On Reciprocity with the Earth

Jill in Waterbury, Connecticut

<em>Jill is the co-founder, along with her partner Will, of <a href="https://www.hungryreaperfarm.com/">Hungry Reaper Farm</a> in Morris, CT. Hungry Reaper strives to provide organic, local food in a manner that is beneficial to our soil, water, air, and people. Jill is also an avid painter and baker!</em>

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Jill! Want to start off by telling me a bit about how Hungry Reaper came to be?

Sure. I was working at this farm called Evergreen Berry Farm for probably six seasons, and Will [co-founder of Hungry Reaper] had been co-managing this farm in Washington, Connecticut called Waldingfield Farm. When I moved back to Connecticut after school I got a job teaching art at a high school. I did that for two years, and then dedicated most of my time to painting to try to go to grad school. As fate would have it, I did not get into any of the grad schools that I applied to, which I’m really glad about now. I think it was sort of a push toward this, because when that didn’t pan out, Will was like: I’d really like to move on, and maybe we just start our own thing? Our good friends Tom and Alana, they operate a pasture-raised pork and beef farm in Morris, and they had mentioned that there was lots of land there that they would be willing to let us grow some vegetables on. We approached them in October of last year and said we’d really like to see if we could start a business. It’s been less than a year since we decided to do this, and it’s happening! I’m feeling very grateful, and it’s only because of our friends that we were able to do that.

Amazing! Out of curiosity: did you have to buy land from them, or are you leasing it? How does any of this work?

It’s actually incredibly complicated, so I’m going to give you the short version of it. Tom and Alana, who we are basically subletting from, they lease the land that they are farming on from one of Tom’s family friends. We’re essentially subletting an acre of this acreage that he’s leasing. So no, we do not own property. That is our goal, but in Connecticut specifically, and I’m sure in a lot of other states too, most land is priced at real estate value or development value instead of agriculture value. Something that would be perfect farm land could be sold for millions of dollars, when if it were to be used as agriculture land it probably would be worth $200,000. So that’s our next goal, but who knows how we’ll make that work.

That’s so interesting to think about. When you think of the East Coast states, as opposed to out West, you don’t think of all this undeveloped land to use for agriculture. Thank you for answering that - I was curious as to how new farms happen.

It’s a lot of jumping through hoops, unfortunately. There’s the National Young Farmers Coalition, which is doing a lot to help young farmers with land access issues. One of Will’s other jobs, he works for this non-profit called Land for Good, which is essentially linking up farm- or land-seekers with land-owners and assisting in farm succession and things of that sort. It’s really good that he has all of those resources at his fingertips. But it’s no easy task unfortunately. It seems like it should be, right? To have systems in place for young farmers to be able to access land and grow one of the main things that every human on earth needs. But as we know, capitalism doesn’t really serve us in that way.

That’s definitely a topic that I’d love to know more about: generally, how our systems are not in place to aid things like buying our produce locally. Could you talk a little more about that?

The thing that comes to mind is the cost of local goods and organic food, supporting your local farmer or local producer. Those items tend to be more expensive than when you find them in a grocery store or a Walmart or something. That doesn’t tend to be where we prioritize our dollars anymore, and a lot of people can’t prioritize their dollars in that way, and it’s not really their fault that they can’t. I have noticed since COVID hit that there has been this surge in interest to buy local, which is bittersweet I think. It’s definitely hard for my friends who are also farming to meet the demand and also have people show up and be like, “I need this.” People are upset when they realize that they can’t get the same sort of product they would in their grocery store, because it’s all seasonal. But it’s also great because now people are showing up and they’re eager to spend their dollars locally. I just hope that there is a consistency after a few years have passed.

Yeah, I would hope that the pandemic has not changed some of the ways we’re thinking in a short-term sense, but also hopefully long-term. What do you see as the advantages of buying locally or seasonally?

First off, it’s just delicious if you’re talking about food. I think there is definitely a difference in flavor and freshness if you’re rambling down the street ten minutes to go and pick up your vegetables that were just harvested as opposed to going to the grocery store where stuff’s probably been shipped from California or Mexico. And at a surface level, keeping your dollars in your local economy. We try to buy local whenever we can so that whatever income we’re making from people is being paid back. And I think just building human connections too. Through our trying to support local, we’ve made a lot of really great friends. We talk a lot about how if we had picked up and moved to Vermont or NH to start the farm this year, this would have gone so terribly! We leaned on our friends and our family so much to help us, and they offered their help, whether that was tangible resources, or physical help in building things, and there’s always a potential to make friends and make new family when you really try and stick to your community. I love that, I love meeting people.

I love that too. What are some ways that through Hungry Reaper you intentionally try to build up that community?

Well, the pandemic has caused unprecedented changes to how we saw the business model to build community. One part of our business is a CSA, which stands for Community-Supported Agriculture. People buy a share in the beginning of the season and it allows farmers to have revenue before the season starts to buy seeds or buy any equipment you may need. Our goal for having CSA pick-ups, when people pick up food weekly or bi-weekly, was to have it be sort of a social, where people would come and hang out and maybe bring a beer or something. We’ve tried to do that from a distance, with masks on, but people are very cautious, which we love and are happy about, and come and grab their bag and go. Another way that we wanted to build community and hold our community close was having volunteer days where people would come and help and then we’d cook them a meal afterward or grill with them or something. Because of the pandemic we’re not able to do that.

But on a different note, we’ve had some great success with our CSA model of a sliding scale. We had the option for some of our members to choose to buy a share for a few hundred dollars extra, and that money would be rolled into an account to pay for low-cost or no-cost shares for anybody who reached out that might need that. That felt really awesome, to have so many people throw in a few extra bucks or a lot of extra bucks and then have somebody reach out and be like, “Hey, this is actually all I can manage right now, is that fine?” And we’re like, absolutely! It just felt great for community members to reach out and say I’m willing to offer this much, and for other people to say I need this much. I think that’s a really beautiful thing.

That is so cool. Especially because earlier you had mentioned the accessibility of locally, small-produced goods. That sounds like such a creative way to make it a little more accessible.

And the other great thing about it too is that sometimes people or organizations will reach out to small farms and ask if they could donate a share or whatever it may be. And while I’m sure there are a lot of farms out there that can do that and want to do that, some farms want to offer no- or low-cost food to people and just don’t have the means to do it, as a profession that is not incredibly lucrative. Holding your community accountable to offer that type of funding when they can has a real balance to it that I enjoy.

One last topic I want to make sure we touch on: small, local farming not only touches on the hyper-local community but also on the big community that we call earth. I’d love to ask you a little about the slightly broader environmental implications of the work that you and others are doing?

I think that what a lot of small farmers are thinking about lately is how we can best serve the soil, knowing that soil is an incredible way to sequester carbon. Every time I hold soil in my hand and think about how many microorganisms are in it, it almost freaks me out. It’s insane to think about this other planet that lives in the soils, and how important and how fragile they are at the same time. You can either really screw up soil farming or you can really do right by it. I’m re-reading a book called Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer. I would highly recommend that book. It’s so beautiful, and a lot of what she talks about is reciprocity with the earth. It feels like where my spirituality lies these days: if we love the earth so much and we’re tending to this plot of land, who’s to say that it doesn’t love us back? And I really think it does. For me, I really think that looking at the bigger picture, the biggest thing that comes up in terms of environmentalism and doing right by the earth is how we are taking care of the soils.

I love that book so much. I took away the same things about connecting spirituality to these very earthly things.

Will went to this Race in Agriculture training, and the facilitator said they went somewhere where there’s a lot of traditional knowledge about the land - it wasn’t in the United States. And the woman was asking, do you guys make offerings before you farm? Do you guys sing before you farm? Do you dance, do you pour out libations? And we said no. And she was like: no wonder you’re all so sick. Wow! It makes so much sense that we need to be thinking about this earth as something that definitely loves us back, and have that requited love for it.

Yeah. And I definitely love the idea that community doesn’t have to end with humans necessarily, that community can be viewed as a much more expansive thing.

It’s a beautiful thing to have a connection to your food, and I feel privileged especially right now when everything is very isolated and uncertain to know that I am going to a place that is surrounded by these plants and animals that are sustaining me and I’m trying to sustain them in the best way too.

On the subject of the Race in Agriculture training, what I’ve observed is that it seems to be a lot of the return to these ways of farming and living as a consumer seems to be a fairly young, white phenomenon, at least from my inexperienced vantage point. Do you have any thoughts?

That’s definitely a lot of the imagery that’s out there. And I feel like the influencer farmers out there, who are on Instagram and sharing their farm, or showing up at conferences and talking about farming, tend to be very white. But so much of that knowledge comes from indigenous folks and folks of color, and we have so much to learn from. Something that I learned recently that was kind of disturbing is that 0% - which is not actually zero people, but virtually 0% - of the farmland in New England is owned by Black folks. This is where land access comes in again, in that we don’t have systems in place in order for people to access farmland and sustain a family, sustain a life, provide yourself healthcare. There are few benefits to farming: you’re basically starting a business and exerting your body physically and it’s just not an easy thing. So of course it comes from a place of privilege - Will and I certainly have loads of white privilege. I’m definitely not an authority on any of this, but I know there are farmers of color out there really doing amazing work right now, and you are right when you say that it does tend to draw a lot of young white folks to that profession and is visibly that.

Thank you for answering and being vulnerable! I think that’s everything I had.

Don't forget that Hungry Reaper offers fresh produce to those in the Morris area, including an option to buy a CSA share! For those not in Connecticut, I can personally attest to the awesomeness of their t-shirts and other apparel.

Questions for Reflection: In what ways do you participate in reciprocal relationships with your surroundings - be it nature, or your local neighborhood / community? What are some ways in which the pandemic has shifted how you think or act that you'd like to carry with you long-term? Which positive practices are sustainable?

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