Environmental Sustainability Student Blogger Study USA

A Season of Abundance

Two students bending over to harvest kale, wearing masks

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Sara de Sobrino (she/her) is HECUA’s student blogger for Environmental Sustainability fall 2020. She is student at University of Minnesota- Twin Cities, majoring in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, minoring in Sustainability Studies. Read on for her next post!

I’ve been eating well these past weeks. Dinosaur kale, simmered in a tomato sauce with lentils for dinner. Apples, fresh and whole from the tree. The requisite zucchini bread, sweet and delicious. Tomatoes—so many tomatoes—have formed the basis of my lunch for days, heavily salted and layered onto slices of toast. And I still have a spaghetti squash on my pantry shelf, waiting to be roasted and turned into something. I’m not sure what- I’ve never cooked a spaghetti squash before.

These foods are not the result of a particularly bountiful grocery shopping trip, or even a farmers market haul. We’ve been learning about food in HECUA lately, and so that means we’ve been farming, and that means we’ve been eating. We spent a week of class with Michael Chaney of Growing North at their gardens in North Minneapolis learning about urban agriculture. Each day, Michael brought us together with high schoolers curious about environmental sustainability and community elders knowledgeable about food systems to tour and work in the gardens. I had always thought that urban gardens were useful as opportunities for connecting people with the earth and the process of growing food, but I had been skeptical of the ability of a vacant weedy lot to actually feed anyone. Then, on Oliver Avenue, we picked enough kale to both dissuade me of this belief and provide me with some hearty greens for my dinner.

In a later class conversation over Zoom, we talked about how sustainable farming at this community scale is often dismissed as incapable of growing enough food for the world’s billions of people. Our current industrial agriculture system may produce a lot of food, but over one third of it is wasted and millions of people still go hungry here in the nation’s breadbasket of the Midwest. So the challenge is not in producing enough food, but in ensuring that communities have the sovereignty to decide which nutritious, culturally relevant foods they should grow, that resources and support are available for current and potential growers, and that the food produced is accessible to those who need it.

Group of students and community leaders in a circle in a green space outdoors, wearing masks
Students gathered with local environmental justice advocates.

Growing North recognizes those challenges and focuses on growing healthy food and healthy community relationships simultaneously. During our site visits they put us to work harvesting vegetables and mulching new ground for a pumpkin patch, but the labor was joyful and evenly shared. Wherever we worked, we were offered snacks—more zucchini bread, please—and vegetables to take home for later. I was struck by both the abundance of the gardens and the generosity of their gardeners, who nourished us with ideas, too. Michael often gathered us in a circle to talk about food justice, and I grew to expect him to call out to us with the question “What are you growing?” Mentorship experiences and pumpkins are both good answers.

When we grow our food within a justice-oriented community agriculture system, we have to do things a little differently. An industrial potato harvester can work much faster than HECUA students, but the potatoes that we harvested won’t go to rot in a storehouse because of a pandemic-disrupted global supply chain, and my energy is renewed by visits from farm dogs and paper cups of bean chili rather than fossil fuels.

Students digging potatoes beneath the autumn sun, wearing masks
Potato digging beneath the autumn sun.

It’s good that I’ve been meeting so many farm dogs, because there’s plenty to harvest during this time of year. We picked beans, radishes, kale, and tomatoes with Growing North. At the Women’s Environmental Institute, we dug for the aforementioned potatoes and were then sent home with as many of them as we could stuff into our backpacks, with our arms cradling a spaghetti squash for good measure. As part of my internship with Lily Springs Farm we harvested hemp stalks from the field and hung them to dry from a neighbor’s barn loft the very same day that the chickens were harvested, too. Sitting at a picnic table in the golden late-afternoon sun plucking feathers from a dead chicken with a pair of tweezers and chatting with all the farmers and family members who had come to help with the harvest was one of the merriest Fridays I’ve had recently, even if I was surrounded by buckets of entrails.

I feel lucky to be present at these farms for the period when a year’s worth of labor comes to fruition with the celebration of harvest. I’ve always loved observing the changing of the seasons, and at the farm this goes beyond a pastime to become a necessity. There is a now-familiar sense of urgency carried in the air with every cool breeze.

There is so much to do before winter arrives. On the farms, food needs to be harvested before it’s damaged by the chill of a deep frost, perennials need to be tucked in for the season, and garden beds need to be set up for spring. I feel that urgency to make the best of these last few weeks of mild weather, too. Ordinarily I like winter—the magic of the first snowfall, the crackle of a fire in the fireplace—but this year the dropping temperatures fill me with dread. The outdoors have been a safe refuge from the pandemic and the winter will take that away from us, take away our class periods of mulching together under the blazing sun, the long bike rides to field sites, my ability to do class readings from under a maple tree.

I don’t want to give up a season of joyful and abundant harvest for one of blasting my space heater to stay warm as I sit alone in my bedroom trying to build connections over Zoom. But the lesson of the harvests we’ve participated in is that all growth is seasonal, both that of humans and that of apple trees. It’s true that class for the rest of the semester is going to look more like online discussions about environmental justice scholarship and less like biting into entire tomatoes fresh from the vine, but we were never going to get away with that forever. We need winter to wrap us in a blanket of snow, slow us down and force us to rest and think and envision. That growth is important, and we’ll be nourished in it by our harvests from this season of abundance- the shared ideas, experiences, fruits, and vegetables.  

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