“It’s in my blood.” That’s the popular response whenever I ask a farmer why he or she does what they do. But I’m starting to wonder if maybe it’s in all of our blood, at least in this part of the country.
After all, the Southern United States once was a total agrarian society, so most of us don’t have to trace our family roots down very far before finding a farmer somewhere in the lineage.
Most farmers I’ve met over the years grew up on the farm and never gave a thought to doing anything else. And it seems to me that more young people these days are choosing to stay on the farm and follow in the footsteps of those who came before them.
One of my favorite “why I farm” stories is told by Danny Darnell, the 2014 Southeast High Cotton Award winner, who farms in north Alabama’s Tennessee Valley. Danny’s father farmed but also, out of necessity, worked full-time at nearby Redstone Arsenal. Early on, Danny got a taste for the farming life, but for awhile after finishing high school, he got a job at a local plant. However, it soon became apparent to both him and his wife Pat that farming was his true calling – maybe even “in his blood,” so to speak.
Anyway, Danny’s wife finally got fed up with him complaining, so she told him to quit his job at the plant or to shut up. The rest is history. He went on to build a successful farming operation from scratch, and it now supports Danny and his wife along with his two sons and their families.
This inclination to plant a seed and, hopefully, to watch it grow, is probably as natural as any instinct we possess, not to mention that it’s also good for our health, according to officials with the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“When you talk about gardens and food, you touch a light in people, a hope, a promise, a truth,” says Kristen Speakman, a project manager at the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health. “It’s the cycle of life. You start with a seed – like we all once were – you have to nourish it, then it sustains you, and then it dies. It’s something that resonates with the human spirit. It touches us deeply.”
And that’s the idea behind some of the programs at the Bloomberg School, she says, where garden projects are rekindling “humanity’s need for seed.”
An instinct that improves health
These garden projects are based on the premise that a reconnection with food at ground level – something farmers do every day – can improve public health. Further, nurturing a garden also can nurture healthy habits in children, empower impoverished women, and strengthen community bonds.
It’s a natural as the physiological process itself, this need to plant a seed, grow a plant, harvest it, and then do it all over again. The Bloomberg School is using this “instinct” to improve peoples’ lives on several fronts.
In New Mexico, gardens are helping American Indians literally return to their roots, with tribal communities participating in edible school gardens where students work in greenhouses, open-air classrooms and courtyards growing traditional crops including melon, corn and chili peppers, and unfamiliar crops including okra, broccoli and spinach. Though the people who live in this area of the Rio Grande have a long tradition of agriculture, it has been abandoned and replaced by epidemics such as obesity and diabetes. It’s hoped that this reconnection to traditional agriculture will lead to an overall improvement in quality of life measurements for the region.
Agriculture is seen as intuitive among people with such a rich history of farming, and perhaps it’ll show the way back to healthy lifestyles.
Similar community agriculture projects are showing success in cities such as Baltimore, where faith groups are in their fifth year of seeding gardens with dual goals of caring for the earth and caring for neighbors. Program officials say congregations and individuals become better stewards of the earth and of food in particular. While gardens literally provide a source of food, they also connect people back to the process of growing food and caring for the land.
It truly is in our blood, and those who can live the life day in and day out are indeed fortunate