I interviewed RAFI staffer Jean Willoughby about her contributions to The New Farmer’s Almanac, just published earlier this year. Copies of the book are available here through Chelsea Green Publishing. Be sure to ask your favorite local bookstore if they plan to carry the book! – Hayes Simpson
HS: What made you want to write for The New Farmer’s Almanac?
JW: I’m interested in what the Greenhorns are doing to energize a new generation of farmers and their almanac is a big part of that effort. I think the Greenhorns group has been active for something like 10 years now, and they’re able to reach a wide audience of farmers around the country, thanks in no small part to the founders’ relentless touring schedule.
HS: How did you first meet the Greenhorns?
JW: I first met a couple of Greenhorns about four years ago. They were doing a “Seed Circus” event at a museum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and needed a place to stay. I lived in Pittsboro at the time and they were in town the night before the event. I think having someone crash on your couch is probably as good a way as any to meet them for the first time.
HS: What got you interested in the history of agricultural cooperatives?
JW: I’ve been interested in cooperative economics and community land trusts for several years. I’ve found that agriculture has been fertile ground for experimenting with both. But cooperative arrangements have often been made out of necessity, not just choice. They have been particularly important strategies for African-American farmers because of the discrimination they’ve faced from lenders and USDA agencies. Historically and up to the present, these farmers have had to be innovative and resourceful to survive in a hostile social and political environment.
Almost by accident, I found an article written by someone who used to work for the USDA, “Black Farmers in America, 1865 to 2000.” I actually found it when I was doing research on the history of discrimination against small, minority, and female farmers in the US. When I found that article, two things I care about came together: social justice and cooperative economics. When the chance to contribute to the Almanac came about, I wanted to focus on that article and bring it to a wider audience of beginning farmers and farmers across the country who may not be aware of that history.
HS: What lasting impacts have farmer cooperatives had on agriculture today?
JW: Some of the cooperative projects in the 19th century laid the groundwork for what happened in the 1920s and ‘30s and, in turn, the 1960s and ‘70s. They helped preserve land owned by African-American farmers during a time of profound discrimination. The article covers a lot of the groups involved and I’m hoping to get people interested in that history, so that we can all learn more from it.
HS: Your essay “Harvest Time” focuses on the value of an agrarian way of life. Do you see many others around you sharing in this way of life?
JW: The point of that essay is to look at a fairly simple activity, harvesting and preserving food for the year, and then to establish a connection between that simple act and its broader meaning. If that seems too vague, let me try again. A lot of us are disconnected from where our food comes from. Sometimes reestablishing a connection is as simple as harvesting berries for a day and then making jam to enjoy for a year.
I think that on some level we are impoverished not only when we don’t know where our food comes from, but because we face a poverty of memorable experiences. I don’t remember going to the grocery store last week. I remember harvesting berries. And I’ll never forget it.
I’ve found that being more engaged in where your food comes from can make a remarkable difference in your life. It’s worth exploring and I had fun writing about it. I hope the essay resonates with people, regardless of how much experience they have with an agrarian way of life.
The New Farmer’s Almanac is available for purchase online through Chelsea Green Publishing.
The New Farmer’s Almanac
Book Format: Paperback
Dimensions: 6.75 x 8.5