(Anna D’Orazio in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia, sometime in the early 90s.)
“But when are you going to get a real profession?” I’ve been asked this many times over the years, mostly by my baffled grandparents. When are you going to get a Master’s degree? They want to know. If you really want to work in agriculture, then why not at least get a degree in agronomy and work for a university? How are you going to make any real money farming? How will you support your family? It’s a romantic vision, but is it really practical? As immigrants from Argentina, they want their grandchildren to be successful and stable, to play the game and win it, or at least not fall through the cracks. I was a straight-A student, a varsity athlete, and was able to attend an elite liberal arts college with the help of grants, but now my grandparents worry that I’ve taken a misstep.
I’ve been working in small-scale agriculture for the past six years now, and though they still rankle, I’ve gotten used to these sorts of questions, as well as the tone of confusion or disappointment and occasional outright hostility that accompanies them. Farming, along with other work that involves physical labor, is often looked down upon in this country. It’s thought of as not requiring skill or intellect, as something that anyone could do, and certainly not deserving of a decent wage or financial security.
If income is a reflection of how our society values an occupation, then farmers find themselves at the bottom of the heap; the median income for farm households has been negative for well over two decades. According to the Farm Bureau, average median farm income between 1996 and 2017 was a loss of $1,165. In 2020, that number is projected to be a loss of $1,840. According to a recent USA Today article, farmers have one of the highest rates of suicide compared to other occupations, often attributed to the economic stress of fluctuating markets that make it impossible to stay afloat, the uncertainties and difficulties presented by a changing climate, long, grueling workdays, and social isolation as rural communities shrink and small farmers are forced to sell their land. We may romanticize the small-family farm, but as a nation, we certainly don’t value it. Farm-laborers we value even less, especially migrant workers (much in the news now) whom it is completely legal to pay less than minimum wage according to federal law.
But really, when we take a closer look, what could be more of value, more essential, than growing food?
(Me at 19, Anna, I believe, at 92 a few years before she died)
Whenever I start questioning the path I’m on – whenever I start feeling like maybe the doubters are right, and I’ve wasted my education – I remember Anna.
I was born in Philadelphia in a small row home on a hill of row homes, and our next-door neighbor, with whom we shared a porch, as an old Italian lady named Anna D’Orazio. Anna was maybe 5’ tall in her shoes. Born in a small village in Abruzzi, she remembers the people in her village almost starving during the war. She remembers how they salvaged a dead horse for food, remembers washing clothes for an American soldier lodged in their house. After the war, she followed her husband to the States, and vowed never to return to Italy again.
She took care of all the kids on our street, and had framed pictures of us on the mantelpiece along with photos of her children and grandchildren and statuettes of the Virgin Mary. She’s a part of my earliest memories: sitting in her kitchen eating pastina and sardines on crackers, playing at her feet while she crocheted and watched her favorite soap opera, riding up and down Germantown Ave on the back of the trolley together, her cackling laugh in the warm summer evenings when everyone would be out on their porches. She used to let herself in through the backdoor and rummage around our fridge for an egg when she needed, and once dug up a bunch of flowers in my mom’s garden to make room for herbs because, as she explained, throwing up her hands, “you can’t eat these!”
But what I remember most now is her garden. We had postage-stamp backyards in our Philly neighborhood, but Anna made use of every square inch of hers. She didn’t have a driver’s license, so every year my mom would drive her to the stables at Fairmount Park to pick up a load of horse manure for the garden. In the springtime, she would hand my brother and me bowls of sugar snap peas over the fence. Cucumbers twined up along the side of our back deck, and melons sprawled along the ground. Celery leaves from the garden went into the pastina that we so happily ate at her kitchen table. She interplanted her tomatoes with marigolds, and grew enough to can sauce for the year with plenty left over to give to her children and neighbors. Up until she died, even after we moved out of the city, she would give us a jar of homemade tomato sauce every year.
Ana didn’t know how to read or drive a car, she didn’t have a framed diploma in her house or fancy awards, and she won’t be remembered by the history books. But her value to our neighborhood and to her family went far beyond what we often mistake for value in our money-driven world. Ana held our neighborhood together, fostering a deep sense of community. She was our elder on the street, watching over all the children, helping my young mother as she navigated work and childcare. She fed us all like we were her own children, and we loved her like she was our own grandmother. She had a knowledge of earth and plants passed down through generations, an intimate relationship to the soil and to the food she grew and prepared and shared with all of us. She taught us love for family and community and the earth.
This is the good work that is undertaken by the small farmer: the work of reconnection to the earth, to the community, and to family in all the myriad ways we define family. At 10th Street Farm, we build soil, knowing that healthy soil makes for healthy food and a healthy planet, rather than depleting it as conventional farms do. We don’t rely on supply chains spanning the globe, but on other small businesses that supply us with compost and seeds, and the food we grow feeds the local community. There is a direct relationship here between the farmer and the people she feeds; there is recognition and connection in a world that often renders us anonymous. We know that farming is an art lovingly learned over decades, a long process of coming into relationship with a place, learning to read its subtle patterns.
Small, sustainable farms are doing this good work all over the globe. I’m especially inspired by the work of Leah Penniman, co-founder of Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York and author of Farming While Black, whose small farm has a mission to help end racism and injustice in the food system and to train the next generation of activist farmers. Mill Creek Farm in Philadelphia produces organic food in the heart of West Philadelphia, bringing together the local community and supplying fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables in an area that would otherwise be a food desert, as well as community plots for local people to have their own gardens. Ben Hartmann of Clay Bottom Farm in Indiana has shown how lean principles can be applied to farming, and has helped small farms all over the country reach financial stability and sustainability not just for the land, but for the farmers who steward that land. Dream of Wild Health, a Native American run farm in Hugo, MN has tripled in size this year in order to provide more fresh food for the communities it serves which have been hard hit by the coronavirus.
If I can do my small part to regenerate soil, to re-localize the food system, to feed people nourishing food, to grow community, and to help heal the relationship between people and our ecosystems; if I can learn the rhythm of the seasons and the ways of plants; if I can be like Anna, then I will be proud to call myself a farmer.
Median Household On-Farm Income information:
Article on Farmer Suicide Rates from USA Today:
Information Regarding Farm Labor Pay:
Soul Fire Farm:
Mill Creek Farm:
Clay Bottom Farm:
Dream of Wild Health Farm: