Liz Wang (She/Her)

Liz has spent the last 3 seasons farming for a non-profit farm where she was the Grower’s Assistant. This year, she is planning a farming sabbatical to focus on Mandarin Chinese language immersion.

I’m in the off season now after my 3rd season at a non-profit farm.

Every year in the off season has been different.

  • I started out with working in restaurants and dog-sitting in the off-season, but restaurants took a step back when the pandemic started.
  • I was able to sublet my Boston apartment one winter and work-exchange in Arizona and Oregon.
  • Last winter I used my education stipend from Americorps to go do a Spanish immersion program at a food sovereignty organization in Guatemala.
  • This past month I was able to house and cat sit for the friends I made out in Oregon.

The off season has been an opportunity for me to challenge my relationship with work and money, do the work of unlearning, and learn to rest and reflect.

I worked for an organization that intersects youth development and sustainable agriculture

I was the Grower’s Assistant at one of the urban sites. I did a lot more on the growing side, worked with youth occasionally but we have other staff running the program. A lot of it was greenhouse work, indoor tomato production, seed to harvest, out on two plots that totaled about two acres. Keeping up relations with neighbors because we were in a residential area, leading the interns and volunteers that came through, taking direction from the farm manager, and stewarding that land. Interacting with funders or donors or youth or visitors who come by the farm. We also ran markets and made donation drops. 

I do not plan to go back.

I have some other plans, doing an immersion program for Mandarin Chinese, which is my native language and pursuing family and cultural connections and overcoming a language barrier that has been big in my life. Then I’ll return to agriculture after that since farming does bring me a lot of spiritual and community connection. Farming is where I find a lot of folks who just want to connect back to their heritage and heal from ancestral and generational trauma.

I’m looking for a remote job for this season and apply for a scholarship to study Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan this fall.

I decided not to do a farm season job just in terms of flexibility and taking to other responsibilities, as well as not much growth in the role and ready to be in a farmer-centered organization.

I think 3 years is enough in that role.

With the structure of the organization, it is hard to collaborate with and prioritize farmers and seasonal staff because you are holding all these interests.

My farm manager spent a lot of time advocating for me and trying to write a full-season role into grants. It just didn’t work out in the end. 

It was not a place without appreciation. Though without the understanding of the work and spirit required for farming, it is easy to see farmers overwhelmed and lacking support.

So there’s someone setting the vision and external image, and when you think of the organization as separate from its workers, you justify sacrificing the sustainability of people, including yourself.

I’ve seen overworked folks, underpaid folks, this belief that the end justifies the means.

Something I’ve had issues with is the benefactor role that we as a nonprofit farm supposedly hold for the community when actually we work with the community, we are not the benefactors. This weird savior complex that exists in funding and granting and if someone is okay with that and not realizing what micro-aggressions that manifests for workers or the youth, and if we don’t have the same values in that sense, they are going to go for that money.

Some folks I’ve seen have taken on the role of: this pays our youth, it pays you, this is good. There is no open to critique, just different values and visions for the farm. Not a sustainable way to take care of the land.

It leads to extraction of labor and extraction of minds and hearts and profiting off of the farm and the farmers and the youth experiences.

There’s really not a lot of alignment in this case. 

Before farming, I had started out in a direct service non-profit, kind of like a social service agency doing food distribution at pantries or doing tax services, giving out holiday presents for the Christmas drive and turkeys for Thanksgiving, a lot of these services for low income clients in the neighborhood.

This was also in Boston.

In that I learned about paperwork and intakes and all the proof of income that you need to access services and the rigamarole of seeking services all the time and having to go through all these processes when you are low income and seeking help.

After a while, I felt like this is bullshit; I didn’t care about someone’s proof of whatever or how their file looked, I just wanted to be able to supply food.

Of course you need all these things in case you get audited and there’s the grants, all that stuff.

I was still starting out and I thought: non-profits aren’t big evil private corporations, they also aren’t these big strict government agencies. Instead of government and private, let me do non-profit.

And then in the non-profit, I thought, “Ugh, I hate non-profits! How can I go even more grassroots? Let me just learn about growing the food and come up with ways to give it to the people and lower barriers to access to food. And on top of that nutritious food.”

All of the clients took what could work for them –

plenty turned away canned vegetables because it’s such a foreign concept to them,

plenty adapted to cereal or peanut butter or shared with their neighbors if they weren’t going to eat it –

it was clear that the food was not of their diet or from their heritage.

It was nothing wholesome or perishable, nothing that was fresh or unprocessed.

So working there was a mix of learning about the:

importance of cultural relevancy of food,

quality of food,

as well as bureaucracy and what goes into distributing food –

what is needed for this weird exchange for someone to prove that they need food, making it this exchange as opposed to a care economy.

A quality of a dream farm would be the ability to challenge the status quo and foster people’s growth.

I’m personally, like many farmers are, passionate about community-led food solutions. Being in community is emotionally tiring work and challenges your ego so I understand why people want to pursue separatism and control over your domain.

For me, owning a farm is like owning a suburban house, I would feel isolated and divided and can see hierarchy being replicated.

A dream farm would be having a team that wants to be vulnerable, soft, and grow in relationality with each other, the land, and ancestors.

Folks who take on the challenge to work co-operatively and create healthy work environments.

Folks who are excited to learn and grow food that speaks to other people, understanding food’s power and role in our personal dreams and development and history.

QTBIPOC folks.

Folks who center marginalized identities and have a hunger to learn about and dismantle systems of oppression because we are interconnected.

[I have been reading The Trauma of Caste by Thenmozhi Soundararajan and been feeling the need for shared struggle more strongly.]

Creating a place where folks are able to come, heal, foster their dreams, and if they want to branch away, pursue their great projects.

If it was in a nonprofit sense, just the ability to be flexible and center the needs of the community and the workers and not so much the needs of the funders who hold the money.

At the non-profit farm, it replicated the thing of me at a pantry with we having to prove that we need the money to run this farm and do this good work. And I’m thanking the granter as if the work done is thanks to them and their wealth.

A dream farm would understand nourishment is important, mind, body, soul, really a community of workers and people who really understand the importance of this work on all the different levels and understanding the importance of balance and not only looking at outcome and output.

Process is important and taking care of your body is important.

I’m very inspired by that dream because I just find that farmers are the greatest people. I just know great people who really embody so much mindfulness and care. 

I think what I’ve learned from the fellow farmers that I’ve met is being able to subvert the dominant narrative of competition and profit, just finding people who are just about community care and really about being in loving relationship with land and yourself and others and that is a lifelong process to hone and keep doing. It’s really built into that lifestyle. 

I just want to process food the rest of my life.

I enjoy just working with food.

I love being off the screen even though I’m looking for remote work at the moment. 

It’s a spiritual journey to connect back to land even though I’ve always just grown up in urban environments and not knowing until later how necessary it was for me to go back to the land.

I didn’t go into farming because of this, but my parents grew up during the Cultural Revolution in China and my mom and her family had been sent to the re-education work camps, essentially working on farms, during the Down to the Countryside campaign (上山下乡运动).

She would always reference when she was 下乡, and my Chinese is not great, and it never clicked to me what this area was, where she was, why she was there until I read the Wikipedia article…When I listened to the story, I had these scenes from war movies in my mind, I didn’t know what she was talking about, I just knew it was a bitter life and she had to work a lot, but it didn’t connect to me that she was working on a farm. Miso would be the only source of flavor/salt. We still eat steamed eggplant halves and raw scallions dipped in miso, a common meal for her back then.

And so now coming back and talking about how much I love farming, she’s shocked. And she continues to share more about her history and experience and I’m realizing my spiritual journey in this and relating to the land is also her journey.

Farming reminds me of my family and our fraught relationships with each other and the opportunity to heal.

As I pursue my personal future of just learning the language and connecting with family, I find it all connected surprisingly. I do it to build relation with ancestry, build relationship with mom. Talk about the food they really love. It’s just the future I see and the people I really love who are in farming and in this work. 

I think a lot about trying to navigate this urban versus “real farming” (though not many people say urban farming is not real farming, at least folks that I know).

Urban farming gets wrapped up in city politics and city development.

It’s farming, but it does look different, it doesn’t have to but it can. There are a lot of other players and a lot of consumer perceptions. It can be really difficult to really foster right relationship with each other and the earth when you’re in this other space. It’s farming entering an already established space, and just trying to feed people, just trying to get people food cheap and not quite building a full system or relationship with food, if that makes sense.

And it’s also accepting the place that it’s at.

It’s just what it is.

It’s just different.

My future is also to learn about non-urban farms and how it is similar and isn’t similar.

The case with the urban farms in the city of Boston, they put out a lot of coupons to give more purchasing power to folks, which was really great in terms of food access, but with me always asking for more and being critical, I’m asking: do folks understand the true value of food, do folks really value the labor of the food system, do folks really understand how much subsides of commodities crops just mess with everything? I think about that balance – I’ve worked mostly on the ground with folks and think a lot about perception of food, relationship with food, things like that, seeing that a lot of it gets compromised in this wellness, nutrition food space of ‘we are getting healthy food to people, but we don’t have to think about how we pay our farmers or why we are in these situations.” It’s so siloed. What a happy story. 

Farming just encompasses it all. It gets really sexy, urban farming, rooftop farming, we need more succulents on high rises because nothing else grows up there. 

I know it’s not the right space for me (urban farming) and it’s not the way I want to grow. It’s very greenwashing, eco-sexy. 

The skill to run a farm makes you a farmer, whether you own it or not.

My role previously, I was definitely just taking instruction and with working on an urban farm and nonprofit too, a lot of my role was social energy, and maybe more of this tour guide – educator role, and leading crews and things like that. But I felt like I was just taking instruction from a person and didn’t really have the bandwidth or time to think like a farmer. Think about what the plants or soil would want. Think about the whole ecosystem.

My thinking is still very human-centered.

I learn over time of course and just exposure to farmers and learning the questions to poke in people’s minds if they aren’t already willing to skillshare. Not that I don’t know how to crop plan, but I haven’t taken the initiative to start my own or start a plot in the community farm. It’s always doing the planning and not following through. When folks take on the identity of farmer versus farm worker or grower, I think of all these business skills and all these things you have to keep in mind. I’ve learned the skill to think like that during the week the farm manager goes on vacation, but it’s not really something I live and do nor do I know if I’ll do it in the future.

Maybe I’m a food systems advocate.

I’m not as into the labor part anymore

or I’m wondering if my future will be farmer labor

or farmer adjacent.

Not calling myself a farmer is definitely me limiting myself.

What draws all these distinctions, for what?