Published originally in Growing Produce, March 31, 2019
Last fall, Dirk and I attended a vegetable farmer “meet-and-greet” lunch. We spent the afternoon mingling with other farmers, exchanging tips of the trade, and of course, eating each other’s kale or cabbage salads. Towards the end, we sat in a circle and had the opportunity to ask the whole group questions on challenges that would be ameliorated through brainstorming. Among the group, Dirk and I were the only childless couple and I watched as the farm-grown children scampered off, at ease around equipment and dirt.
“Dirk and I are thinking about starting to try for kids soon. How do you make kids and a farm work?” I asked the gathered group. Opinions immediately began flying at us as everyone told us to wait as long as we could and focus on the farm for a while as having a baby the first year on a new farm would be a terrible idea. We took the advice to heart, but we never have complete control over our plans, much less our reproductive systems. Now I sit, fourteen weeks pregnant, with a perceptible rounding of my belly, and constantly wonder about farming and motherhood.
Long before I became pregnant or started farming, I decided I would be a working mother. I came from a long line of working mothers. My mother, both grandmothers, and at least one great-grandmother had all raised kids while working outside the home. While I never had the chance to talk to my grandmothers about the challenges; I learned from my mom that working and raising children is challenging. My mom, a compassionate and talented nurse who loves her work, cut back from full time to part time and switched from working on a floor with long shifts to the dependable hours of a clinic so she could spend more time with us kids. Yet I have always admired how my mom found joy in both working and mothering.
Being both a farmer and mother isn’t an insurmountable challenge. Farming is just another job, albeit a job that is demanding. I’ve heard it said by many farmers that “the farm will take all you can give and more”. The challenge with farming and being a mother is the commitment required by both. To a certain extent, people with office jobs can leave their physical work at the office. Farmers step out of the door and are at work. Farmers make strange boasts like “I work 24/7” or “I can’t remember the last time I took a vacation” as a way to show their commitment to the farm. With motherhood, or even an attempt at wellbeing, this attitude just isn’t possible. For me, farming is a vocation, a holy call, and a passion, but I would drop growing vegetables instantly for the sake of the human growing inside me.
The search for balance between work and family is not new for women. I’m another woman in a line of billions realizing anew the complexities of our system and unseen expectations for women. I always planned on being a working mother, but until I saw my child on the ultrasound screen and heard its heartbeat, I didn’t realize how much I wanted “mother” to outrank any work I accomplish. I want to be a good farmer, to feed and nourish people and the soil. But I want to feed and nourish my child more, to raise my child into a person who is gentle, loving, compassionate, curious, and conscientious. Fortunately, my job can help show my child one example of living out those attributes, I just have to figure out how to make the farm work for my family.
In honor of National Poetry Day, a poem about digging up a place that was once alive.
Velvet buds acquiesce
to their senescence,
tumbling to the ground in adulation
of the incoming weeds.
The banana stands out in the fruit section because it is strange; a long, curved, yellow fruit amongst the rounder red, blue, and purple fruits. But for all of our love for the peculiar fruit, it is endangered, due to a disease called Fusarium wilt. Fusarium wilt, caused by a fungus called Fusarium oxysporum f.sp cubense tropical race 4 (TR4), began its attack on bananas in Southeast Asia in the 1990s and exploded across global banana-producing regions, leaving behind a wake of wilted, discolored trees with no viable fruit. Since the emergence of the disease, countless preventions and treatments have been tried without success resulting in diminished banana supply affecting people in the U.S. and in developing countries alike. That’s why agricultural researchers at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, IITA, or a new start-up called Tropic Biosciences are turning to genetic modification to breed a new banana that can withstand Fusarium wilt.
The banana we know was plucked from its tree because it was a mutant, a lone tree producing yellow bananas in a grove of small, red bananas. Unlike other red bananas, which had to be cooked before consumed, the mutant yellow banana was tasty when it was raw. Because the yellow bananas were mutant themselves, any new tree that was planted started as a sucker or side-shoot of an existing tree. Soon banana groves in Latin America, Australia, Southeast Asia, or Sub-Saharan Africa were populated with thousands of trees with the exact same genetics. However, it’s nemesis, TR4, quickly rose up to challenge the banana craze. TR4 saw the genetically-identical plantations as an opportunity, a smorgasbord of its favorite food.
The crisis of bananas vs. TR4 is a case study in the dangers of monocultures. An entire field of plants with the exact same weapons is left defenseless if their weapons are outmatched. Encouraging plantings of diverse plants species and individuals allows an ecosystem to bounce back when threats do emerge. But at this point, if we want to continue the production of our favorite fruit, we need to focus on the plant’s genetics as well.
Plant breeding has been around since the advent of agriculture. It’s how we got corn or wheat from native grasses and the wide variety of crops we grow. Humans have always been selective about the plants and traits they desire and grow. But in the past, we planted seeds and hoped for the best. When researchers discovered DNA in the 1960s, we gained a better sense of the exchange of chromosomes that happens during reproduction and were able to be more particular about the crop traits we were hoping for. The traits that we love about bananas, their amount of fruit and seedlessness is a result of being triploid. Instead of two sets of chromosomes like humans have, bananas have three sets of chromosomes which often renders them sterile. In order to get a new banana variety, breeding involves tedious steps of crossing bananas, planting a new tree, and waiting to see if the banana actually has the desired trait, which can take up to ten years.
There is another option available to us besides traditional breeding called gene-edited crops, or GECs. Like producing GMOs, creating a GEC does involve taking a fragment of DNA and inserting it into the genome sequence of a crop, but unlike GMOs, the DNA fragments aren’t from different species but the exact same one. While our favorite, yellow banana doesn’t have the genetic ability to defend itself against TR4, other bananas do. Researchers can determine what part of the red or green bananas genome causes immunity and “copy and paste” those sequences into yellow bananas. GECs have the potential to help create more disease-resistant or drought-resistant crops while using traits already available in the plant population.
What makes GECs especially important for bananas is that traditionally breeding bananas is complex and unreliable. While this tool isn’t a panacea and we should strive for agricultural systems that are diverse and sustainable, gene-editing is an assistance in an ever-changing world. Hopefully, through the addition of gene-editing techniques to our crop production tool belt, we can continue to produce and preserve important crops, even the curved, yellow banana.
As a woman, eating at or exploring a new place alone can seem at worst, dangerous, and at best, lonesome; but I’ve found it instead to be life-giving and empowering. The first time I ate alone in a restaurant, and not just to eat a quick bite or grab a cup of coffee, was at an Indian restaurant when I was a junior in college. I had wanted to try this restaurant, Taste of India, for months and had planned to go with my then-boyfriend as our first date after I returned from studying in Kenya. Shortly after returning to the U.S. however, I endured a messy breakup with said boy all while experiencing reverse culture shock. The restaurant fell to the back burner as I locked myself up from the outside world.
This post is in response to an article in the Washington Post about cheap vegetables benefitting people’s health. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Please feel free to push back against my thoughts, I’m in a constant state of working through thoughts on the food system.
Food prices don’t matter. Farmers, specifically the smaller-scale, family farmers, are drilled to believe the prices we assign to produce is the make or break factor in whether people buy. This is a false assumption. What really matters is desire and knowledge.
What elevates a place, with its sidewalks and local restaurants and smattering of churches, into a home? How does one gain or cultivate the sense of belonging in a place that is new? I’ve lived in Michigan for two years now, my husband Dirk for almost a year and a half, and yet outside of our apartment, we look on the town we live in as observers cataloging the unfamiliar behaviors of the locals, never considering ourselves as residents. When asked if we’ll stay in Michigan forever, we quickly respond “No”. But why is Michigan not our home? What is so different in the configuration of the neighborhoods and communities from the places we have considered home?