Last month I completed a notebook I have been keeping since September. I always like to look back through my completed notebooks and trace how my thoughts and ideas have transformed over time. This particular notebook is especially significant as it chronicles mine and Hillary‘s work on SOIL SERIES over the past six months. It occurs to us that much of that work we’ve been doing since September has remained largely invisible. The truth is, SOIL SERIES has been in a period of flux and it has required a lot of time and research on our parts to work out the best possible way forward.
In the past when I was in the studio and experiencing difficulties with my work, my husband, Matt, would reiterate a phrase his thesis advisor (and our dear friend) Laurie Sheck used to say: “Your writing [I like to replace “writing” with “work”] is smarter than you are.” In other words, your work has a logic of its own and you have to listen to it.
When Hillary and I first arrived in Bethel we immediately drafted a code of ethics in order to ensure a horizontal partnership with the community. This code is our guide especially during uncertain times, and it too reminds us to always listen.
September through April has been a period of active listening, reworking, and then listening some more – sometimes to the work and sometimes to what the community is telling us it needs. Our ultimate goal is a healthier, more nourished Bethel, and in order to achieve that we need to find long-term sustainable solutions to address some of the community’s concerns.
That is why we have decided to share with you excerpts from my completed notebook. It offers the perfect window into our work over the past six months and how we have arrived at where we are now. With our new summer programs on the horizon, we are excited for fresh ideas, perspectives, and finding new and better ways to listen and engage. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any and all questions, comments, and ideas. Social drawing can only develop and grow out of community participation, and we invite all voices to join in the conversation.
The Farm Science Review
Our summer work at the Empower Youth Ranch was immensely generative in helping us better understand community needs. Our conversations with Empower Youth leadership and the interns who worked alongside us gave us a better understanding of daily life in Bethel and the kinds of resources that are most necessary for long-term sustainable change.
We learned that food insecurity is of paramount importance to the overall health of Bethel, and if we want to provide cultural and intellectual opportunities for residents we first have to tackle hunger and a need for healthy and accessible food.
This was an exciting challenge for us and we set to work imagining how we might use our creativity and resources as artists to create better access to healthy food for the community. For this task we enlisted the help of the amazing Alec Guenther and Kayla Ragland, two recent high school graduates we worked with on the ranch. Alec was our research assistant concentrating on agriculture, and Kayla’s research was mostly focused on possible funding sources. (Short bios written by Alec and Kayla are available here.) Kayla’s friend and another regular on the ranch, Olivia Taylor, also aided with our research when she was not busy with her classes.
Throughout the fall we met regularly to discuss possible solutions to this tangled problem. Most of our research focused on hydroponics and aquaponics as alternatives to traditional farming that could offer more sustainable and reliable sources of food for the community year round. We imagined building a greenhouse on the ranch and starting a DIY hydroponics farm as a first step, and Kayla helped us figure out how we might fund such an endeavor.
With our research into the possibility of a hydroponic greenhouse on the ranch becoming quite in depth, we decided it would be useful to attend OSU’s 2017 Farm Science Review from September 19th-21st. The Farm Science Review is “one of the nation’s premier agricultural trade and education shows” (FSR website), which takes places over three days each year at The Molly Caren Agricultural Center (MCAC) near London, Ohio, and attracts upwards of 140,000 visitors. We were so pleased that Alec was able to join us on our Farm Science Review adventure, and the three of us headed out to central Ohio.
This is where I first christened my notebook, filling its initial pages with drawing and notes covering topics such as hydroponics, goat production, crop gleaning, and sustainable agriculture. Every workshop we attended (all free with the price of admission) was fascinating and informative. I joked to Hillary that I was receiving my second (unofficial) masters degree in agriculture by attending this event.
It was also unlike any event I had attended before. The phenomenology of standing in such an expansive field surrounded by throngs of people and massive farming machinery was unlike anything I had experienced. The monumentality of some of the objects against the landscape reminded us of modernist sculpture, and we found ourselves comparing what we were seeing to the works of Richard Serra, Rachel Whiteread, Nancy Holt, and Louise Nevelson.
Standing next to these massive objects it was easy to understand why small farmers struggle to afford the equipment necessary to remain competitive on the market. I could feel the impossibility of this task more viscerally than ever, and I thought about Bethel’s history of subsistence farming and the conspicuous lack of small farms now.
Although thinking about the economics of farming was dispiriting, we were amazed by the overwhelming passion exhibited by the growers, researchers, and enthusiasts we met. All were excited to share the love for their work with us, and every day we came away invigorated and inspired.
Retiring to our campsite at the nearby fairgrounds in the evening, we shared thoughts, ideas, and notes, while imagining Bethel’s future. Our time at the Farm Science Review was incredibly helpful to our research, and we left with an increased knowledge of hydroponics, aquaponics, small farming, winter farming with high tunnels, goat production, crop gleaning, beekeeping, and even fungus. In addition, we met many fascinating people including some folks from OSU’s InFACT (Initiative for Food and Agricultural Transformation) who had some very helpful literature about food insecurity in Ohio. We even ran into our good friend and Felicity farmer Joe Glassmeyer at the aquaponics workshop!
The Greenhouse at Grant Career Center
When we returned to Bethel we hit the ground running, ready to put our new knowledge to work growing healthy food for local residents. Our first idea was to build a greenhouse at the Empower Youth Ranch, but when we found out from Olivia Taylor that the nearby vocational school, Grant Career Center, had a disused greenhouse, we thought it might be a better option. In the following weeks we would have many discussions with leadership at both Empower Youth and Grant Career Center about a potential program that would focus on art and agriculture, introducing Grant students to hydroponics farming as well as artists and writers who are engaged with agriculture and food justice. We toured the facilities and imagined the overgrown greenhouse as a site for the creation of new ideas and images of a better, more equitable future.
Unfortunately due to insurance and safety concerns (the greenhouse is made of untempered glass), we were unable to move forward with the program, but have not given up on the ideas at the heart of it.
Community Studio Exhibition
October was a busy month for us. Not only were we working on the Grant Career greenhouse project, but we were also finishing Community Studios and preparing for our inaugural exhibition of Community Studio artwork at the Empower Youth Ranch. Our exhibition coincided with Empower Youth’s Ribbon Cutting event celebrating the completion of their packing facility, Peachie’s Place. My notebook from this time is full of schedules and to-do lists (pictured below), but we were able to pull of an excellent exhibition thanks to our assistant curators: a group of our former interns. It was an exhausting process but we were so proud of the results. Take a tour of the 2017 Community Studio Exhibition here.
Conversations at MVNU
In mid-November, just a few weeks after the Community Studio exhibition, Hillary and I had the pleasure of speaking at her alma mater, Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, OH (learn more about our visit and watch the talk). It was an incredibly enriching experience and we especially enjoyed our conversations with students and faculty.
Looking back at my notebook from our visit, I am reminded of two conversations of particular importance. The first was with Sabrina Schirtzinger, an OSU extension educator and one of the founders of the Knox County Gleaning Club.
I first learned of the club’s efforts at the Farm Science Review when I attended a talk given by Sabrina on the topic of gleaning. Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover produce from farms, gardens, and markets where it would otherwise go to waste, and sharing it with food-insecure families. Hillary and I are fascinated by this innovative approach to reducing food-insecurity, and after hearing Sabrina talk about the success of the Knox County Gleaning Club, we wanted to learn more about how we could start our own club in Bethel. Sabrina was very kind to take time out of her busy schedule to meet with us in a Mount Vernon Panera, and we learned so much from our conversation. We plan to continue and open dialogue with Sabrina and the Knox County Gleaning Club, and we hope to organize a similar effort in Bethel someday.
Finally, we were so grateful for the chance to meet with Dr. Matt Price of the MVNU Intercultural Studies Program. Our conversation in which he shared some of his wisdom and experience in community organizing in Appalachia was just what we needed to remind us of our goals and set us back on track energized and refreshed.
Stay tuned for Francesca’s Notebook Part 2 to learn more about what we’ve been doing from November to now!