Leah Grady Sayvetz (she/her)

Leah has been farming on farms not her own since 2012. She will be entering her third season on a 25 acre diverse organic vegetable operation in upstate New York this year. This is the longest she has been on any one farm.

She has worked on vegetable farms, apple orchards and cider operations, a biodynamic farm, and a seed farm. 

I was 23 years old, studying biology at Bryn Mawr college. The Occupy movement had just bloomed. I was very torn to be in an insular privileged college setting while my peers were protesting in parks in the city and demanding equity. 

I really wanted to be at Occupy Wall Street, also Travon Martin had just been shot – I was feeling pretty uncomfortable being on a college campus and not out in the world and with people on the streets. 

I approached the college funding office, and pitched an internship at Occupy Wall Street. The school said no. I was crestfallen, but came to the idea to ask for funding to work on a non profit youth farm in my town. A couple friends were cofounders of that project. It felt meaningful, to do that for the summer without a Focus on farming in my life at that time. I thought it would be a positive way to be out in the world. The college paid me to work on the farm that season, which is the only way that would have been possible. The organization running the farm didn’t have money to pay me.

My life changed the first few days that I was working in the field. I felt this profound sense of belonging. That quickly rooted as the path of purpose in my life. 

At the cider operation, I was offered a share as an owner. It was striking – I actually could be a farm owner right now, but I did not want to own a business that just produces alcohol.

I chose to pass that offer up, which was a big deal to be in your mid/late 20s and be offered shares in a business that has a promising future and choosing not to do it. 

By the end of the season in 2017, I was so done with working for people who were my same age and telling me to do everything a certain way and not listening to my opinions. By that time I had worked on 5 farms and I had years already at that point of running a farm business.

I felt strongly that my next step would be to have an ag venture. 

I’m a white cis gender woman. Although I don’t own anything more than a car, my parents do own their home. I have relatives with significant financial wealth.
And wealth comes in so many forms:
– english language
– college educated
– health insurance
There are so many ways I’m wealthy and privileged. I try to keep that as my focus and not look at peers around me who own farms.
You don’t become a farm owner just because you are passionate about farming. That’s been really difficult to work around emotionally.

I called up another friend who was another single female farmer and I asked her over for lunch. We talked about being single people who want to own a farm business without assets. That was an exciting step to take.

That fall, I became very violently ill with Lyme disease that I contracted harvesting wild apples. (I was still part timing with the cider business that season). I couldn’t work for the following 18 months and that is an important detail of my story. 

Now I am someone who lives with chronic illness. My whole life has changed from that point forward. I don’t view the world and my work in the same way, I don’t view my body in the same way, I don’t relate to my community in the same way.  

That is a really amazing process that I feel privileged to be in – it’s not a negative thing at all. It’s new. I’m super psyched that I’ve been able to complete 2 seasons back in farming.

Just before I became ill I was dreaming of being a farm owner in a serious way, here today I’m someone who still holds that dream and develops it in my mind.

I feel pretty at peace for the time being with my little treasure that I have in my heart. I’m not sure if I will ever be physically capable of shouldering the responsibility required of owning a farm business, and that is ok.  
I am stepping more in the shoes of being a proud self-identified farmer. Food production is my calling and I feel committed to it and that’s all that matters. 

A big issue for farmers not on their own farms is that there can be a discrepancy between the way that the farm worker values the farm and the work and the way that the farm owner values that particular farm worker on that particular farm.

Not them as a person so to speak, but every year once autumn comes around there is this really uncomfortable tension in the crew – we all start talking to each other – Will you be here next year? Do you want to be here next year? Do you think they will want you to be here? 

I’m really close friends with a lot of farm owners and I’m sympathetic to the position of the farm owner, you’re the one carrying the bottom line. If a member of your crew isn’t a good fit, I respect farm owners’ choices in difficult positions, but it’s just such a shitty position for those of us who have chosen this for our career.

It’s really left up to the farm owner. 

As a farm worker, you get thrown into this milieu with high school students who want spending cash, or my people from ivory towers who want fresh air before going back and getting job security and benefits. It’s difficult to be in that fray and misunderstood and not really recognized for my commitment to the work which is doing the same as them – wrecking my body, weeding, raking and hauling shit. 

We are farming in a system of white supremacy, and we can’t deny it. Denying it is super detrimental to us as individuals and to businesses. It’s not spiritually sound to ignore the reality of living in a white supremacist system. 

It was really challenging to me this summer as the uprising for racial justice happened in the country, to figure out how to talk about white supremacy, as if relates to our work on the farm. I knew that I couldn’t just address it in my personal life and then go to work and have that be separate. 

I challenged myself to raise conversations and ask for more accountability in our farm business.
I scripted an email and wrote to the owner. I said, I think racial justice is the most important issue of our lifetime and all of our well beings depend on participation in work for racial justice. The climate this summer was exceptionally invitational, I wanted to amplify that sense of invitation by writing to them. I offered examples set by colleagues in the area – different efforts that other farm owners in the area were doing – links. I said, I’m not telling you what you should do, but writing to you and saying this is really important. I would like to see the farm show up. They wrote a brief email acknowledging my sentiment, but didn’t do anything more.

Everything is political. This farm is not not political. Saying that Black Lives Matter is actually one step toward welcoming people on your farm. To not say black lives matter is explicitly not welcoming. The people who might be alienated from your farm because of a BLM sign or statement, those people are already welcomed by our white supremacist society – we don’t need to worry about those people not feeling welcomed.

That’s the point where my status as a farm worker and not a farm owner sort of silenced me. I didn’t take it any further with them. I wanted to respect their choices. 

So, I wrote Breanna Taylor’s name on my t- shirt when I ran CSA distribution, and committed to wearing messaging on my own body when I was at the farm. It seeded conversations with CSA members. That was meaningful.

Farming is medicine for me. I’ve depended on my relationship with the living world since becoming ill. I feel at home when I’m on a farm and that feels instructive that I am where I’m meant to be.

Ultimately for me what I now use as a marker for success is how I feel in my body and spirit because having had everything else taken from me in the depths of my illness when it was the most severe, that clarified that.
Actually your body and spirit are the only things you have – being more attuned with that in my life now is really important.