their programs really are amazing and it truly opened my eyes to the issues facing prisons, their management, and those individuals that are released into society with very little opportunity for success. Since the visit, I have watched a few documentaries about prison life, the drug war, and related programs because the whole system is incredible, if not disturbing. Netflix has a few that you can watch for free if you are inspired after reading the article. I have also had the pleasure of sharing my insights with another local correctional facility in regards to actually hosting an incubator farm at their site similar to our Dirt Works Incubator Farm (see pics HERE). 

In case you miss them on the City Paper website, the pictures are below from Jonathan Boncek, the photographer and escort for the visit :-)

Partial shot of the one-acre veggie farm.


Warden Pate in the Greenhouse

The display case of homemade weapons found at prison. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dirt Works Incubator Farm

On recent visit with my Dad, we joked about my inability to post regularly to my blog. Its true, I am a terrible blogger. Although I LOVE to write, there is only so much time in the day and energy to write. I flex my creative writing muscles writing grants at work and freelance writing for local papers, leaving my desire to write on a personal level pretty low. So while my blog will most likely continue to be on the back burner, I do want to share some of the projects that I am working on. The one I am most proud of is the Dirt Works Incubator Farm on Johns Island, SC. We just finished the video of the project, so I wanted to share it with you all. We also have an awesome fly over feature produced by one of our partners that you can watch here. If after all that, you still want to here more of my voice, you can watch this video. Also check out the Instagram feed on the right side of my blog for continued photos!

There should be some of my freelance articles coming out soon- so keep an eye out :-)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Moving right along.

Moving. It is an interesting exercise in polarity; it is positive and negative, stressful and therapeutic, sends you forward and backward, and it is both an ending and a beginning. Since the age of 18, moving has been a part-time profession for me, often occurring more than once a year and often is out of necessity or for employment. I have actually moved 15 times in 12 years with my current, soon to be former house, taking the cake for longest held rental at 3 years. If you do the math that actually means that I moved 14 times in the previous 9 years which makes me judge myself a bit. Looking back at why I move, it often has more to do with school, work, or location (and sometimes involved a storage unit and a stay with parents) but I am also simply growing up and looking for different qualities in a house and neighborhood. In the last few years, the decision to move has also involved the commitment to live with my partner, in turn integrating both our possessions, pets, and lifestyles to see if we can thrive as a family. (Which, thankfully after three years, we most definitely are thriving.)

At this point, the decision to move is a culmination of frustration with our continuous struggle dealing with non-licensed yahoos, I mean contractors, sent to "fix" our failing apartment, the sale of our rental house, and the often excessive amounts of "character" found on our block. No, my dear neighbors, I am not working tirelessly all day long so I can come home and give you _____ (money, a beer, a ride, or my number) so you can leave trash in my yard and wake me up with late night shouting matches. Plus, there are only so many times you can have your truck run into by drunk drivers and stolen cars in high speed chases before you draw a line (I know, I know...I am so high maintenance). Needless to say, a line has been drawn and I am more than happy to move to greener pastures. 

Interestingly, despite the negatives, looking for good affordable housing in Charleston has revealed that we were actually quite lucky with our apartment. Not that this is a total shock considering we were thrilled to find it initially and have spent a better part of three years enjoying the apartment layout, our housemates, the general location, and the epic backyard. The pickings are pretty slim for the amount of rent we have been paying, so it became apparent that it was going to be a process. As with anything in my life, I did not let the dismal selection of housing in our price range discourage me but instead took it on as a personal challenge. If you need advice on property managers, the best neighborhoods, how to describe your dogs in non-threatening ways, or how to handle the awkwardness of being a shown rentals at the same time as two other interested people- I am your woman. (And don't worry on the last one- you don't have to cage fight, bribe with cash, or run in yelling "I'LL TAKE IT!!" before knowing what you are renting.)

After two months of hunting the proverbial housing snipe, I managed to secure a cute little rental house in an awesome neighborhood thanks to a lead from a good friend. So now we find ourselves ready to move forward and focus on a positive and exciting new adventure. The only hiccup? We have A LOT of stuff and our new place is several hundred square feet smaller. I have inherited absurd amounts of heirlooms, sentimental knick knacks, and other cool doodads. Ariel from The Little Mermaid doesn't have a dingle hopper to my collection of snarfblats. Add to that hobbies like biking, sewing, hooping, and gardening and I have myself an entire box truck full of fun stuff. Sorting through it all inevitably results in an introspective process for me- something I always enjoy. Picking through the flotsam and jetsam of my life leads me to relive experiences, remember people that have touched my life, and ultimately forces me to decide what to keep with me and what to let go of. 

After watching our friends with a tiny house reduce their possessions down to 300 items total, downsizing a few boxes and gadgets seemed like a completely manageable task. Not afraid of a little material possession cleanse, we chose to re-home many of our things through a yard-sale. With the help of Dan's wonderful mother, the support of many of our friends, and the awesome taste of our neighbors, we were able to re-distribute our things into the community.

The turkey hat and faux beard are happily living on John's Island now where thankfully I will have visitation rights. 

Pam Kelley, moving expert. Gavin and Kate, moral support.

We also had to face the reality that we could not take our two darling chickens with us to our new home, so we reached out to some of our friends to find a safe place for them to move. Thankfully, one of Dan's co-workers is quite the animal whisperer with a beautiful spread in Ravenel where they will be loved and free to roam. 

Mother Clucker with Pecan getting comfortable in her Eggloo.

Van, chicken adopter, critter whisper, and trailer lender. 

As if that was not amazing enough, Van and Kim also let us use their horse trailer to move our remaining hoard AND Van lent us his muscles for some serious heavy lifting alongside our friend John. So, roughly three months after our initial search began, one yard-sale, several horse trailer loads, and two less chickens we are in the homestretch completing our transition to a new house thanks to the love, support, and lifting of friends and family. Our lives are currently in boxes, our pets are needier that ever, we are sleeping on a futon, and we still have to sell several pieces of furniture but I am still beyond excited about our new adventure. After a walk with the dogs on the greenway, dozens of friendly "hellos", and a cocktail on my quiet front porch I had no doubt that we were definitely moving in the right direction. 

Here's to new beginnings and the interesting-life-altering-challenging-unexpected paths that take us there. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Busy Bee.

So much to do, so little time. We all experience it- the feeling that there is never enough time. We vow to "make more time" for ourselves, our families, our community. The trouble is, we inevitably become caught up in the daily routine and focus our energy on the immediate demands. As Tim Kreider with NY Times so aptly described, many of us fall into the "Busy-Trap"

As someone that loves their job, it is easy to work all the time, especially when a perceived sense of urgency exists. I often convince myself that if I just reach _____ (insert any number of goals here) that I will take a break- which of course simply results in myself constantly pushing towards new goals and deadlines. For those of us that must be "on" and social for our jobs, there is often little juice left for friends and family- something I really struggle with. 

The challenge comes in recognizing your own personal limitations, letting go of the need to be everything to everyone all the time, and knowing when and how to say "no". In a society that rewards those that push themselves to the limit, this is a challenge because you generally do not receive awards for calling your mother regularly, leaving work at 5, and making time for family dinner. This rings especially true in Charleston, a city of overachievers. I was lucky enough to be honored in two publications this spring as one of these individuals (see pictures below from Charlie Magazine and Charleston Regional Business Journal). 

Reading about my fellow awardees resulted in a odd mix of inspiration, pride, and self-depreciation. There are so many amazing people doing incredible things that it inevitably makes you feel like you should be doing more. I guess that is the curse of being an overachiever- always feeling like there is more we can achieve as individuals. The passion that I have for my job tends to absorb so much of energy that I end up reaching my work goals while those I have set in my personal life tend to be neglected. Yet, as I sat waiting to receive my award for 40 under 40, I quickly realized that this is a pattern of behavior experienced by many of my fellow diagnosed overachievers. When I teased the awardee sitting next to me at the ceremony for checking his watch, he admitted that he felt guilty for once again missing a night spent with his new baby. 

With this in mind, I propose a new set of awards. Awards that acknowledge the parts of our lives often over-looked, the unsung heroes, the people that give themselves everyday without thought of awards, paychecks, or publications. I want to win an award for the best letter writer, amazing pet owner, the most fun partner, the most generous gardener, the most often to call/email/text family member.  

Here is to winning at life.