CASFS Blog & Forum

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Interview with Sky DeMuro-Miller: Current 2nd Yr Apprentice (Chadwick Garden)

GGW: What led you into farming in the first place?

SDM: My parents have a small farm in Massachusetts, and as a kid, it was my favorite place in the world. I grew up feeding pigs, taming kittens, drinking milk fresh from the cow, and being directly involved in the relationships of farming (life, death, give, take, interdependence of different species and weather and natural systems...). I didn’t expect to be working in agriculture, but after a more “normal” six-year career in non-profit development and communications, I yearned for work that was more grounded and directly engaging. Laboring on the land to produce beauty and food that customers appreciate turned out to be the best decision I’ve made for myself yet.

GGW: Where do you work and play?

SDM: I currently work at an educational farm at the University of California at Santa Cruz. I’ve worked on a number of production farms and educational farms over the last few years. My current position at UCSC is amazing. I am an assistant manager in a two-acre hand scale garden that was started by a man named Alan Chadwick in the late ‘60s. (Hand scale means there are no tractors - all cultivation is done by hand, including digging beds, making and turning compost, and all harvesting). This garden on the UCSC campus is part of a program that hosts about 40 people from all over the world who come to study organic farming and gardening for six months and live together in community. So not only am I studying organic gardening under an amazing mentor and honing my horticultural skills, I am also getting to teach and learn with a diverse group of adults, which I find very rewarding.

GGW: In your opinion, what are some of the challenges female farmers face?

SDM: On some level, all small scale farmers face the same issues - a corrupted system that favors agribusiness and unjust production systems, whatever the commodity, and directly hurts or impedes small and alternative businesses.

How specifically female farmers are challenged, that’s a tricky question. I was just speaking with one of my farmer friends yesterday who is also a mom. When she was pregnant with her daughter, she was the primary farmer, up until her 7th month of pregnancy. But then it became physically impossible to farm. When her daughter was an infant, my friend would take a baby monitor into the greenhouse or the fields to cultivate or harvest when the baby was napping. Now she has two babies, and she has had to drastically scale back her involvement on the farm. She has a husband who does most of the farm labor, and she manages more of the “indoor” work of farming, like accounting, marketing, and crop planning. This is a pretty traditional story I think - women farmers who are also mothers end up either needing a very involved co-parent partner, or they must be less involved in the farm. Farming is a lifestyle - you don’t quit at the end of the day. Most farmers I know are always working on some level, whether it’s actually out in the field or at market, or managing a greenhouse, or planning or dealing with cows that get out, or networking with other farmers to share ideas... It’s a lifestyle and a job that requires a lot of time. And mothers particularly have a particular challenge of hours in the day and juggling many needs.

But in general, in my experience, women farmers face the same issues that all women in this culture face - we don’t have a lot of role models that aren’t sexualized. I mean, what woman farmer have you ever seen on TV? Paris Hilton did that series on a farm. In movies and in advertisements, the woman is usually cast as the farmer’s wife or the farmers sexy daughter. Seldom do you see a female business owner or a woman driving a tractor, which is incredibly sexy, in my opinion!

One thing I’ve been dealing with, and talking to other women farmers and aspiring farmers about, is that a lot of women have very little experience with construction and mechanics, which are very important skills in farming. Things always need to be fixed or built and there’s often not enough money or time to hire someone else to do it. But many women I know haven’t had much experience with power tools or even the muscle memory of using hand tools. It seems like so many men and even boys grow up being trained how to fix things. So women grow up and either need to or feel like they need to rely on a man to do something like fix an irrigation line or repair a gate or construct a table. So part of my work is to teach and empower women to use tools and feel productive and capable.

GGW: I just read an article in the NYTimes, by Isolde Rafery, in which she cites the 2007 Census of Agriculture: the average age of farmers is 60 years old, and over half of the farmland in the US is owned by those over 55. What do you think we need to do to shift this towards the younger generation, which tends to be more focused on environmentally sustainable practices in smaller settings?

SDM: A big, imposing issues for new and aspiring farmers is access to affordable land and capital to start up any kind of business. Farming is a land-based endevor and is directly dependent on long range soil management plans. Many people who have a desire to go into farming don’t have the means to purchase land when it is being sold at development rate, but land tenure is key to a thriving, long-term farm.

This is a complex issue, but I think we need to not only train more farmers, like the program at UC Santa Cruz does, and protect precious farmland, but also better support local food systems and small farmers once they get going. There’s only so much individuals can do, like buy food from responsible growers at farmers market or through CSA progrqams; the government needs to stop subsidizing big agribusiness and better support local farmers. We as individuals need to vote for farmers and start making noise about food security and agriculture. There have been some changes made to recent Farm Bills, but more can and needs to be done to support young farmers, organic and sustainable farmers, and small business owners. This means everything from low interest start-up loans to affordable health care to marketing support. Agriculture in America is changing rapidly, and if we are not smart and intentional about it, if we don‘t educate ourselves and take direct action, the direction our food system takes could be either sustainable or devastating.

GGW: Which women in your field inspire you?

SDM: I’m inspired by Wendy Johnson - a gardener, author, Zen practitioner, and a sassy silver-haired mama. I’m inspired by Nancy Vail, who co-founded Pie Ranch, an educational farm where I worked and played for two years. Nancy can drive a tractor, play a mean fiddle, parent her darling kiddos, skip down a dirt road, inspire urban youth to get their expensive jeans dirty, speak Japanese, prune a fruit tree, and look fabulous the whole time. Another of my role models is Rhonda Perry of Missouri, a grassroots organizer, hog farmer, and defender of rural communities. I met Rhonda when I worked at Farm Aid, and hope to be more like her when I grow up. Finally, I have to give a shout out to all my girls at CASFS; I’m so inspired by the aspiring and neophyte women farmers, food activists, and gardeners I’ve met and worked with in Santa Cruz- the ladies of the revolution. !Si, se puede!


GGW: What are some effective ways to get involved?

SDM: I strongly encourage everyone to join a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) project. It’s a way to get directly involved in their communities by supporting a specific farm and getting a share of whatever food is in season. Members sometimes can pick up their shares on the farm, and some CSAs offer a “pick-you-own” option, or work days, where members can work in the fields. I think that everyone should try to grow food if that appeals to them. It’s an unbelievably magical experience, that little tiny seeds can turn into huge, nutritious, beautiful, thriving plants. For people who want a more in depth experience, many farms offer internships and apprenticeships where people can work for a full season. There’s also an organization called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) where people can volunteer on farms all over the world in exchange for helping out in the field or the barn. It’s a great way to see the world and get to know local cultures, food, ecosystems, and customs.

I’d also encourage people to start to be curious about the food they buy. If you shop in a grocery store, look at the packages or ask the grocer - who owns the company? Where was the food grown and how? If you shop at a farmers market, talk to the folks selling the food - sometimes the farmers do the selling, or often the folks who work market have a personal connection to the farmer and the land. Ask what kind of farm it is and what their ethics are. Our food industry is really complicated and intentionally shrouded in mystery; what I mean is, big companies put a lot of money into making everyone believe that all eggs come from happy hens who run around outside, and that all dairy is from these happy cows frolicking on pastures, and every piece of fruit is cared for and hand picked by some salt-of-the-earth man in denim. But that’s usually so far from the truth. So I say, at least start to ask questions and make educated choices, because big agribusiness is intentionally deceiving you and doing some irreparable damage behind your back.

Some good places to start getting educated are websites like The Center for Food Safety, GRACE, the Pesticide Action Network, and Farm Aid, to name a few.


GGW: Why isn't my artichoke plant growing?

SDM: :) Could be a lot of reasons. Probably it’s about the soil, which is the sacred foundation of life. Even backyard home growers should get a soil test. This will not only tell you about nutrients, but also about any harmful heavy metals present, like lead. Check for advice and workshops at local garden centers, community gardens, or ask advice from farmers at your local farmers market. Watch out though, once you get bit by the growing bug, your life will change!

Read more about Sky's adventures here.

posted by CASFS 2006 @ 6:23 PM

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