Valerie was a featured storyteller at the Climate Conversation at Gale Woods Farm in November of 2018 in partnership with Climate Generation and Three Rivers Park District.
Like most people, I was overwhelmed when I learned about climate change…and how it has and will affect things that I love.
I recall experiencing this deeply for the first time when I was as young as eight years old. I have always loved animals and interacting with them. So, when I learned that my second grade class was going on a field trip to the zoo, I was excited because it meant I would have a chance to see animals that were not so familiar. When I was visiting the Minnesota Zoo, I found that I was especially fascinated by the tapir exhibit, I was amazed by their unique look and how big they were.
Then, I learned about how they might go extinct, because of deforestation and poaching. It was sad to realize that humans were responsible for affecting a whole species, that was beautiful and unique. While hearing the birds chirping, the monkeys howling, and laughter of other kids on the trail, I got this strange feeling; a mix of love and loss for the vibrant plants and unique animals that make our ecosystem so beautiful.
I felt a sense of urgency and knew I wanted to learn more.
During my high school Environmental Studies class, I realized that all the problems we were discussing like polluted air, water, and wasting resources were in some way tied to agriculture. My dad was also working for a large Ag commodity and trading company at the time. So, we would often discuss what I was learning in class and the role of agriculture. We would talk about these topics in the car on the way to sports practices and as a family at the dinner table. The more I learned, and talked with others about it, the more I felt determined to find ways to do things differently and make positive change.
Around this time, I also was having to make what I thought was the hardest decision of my life…choosing my college major. The conversations leading up to this point helped to solidify the convergence of my interests, and I decided I would pursue the study of Soil and Crop Science and Environmental Justice, with hopes to pursue a career in the field of sustainable agriculture.
However, one problem I had was that I had no practical Ag experience. So I made that a priority and started working on the CSA team at Gale Wood Farm.
It was there that I learned first hand how hard it is to farm. I remember coming home from my first day of work covered in the black valley garden soil, sweat, and mosquito bites; and knowing that I was in for quite the experience. It turned out that experience was worth it. I worked on the team for three years and even did my senior thesis for my minor at Gale Woods on how CSA’s relate to Social and Environmental Justice.
The experience working at Gale Woods was invaluable, and it helped to shape my perspective of the world.
On the valley garden team, I spent countless hours planting, weeding, watering, harvesting, and working pickups. The experience taught me how hard and rewarding it is grow vegetables organically and sustainably. I can fully appreciate how time consuming and labor intensive it truly is. I have also felt how easy and tempting it would be to use a herbicide, or how devastating it is when you lose a crop to a pest that could have been prevented with an insecticide. I also began to realize that simple textbook solutions for Ag issues were not so simple in real life.
I gained more than just farming experience in those years.
I met some of the greatest people who turned out to be friends and mentors. My days were full of gardening and great conversations. We covered every topic imaginable; food justice, worker rights, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, philosophical issues, and just about every hot button topic you can think of over warm sunny summer days. These conversations had a deep impact on me, they helped me from my worldview and solidified my identity and passion for justice, and prompted me to go on a solo adventure when I was seventeen to work on a sustainable farm in Ireland.
Entering college, I would pull from these experiences, but I knew that most farms were not as idyllic in farming practices or setting.
However, I was not prepared for the culture shock that awaited me at school. Now a senior at the University of WI, Platteville, my dual majors have made quite the perplexing combination: of traditional agriculture and sustainable farming, not just in theory and practice, but in the people who make up each of these programs.
Of the three hundred some Soil and Crop Science Majors, I am one of the few who values organic agriculture and one of a few students who are intentionally seeking out a job in agroecology. There were times that I felt personally challenged by what sometimes felt like conflicting opinions, values and worldviews in these two programs, what I thought should have felt more similar than different. I would draw from positive memories at Gale Woods Farm and from mentors like my former boss Melissa to help me stick with a focus on agriculture and not switch to a more traditional environmental-focused major. I began to find my voice and defend my positions at school.
One spring day in my fruit and vegetable class we had a guest speaker who stated that you could not grow strawberries organically, that you had to spray fungicide on them to be able to get any to harvest. I knew that was not a true statement. I had harvested hundreds of them for the CSA.
I still find it hard how my two majors which are both about plants are so opposite in so many ways. In my SEJ classes, I have noticed that my professors talk about climate change in an emotional way, often many of our discussions are centered around messages that earth is dying and that humans are killing it. In my traditional agriculture classes, my professors, when they do talk about climate change, approach it very carefully and it is often addressed in a cold, impersonal, and scientific way with little to no mention that it is human caused.
I wanted to find a way to bring the two sides closer, to find our common ground, and I began to look for ways to invite dialogue between two groups that normally do not interact. One was labeled by students as hippies; the other rednecks. Of course neither of these stereotypes are accurate, but it didn’t change the fact that was how lot of people saw each group. The campus sustainability director began to host weekly lunches, which I also attended. These were a great time to have meaningful conversations and really listen to each other.
Now I’m in my last semester of college and am grateful for the diverse approaches I have been exposed to around agriculture and climate change. I have a greater appreciation for conventional farming and understanding why people choose to not label themselves environmentalist even if they actually are. I have had valuable interactions with people on all sides of the issue. I feel hopeful that some will be influenced by these conversations; some actually changed their position and lots more are slightly more open minded than they seemed before. I know it is a slow process to influence the way people think and act. I know that some people will never change.
I do believe that we must begin to understand each other by listening and to keep inviting them to see things from a different perspective.
I’m extremely optimistic about the future, and the role of Ag in it, and I am encouraged by so many people I have met who are dedicated to creating this future. I am reminded of the same feelings I had standing in front of the tapir exhibit, so many year ago, when I learned their endangered status.
It’s the feeling that I am facing something greater than myself…it’s the mixture of feeling a great sense of loss, but also motivation to act.
I found that the more I learned about farming, talking to people, and experiencing it for myself, I have been able to realize that organic farming is a tangible solution to slowing climate change. But perhaps a more important lesson is that I have found my voice and am determined to continue to use it in a way that helps bring others along.