Monday, June 5, 2017

New Gardener on the Grounds

Hello to anyone and everyone reading this!

My name is Lee Kaplan-Unsoeld, and I have been selected as the new Learning Garden Manager here on the beautiful Saint Martin's University campus in Lacey, Washington. I am excited to have this position and opportunity for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I will be getting my hands dirty on the campus where I studied for four years of my life. Well, most of four years anyway, I did sneak off to study abroad for three semesters at SMU, but I was here on campus for the other 5 semesters. Time well spent, without a doubt.

A grainy photo showing (most of) the Learning Garden at SMU
In a way, it was very natural for me to take on this position. SMU led me to my start in agricultural work back in 2013. I work full time now for Kirsop Farm, a local organic vegetable and meat farm located about 30 miles south of campus in Rochester, Washington, and I don't know if I would have ended up there if it hadn't been for my experiences at SMU.

My freshman year here at the institution, I had the privilege of taking a course entitled Farmworker Justice, taught by Professor John Hopkins, that had a week long "alternative spring break" service learning component of the class. We took our spring break trip to Yakima where we met people working for Catholic Community Services in farmworker housing projects, young adults spending a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working in a range of capacities with farmworkers, as well as actual farmworkers, working in an orchard outside of Yakima.
A bed of kale and beets in the Learning Garden
While chatting with Ramiro, the field manager at the orchard, and Bryce, one of the office managers of the orchard, they politely answered questions we had about what it was like to work in agriculture. They did their best to appease our curiosity, but Bryce went a step further, offering us all jobs that summer if we wanted to learn firsthand what it was like. I jumped at the opportunity, and haven't looked back since.

That summer I picked cherries and pears until my back and shoulders were screaming at me like a death metal singer; I whacked and chopped at weeds for thousands upon thousands of feet; and I ate PB&J's and tacos with my Latina and Latino co-workers until they started to open up and began to tell me about their lives. Agricultural work is tough work, and while it can pay highly during harvest time, especially for tree fruits and berry crops, the rest of the year is mid to low-level hourly wages, which is not easy to live on. The people I worked with told me of their struggles, their lack of health insurance, their bad backs, the long, hot days, and the short, hot days when it got to be too hot to work and our hours were cut short. I learned more in that summer than I had learned the whole previous semester (no offense to my wonderful professors!), and it left me wanting to learn even more.
A bed of green onions at the Learning Garden

Growing food is hard work, and it requires millions, if not hundreds of millions of people around the world every year in order to sustain our growing population. Yes, many aspects of agriculture, especially here in the United States, are now mechanized, but the people operating the machines, and the people doing the fragile and awkward labor that machines can't yet do, are still in high demand in order to get food onto our tables.

My backyard garden, freshly plowed thanks to a friend's two-wheeled walking tractor. The beds are about 3'x30', much bigger than the beds at the Learning Garden, but still tiny compared to the beds at the farm I work for.
How much do you think about where your food comes from when you are perusing the grocery store? How much do you think about the women and men who grow that food? It's okay of you say to yourself, "Not at all." You are in the majority of Americans. It wasn't so long ago that many Americans had their own vegetable gardens, and grew a lot of their own food themselves, but it is surprising how quickly that information falls by the wayside. When I invite my friends over to my home garden, many of them struggle to recognize the plants that produce the vegetables that they can easily identify in a store.

In that way, gardens, like the Learning Garden here at SMU, are some of the best ways we have to get reconnected with our food. To see the baby plants grow big and send out their shoots and flowers and fruits is to watch food be created through the alchemistic forces of nature. To see that baby broccoli plant turn into a bountiful head is to know how long these processes take, all the weeding and watering that has to be done, the long term health of the soil that has to be tended to, and the long, hot days that are essential for the photosynthesis to take place. All of this, and much more, just to produce something that will cook down to half the size in a pan, then be devoured in minutes.

And then, when you are holding that broccoli, you may find yourself thinking, "What if I had 10,000 broccoli plants to tend to? How much weeding and watering would that take? How many people would I have to have helping me to harvest it all? How long would it all take?"
My co-workers Zenaida and Augustina planting onions earlier this spring. The beds at Kirsop Farm are around 1000' long, and at this scale, tractors are almost a requirement. Still, at 60 acres, Kirsop Farm is on the smaller end of commercial farms.

If you find yourself asking yourself those questions, you're on the right track. Sometimes all we have time for is a cup of coffee and a muffin before we run out the door, but other times, when we have time to daydream in a garden, it serves us well to consider where our food comes from, and, at the least, give thanks for all of that invisible work that is done in the fields for our benefit and nourishment. The fact of the matter is, food comes from the ground, and the people who grow it, harvest it, pack it, sell it, prepare it, and serve it are directly serving us. Without them, what would we eat?

I hope that my time in the Learning Garden at SMU will help provide hands on experiences for students that will help them think about where their food comes from, what goes into producing it, and connect them to that process. I don't expect anyone to drop out of college and become a farmer (at the very least wait until you graduate!), but if students can learn just what a struggle it is to get something to grow, they may take these lessons into the grocery store or farmers markets when they are buying their fruits and vegetables, and acknowledge how wonderful it is that that food is there for them to enjoy. And that gratitude is worth every bit of labor that I will pour into this garden.

Happy growing, folks!
Lee K-U

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