An Education in Food
SACHE JONES, THREE PART HARMONY FARM
Each growing season, Gail Taylor of Three Part Harmony Farm, an urban farm in Washington, DC, hires a crew of part-time workers to help on the farm. (You can read Gail’s story here.) Sache Jones was one of them during the 2016 season. I met up with her at her other job, Farm Alliance of Baltimore, in her hometown of Baltimore, MD. At 26, Sache exudes a contagious energy and enthusiasm. She talks excitedly and quickly as she tells her food story.
By the time Sache came to work at Three Part Harmony, she already had a good amount of experience in farming. She came to the farm because she wanted to work with and learn from Gail, and she was in need of regeneration after leaving a job that had broken her confidence.
Sache grew up in Baltimore “technically poor. But my parents were educated and I was raised with the intention of not being poor forever. My whole existence during adolescence was about how was I going to be upwardly mobile, and how was I going to make the most impact on the world, and how could I be helpful to my community at large, and really just being nurtured to be an outwardly-thinking person.”
She’s never stopped working and learning and has been working on community issues from a young age. In middle and high school, she worked at a nonprofit and with city government, doing youth advocacy work. She was also on the Maryland Youth Council. “I was really being conditioned and trained to go into politics and be civically engaged.”
Cleaning out the Farm Alliance greenhouse at the end of the season.
“And then when I was 17, I went abroad for the first time to Nicaragua on a solidarity trip between young people from an impoverished community here in the States, and young people from an impoverished community in Nicaragua. The lens of that trip completely changed my life. Not only were we talking about poverty, and poverty reduction, but we also talked about the intersection of environmental degradation, poor government, poverty—how all these things go together, and how does that ultimately lead to development or anti-development?
“That trip was completely transformative for me, and it got me thinking about how the environment plays into people’s quality of life, and I had never thought about that before. I went on the trip again when I was 18. I planted some cacao and coffee; I started to see agricultural landscapes. So when I got to college at Spelman [in Atlanta, GA], I was like, ‘Ok, political science is no longer for me. What do I want to do?’ So I started studying International Studies with a concentration in Development. My interest has always been poverty reduction/quality of life.”
As she studied how different sectors of the world intersect with each other, she learned that agriculture is the sector that touches every part of an economy. “I took tons of econ classes, anthropology, history–-all these classes, and there’s this thread of food. My interests became very keenly agriculture as a means to sustainable development. In my course of study I had to do a practicum, so I did an internship on an urban farm in Atlanta. I had been wanting to grow food forever, because it’s about resilience.”
The tipping point
“While I was doing my internship, my mom back in Baltimore was diagnosed with breast cancer. My aunt had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; my grandmother had died before I went to high school from complications of HIV; another aunt has diabetes; there’s bipolar disease in my family—so my family is like the poster family. Everyone I know in my family that has passed on, it’s been food- or lifestyle-related.
“And then in college, my diet changed so drastically when I started eating in the cafeteria that I started having all these digestive issues and chronic yeast infections. And nobody could tell me why. I went to all these doctors and they kept saying, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you.’
“No one I saw was talking about a gluten intolerance, but I started researching frequent yeast infections and I found the Candida Diet, and it helped. And it was oppressive! I was trying to figure out how not to eat my go-to foods in the cafeteria—things like french fries and bread—because everything else they served was pretty much disgusting. I cut out red meat, I didn’t eat rice. It wasn’t until I did that diet that I had any relief.
“All of my own struggles trying to figure out how to eat well and affordably, and my family’s health troubles—all of this brought me to why I became so passionate about farming and nutrition.”
Sache wanted to start a Campus Kitchen while at Spelman. Campus Kitchens is a service-based program to reduce on-campus food waste by recovering food from cafeterias. Working in an on-campus kitchen facility, student volunteers make new meals out of the unwanted food and deliver meals to the community.
She organized a group of ten students to start a Campus Kitchen. The group also started a hunger organization on campus that ran fundraisers to donate food to local homeless shelters. They formed a Garden Club as well that replanted an old victory garden from World War II that wasn’t in production. “Essentially we wanted to advance the conversation about food on our college campus. Sometimes I joke that I was kind of before my time on campus, because now they have a Food minor, and all these cool things that we didn’t have.”
Because of what she was doing with all the food-related organizing on campus, she got her first after-college job in 2012 with Aramark, which provides the campus dining service, to incorporate its corporate sustainability program into the dining hall. She worked there for a year, until she got the call that her aunt was dying.
The return home
“I dropped everything I was doing and drove to Baltimore. That was really the first death as an adult that really affected me. She was like my second mom. I didn’t feel comfortable going back to Atlanta and working on improving the quality of someone else’s life when my family here was dying, and the city was going through so many changes. So I moved back here in June of 2013.”
“When I came back home, my sister was pregnant with her first baby, and everyone had different nutritional things that they needed. My mom had chosen not to get chemo for her breast cancer.” Instead, she changed her diet and worked with a naturopath. Sache and her mother educated each other about nutrition, and Sache considered what was next for her. She could have had a career in community organizing or program management or any number of things. “But farming had been on my heart for a long time. So once I discovered that sustainable agriculture was something I was interested in, I did everything I could to learn about it. I’m kinda like a dog with a bone when I have an interest.”
She secured an internship at Five Seeds Farm, north of the city, and she and her mother worked together on the farm. “It was bonding for us. That period was definitely my farm school period. I worked on that farm from July until October of 2013. I went through the master gardener course with Baltimore City. I got certified to write nutrient management plans for farms. I got a bunch of certifications and learned as much as I could.” That also included going through the Beginner Farmer Training Program at Radix Farm in Upper Marlboro, MD. (Kristin Carbone, the owner of Radix, did her beginner training at nearby Claggett Farm, at the same time that Gail Taylor was there.) By the end of that training, Sache felt confident in her farming abilities.
Her next move was to Park Heights Community Health Alliance, where she got a job organizing their brassica festival. Two weeks into the job, she took over the farmer’s market manager job. She was 23 and in a position with a lot of responsibility over other workers, and she found it challenging to be both young and a woman in that role. “Nobody respected that I knew what I was doing. Being a young person didn’t fare well with the older women I was with, and being a woman made it challenging to work there—period—which ultimately contributed to why I don’t work there any more.”
Learning from Gail
Sache worked at Park Heights for two years. “I felt like I went through a bad divorce with that job, and I wanted to take a sabbatical and get my confidence back. I couldn’t leave farming completely, though, because I can’t imagine my life without it.”
She once had weeded with Gail for six hours on a farm out on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, but she didn’t get to know her well until they were both on a group trip to the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference in Kentucky, the largest sustainable agriculture conference in the South.
“You don’t really see a lot of black people at conferences, but because it’s in the south, SSAWG is the conference with the largest amount of black people. And that’s very important for me. Because farming is so personal, it’s nice to be around people who get you, people who have a similar culture. I was the only black person at Radix. The music they listened to was unfamiliar to me, and the things they talked about were different. So finding other black farmers to work with was important to me.”
Sache discovered that Gail’s growing philosophy was pretty similar to her own, so she signed on as a crew member as an opportunity to learn under a master farmer. “I was at the point where I was pretty well known in Baltimore, so it was important to me to get away for a little while.” So despite the 1.5-hour commute to Gail’s farm in DC, she worked there three days a week. She enjoyed working there and she liked that she didn’t have to be in charge.
“I felt like I was in a safe place, learning and doing what I love.” She loved working with Laura, whose story you can read here, and Vita, another crew member. “We’ve got a lovely woman farmer bond going on. I leaned on the women there. We talked about boundaries, we talked about how do we build connections with people, how do we increase our vulnerability while still commanding respect, all these different conversations that are very women-centric. And so it was nice to just be nurtured by this group of women. It really helped me.
“One thing we do on the farm is we pull out the life lesson of what we’re doing. In the height of the summer, for example, when we’re weeding for two hours in the hot sun, we say, ‘What can we take away from this?’ One of the mantras we came up with was ‘Keep your head down.’ Just keep doing it and just plough through. Sometimes you just have to focus on what’s in front of you and be very present. And do it until you finish.”
Persimmons growing outside the Farm Alliance greenhouse
“We talked a lot about the energy of agriculture. For example, when we are frustrated on the farm and we’re planting, we take an intentional break, because you don’t want to put that energy into the ground. Some farmers don’t let volunteers seed or plant because of that energy transfer. It’s the same thing with cafeteria food and why it makes people so sick. I don’t think it’s the food itself, I think it’s the working conditions of the people that are making that food. In college, we all swore that they were putting laxatives in the food, because cafeteria food makes you go to the bathroom, right? But once I started working in the kitchen, I saw how sad and downtrodden those workers are.
“There are emotions in food and they can be passed along from person to person. It’s like a bioaccumulation of sadness and anxiety that happens. So if the farmer is sad and depressed, and then the restaurant worker is sad and depressed—you are eating that.
“Gail’s farm has been a very special experience for me, with the workers and volunteers that come by. We have so many interesting conversations. A lot of people are there for healing. Even though that experience may not be curated by Gail, she attracts those people, so we are able to heal each other through our joint experiences and the therapeutic nature of farming itself.”
“This is where I’m supposed to be”
While working at Three Part Harmony, Sache also was working at Farm Alliance of Baltimore, a collective of urban farms that works to increase food access in the city. She was in charge of the greenhouse and collective sales. She has since moved on to a new food opportunity.
“Long story short,” Sache summed up, “I’m here because this is where I’m supposed to be. Almost everything in my life has brought me to this point. I’ve been intentional about it, but the more mature I become in this field, the more I recognize that this is who I am and this is what I’m supposed to do. My goal is feeding actual real people. And to help share knowledge and resources and create spaces where people can teach one another.
“Growing food is very intimate work, and very much a part of who you are. When you grow food, it’s like a gift you are giving to other people.”