In this post, I interview Fa-Tai Shieh, the Board President of Added Value, which operates the Red Hook Community Farm in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Fa-Tai has been involved in farming for over twenty years and has been working on urban farms since the concept first became popular. In this interview, he talks about urban farming as a spiritual practice; as a way to break down barriers of race, class, and immigration experience; and as a way to create shared public spaces that foster community, growth, celebration, and joy.
Could you talk a little bit about how you got involved in farming?
I got involved with farming when I was in college back in 1993, when I was 18 years old, so this was a very long time ago. It was my first time eating outside of my home and I grew up in a household where my mother cooked fresh food every day, processed food wasn’t a big part of our diet. My family is from Taiwan so most of the food we ate was Chinese and there was this deep appreciation for fresh food. When I went to college I quickly realized not everyone ate the same way. What was shocking to me was that food was not taken as seriously outside of my home as I thought it would be.
I started eating in these food coops managed by students- we all cooked, bought food, shared the costs. And in the food coops there was a component to source locally from local farmers – this was in Oberlin, Ohio- so I very quickly wanted to be the local foods coordinator and that’s how I got connected to local farmers. Because for me it always came back to fresh food. Oberlin was kind of a hippie school anyway and it was part of being a hippie I guess (laughs) so it was not seen as this weird thing to do. That slowly led me to doing internships on farms. I’ve always liked nature, even when I was in high school I was involved in environmental activism work and so it was a natural marriage- food, where food is grown, connecting with the earth, and having that be part of environmental activism work. It’s something I’m still very interested in to this day.
Can you tell me, if you remember, a little but about the first time you ever stepped onto a farm and talked to farmers? What was that experience like?
I think one of the first farms I went to as the local food coordinators was an Amish farm and wow, that was like stepping into another time period. There was a truck that belonged to the coop and I remember driving up to the farm, the clothes they wore- they were all wearing this similar clothing that was made at home- , the number of children that were around, they didn’t have electricity, they were this subsistence farming community, and it made quite an impression, that they were out of touch with mainstream technologies and all the commercialism that is around us all the time, and there was something very grounding about seeing that for the very first time, something very calming. I have this vision of driving there in the fall and the temperature was 40 or 50 it was around sunset, and there were candles lit in the house and they invited me into their cellar to pick up produce and that always stuck with me. It is so opposite, so disconnected from Chinese culture but at the same time I felt a shared connection with these people who were living this lifestyle.
One of the things I had been wondering about- a few years after the time you’re talking about, I was working as a labor organizer on farms in Ohio and I saw a lot of farms were using migrant workers who had come up from Mexico, who were struggling for decent pay and working conditions and to have their rights respected. Did you encounter any of that and what was your reaction as a young student to those situations?
I never really worked on a farm that had migrant labor. I thought it was interesting that you were working on those issues because the farming community I was trying to be part of was a younger generation, a kind of nouveau food movement, establishing organic farms, community supported agriculture systems, these were small, niche, boutique farms. But even though this smaller food movement was taking hold across the United States, eating organic, going to farmers markets, I knew there were real labor issues on big industrial farms. And I think later in life as I grew up and learned more about the world I started thinking more about how not everyone was part of this new food movement I was part of. My mother worked in a supermarket, cooking food, and I started thinking about how the food she was cooking was grown very differently from the kinds of food I was involved in and that led me to this deeper inquiry about who are the more marginalized populations supplying most of the country’s food systems.
You had mentioned that you did internships on farms. Can you talk about those experiences?
One year I spent a summer in Vermont working on an organic farm. It was run by this hippie couple. They were both actually doctors but they wanted to live off the grid on this small organic farm. Vermont is a very beautiful state, the farm was no more than two acres, we planted everything, a diverse crop, and we had to bag the vegetables, and then I had to drive around Vermont to deliver these CSA packages. And for the two or three months I was there I slept in a tent! They had a house but they didn’t have room for me in the house. That was a cool experience, I liked that very much. It was in a rural setting, we were in the countryside.
After college I came to New York actually to help run an urban farm project. The farm itself was outside of NYC but it was a farm to help inner city youth be exposed to farming. That was run by Cornell Cooperative Extension, it was in Dover Plains New York, pretty rural, and kids from Harlem would come up and stay over as a summer camp and come to the farm and we would have activities and the produce that we grew went into the cafeteria and we sold it at a farmers market in Harlem.
Those were two very different experiences. In Vermont, it was very sparsely populated and I was the only non-white person that I saw, whereas in New York City the people that I interacted with were from the inner city, people of all colors, lower socio-economic class, so those were two very different experiences, but both centered around farming and growing good food and improving the food system.
Can you talk about the first time you were working with people from an urban environment farming for the first time? Can you talk about the observations you made about people interacting with how their food was grown?
The fist time I worked with city folks in a farm setting was this experience in Dover Plains. Kids came to the farm to learn about fruits and vegetables. It was a really challenging but really cool experience. It was cool to work with people who never had an association with how vegetables grow, that it comes from the earth, that you plant a seed, that the seed has to germinate, you have to water it, you have to nurture it, and that it grows and that it takes time. The younger kids who didn’t have preset notions of what food is just enjoyed playing in the dirt, planting seeds, building dirt mounds, looking at bugs, smelling flowers and plants. The older kids were well into their teens ate cereal and processed foods and ate MacDonalds and drank coca-cola, and for them, well, they were just not into it. Changing behavior is very complex, I’ve come to realize later in life. There are all these historical issues and socioeconomic and socio-cultural issues to address. A lot of the kids were African American and they had associations of farming with slavery, for example, and they were like, I’m not going to do this, I’m not a slave. What I’m articulating now is what I came to realize years later. You can’t just give people a hoe and tell them to plant a seed. But I think that the seemingly insurmountable challenge is what kept me at it. And every now and then I would show them, look this is a tomato off the plant, and one or two kids would be like, oh my god, this is the most amazing tomato I ever tasted in my life. I just hope whatever experience they had on that farm they will remember it. If someone today buys a tomato in a grocery store and remembers seeing a tomato growing on a tomato plant twenty years ago, I think I’ve achieved something.
It seems like now your work isn’t so much about bringing people from an urban environment to a rural setting, but rather bringing farms into an urban environment. Is that right, and if so is that changing how people relate to the idea of farming? What are the implications of making that shift, where people are now interacting with the natural world in their own urban community?
What I would say about that is I always thought that growing food in the city would be a very cool idea. But when I was at this, 15 or 20 years ago, we had community gardens but the concept of urban farming was a very strange one to people. And then all of a sudden urban farming became a trend in a lot of cities across the US and there was a movement to grow food in the city to feed the city population. Now, there are different models- some people think you can make a living doing it, which I don’t necessarily agree with. There are people who want to be soil farmers in the city, there are people who want to be technological farmers in the city- there are hydroponic farmers, which doesn’t involve soil at all, in an enclosed environment. So there are different models.
When it became more popular there were different opportunities and different funding mechanisms to allow these things to take place. At the time, I didn’t have a full-time job as an urban farmer, but I was able to visit and volunteer in the small urban farms that popped up in the city and I was always curious about what was going to be the next new urban farm.
But for me it was always about social development, greening urban spaces, teaching kids how to eat. I still felt strongly about incorporating developmental aspects from environmentalism to greening urban spaces to improving relations with the urban space and really to work with what we call food desserts, where these opportunities to see how food grows doesn’t exist, because in those areas it makes the largest impact.
One thing I’ve been thinking about- I grew some tomatoes on my fire escape, and the process of planting them, and watching them grow, and watching them turn red, and finally picking and eating them- it involved having a lot of patience, and that gave me a different perspective on food. Because in the city, you can just go around the corner and get food at the deli or bodega or whatever; there’s instant gratification. Growing food myself gave me a little more connectedness to what I ate, before putting something in my life I started to pause and think about the time it took to grow and ripen, and the natural processes that food I was eating was part of. So I’m wondering if you have reflections on that- how the experience of farming might change people’s relationship to their food.
I think it definitely slows you down. It makes you more aware of seasons and weather. For me, if I’m growing food, I’m constantly monitoring the weather to see when it’s going to rain. Cause if it doesn’t rain, the plants will wilt and not be able to grow. And there are many psychological dimensions of growing food and being patient, and a lot of things related to health and nurturing the self are about time, and rhythm, and what I like to call a regimen- there is a regimen to establishing a healthy lifestyle. You have to be attentive to the natural world, how you pace your daily life in relation to the natural world, it’s not instant gratification.
We’re in the Lower East Side right now- you can eat whatever you want, any time of day, from anywhere in the world, and there’s something very magical about that, it’s one of the reasons why we live here. But I do think that having a practice of growing food and having that connection is important. I also think that as a biological being, to have that connection to the biology of another living thing is critical to maintaining health. We are so socialized with technology, how we live our modern life, our jobs, that we don’t really connect to the biological rhythms of our lives and think about how other lives can nurture us.
I think you’ve started to allude to this, but is there any relationship for you between growing food and your practices of spiritual cultivation?
Yes, because I think that for me at least all the lessons in life are found in nature. Things die, things grow, things suffer. Plants are resilient, they are robust, but they can also be weak, and there is constant competition for things. And you know, you have to weed out things you don’t want and plant the things that you do want. Planting a seed, watching it grow, weeding, watering it- those are all metaphors for spiritual practice. We all have weeds in our minds, things we have to pull out; we have to replenish our minds with healthy things just like you have to water a plant. And sometimes the ugliest things you find in nature can actually be very beautiful. What I like about farming is it’s a craft, there’s not one way to do it, but we are regulated by very real physical and biological rhythms. And that’s sort of how I relate farming to spiritual practice- it cultivates a calmness, this openness to things that can happen unexpectedly. But it also cultivates a mental alertness to things that can disrupt your farming cycle. For me they both go hand in hand and having that practice of growing food definitely grounds me in a real way. And at the end of it you get to eat the food! So it all comes full circle.
Can you talk about the first thing you ever grew yourself from seed and then ate?
I think it was when I was in the third grade and I was living in the suburbs of DC and one of the first things I grew was a sunflower. My mom gave me sunflower seeds and said plant these, and I planted them and- whoa!- these sunflowers grew. I remember harvesting the sunflower seeds and then eating it and it was so incredible that this little seed grew into a ginormous plant that was taller than me. Not only that but a very beautiful plant and you can extract seeds and eat it! It’s so interesting that I’m talking about that because I haven’t thought about that in ages but I remember that there are pictures of me and the sunflower plant. I’m going to have to go and try to find them!
A few times you’ve alluded to issues of race, class, immigration status in terms of farming and urban farming, and I’m wondering if you could elaborate on those themes a little more, highlighting anything you think is especially relevant for people thinking about urban farming who want to be mindful of these issues.
I think about this a lot. I think it’s super complex and to this day I still don’t really have any good pithy answers to give you. But what I do love about farming is that at the heart of it, it’s race-less, it’s class-less. Food can be grown by anybody. But there’s definitely a lot of racism and classism around issues of food. Who gets to eat, who doesn’t get to eat, who holds the knowledge, who doesn’t hold the knowledge, who has access to land to grow food, who doesn’t have access to land. There’s a lot of social factors and forces at play when we talk about food and what people eat and what exactly is health, who are the taste makers, who controls the resources to grow food. There’s a lot of that and I always struggle to find ways to use farming to break down these barriers. Because even when it comes down to what to eat it’s always like- oh, you have to eat this, because it follows these nutritional guidelines. But to me the nutritional guidelines is in and of itself an ideology created by educated people who may not necessarily understand all the socioeconomic struggles, and there’s a disconnect there. And there’s a whole disconnect with food culture. When we talk about eating proper nutritional profiles. There are a lot of ideologies about how to eat and what to eat- that sometimes manifest themselves in a subtle and unarticulated way.
But I guess what I would say is that when utilizing an urban farm to promote greater social welfare it really has to be demand-driven, culturally appropriate. And deeper than that, it has to be about freedom to eat whatever you want, it has to be about creativity, it has to be about community, it has to be about joy and fun from eating. You shouldn’t use the farm to impose a structured way of thinking onto another population; I see the farm as a playground for experimentation, cooking, figuring out what tastes good and what doesn’t taste good, working with the population in the community and their food culture and having fun with it. It should be fun, it should be liberating, it should be celebratory. It should be a place of growth and affirmation. To eat whatever you want, utilizing the farm vegetables.
You’re currently on the Board of Added Value, which has an urban farm in Red Hook. Can you talk about the work you do there on that farm and why it’s meaningful to you?
Red Hook is in Brooklyn and Added Value is a nonprofit that I’m the Chair of. It is the largest urban farm in New York City. It’s three acres, we farm about two of the three acres. And Red Hook, fifteen years ago when this project was developing, was considered a food desert, there was a lot of low-income housing in that area. It came to life as a way to help empower youth and grow food for the community there. Which is very aligned with the work that I’m interested in. Today the farm still exists, the neighborhood has gentrified a lot but I still keep to it because gentrification also calls up a lot of questions about how we should be interacting with the space, who comes to the space, how we utilize the space, who gets to take advantage of the space. I do it for myself, I enjoy farming and cooking, but I also do it to help sustain this great public space that gives a lot back to the community. And also, as it helps me to articulate the way I think about farming; it continues to challenge me to think about the issues of class, race, food, and social development in the urban farming context. I want to make an impact and help the community there. It’s a cool project, and it’s fun!
I know you have a fundraiser coming up at Added Value and that if folks are interested in supporting urban farming one way might be to attend this fundraiser. Can you talk a little bit about it?
Yes, on June 29 between 6 and 10 pm we are having our annual farm fundraiser. Tickets are $50 a person. You can buy a higher level ticket if you’re feeling generous. It goes to support the work on the farm. We have a composting program, we have a CSA program, we have a farmers market, we have school education programs, we have a youth development program. So it’s to help support that work and if you come to the farm we will have all you can eat and drink. It’s a really fun event, a great way to spend a summer night, if you’re interested you should check out our website at www.added-value.org.
Lastly, do you have ideas about small ways we can integrate the principles that you’re talking about into our daily lives, even if you don’t have farming experience and if you’re not connected to any urban farms yet?
I would say the easiest way is to start thinking about what you eat and how did it get to the table. Start by keeping a food log of what you eat- think about how often you eat it and why you eat it. And then you could very easily start talking to the people who sell the food and ask where they get the food, who are their suppliers. Another thing you could do is engaging in conversation with someone who eats very differently from you, as a type of cultural exchange. Be curious about food- why you eat what you eat, where your food comes from, and what other people eat.
And a very simple thing to do to begin to cultivate a practice of good food is just by cooking! Carve out the time to cook. Don’t buy too many processed foods because the you’re just supporting those big food companies. Even if you order something on Blue Apron- they deliver these packages of pre-cut vegetables and you cook it on your own- they have videos to show you- even doing that is one step in that direction.
And if you have a window sill you can plant a seed, or go to the farmers market and get a pre-germinated seed and put it on your fire escape and see what it grows into. And the if you’re living in the city you can google community gardens and urban farms, I’m sure there’s one around you if you’re living in the city somewhere, and then go for a visit. Maybe grow something there.
Also, eat with your family, eat with your friends! I firmly believe that eating well is important to a spiritual practice. And nourishing yourself in a deliberate and focused way is super important to having a healthy lifestyle and to prolonging your life.