Farm School NYC’s visit to Truelove Seeds

My first stop in the U.S. is Truelove Seeds, based about 15 miles outside of Philadelphia. I’ve come to Philly a couple of days early to take advantage of a Farm School NYC workshop and tour of Truelove Seeds. I’ve been following the work of Farm School NYC for a while and had been hoping to meet up with someone related to them in New York, so the timing’s worked out nicely.

Fresh from the plane and still on UK time, I was picked up by Owen Taylor of Truelove Seeds (my hugely warm and giving host). He drove me about about 40 minutes West of Philadelphia into Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the home of Truelove Seeds’ farm. It turns out that Owen was a part of the early conception of Farm School, in a past role at Just Food, a New York based non-profit which seems to be akin to Sustain in London. Owen talked about Farm School’s early development which seems to have involved a lot of reflection on the state of social justice focused farming in New York. Whilst this process was incubated by Just Food and supported by a couple of their members of staff, an early grant for development meant that that process could involve a huge amount of engagement with communities who were already farming in the city, often paying people for their time. This process has shaped how farm school now operates. And the principles it tries to manifest.

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End of the day posie picking with the Farm School students

Set up to fill the need for a course that provides a thorough farming education, the program also aimed to recognise and support the large amount of community gardens and gardeners across New York City. Owen explains that it was felt that there was a trend in community gardeners that was largely white, young, women, working in communities of colour, and there was also a desire to redress that imbalance through the program (something he feels they’ve made some headway on in terms of race but less so age and gender). This is done partly through the selection procedure for students. There is also a significant sliding scale on the tuition fees (this is based on the federal poverty level chart). For example, the Citywide Certificate in Urban Agriculture’s costs range from $1.80-$14.00 per hr of tuition.

Farm School’s aim is to “create effective and empowered grassroots leaders in the food justice movement”. Two really important things that are central to the Farm School curriculum in doing this are teaching the social, economic and racial justice context of food systems, and teaching organising and advocacy skills. These things are done right at the beginning of the school year and set the context for all other learning. The courses through the year are spread across active projects, thereby serving as an additional income and recognition for all the hard work that currently goes on. I think there are a lot of lessons we can draw on here for community focused gardening/growing courses in the UK. Specifically I wonder if there is a need for us to centralise the social justice context of the work we do within curriculums, and to more consciously think about the ways in which these courses create the leaders of tomorrow and who we want those leaders to be.

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Farm school students in the polytunnel with dahlias and drying corn

Back on the farm, the topic of the day is seeds. Having taught them at the beginning of the year about popular education techniques, today sees Owen returning to teaching at the end of the student’s year (a farming course that runs logically with the growing season, finally!). The day begins with Owen talking about how important the stories around seeds are and sharing his own journey with seeds, his time with his mentor William Woys Weaver at The Roughwood Seed Collection, his own reclamation of his cultural heritage (Irish and Italian) through seed. Before a go round we all select a seed that resonates, and in addition to a name and pronoun check in people share details of why that seed resonates. There is so much richness in just that go round, snipets of childhood memories, suggestions of erased queer histories, many culinary connections to people’s ancestry.

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Owen in a sea of flowers talking about different plants on the farm

After that we spend some time setting the global context of seed, thinking about corporations, capitalism, colonialism, and resistance. My morning take homes are of seeds as central to community resilience and as tools of resistance, and of stories of seeds as connections to our past, to our present, and to our future.

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Owen explains the origins of many of the crops being grown at Truelove Seeds

After lunch things get practical. We get a tour of the drying and packing room and then everyone learns about the basics of seed saving: the importance of plant selection, isolation distances, plant populations, knowing the type of pollination, and record-keeping. Then up to the farm for examples of those principles in practice and to experience the plethora of plants being grown up there: sweet potato, okra, water spinach, ginger, rice, passion flowers, 140 types of dahlias (!), milkweed, bambara groundnut. We end the day with some good old fashioned seed processing: shelling beans, threshing basil, then watching the seed cleaning machine in action. It’s nice to finish such a full on day with a communal and tactile task. What a great day.

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Farm School students get stuck in to processing beans