Adapting to Changes: Sowing Sovereignty and Building Community

If governments won’t solve the climate, hunger, health and democracy crises, then the people will.

Regenerative agriculture provides answers to the soil crisis, the food crisis, the health crisis, the climate crises and the crisis of democracy.

Dr. Vandana Shiva

When I think of how communities can gain autonomy and create the systems to sustain themselves, I look directly to the food we eat. Food impacts so much, it impacts our health, our economies, our environment and water-ways, our relationships and even our overall happiness (seriously, we all know what if feels like to be “hangry”).

So how can we take back our food system to boost autonomy and resilience? Easy, we need to support small businesses and family farmers.

When we support these small and diversified operations that are committed to producing using ecological principles, we are contributing to our local economy and increasing our capability to be self-sufficient and thus less dependent upon outside resources.

FARMING TODAY 

Let’s face it, farming is no longer as it used to be. The image of the small family farm or home garden where people grew even a fraction of their food has been replaced with large-scale, commercial farms that resort to using harmful chemicals and large amounts of fossil fuels to produce cheap food in large quantities.

According to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA/NIFA), most US agricultural production comes from few large operations. Farms with annual sales over $250k produce 84% of all products sold while the 2-million small-family farms in the US only make up about 15%.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR OUR COMMUNITIES?

Farming is the very fabric of local economies. When a community has the ability to produce, process, package and distribute products locally, just think of all the resources that are being recycled right back into that local economy. When we depend on outside resources for, well… everything and anything, we run the risk of not having whatever that product is if any of the production, processing, packaging or distribution lines shuts down. As we saw in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, we are dependent upon an extremely fragile system.

THE SOBERING TRUTH

With natural disasters on the rise, we have seen the effects of delayed and inadequate government assistance. Disasters such as hurricanes in the southeast and Caribbean, floods in the plains and fires on the west coast prove we need to be more self sufficient. We cannot wait. The time has come. Communities must plan and prioritize emergency response and discuss how we will feed and care for ourselves in the face of disaster.

THE POWER OF COMMUNITY AFTER HURRICANE MARIA

After the hurricane, food was scarce. After all, Puerto Rico imports roughly 85% of its food and after the storm that number rose to over 95%. With the agriculture sector suffering severe damage, delayed emergency response and limited access to gas and electricity, much of Puerto Rico had limited access to fresh foods and depended upon shelf-stable non-refrigerated goods for months.

That being the case, after the hurricane, community was extremely important. I heard from individuals that it was people helping people, neighbors feeding one another, and sharing, that made the aftermath bearable. Although farmers were hard hit, small farmers on the island did their best to recover quickly from the damage and many say that it was their community that helped them get back on their feet. 

GOING THE EXTRA MILE

In the face of climate change, we must be creative, resilient and willing to go the extra mile. Sometimes it seems futile, but when the benefits come in the form of nutritious food, healthy soils, regenerated land and vibrant communities, farming just makes sense.

Hurricane Maria is regarded as the worst natural disaster to hit Puerto Rico, and with clean-up still in full force over a year and a half later, there is a lot of conversation about how the island will adapt to changes. Since arriving in Puerto Rico, I have had the opportunity to visit a handful of farms and I have attended forums and workshops hosted by farms, nonprofits, government organizations, universities and individuals and everyone is talking about adaptation and resilience. How do we rebuild better and stronger than before?

Composting Workshop at the Environmental Fair in Las Mareas, Puerto Rico

Since the hurricane, there has been an increase in volunteer organizations coming to the island to help with clean-up, rebuild and to learn from what happened. Emergency work-parties or “brigadas” have increased and small farms that have had to rebuild entire operations are doing so with a renewed commitment to growing using ecological principles and using recycled materials. Conversations are being held at dinner tables across the island and people are sharing information on what works and what doesn’t.

SOWING SOVEREIGNTY, BUILDING COMMUNITY

While my direct example of adapting to changes stems from the disaster that happened in Puerto Rico, we can look to communities all over the world that are turning to regenerative farming practices to improve their farm operations and strengthen communities. From production challenges stemming from natural disasters like floods, fires and drought, or other issues such as economic collapse and lack of distribution, communities are sowing sovereignty and building community through the lens of regenerative and sustainable agriculture. There is light at the end of the tunnel. With all the tragedies we are seeing around the globe, there is proof in the fields, resilient food systems and strong communities are what will see us through future disasters.

Taking the Leap: Connecting Food and Roots

One of my biggest life motivators… is food.

I love food. Having lived on the California central coast for almost ten years, I was exposed to beautiful food, organic produce and natural products. With access to fresh food through local farmers markets, I was able to connect my love of food all the way back to the farmers who grew the ingredients, and that just fascinated me. I loved the feeling of supporting my local farmer rather than some box store or corporate retailer. I loved the feeling of eating an unwashed organic strawberry without it leaving a weird taste in my mouth. And most of all, I loved the feeling of the community that it brought together. The collective power of small farms was empowering.

THE LEAP

So, I took the leap. Just over one-year ago, I quit my full-time job to pursue my love of food. I decided I wanted to learn to farm and, more importantly, I wanted to explore the small farm community outside the Bay Area. In preparation, I saved money, got rid of most my belongings and peeled myself away from the comforts of my home, a well-paying job and the community of friends I had built over the decade I spent living in Santa Cruz.  

LEARNING TO FARM

I don’t think one ever “learns to farm”. It is more of a practice that, well, takes practice. So, in my efforts to get a good practicing, I enrolled in a Beginning Farmer Training program in Oregon. The program was an 8-month educational internship with a 200 acre diversified full-diet farm in the high desert of Central Oregon. While on this farm, I learned all I could about what it takes to run a farm… and I’ll tell you one thing… it takes a lot!  Farming isn’t just about growing food, farming is a whole slew of roles, tasks and titles. Entrepreneur, marketing professional, mechanic, vet, engineer, plumber, researcher, customer service provider, delivery driver, and so, so much more. And after eight months, I felt like I had only gotten my toes wet.

ANOTHER CHAPTER FOR THE BOOKS

After my 8-month program, I was sad to say goodbye. The experience was one I will never forget. I started the program with what I thought farming was going to be and by the end, I was over joyed at just how much I learned and experienced in that short amount of time. It made me want more. I loved the demanding nature of farm life, the fact I was able to get dirty every day and all the amazing food, of course!

The farm, being a “full-diet” farm, meant that I worked with not only growing a variety of vegetables, flowers and herbs but also storage crops, grains, chickens (layers and broilers), pigs and cows (beef and dairy), pack and wash, markets, events, wholesale, organic certification, resilience planning and a million other things. It also meant I was able to connect with the caring community that supported the farm. This community was beautiful, ever-changing and passionate. When the time came for me to leave, it made me think of my community.

MY PEOPLE, MY COMMUNITY

It made me think of my community because I too can resonate with beautiful, ever-changing and
passionate
. I didn’t grow up farming, my parents didn’t grow up farming. And while I do descend from hard working grandparents that at one point or another worked in the fields, they never identified as farmers either. So, after leaving this 200-acre 3rd generation organic farm with a deep
community presence, I too wanted that sense of connection to land and people and place.  Like a cowboy without a horse, I felt like a farmer without roots.

While my journey to becoming a farmer has evolved from college years as a farm volunteer, to working to support organic farmers from behind a desk, to now, pursuing a career in farming, I felt as though I still needed to rid myself of the displaced feeling I had.  I needed to find my sense of land, people and place by re-connecting with my roots. And no, not my Southern California suburban childhood roots, but my real familial history. Who am I?  

MY ROOTS

My mom was born in Brooklyn, New York, her parents both Puerto Rican had left the island to find better jobs. My Mexican-American dad was born in Sacramento. Given I had spent several years of my mid-twenties travelling Mexico hitchhiking, riding buses and selling artisan jewelry, I decided it was my Puerto Rican side that needed some nurturing. So, in my overwhelming sense of displacement, and feeling like a newbie cowboy without a steed, I displaced myself further, from my family in Southern California, from my friends in Santa Cruz, and from the farm community in Oregon. 

When I arrived in Puerto Rico, my goals were ambitious. I worked on my mom’s childhood home that was damaged in Hurricane Maria, restoring water and power so I could have comfortable place to live, I bought a car (which can be a nightmare being on an island) and I visited farms. I have now been here exactly three months and have been working to building my community.

#PRSELEVANTA

Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is a different place than before. Since Hurricane Maria in September, 2017, many [more] families have left the island, countless buildings are in need of repairs, farms are still working to recover and people are talking. Now, more than ever, there is an awareness to the effects of severe and extreme weather conditions on the island and people are talking about resilience.

With fresh food shortages and inflated pricing after the hurricane (and in general), building a resilient Puerto Rico is imperative. What can we do differently to prepare for future disasters?

CONNECTING FOOD AND ROOTS

In the face of climate change, our food system is at risk. We can no longer ignore the patterns we are beginning, and will continue to see. As I search for my purpose, practice farming and connect with my community, I hope to learn more about what people are doing to reinforce their communities and feed people. Clean water and food are imperative to our survival just as finding our roots and eating our ancestral foods nurtures our souls and honors our ancestors. So, here I am! In Puerto Rico, La Isla del Encanto! 

Stay tuned for more updates from the island.