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Q&A with Emily Freed of Jacobs Farm

Local or organic? Farmer's Market or Supermarket? And what about the GMOs? There's a lot of talk — and a lot of confusion — these days, about our food. Around the world, people are starting to grapple with the negative … Read More

By / November 13, 2007

Local or organic? Farmer's Market or Supermarket? And what about the GMOs? There's a lot of talk — and a lot of confusion — these days, about our food. Around the world, people are starting to grapple with the negative impact that large scale, industrial Agribusiness has had over the past half century. As its legacy of soil erosion, polluted groundwater, and chemically-laden fruits and vegetables becomes clear, more and more people are choosing to support organic and local farmers. Emily Freed is one of those farmers. As the Assistant Field Production Manager of Jacobs Farm in Northern California, she's responsible for over 250-acres of organic farmland. She's also a Jewish activist who was recently named as one of the Heeb 100 in the category of Food. Despite it being her busy season (she was in the midst of moving about 6,000 lbs of herbs out of the farms each day when we caught up with her), she found the time to discuss the organic movement, the future of food, the connection between agriculture and the environment, and how it's all related to Judaism.

You're responsible for six farms and a total of over 250 acres of organic culinary herb farmland, but your work takes you beyond the field and into the world of environmental activism. How has agriculture impacted the environment, and what are you doing to change it? When we pollute the soil with fertilizers and insecticides, they seep into our food and water systems. In turn, we ingest those chemicals by eating conventional produce, dairy, and grains. One of my current roles as a professional farmer is to educate non-farmers and gardeners on the importance of buying organic vegetables, fruit, flowers, and dairy. It can be daunting to even teach friends and family the reasons to buy organic produce so I pick my battles. I sit high on my soapbox to my pregnant friends and share with them why they must purchase local and organic dairy products. I spend time with my family answering their ongoing questions of which are the most important foods they should be buying organic. I find peace and relaxation when I cook meals with my friends who are farmers and gardeners that deeply appreciate the love of growing their own food. I know I’m doing my job right when I see the light going off in someone’s head when they realize the power of using their dollars to purchase organic foods from local growers. You worked previously for the now defunct Joshua Venture, an organization that funded initiatives by young Jewish activists and entrepreneurs. What led you to Jacobs Farm, and how are you translating your work there into Jewish social activism? Joshua Venture is not defunct but rather went into a period of hibernation starting in the Spring 2005. This period allowed interested foundations to reflect on both the structure of the fellowship program as well as its funding model. A group of funders is planning the re-launch of the program and hopefully we will be seeing the fellowship in its next version in the beginning of 2008.

After Joshua Venture shut the doors temporarily, I realized I had few options: travel, get another job, or try something such as gardening that I had always enjoyed as a hobby with an opportunity to turn it into a career. I read about the six month Apprenticeship in Agroecology at UC Santa Cruz and it sounded like an amazing experience to live and work on a farm along the Central Coast of California. I did the apprenticeship and loved the experience so much that I stayed on for a year as a teaching assistant for the 2006 cohort of apprentices. After teaching at the University, I was lucky enough to find my current position of Assistant Production Manager at Jacobs Farm, which I began in April 2007. In my spare time, I am a consultant for teachers, students, teens, and adults at JCC’s, congregations, and schools in the Bay Area. I enjoy teaching others hands on gardening skills as well as the importance of the environment within the context of the Jewish holidays and festivals. You've expressed your interest in putting sustainability, the local food movement, and nutrition into a Jewish educational context, a passion that led you to participate in the ROI Summit in Jerusalem this past year. What's Jewish about environmentalism? What can Judaism tell us about our intended relationship with the earth? Judaism and environmentalism tie together in countless ways. One example of this is the value of eating seasonally. Long ago our ancestors were farmers who looked to agricultural signs in the garden to mark the passing of the seasons and for holiday celebration. Today, if we pay attention to the seasons in Israel just as our ancestors have done in the past, we notice that the reason why we eat pomegranates for Rosh Hashanah is because the dark red globes are dripping from the trees in September and October. We eat parsley on Passover because that is typically when the green leafy herb first emerges from the ground in the spring. When we eat locally and seasonally, we are connecting with our past and following the rhythm of the universe. It's exciting because it reminds us that life is bigger than just you or me. Judaism and the mitzvah of tikkun olam teach us that the current generation must inspire the next generation to protect and honor the earth. By eating locally and seasonally, we are preserving the soil and our food systems, helping us accomplish one of Judaism’s most sacred teachings. A lot of people still seem to think (or at least, take for granted) that food comes from the supermarket. There's a disconnect that distances us from the origins of our sustenance. What are the inherent problems with this mindset, and do you see a shift occurring? I understand the disconnect of being a consumer and picking a bunch of kale at the supermarket and putting it in a plastic bag, verses being the farmer who bundles fifty bunches of kale all morning in order to get ready to sell the product at the afternoon farmer’s market. When you don’t physically pull the food from the ground yourself, you don’t realize all of the time and energy that goes into growing the product. It’s so easy to just accept that kale comes pre-bundled with a flashy twist tie and all of the stalk ends are the same length. But that’s not the case and it’s a shame that more people don’t grow their own kale in their backyards. But slowly, people are comprehending the importance of buying fresh and buying local. More than ever, people are signing up for CSA’s, buying produce at the farmer’s markets, and reading up on the benefits of eating organic foods. I’ll end my answer to this question with a funny story about my father who is my toughest client to convert into the organic world. He buys the Safeway brand of organic milk. Time and time again when I go home to visit, I explain the importance of buying local organic milk, especially when he lives so close to one of the best and most humane dairies in Northern California, Clover Stornetta Farms. One day, I opened the refrigerator and saw local and organic milk from the dairy close to his home. I complimented him on his choice of milk and he looked at me with a smile and says, “Don’t think you’ve won this battle.” At that moment, I realized that even the toughest clients are realizing the importance of buying local and organic, and there is hope for the future of organics within the conventional mind frame. For a lot of people, farmers seem to be a myth, an extinct species, or at the very least, extremely far away. The truth is, there aren't many traditional farmers left. What do you see as the cultural costs of the end of traditional agrarianism? What is the future of food? To be honest, I spend so much of my time with farmers and gardeners that I forget that I am in the minority of people who grow their own food. I have to take a step back to realize that most of the world drives to the grocery store in their cars and purchases their food from a pile of produce that has been shipped most likely across the country. Additionally, I am always taken aback when I have to explain the meaning of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to friends and relatives. I live in a Northern California bubble where we are surrounded with farmers markets that run all year round and my local corner store in Santa Cruz only carries milk from local dairies. I think most people are finally getting the importance of growing their own food or at least knowing the farmer who grows their food. The bottom line for me is tasting the difference between fresh food that was harvested from the earth that day in comparison to produce that has been in transit for weeks. Once a person has tasted a carrot straight from healthy soil, I can only hope that they will never go back to easting those small uniform pieces of orange rubber. I wish I knew the future of food and our food systems but I don’t. However, I do know that becoming “certified sustainable” is the next coined term in the produce world and will be the hot topic in 2008. How has your time with Jacobs Farm changed you? What challenges have you faced? What kind of reactions do you get when you tell people you're a farmer? The past eight months at Jacobs Farm have been my introduction to agribusiness (the business of farming). I have learned a tremendous amount about the strengths and challenges of farming 250 acres of organic culinary herbs where every farm is at least a 15-minute drive from the next. Everyday I face the challenge of being a young woman in a predominantly male career field. I have to say I live the motto that “some days are diamonds and some days are rocks.” I don’t think I’ve ever met someone that hasn’t been impressed by the fact that I am a female farmer and it feels really good to produce organic herbs for people all across the country. One of my proudest moments was when I was recently at Chez Panisse in Berkeley with parents to celebrate my mom’s 60th birthday. Once the waiter found out I was a farmer, he thanked me profusely and sent over a huge bowl of delicious figs and grapes. It was a highlight for both me and my proud parents. What suggestions do you have for those of us who want to make better nutritional, environmental, and ecological choices when doing our grocery shopping? In order to be successful in our eating and grocery shopping habits, one must start small and make it simple. Don’t overwhelm yourself with every detail of “Is it better to buy organic or local?” in the beginning. For starters, use a cloth tote on your next trip to the grocery store rather than paper or plastic bags. Keep the totes in your car for easy access. Next, buy produce at a farmer’s market instead of a grocery store. Give your money directly to the farmers every week – they will appreciate it much more than the store clerk. Join a CSA and support a local farm as well as become a member of a community that enjoys eating local, seasonal produce. Lastly, go to the grocery store or farmer’s market with a friend because it’s much more fun to shop with another person. While shopping together, you can compare labels and realize just how far the food has to travel to get to your kitchen table. What about for people who'd like to start their own backyard — or even windowsill — garden? Any books or tips to help them along? Go for it! No space is too small to grow food. Dig your hands in the dirt, plant some seeds, and see what happens. From the windowsill, to the garden, to a 250-acre farm, it’s an experiment year after year. I strongly suggest the local library for gardening books. It’s really amazing how inspiring pictures of vegetables and delicious fruits can be…or as we say in the farm industry, “food porn.” My favorite books are the Western Garden Book, The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, and the manual "Teaching Organic Farming and Gardening" by the department of Agroecology at UC Santa Cruz. You can download the teaching manual for free here. Whatever happens in your summer or winter garden, take notes as to what worked and what didn’t work. It’s astonishing how last years records can save you so much time the following season. My greatest tip to pass on to aspiring farmers and gardeners is although sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the entire world, don’t pick an unripe peach or nectarine off a tree. You’ll be disappointed. Learn to enjoy the wait for the perfect piece of summer fruit. The dripping of sweet juice down your face will be satisfaction for seasons to come.

Cross posted to The Jew & the Carrot

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