Keely on farming, food justice, & harnessing potential

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Photo by Carl Jones.

How you identify yourself in the world?

Queer, Nipmuc or indigenous, either of those work. Nipmucs are from Massachusetts, of this particular place. Able-bodied, cis female, white-passing, a farmer, sexual health educator, youth worker, caregiver to children, homemaker, sibling, person of here.

How are you doing in the world?

Today I’m fine. I cope pretty well in the day-to-day. I’m privileged in this world and in the way I get to move through this world. That said, I can’t be unaffected by what’s happening in the world, so I ebb and flow between some extremes. Sometimes I don’t want to leave my bed. That is mostly a product of the world happening around us. I love the work I do and the people I’ve prioritized in my life and those things bring me a lot of joy.

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 8.42.20 PM.pngWill you tell me a little bit about the work that you’re doing?

I’m a farmer. Between eight and ten months a year, I work 40-60 hours a week doing vegetable production on small organic farms. I’m currently at a farm called Brookwood Community Farm south of Boston. I do everything from seeding and weeding to tractor work to distribution to managing a market. I also get to do really cool and gratifying unpaid work sometimes. Last week I helped work with my tribe on gardening projects and teaching kids about farming things. When I’m not working, I’m sleeping or eating good food with good people.

What brought you to farming?

I started farming in 2008 when I was 14. This organization called The Food Project hired teenagers from all areas of greater Boston. I thought it was just going to be a summer job. The relationships I built that first summer farming brought me into the fall doing it as a school year gig, and I haven’t left farming since. The relationship building and thinking intentionally about social justice issues in relationship to farming have always made sense to me and became the most important thing I’ve ever committed to. Farming has been the one consistent thing in my life. I haven’t missed a summer since I was 14. Now I am a full-time farmer. Everything I do for my job is related to working the land and producing food. It’s built into my being, my DNA, and my spirituality.

Screen Shot 2017-11-02 at 8.48.07 PM.pngHow does farming feel connected to social justice issues?

Food connects every single person on this planet. It’s universal. No matter what element in food you work, you can’t escape thinking about social justice issues. Who can afford to buy this food that I’m producing, the ways we choose to distribute the food, all of our decisions relate to somebody else’s well being. How we treat our environment affects the person who lives next to the farm and the person who has to carry away the trash from our farm. It’s so connected. On a daily basis, I might be alone in a field in the middle of nowhere, but nothing about farming stays right there. You’re constantly witnessing all these things that are so interconnected.

I’m hearing you talk a lot about the impact of farming on other people and on the earth, and I’m wondering how it impacts you personally as someone who’s doing 40 to 60 hours a week?

Spiritually I feel very fulfilled. I feel so grateful I have a job where I’m outside every single day. When I think about long-term commitments, I want to be growing food. That’s what keeps me going on the 60-hour weeks. There’s something so ritualistic and hopeful about seeing the sun rise every morning to greet you. In getting to see a piece of land change seasonally, I’m never going to miss a certain bloom happening, or a storm, or watching clouds roll in. Something about that is just magnificent. To watch and witness this is magic.

This is my tenth season farming. It’s the first year I’ve started to feel achy and tired in a way that’s different than any other season. The physical wear and tear is exhausting. I’ve decided to prioritize self care in a big way. I need so much rest, sleep, and time to myself. Socializing can be rejuvenating in its own way. But it’s hard to find people on the wavelength of needing the kind of restoration I need.

I’ve started bartering for massages which has been huge. It’s hard to remember the value of what you do. I’m trying to remember that vegetables, something I have ready access to, are a valuable gift I can give, and I’ve found someone who’s excited about receiving them. I get a massage every one to two weeks. Never in my life could I have imagined affording that. Sometimes that’s the only time I’ve set aside for myself in a week, to really just be in existence. People think of phones and the internet that as their downtime, like, oh let me just scroll. I engage in that, but it exhausts me. Committing an hour to being present in my physical body is like *ahhhh*! It’s so good!

What is the value of what you do and what was your process in realizing that?

It’s invaluable. We need farmers in a huge way. Providing someone the food that sustains them is pretty awesome. If I didn’t get to witness that part early on I don’t think I would have stuck with it. When you have a conversation with the people who are going to consume your food, whether it’s at a soup kitchen, a farmer’s market, or the CSA pickup, all of those people are eating the same thing you produced. The relationship building with the folks who are so appreciative of what you’re providing is what makes it feel invaluable and like I couldn’t give it up.

Are there any interactions that stand out in your mind as you’re saying that?

Mei Mei Street Kitchen is a restaurant in the Fenway area who works really hard to source all of their food locally. I’ve gone to the restaurant a handful of times and it’s wonderful food. It’s a stark contrast of going to this fancy restaurant where you’re buying a $15 dish and seeing how artistically the food is expressed and how the people are enjoying that food in a totally different way.

My favorite organization I ever worked in was My Brother’s Table in Lynn, a soup kitchen that does a meal every afternoon. It’s not necessarily outward joy or expressively luxurious, like you might see at a restaurant. Rather you witness this ‘I feel sustained and I’m taking a moment to rest from my exhausting day or life, and this food is nourishing me.’ I’m lucky to be witness to the food being appreciated in different contexts. Watching kids pick a cherry tomato and eat it like it’s a starburst is so wonderful. Those are the moments where I know I do this because food brings people joy and nourishment.

I’m grateful for you that you get to have those experiences and witness it. I’m sure a lot of people aren’t able to see the fruits of their labor. I know this is a big question, but why is food important?

Food nourishes people, and we need nourishment to survive. It’s a daily interaction we have with ourselves. It connects every single person. I have had so many conversations with people across so many walks of life because everyone has experiences and connotations with it. Food justice speaks to me because food can be good for the planet, the people who are consuming it and producing it, and can be culturally appropriate. We’ve lost our way in food in this particular country and society in a big way.

What does food production and consumption look like in the world you want to live in?

I want people to be more connected to their food through knowledge and decision-making. I see transformation when people are given access to knowledge. In the world I would love to live in, folks are able to make conscious, informed decisions about their food because the barriers have been alleviated.

Even just the knowing is enough. Being able to bear witness to what growing food really entails, whether it’s watching a Youtube video or going to visit a farm. I’ve gotten to be a part of that for a lot of folks in watching their world open up when they realize how their food got in front of them, or all of the things that are influencing that, or the person who is suffering to produce their food. It’s part of what I want for my world and for the people who are living in it. I want people to know, and think about it, and maybe value it — at least a little bit.

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“I am constantly trying to harness potential… That’s why I have this reminder on my arm every day.”

How do you interact with the earth and land is in this work?

I’m manipulating the earth every day, right? I’m trying to make the best circumstance for a seed to survive and thrive. I am constantly trying to harness potential. That’s the only hope I have in interacting with the land as a farmer. To tread lightly and not fuck it up.

Right now I’m sitting in this grass. If I was on the farm I would be pulling all of these out because they’re weeds, right? I’m fighting my urge because I know that here, it should just grow and exist. My relationship to the land and nature is a higher consciousness of how things could and should be in an ideal world. Especially in terms of nature and land and what we’re cultivating versus when you should be leaving a field to rest, or when you should not be messing with that bird’s habitat. It’s all interconnected. The more you spend time farming or outside or working with land you develop a connection and a sense of what is okay and not okay on land and in nature.

What are you listening to when you have that sense? Where’s that coming from?

It’s a developed instinct. You’ll see someone who walks onto the farm for the first time and they can see that they shouldn’t walk on a row of plants. I do a lot of repetitive observing. If you walk onto the same field in the same way every day, you’re gonna know there’s been an animal that’s scurried through because it’s left its droppings or eaten something. I’ve become so much more conscious of if a storm will roll through, or if these plants need this or that. I’m spending hours witnessing them that’s engaged that instinct. I’m in a heightened state when I’m farming or on land.

How does being indigenous to this land connect to the work you’re doing?

It took me a number of years to make the connection of working land that potentially ancestors may have also worked. It makes it feel that much more important. I’m maybe the only person from my tribe who is farming in Massachusetts right now. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the work I do. I’m still young and I try not to hold too much pressure on myself. I also feel confident that this is a thing that I love and want to be doing. I’ve spent my entire farming career working for white people who are not of this land. I’ve been lucky that a lot of them give a fuck about that perspective and engage with it. But it feels complicated and strange. My chief is my friend Nia’s mom. We’re a matrilineal tribe so it feels like there’s an extra layer of expectation that women will run shit.

There’s a lot I have to learn in terms of historical growing practices. If the goal is food sovereignty, we would have evolved had colonization not happened anyhow. There’s this piece of pulling from both modern agriculture as well as indigenous practices that feels really important. I feel a responsibility to be teaching. I don’t want to be the only person from my tribe who’s farming. I talk about this with my chief and other people from my tribe all the time. They’re like, we need to get you land so you can farm food to be putting into our community ASAP. I fought that for a little while or felt I don’t know enough, and now I’m like you know what? Fuck it. None of us are ever gonna know enough. It’s so fucking important that people from my tribe grow food on our land and that we are in control of some of these resources and right now we’re just not. Making that shift feels like my life’s work. It feels weird to be 23 and be able to say that.

Do you personally or collectively have goals about owning land and farming on it?

I would love to own and/or manage land. I want my tribe to acquire a lot more of our land back and have access to some of the land that we shouldn’t have ever had taken away from us. I wish it were as simple as going into a town hall and being like, so you see this piece of land? It feels weird to interact with the system and need titles and deeds for land, but I understand that it’s the only way to be protected after pouring all your energy and resources in. I’m figuring out how to go through that with integrity and figuring out how to interact with people who have integrity.

Between the day-to-day physical exhaustion to the bigger picture of food justice and injustice, it seems like you are grappling with a lot. Who and what in your life support you doing this work and make it possible for you to keep doing it?

I think back to talking about how isolating and solitary farming can be, especially in the intersections of identity. I think about older indigenous folks doing food sovereignty work in rural spaces who went years without ever connecting to anyone outside of their tribe. The internet can be a saving grace. The first time I saw another queer-identifying native person was on instagram. I learn more about conferences and farms I can get guidance from, or seedkeepers who are keeping seeds that are indigenous to here. It’s dope to have community affirmation. I don’t feel like I’m chipping at farming alone in relationship to my tribe, but I feel like if I left it might not happen. I don’t think there’s a way to fix that. It’s just something I have to accept. I appreciate how many people are chipping at it in their own communities and having connection to that feels important.

I lucked out committing to a career I’m passionate about that doesn’t require a college education; I didn’t really do college. My friends and bio-family are supportive for the most part since I’ve done it for a number of years and proved I can make my life work. But sometimes they think I’m going to fail. They still push me to get a college education. You asked about what supports are there but I think it’s important to acknowledge the frustrating moments.

It’s hard to love and be in relationship with a farmer. I grew up in the city. Most of my friends are city people who have never been on a farm. After so many years they understand what it’ll mean to be friends with me if I committed myself to a piece of land that’s in a more rural setting. I feel lucky that so many of them will love and support that no matter what. I have future CSA members in my community. I feel confident that I’m not gonna lose them over my commitment and I commit myself to farming first. Many of my friends care about or pay attention to farming in a broader context so that they can stay close to me and I appreciate that.

I have a great appreciation for the partners I’ve had. I’ve always been the exhausted partner who comes home and doesn’t have energy to make dinner or can never give a massage but needs one, or can’t follow through with the plans that go past 10 pm because I need to be in bed. I value the love I have received when I’m not the most lovable. I’ve committed a tremendous amount of my energy and existence to farming and that makes me have minimal energy for other people. Sometimes I can’t have some of the important conversations I want to be having ‘cos I’m exhausted. I’ll have had conversations in my head in the field all day, and then when it comes down to the actual opportunity, I fall asleep. I’m a social being so I have a lot of people I want to be able to give my energy to. I think that’s just going to be something I have to come to terms with over and over. Because you just only have the time you have.

What you see as your role and your work in this political moment?

I’m providing food. That’s sustenance. When I was younger I wanted to be a mover and shaker and be at every protest and lobby at the state house. While I am still gonna show up to things and care deeply about showing up in those ways, I’m comfortable with my role as the person providing food for my community.

I’m a homemaker, I’m a homebody. I love giving people food, I love having people over for food. Food is the center of my world. I have the ability to give vegetables to friends who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. I’ve managed to carve out a community and world for myself in a tiny way. That feels dope. If I’m able to give people even a moment of refuge in food, that is enough for me.

I’m never gonna feel like I’m doing enough. That’s capitalistic bullshit we’ve been socialized to feel. I try to hold onto moments of hearing and realizing I maybe am doing enough. If I look at the internet at Trump’s nonsense or turn on NPR and it’s all of this stateside and international nonsense… fuck. Fuck! I listen to all the ‘fuck’ but then I go micro and I’m like, I have a stable place to live that I can afford. I can provide food for myself and other people. I’m putting out more good than bad in this world. I am comfortable and happy with my role as a food provider, producer, and educator. That’s where I want to be in this movement, that’s where I wanna be in my impact. Everyone comes home tired from a protest and I can grow you some vegetables. Maybe I wasn’t there but shoot, you got some good food to nourish you, so that’s an okay role to play.

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Keely Curliss is highly google-able and uses her full name on all the social media platforms including her veggie-tastic instagram. This interview is part of a series for The World We Want to Live in