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Community farming – it’s not about food: Josh Slotnick at TEDxUMontana

Community farming – it’s not about food: Josh Slotnick at TEDxUMontana


Translator: Alicia Ferreiro
Reviewer: Ivana Korom My name is Josh Slotnick, and I am a vegetable farmer. I work on a farm where we grow food with University students, teenagers, school children, almost anybody who will come by. And the story that I’m going to tell you is about how I came to understand how big a deal that is, and what ramifications of this are, and how important a sense of humbleness in the work is for it to be successful. And believe me, mentioning humility
in a TED Talk the irony’s is not lost on me. (Laughter) So, this story has its origins in crisis. Two crises: the first, personal, and the second, political. The first crisis: it was the mid 90’s. My wife and I had been farming for a couple of years on rented ground, working crazy hard, smiling a lot, it was pure and uncomplicated and totally wonderful, and then it got really complicated. We had a little boy. Beautiful, shining, wonderful little guy, he’s still great; bigger than me now. Working really hard on rented land, making no money did not fit with my image of what a dad should be, and I fell into a tail spin of panic. So, I drug my little family across America to a really great college; you could make the argument that it was better than I deserved even – where I was to study something that had a high degree of employability, but I really wasn’t interested in it. I lasted four days. (Laughter) On that fourth day, instead of bailing on the entire thing, my wife convinced me to switch,
switch course of study. Now, a few years before I’d been an apprentice
at the UC Santa Cruz farm and garden. Six months over the course
of a big summer. It was the best educational experience
I had ever had. I was elevated by it, I never before felt so in tune
with people and place; it was like I grew 2 inches
and I was 26 years old. So I switched
my course of study at Cornell. I decided instead to study something
with almost no chance of employability (Laughter) lots of passion; I learned all that I could about
student farms. After two school years, we kept farming
in Missoula in the summer time, but after two school years, I returned
to Missoula and found that public crisis. Some friends of mine, activists,
kind of public and private, were quite concerned about
the 1995 farm bill. Usually farm bills are pretty darn dry,
but this one had embedded in it, deep and dramatic cuts to food stamps. So intense that there was concern among these folks who worked
in the public health arena that our food bank
was going to be swamped. That when all these people
lost their food stamps, thousands more folks
would hit our food bank, and our food bank,
which was much smaller than it is now, had shelves that were stocked with food
that’s pretty nutritionally thin, but calorically rich; not the kind of food
that makes you healthy. I fell in league with these folks, and in one fell swoop, we dreamed up
what we thought would be a plan to address
this food security issue. We started a brand new organization
called Garden City Harvest. Garden City Harvest’s mission
was to address food security. And we started a new student farm
called the PEAS Farm. The PEAS Farm was a partnership between
Garden City Harvest and the Environmental Studies program
at the University of Montana. Both organizations have kept me on. We also started a community garden. I believed then,
that if we grew beautiful food and I passed on little nuggets of wisdom
around how to grow food, that this thing would be successful. So now, almost 16, 17 years later, our two-acre student farm that we started
is now a 10 acre farm, and we have three other farms in
city limits that are all community farms. Our one community garden
is now seven community gardens, and we have a school garden
in nearly every elementary school in town. It’s been madly successful. But I was wrong about why. It is not about the food. I’m going to tell you more of the story,
you’ll hear what it’s about; so move to the edge of your seats… (Laughter) So, a couple years in to the
summer program at the PEAS Farm, I ran into a friend who said he’d seen
some of the farm kids, he called them farmies; said, “I saw those farmies downtown,
what is it with them? They’re like, a thing.” And he put his hands together, struggling for words to describe
this high degree of closeness. My buddy Tim Ballard worked with me
at the farm and we talked about this. We’re like, “What’s going on here?” Well, we noticed a couple of things. The beginning of a summer session, the students at the PEAS Farm
would say to me things like this, “Where do you want us to put your truck?” It’s the farm truck,
but they called it my truck. “When are we going to plant
your lettuce starts?” they called them my starts, right. A couple weeks in, they’d say,
“Shouldn’t we water our corn?” (Laughter) “Are we going to change the oil
in our tractor?” The pronouns had changed,
the farm became theirs. Their relationship to the place
changed deeply. A similar thing happened with
their relationship to each other. Now here in Western Montana,
in the heart of summer, it can be 95 degrees during the day
and it’s still cool in the morning. So these students would show up
in the morning wearing hooded sweatshirts, it gets warm by 10 o’clock,
and they shed the sweatshirts, often right where they’re working, and keep on going. And the next morning, they show up
and they don’t have a sweatshirt, (Laughter) but that’s alright, they just put on
whichever one they run into. Now what kind of relationship
do you have with someone when you randomly wear their clothing
without asking? (Laughter) That’s that closeness.
That thing that my friend remarked on. So these two little anecdotes
should beg the question in your head: what were we doing to inspire this sense
of attachment to place and to people? It kind of goes like this: I’ll make up a scenario
and you’ll see it. So imagine that
Royce and I are weeding carrots. It’s spring time, second week of May. Now carrots take 14 days to germinate,
weeds take 9 days. Second week of May, our [unclear] little carrots are chocking
in these thick fans of muscular weeds. It’s time to get busy. Now weeding carrots, you’re squatting down,
hands and knees, using hand tools, we’re both wearing dirty clothes,
close to the earth, doing work that doesn’t take
a lot of brain power, we start working away. A couple hours into it, I’ll know how you
came to be president of the University. And you will come to know more than
you ever wanted to about my children. (Laughter) Now amplify that experience out. Not just the two of us,
but 15 people over three months. A couple of things happen simultaneously. In those carrots, or in the beets,
or whatever else we were working on, we could stand back after that morning
and see beautiful carrots, in the bright light of the new summer,
standing tall, and we would have no doubt about
why we were there that day. Now, you do this with other people, and you come to realize that
you are an essential part of that group, and that group needs you,
and you need the group. Simultaneously, these students understand
their own personal power and that they belong
to a high functioning group, and they are transformed by it. You can see it in the pronouns. It becomes their farm,
and they belong to each other. Now my buddy Tim had been
working with teenagers in the winter time
doing wilderness therapy, and he openly asked this question: “So, this works great with college kids. Who have, by definition,
a relative degree of privilege.” Someone had the wherewithal
to get them to college, But would this work for people
who faced much bigger obstacles? So we parented up with
Missoula Youth Drug Court. Each summer we would get between
five and eight kids from drug court. Kids who often faced really big obstacles, who were living in group homes,
who did not have stable families. Did it work? For the most part,
the magic absolutely worked. They too were transformed by it,
the farm became theirs. And the University students, they start
about a month earlier than the teenagers, so by the time the teenagers get there, the University students have set
this high cultural bar, and the teenagers kind of want to be like
the 21, 22 year olds, so they act accordingly. A few years back a former Youth Harvest kid,
this program’s called Youth Harvest, a former Youth Harvest kid
came to the PEAS Farm. A few years later,
she had her wedding there. So how often would this happen,
that someone would return to the scene of their juvenile justice experience
for their wedding!? (Laughter) (Applause) But that isn’t even the best part of it. Three times a week,
our Youth Harvest Kids fill our big red van with food that they’ve been
growing and caring for, they harvest this beautiful food,
load up this big red van, and drive off to low-income housing
centers for senior citizens. And they set up this,
what looks like a farmer’s market table. This beautiful spread of food. And we sell the food
at deeply-subsidized prices. We grew it, we can charge
whatever we want for it, and nothing’s more than a dollar. Now, when we first started doing this
we had to institute some rules, because we would show up and the Youth Harvest Kids
are trying to build their display, and their table was mobbed
by senior citizens (Laughter) they couldn’t get their signs up,
they couldn’t get the bags out. (Laughter) So we set up rules. Ok, we’re going to start
at exactly 2 o’clock. So the big red van pulls up,
they set up the table, set up the food, and just at 2 o’clock the door opens,
and… A lady in a walker is rushing to the table
as fast as she can (Laughter) to get there so she can have
an animated conversation about tomato sauce with a 17 year old who, last week,
was in drug court. These two groups just fit together
so beautifully, it caused me to wonder: what is going on here? And the way that I’ve, kind of,
unpacked this, is to think about it like an ecology. In an eco-system,
the way one organism lives makes way for another organism, makes a space
for another organism to live. This is a social ecology. These teenagers, they are typically
received by the adult world as a burden, they are a problem,
they have to be dealt with. They need to do something of value
so they realize they are of value. The senior citizens over here,
we have put them away, they need to be tended to
so they know they are still alive. And you see these two groups
just fit hand-in-glove. The seniors receive the teenagers
like heroes, not a burden; just the opposite. Now hold those stories in your head
for a moment and I’m going to expand out
into the larger and abstract a little bit. Now, we have heard in many different ways
that our natural world is crumbling, and the antidote to this is often held out
to be sustainability. And, I think we often
mistake sustainability for things like compact fluorescent
light bulbs and hybrid cars. In the stories I’ve described, people got to experience
a deep sense of allegiance to the ground under their feet and a relentless desire
to care for those around them. When a person is in that state,
all good follows. Sustainability is not material;
it is a state of the heart. Growing food together is one way
to get there, it’s not the only way, but I know that it’s one way. Now, you don’t need 10 acres
of fertile ground to do this at home. There is a recipe. I’m going to give you the recipe so you can return to your neighborhoods
and do similar things. The recipe goes like this; small groups of people doing humble labor
where we’re the same. Humble labor producing tangible results
that are meaningful. Humble labor,
tangible results that are meaningful, equals a transformative experience. All we need in every neighborhood
in America is good work to be done. Thankfully we’re rich in that, everywhere you look
there’s work to be done. So now you know the recipe. Go back to your neighborhood and get busy. Thanks a lot. (Applause)

Comments (10)

  1. I really enjoy TED Talks, but have not run across this yet. Thank you, Bigot Vanquisher for bringing me to this wonderful video. Great story.

  2. Well done, thank you Josh Slotnick!

  3. One of the few TED talks that does not overtly  have a socialist agenda….

  4. Great talk Josh!!!!

  5. I was one of those PEAS farm students in 2010. Josh's infectious positive attitude and community-oriented philosophy toward farming inspired me to pursue more experience in agricultural professions, and I am starting a small farm with my husband this year. We need more community leaders like Josh to inspire meaningful development in our neighborhoods and cities–I don't mean some intangible person out there. I mean any of YOU who felt like standing up and cheering at the end of this talk.

  6. I love the talk and the ending with this— "Recipe, small groups of people doing humble labor, where 'we are the same' producing tangible results that are meaningful = a transformative experience".

  7. I had this talk with a friend at her antique store a couple of hours ago. If I started a food bank it would be food that is grown. I can't see myself constantly selling boxed or canned food filled with loads of salt and preservatives. Its basically giving people junk instead of nourishment. That stuff is fine in moderation I guess but we need more veggies.

  8. When he started talking about how he took in those kids who were suffering from their unstable families, I started crying. I ran away to live in a communal setting because I couldn't cope with my home situation and it opened up my eyes so much and helped me to start to heal. What a great thing he did for this kids.

  9. I ran is all about egner G dependency not nuclear war And now that I found you I'm one step closer to My goals I'm unionizing the mental health community To meet you halfway

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