At Grow Dat Youth Farm, we've been taking in what we refer to in jest as "the great kale controversy of 2014" from a distance, until recently, when the national media sought us out. We were first visited by a reporter from Aljazeera America, who published this piece as an addition to the many other responses to recent NYTimes article that has led to a flurry of on-line -- and in person at the farmers market -- conversations. Just last Friday, we were quoted in the Grist piece titled "What Kalegate Taught Us About New Orleans and Food". We decided to add our own perspective to this conversation (one that has not gotten much play yet), the perspective of farmers growing kale.
At Grow Dat, we believe in the power of relationships to address the world's toughest social problems. On our farm in City Park, we work to create supportive spaces where people can find common ground across difference. The meaningful work of growing food provides us, as farmers and change agents, a unique opportunity to use food as a tool to unite us, not further divide us.
When we (and we is forty teenagers, five full-time staff, six part-time agricultural apprentices and significant number of volunteers who work together to run our two acre farm in City Park) think of kale, we think of a plant. Or, more accurately, we think of a tiny seed that we planted that, over months and with the diligent attention of many hands and the patience of those who know that farming is nothing more than stewarding a natural process, grew miraculously into a plant. We think of the cold winter -- coldest any of us can remember -- that we experienced this year, and the extra time it has taken for our kale to grow because climate change is dramatically impacting the cycles of weather we are accustomed to (sea level change and salt water intrusion already threaten many of our growers along the Gulf Coast, and changing temperatures decrease agricultural productivity throughout Louisiana and the Southeast, for more information, see this report) . We think of the sun, and the water, and the soil that have really done the work before we harvest the beautiful leaves from its stalk. We think of the nourishment it provides -- to youth in our leadership program who take it home to share with their family or to the many individuals we donate 40 percent of our harvest to and to customers who buy it at the Whole Foods store or at the farmers markets where we sell it. We don't think of it as a branded commodity, or a vegetable aligned with a certain race or class. We think of it as food, as a labor of our hard work and love, that we feel so lucky to both sell and share. Or, as Jolissa Brown --graduate from our 2011 program so eloquently describes the process of growing food: "When you do it you'll be really proud of your field because you'll be like -- 'Wow! All that came from just one seed.'"
When we think of kale, or collards, or spinach, we think of our grandparents. Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents grew greens in their yards and gardens, alongside tomatoes and herbs and here in New Orleans with mirlitons and citrus and okra. Elders working with the Backyard Gardener's Network recall a time when nearly everyone in the Lower 9th Ward had backyard gardens, and fruit trees grew throughout the neighborhood. This self-sufficiency kept people fed and healthy and connected them with change of the seasons, and with time they learned with intimate detail how to live in relationship to their tiny corner of the earth. They shared their bounties and their seeds, and before the introduction of the idea that the genetic properties of seeds themselves could be owned, it would be impossible for them think of kale as an elitist vegetable. They were greens, and they ate them, and enjoyed them with friends and family and neighbors.
When we think of the past we think of today. The exciting truth about the past is that it is also a part of the present. We have witnessed a great destruction to family farms in our country over the last forty years, which has given way to a growing, and alarming, corporate control of our food (six multinational corporations -- Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, and BASF -- control 60 percent of the international commercial seed market and 75 percent of all private sector plant breeding research). But this trajectory is not a forgone conclusion, and the sovereignty that our ancestors found growing and cooking and sharing their own food is happening again today. We are proud at Grow Dat to be one of millions of people in the US growing food sustainably, collectively, with the intent to both sell and share the food we grow with our community. Recently, the number of U.S farmers markets increased by almost 10% in a single year, and 37 percent of all households in the United States planned to grow their own fruits, vegetables, herbs, or berries.
In times when the discussion seems to only skim the surface of the bigger truths, I'm reminded of the words of bell hooks -- author, activist, academic, feminist. She reminds us that, "Humankind no matter how powerful cannot take away the rights of the earth. Ultimately nature rules... To tend the earth is always then to tend our destiny, our freedom, and our hope." At Grow Dat we use this process of tending the earth to build real relationships, across difference, to reunite and find common ground. This common ground becomes the springboard from which we work to address the very real inequities that exists in our food system.