Posts Tagged ‘labor’

Young Blood in the NEK

This article was written for The Hardwick Gazette of Hardwick, Vermont.  An edited version was published in the paper on April 13, 2011.  The headline read “Young Returners and Newcomers Drawn to Opportunities and Lifestyle.”

Kids who were raised in the small towns of Vermont have not always been able to pursue their goals and make a living in the state they call home.  But to hear the stories of the young people who have recently returned or moved to the Northeast Kingdom is to realize that this is becoming a place for young people to do just that.  The strength of the community here, and an increasing number of steady jobs, is not only drawing Vermonters back home, but also convincing young people from around the country to consider life in the Northeast Kingdom.

“Some are idealistic, some are cynical, and some are naïve,” says Craftsbury resident Tim Patterson of the young people who have moved to the Hardwick area in the last few years.  “But all of them are ready to roll up their sleeves and work.”  Patterson, 28, was raised in Craftsbury and lived in Connecticut, Colorado, and in Southeast Asia, before returning home in 2009 to work as the Director of Advancement at Sterling College.

Another Vermont native, Anna Schulz, moved to Craftsbury two years ago to work with local schools and institutions as an Americorps VISTA through VT Campus Compact.  “I knew that I wanted to come back to Vermont,” says Schulz, 23, whose return followed her graduation from Harvard University.  Schulz lives in a house with a dozen other people under 25.  “We joke that we’ve lowered the mean age of Craftsbury by a few years,” she says.  “But we are attracted to the community.  The people here are generous, kind, hard-working, and humble.”

The community that drew Schulz and Patterson back home is strong enough to attract outsiders as well.

Born in the suburbs of Chicago, Vince Razionale lived in Boston and New York City before moving to Vermont this past January.  Razionale, 25, lives in Hardwick with his wife, Katrina Vahedi, and works in Sales and Marketing for the Cellars at Jasper Hill.  Vahedi, 29, is a native of California, lived in New York briefly, and is now working on a beekeeping project for Jasper Hill Farm.  Razionale believes strongly in the mission of the Cellars, and both he and Vahedi were attracted to the sense of community among agricultural businesses in this area.  The couple is expecting a baby in May, and their unborn child also played a large part in their move to the Northeast Kingdom.  “The quality of health care here, and ease of acquiring it, couldn’t be more different from what we would have suffered through in New York,” Vahedi says.  “Not to mention, this is one of the most beautiful places on earth.  I love knowing that our kids will be able to call this kind of beauty ‘home.’”

While Razionale works in the Cellars, Ivy Pagliari milks the cows next door, in the barn at Jasper Hill Farm.  Pagliari, 29, grew up in Ohio and was living in China when she first came to Vermont, six years ago.  She needed to return to the states for a summer to renew her Chinese visa.  “I wanted to work on a farm that summer, and it was already April” Pagliari remembers. “So I found a place where the growing season hadn’t started yet.”  She worked on several farms before moving to Hardwick and starting work as a Milker at Jasper Hill Farm last Fall.  “Eventually, I’d like to have a dairy of my own,” says Pagliari.  “For now, this is a great place to work and learn and save money.”

Just down the road in Greensboro, Hill Farmstead Brewery recently hired Daniel Suarez, who moved from Brooklyn to Vermont in January with his girlfriend, Taylor Cocalis.  Cocalis, 27, is self-employed as the Co-Founder of Good Food Jobs, an online search tool for food-related work opportunities.  The nature of her website exposes Cocalis to the increasing number of jobs available in this area.  “If I didn’t already have a job, I would be interested in so many of the opportunities available in Vermont,” says Cocalis.  “Most of the time I have to hold myself back from the positions I see.”

As a young person myself, I moved to Craftsbury last November to work in the field and the washhouse at Pete’s Greens.  I couldn’t help but want to live within an agricultural community that seemed so supportive of small, local businesses.  The first time I came to Vermont, I met Blair Marvin and Andrew Heyn at Elmore Mountain Bread, Shaun Hill at Hill Farmstead Brewery, and Marisa Mauro at Ploughgate Creamery.  Their success and collaboration in their own ventures made me want to live near them, learn from them, and maybe (one day) start a business of my own here.  As Mauro puts it, “There’s so much collaboration between producers here.  We can bounce ideas off each other, and help each other out when we need it.  There’s no community, even in Vermont, quite like this one.”

The reality of young people moving to the Hardwick area hints at a shift in the trend of rural-urban migration.  “Alternative agriculture and alternative energy are attracting young people to rural areas,” says High Mowing Seeds owner Tom Stearns.  “Some young people are coming here to stay, and some are coming to gain skills to bring back to their home communities.  Both are hopeful trends.”  High Mowing Seeds has nearly forty employees, several of whom are young people who returned or moved to Vermont to work there.  “Sterling College has brought in interesting people for decades, and many of them have stayed,” says Stearns.  “Now there’s a new generation of young people.  It’s not so much the educational institutions that are attracting them, but the businesses here.”

Elena Gustavson of the Center for an Agricultural Economy shares Stearns’ hopeful sentiments.  “We want to attract people here whose experiences elsewhere will contribute to this place,” she says, “and at the same time prepare people growing up here to stay and grow into the sort of careers that are becoming available in this area.”

Considering the appeal of this community, the young people who have returned or moved here, and the work they have chosen to pursue, it is clear that this effort is well underway.

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Working More, Writing Less

Four of the workers on this farm, if not more, tend to write. We’ve each written blogs, essays, books, or articles, wanting to somehow document the stories we live and witness. None of us have been writing much in the past few months, and we talk in the field and round the table about how we wish we could have. Our boss wants to be writing in part because he’s driven mad, by all the people writing about farming who aren’t farmers, all the articles in the New York Times that are wrong, and all the Michael Pollan apostles who don’t even seek the truth. Our manager will tell you how it took an hour to upload his last video, and it was only thirty seconds long! Though he manages to bang out a blogpost and put up photos more regularly than the rest of us. In response to appeals for material for our pseudo website Farm Story, one fellow intern has taken to saying that he’s not sure we have a story at all. For god’s sake, we pick tomatoes all day. I have written more than I have published on this site, but only very specifically about my work and the people here, small notes and reminders for myself, more than paragraphs for others to read. Accustomed to writing essays based on topics I’ve read about in books, or issues I’ve talked about in class, or events too big to be personal, I’ve found it inevitable on the farm to dwell on my immediate community’s conversations and habits, the small-picture details that together, multiplied, form the larger image I’m used to focusing upon.

More than a shortage of time, and more than a tendency to fall asleep at the keys, the nature of the work here has affected my inclination to write like I have for the past few years.  Agriculturalists, writers, poets, and philosophers have for centuries described work on farms as honest, simple, repetitive, peaceful. To live with the politics of food distribution, the intricacy of soil health and irrigation, the seasonal changes in produce and weather, and the pace governed by perishability and volume is enough to teach anyone the inaccuracy of these descriptors for work on a productive small farm. Yet a certain aspect of the past three months’ work on this farm reminds me of something that Jefferson and Berry might have appreciated.

For someone who aims to strengthen local food systems, and who has a choice in how to do so, the farmhand’s work is physical, tangible, and straightforward. We do not work on the farm towards media attention, product improvement, policy change, nor business growth. These goals may be the reason for initiating a particular farm model – one that preserves heirloom seeds, respects the regional ecology, contributes to social justice, or one that can be replicated to preserve more farmland.  But the model is decided by the owner.  As a worker, the main action taken is the choice to farm. The farmhand’s daily work is nuts and bolts, dawn till dusk: tend plants, harvest food, and get it to people.  We can be thoughtful, but we do not debate the value of taking the fruit off the vine, or filling the pint boxes with cherry tomatoes, or packing the truck the night before market. We can be light-hearted and conversational, we can laugh or be silent, we keep our hands working and our bodies moving.  By working here we are preserving farmland, and providing people with nutritious food, but that reality is the backdrop.  We’ve chosen to farm, and our politics and principles are somewhat hidden in the unwritten contract.

If I were to return to the city this winter, to work for a non-profit or a small business, and to participate again in the projects and campaigns and email lists related to strengthening the regional food system, I know that my time on this farm would inform my perspective on what they are trying to achieve.  I would find a way to pitch what I have learned about heirlooms and immigrants, farming and markets, and use it for some good cause.  But for now, my work here has been cleanly straightforward and unassuming. The work feels healthy, I am proud of our produce, the camaraderie of working in the fields is priceless, and when I write about life here, I think about the details.  I’ve found myself noticing more, analyzing less.  I’ve written how the crew reminds me of a circus troupe, because of our various hats and heights and accents, and because of the bow-legged, lanky, determined, or jaunty ways in which we each walk out to the field. I’ve written how our exhaustion at the end of the day gives one guy the energy to bounce around boxing, another to lie on the grass and smoke, another to retreat to their room to stretch, another to sit by the tree with a beer. I’ve written about the way lunch-time hits our kitchen like a tornado every time, leaving the sink full of dishes, the table full of crumbs and used plastic bags, and the stove covered with two or three cast-iron pans greasy with fat and leftover onions.  I think about the way we hang our fresh chevre from a hook in my old table-top that used to attach to the wall in my apartment in Brooklyn.  The way the Mexican women and I have to hop up high to sit on the wagon as we ride out of the field, while the gringo boys slide on easy.  The way the Mexican music in the packing shed pulses through my head in the afternoons, redeemed only by the subtle dancing of a fifty-year-old native of Michoacan, standing five foot tall, packing tomatoes.  The way we all form a line when passing the boxes onto the truck, passing only as much as the weakest can hold.  The way the conversations rotate predictably now between girls, an old VW bus, bands, the weather, weed, old stories, Philly, Brooklyn, and plans for the winter.

In the winter, inevitably, this work and this community will come into some sort of perspective. I will have opinions to voice and praises to sing and nostalgic stretches of research and recollection. Articles on 20-somethings and Farm Internships will continue to box my ideas into the emerging stereotype of a self-obsessed, wandering, college-educated, barefoot lover of kale. And I will have my defense. For now, while there are tomatoes to be picked, and boxes to be packed, a market to be manned, and a goat to be milked, the small picture is dominant. The hook and the hats and the full kitchen sink.  For now, this life seems steady with the rhythm of physical, straightforward work.

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This post is one of a series of essays written for the New Amsterdam Market.  Each essay stems from a conversation between the author and a vendor who participated in the New Amsterdam Market of June 29th.  The essays seek to address each vendor’s (food-related) enterprise, to highlight the reality behind their commitment to sustainability, and to convey the voice and personality that they bring to their work.


Meeting with Jessamyn Waldman was a close-up reminder of the multi-faceted creativity and perseverance it will require to build a new food system in this country.  Jessamyn has her own perspective on sustainability, a powerful one, of immigrant justice and fair labor practices, and one she has made manifest by baking bread, a substance she considers simultaneously cultural and universal, common, and yet symbolic.

Hot Bread Kitchen is a non-profit bakery business that provides employment opportunities for immigrant women while honoring and preserving their bread-making skills and traditions.  Just over a year after founding the Kitchen, Jessamyn now works part-time with four bakers to produce a small set of breads: French baguettes and multi-grain loaves, Italian focaccia, hand-ground Mexican corn tortillas, and an organic, Armenian lavash.  The ingredients in the bread are locally grown and organic whenever possible.  While the women of Hot Bread Kitchen sell at the community market in Dumbo and at the Brooklyn Flea, most of their breads go to wholesale customers.  Their products can be found in Manhattan at Eli’s and Saxelby Cheesemongers, and in Brooklyn at Blue Apron Fine Foods, Foragers MarketGet Fresh,Greene Grape ProvisionsMarlow & SonsStinky BrooklynUrban Rustic, and Victory Café.

Jessamyn rushed in late to our meeting at Blue Marble, and while I was afraid the whole conversation might be conducted out of breath, she was poised and articulate within seconds.  Originally from Toronto, Jessamyn came to New York for graduate school, and previously worked for the United Nations, as well as several NGOs, all of which were primarily related to migration issues.  After finding herself “totally uninspired,” most of her time spent on administration and paper work, she tried education, hoping it would prove to be a more hands-on, satisfying field.  “I did a good stint in New York City public schools,” she said.  “But the bakery idea developed, over years of meeting people – funders and investors – and I eventually came to the realization that I wasn’t going to be happy in any other job until I tried it.”

While working part-time as the administrator at a local high school, Jessamyn earned her Master Baker Certificate from The New School.  She then began work as a baker at the New York restaurant Daniel.  She looked into organizations with moderately similar missions to her own, including Mama’s Hot Tamales in Los Angeles, Greyston Bakery in Yonkers, and St. John’s Bakery in Toronto.  She founded Hot Bread Kitchen in May 2007, and received a grant from the Eileen Fisher Grant Program for Women Entrepreneurs in November 2007.  

Jessamyn attributes the in-progress-success of her business not only to the quality of her breads, but also, primarily, to the overwhelming appeal of the idea behind the bakery. “The last thing I want to do is come across as benevolent, as a do-gooder,” she said.  “But I provide a living wage.  It’s paid training. And I think the women I’ve worked with greatly appreciate the opportunity to have that.”  Jessamyn founded Hot Bread Kitchen with the knowledge that in New York City, immigrants make up 66% of low-wage workers, and the majority of immigrant women get stuck in low-paid domestic work.  She recognized that the overwhelming majority of bakers in the city are men, even while immigrant women often have valuable bread-making skills and experience from their home countries.  New York has hundreds of restaurants, representing dozens of ethnicities, Jessamyn mentioned, “and almost all cuisines include some sort of baked bread-like substance.  But few restaurants actually make their own bread.” “It’s a powerful symbol,” she said.  “Bread works as an image and a concept.  There’s something very visceral about it.  It conveys the message of multiculturalism.” 

Hot Bread Kitchen bakers currently include women from Afghanistan, Togo, Mexico, and Ecuador.  They currently bake bread only a few times a week, in the commercial kitchen of the Artisan Baking Center in Long Island City.  As employees, the bakers are offered weekly ESL classes, taught by volunteers. Jessamyn looks forward to the growth of Hot Bread Kichen, to the establishment of a permanent bakery location, and to offering the bakers full-time jobs. A recent recipient of the 2008 Echoing Green Fellowship, Jessamyn is only now able to devote herself full-time to Hot Bread Kitchen.

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The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest This week, the reading for the Food Systems I: Agriculture class at NYU included The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest, by W.K. Barger and Ernesto M. Reza. The book documents the history of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), particularly the establishment of a national boycott of Campbell Soup products from 1979 to 1986, as well as the method and ideology of social reform adapted by FLOC in their struggle to improve the living conditions of migrant farm laborers in the Midwest. When discussing the method of reform, which they term “sociocultural adaptation,” the authors commend FLOC for working within legitimate channels of the existing social order, and restructuring the system to be more beneficial to a particular group in the society. Stowing away my more revolutionary, socialist inclinations, I finished the book impressed with FLOC’s achievements, and wondering if farm labor and immigration policy will ever be an effective method of addressing the lives and livelihoods of legal and undocumented migrant farm workers.Boycott Campbell'sThe measurable success of the FLOC movement began in 1986 with three-year contracts signed by Campbell Soup (and their tomato and pickle growers), which established set hourly wages for workers on harvesters and for truck drivers, piece rates for hand-pickers (and incentive payments for higher yields), a paid holiday (Labor Day), and an experimental health insurance program. In addition, the contracted laborers were to receive a full, itemized, written report of all earnings and expenses at the end of the season. The less quantifiable and yet more substantial success achieved by FLOC was the establishment of farm worker participation in determining wages and benefits. The victory of those contracts, after seven years of the boycott (and many more of organizing and struggle), lent farm workers a newfound sense of security, and feeling of freedom from the threats and dishonesty of their employers. FLOC established a “more complex, stronger, and democratic organization of Midwestern farm workers.” The unity and solidarity established by FLOC resulted in personal individual growth and healthier lifestyles among its members, as well as a broader identity as part of a community that had organized itself, with mutual dialogue and respect. The greatest gift of FLOC to Midwestern farm laborers was to give them the opportunity to establish their voice within their community, industry, and country.Policy-makers will always be addressing legal and undocumented farm laborers as the other. In migrant farmer communities, politicians may recognize poverty, exploitation, and instability, and will perhaps listen to the occasional testimonial or heart-wrenching story. Yet the constituent population, the migrant workers themselves, will never participate in writing new immigration and farm labor policy. Not only does this make it unlikely that new policies will work in their favor, but it is nearly impossible that any policy will give them the room to establish their voice. So, is it worth wasting our time on policies that can never achieve a goal of empowerment and growth? Perhaps community-initiated, social reform movements are not only a viable way for illegal migrant laborers to struggle for social justice, but are in fact the only means of achieving a sustainable increase in quality of life.Source:Barger, W.K., and Reza, Ernesto M. The Farm Labor Movement in the Midwest(University of Texas Press, 1994).Links:Farm Labor Organizing CommitteeCoalition of Immokalee WorkersSoutheast Georgia Communities Project

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