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Arlo Crawford grew up on New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania, which has been selling organic vegetables at in the District since the 1970s. The year he was 31, Crawford took a break from his job and returned to the farm for a growing season. Kojo chats with Crawford about the book he wrote about that experience, what he learned from his parents and the benefits of living a life without certainty.
- Arlo Crawford Author, "A Farm Dies Once a Year" (Henry Holt and Company, 2014)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFew things in life are as uncertain as growing season for a farmer. The best-laid plans for any given year's tomato crop can be undone by any number of things outside one's control, a once-in-a-generation flood, an exotic and unstoppable blight. When Arlo Crawford was 31 he returned to the Pennsylvania farm where his parents had been managing such uncertainty for decades. A place where they grew vegetables that many Washingtonians bought and enjoyed for markets here in the nation's capital.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe didn't go back with plans to stay all that long or with visions of keeping the farm within his family forever, but after all the back-breaking work and 14-hour days harvesting squash, strawberries and the like, he says he learned a thing or two about himself, the people closest to him, and the significance of a place that has to reinvent itself every year when new seeds enter the ground and life begins again.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIArlo Crawford joins us in studio. He is the author of "A Farm Dies Once A Year." His parents, Jim and Moie Kimball Crawford are the owners of New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania. And you have probably heard Jim on this broadcast on more than one occasion. Arlo, good to see you.
MR. ARLO CRAWFORDThank you. Thank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAs I've said, we've spoken to your father, Jim, a number of times in the past about New Morning Farm, the place where you grew up in Pennsylvania. So a lot of people in D.C. know your parents and the farm as the place they buy their vegetables from at markets here. How did you know New Morning Farm and the people who work there when you were spending time there as a child?
CRAWFORDWell, as you mentioned, I grew up there. And it was a -- neither of my parents are originally from Pennsylvania. They are both from New England. And so when they moved there they were very much outsiders. And so I also felt that way quite a bit, as I was growing up. It's an absolutely beautiful piece of land, at the end of a long dirt road, about two hours north of D.C. So it was a beautiful place to grow up, but also a very isolated place. And also, my parents had moved there to do a very specific project. So I, in some ways, was an involuntary participant in that project. So…
NNAMDIHow is that your parents, particularly your father, became farmers in the first place? It's my understanding that at one point he was a young Vietnam veteran and an activist but he was on the law school track here in Washington, D.C. What changed?
CRAWFORDHe was. Yeah, he did. He went to law school for a year. He actually -- growing up in Massachusetts he had always loved to grow vegetables as a little kid. I mean, just three and four years old, he had a huge garden in the backyard. And even went so far as to walk around the neighborhood with a wagon full of these vegetables, selling them door-to-door, which is an interesting precursor to his career.
CRAWFORDAnd then he took a long break. He had always been a huge fan of sailing. So he ended up joining the Navy, went to Vietnam with the Navy, came back and did a year of law school. And during the summer after that first year he rented a piece of land in West Virginia with a few friends from law school. And just sort of as a lark, while they were there, he grew vegetables for that summer. And at the end of the summer he drove back with all of them and he got back to school and he just decided to turn around and head back to West Virginia and see if he could make a go of it.
NNAMDIThat's because growing vegetables was something he has had a passion for since he was a boy. Where did the actual growing fit into your childhood? You went to boarding school and college and you made it pretty quickly off the farm to New York and to Cambridge, Mass.
CRAWFORDWell, I always -- when I was old enough to sort of work on the farm, maybe 10 or 11 -- it was always a summer job for me. So I was always -- I always was very much a part of the farm, especially in the summers and during the year I was going to school. But just the nature of the farm, the fact that you live at your workplace, meant that I was always very -- everyone there is always involved in everything that's happening.
CRAWFORDAnd so the farm is a very integral part of my growing up. And each season, the sort of -- the rhythm of each season, watching my parents go through that and being a part of that was really important.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Arlo Crawford. He is the author of "A Farm Dies Once a Year: A Memoir." His parents, Jim and Moie Kimball Crawford are the owners of New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania. Do you buy vegetables from New Morning Farm when they sell them here in Washington? Have you ever wondered about the stories behind the vegetables that ultimately make their way to your kitchen?
NNAMDIGive us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question, make a comment there. Arlo, what sets your book in motion is a decision you made when you were 31 years old, that you wanted to spend a growing season on the farm, that you were going to leave your life in Massachusetts, where you were working at an art museum and kind of drifting, for lack of a better word. Why was this something you felt you had to do?
CRAWFORDWell, I was, as I say in the first line of the book, I was at the age right where my father had made this decision to start this farm. And for the first time I realized that how big a risk that my parents had taken at that point in their lives. And I wondered to myself, if I were in the same situation would I ever have, sort of the guts to go out to the middle of nowhere, where I didn't know anyone, and pursue a profession, a very difficult profession that I knew almost nothing about?
CRAWFORDAnd that was just -- and by -- I was at the age where I could really appreciate how difficult and how impressive a risk they took to do that. So that was one of the things I really -- I, as you said, felt it like -- it was little bit like I was drifting. I loved my job, but I wasn't really sure that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So it just seemed like a moment to sort understand more about what it would be like to take a risk like this. So…
NNAMDIYou write fairly early on in the book that before you left you figured that on the farm you'd have the luxury of being so busy -- I've never thought about the luxury of being so busy, actually -- that you wouldn't need to worry all the time that you weren't doing something important with your life. Where was that thinking coming from?
CRAWFORDYeah, well, you know, I was living in Cambridge, Mass., as you noted. And I was actually working at the art museum at Harvard. And working in a place like that you can feel very -- you can feel like there's very important things happening all around you. You know, there's a -- just, everyone is sort of either discovering some new -- discovering something new or developing some amazing thesis. And I just didn't feel like I fit in. I didn't know exactly -- I didn't feel like there was something I could grab onto that would be equally important and equally sort of engaging to me. So that was a really…
NNAMDIThis was a quest for meaning in your life.
CRAWFORDIt was. It was. I didn't think it through that way at the beginning. I guess most people wouldn't, but it just felt like one of the -- the farm -- if you grew up on a farm, you can always -- there's always work for you to do. You can always go back there and work, which is a real luxury of the farm.
CRAWFORDAnd also just that luxury of keeping busy with work, that it -- just this sort of endless stream of tasks you can always just dip yourself into and never feel that -- it sort of removes the need for you to go out and to be as sort of ambitious as you might want to be because there's always something that you can occupy your time with.
NNAMDIThat is a fascinating concept -- a fascinating reality I should say, not a fascinating concept. That having to deal with that reality you stopped trying to conceive of what you are going to do with your life because that reality forces you to face it every single day. And you can kind of get lost in that. Hence, it's description as a kind of luxury.
NNAMDIBefore you leave Cambridge, you ride on your bicycle out to Walden Pond, the place where Henry David Thoreau famously escaped for inspiration, for spiritual discovery. Seems like every time in the book that you start trying too hard to have some kind of epiphany in the wilderness yourself, including during that trip to Walden Pond, something kind of, well, breaks the spell. What are you trying to say?
CRAWFORDWell, you know, I think one of the reasons why I wrote this book -- there's a lot of books about farms and about vegetables these days. It's a very popular topic. And a lot of those books sort of start with this idea. I just remembered this line, you know, the most amazing day of a farmers life is that first day in spring when he gets out and put his hands in the dirt and feels the earth.
CRAWFORDAnd, I mean, I think that's a very important aspect of being a farmer, for sure. But at the same time, that was never necessarily my experience on the farm or the experience that I -- I mean, my experience on the farm was spring came and both my parents were like, "Oh, my God, spring is coming." You know, "There's gonna be so much happening."
CRAWFORDAnd so I think that luxury of sort of saying oh, this, you know, Thoreau being in nature and really having a lot of time to think about why he was there was not something that I was necessarily so interested in. I was much more interested in the day-to-day. How does a person live their life day-to-day and keep themselves busy day-to-day in a way that feels meaningful.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. How do you handle the basic challenges of dealing with uncertainty in your life? Have you ever taken on a new challenge to learn about living a life without certainty? 800-433-8850, or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Arlo, when your dad last joined our program two years ago, we spent quite a bit of time talking about growing new farmers, about the work that his apprentices do at your family's farm. When you got back there during the summer, you've written about -- where did you expect to fit in?
CRAWFORDWell, yeah, I mean, growing up -- as I said before, growing up on a -- when you live in the workplace, and you live -- it's sort of living on a factory floor in a kind of a strange way, I was -- because I was sort of there incidentally I never really knew exactly where I fit in. But one of the interesting things about interns and about young farmers these days is over the last maybe 10 years it's become much more of a profession, of a viable profession.
CRAWFORDYou know, 20 years ago when I was little, the people who were interns were really there to sort of -- a lot of them were sort of minor radicals or interested in this sort of alternative ways of living. And this was a good way to sort of experiment. But now the people that are there are very much there to learn how to be -- to do this kind of farming.
CRAWFORDThey say, I need to learn how to run a basket weeder because someday I'm going to own a piece of land and I'm going to need to run this piece of equipment myself. I need to understand how the finances work. I need to understand how this particular pest can be controlled with, you know. And so that -- for me to go back, because it's like walking into a very professionalized place. I mean it's like walking into an ER in a kind of weird way, and not being a doctor, you know. So just keeping yourself busy and just finding out where you can fit in was what I did.
NNAMDII want to talk about what goes on in that particular kind of ER for a second, because a lot of the people who might buy your family farm's vegetables here in Washington, might only know as much as the taste of the tomatoes or the arugula they buy at the market. How would you describe, if you will, a typical day at the farm? And what goes into that daily routine of caring for so many of the vegetables that you raise?
CRAWFORDWell, there -- (word?) say a day in August, there's a plan of the day that comes out each morning. The field manager, the crop the manager puts together. And in the middle of August, I might have 20, 30 different jobs on it, everything from -- it was always a lot of harvesting to do. So maybe first thing in the morning you harvest parsley and then jump to chard, and then jump to beets. And there's always -- somebody is always setting up at the same time.
CRAWFORDIt's probably setting up some irrigation lines. Somebody else is maybe -- is maybe dealing -- the chicken that we have. We don't have much livestock, but we do have a chicken with about 200 chickens. Somebody is managing the chickens and feeding them. And somebody else is working in the greenhouse and getting the next generation of tomatoes going to go out in the field.
CRAWFORDLater that afternoon, the generation before that is getting set out in the field. So there's just -- there's all this sort of mechanical task. Somebody is fixing a pickup truck while somebody else is fixing a cultivator. And mowing, endless mowing to be done. So, I mean, every day just -- could involve, you know, 30 different jobs.
CRAWFORDAnd I think it's interesting when you have an operation like my parents where they grow very -- they grow many, many different kinds of vegetables, each one of those vegetable is a certain set of tasks and expectations around it. And so you're really on top of -- you have to be on your toes all the time.
NNAMDILet's go to the telephones and talk with Jim in Frederick, MD. Jim, you're on the air, go ahead please.
JIMThanks very much for taking my call. As you were speaking, I sort of was thinking about a lot of us baby boomers and we've had -- many of us have had, you know, decent lives and we're going to live longer than expected probably and sort of how are we going to use that time we have so that many of us would like the idea, I know I would like to be able to (unintelligible) and whether it's volunteering or maybe even having to garden.
JIMBut I think the idea of having a busy life as we get older especially is maybe something a lot of us in my age bracket are thinking about. So that was my comment.
NNAMDIFascinating comment. Care to reflect on that, Arlo?
CRAWFORDYeah. No, I think that's a really interesting thing because my parents -- when -- shouldn't you go ask me, what are they going to do when they retire? There's sort of no way you can retire from a farm. You can sort of step back from it a little bit. My father goes out to the morning meetings a little bit later than he used to, but he still works, you know, a 14-hour day often. So this idea that the farm is really a lifetime was a really interesting one to me.
CRAWFORDIt's not something you can -- it's not a profession that you can step away from, it really becomes a part of who you are. And so, you know, my parents will be able -- will keep busy and I think they want to keep busy all the rest of their lives with this farm. It will always be there to sort of support them.
NNAMDIAnd I think that's the sentiment Jim expresses on behalf of a lot of baby boomers who are retiring from whatever their jobs happen to be but want to stay busy all the time. So the concept of being in an environment where you're practically forced to be busy all the time some of them may find appealing. I have to take a short break. When we get back, we'll continue our conversation with Arlo Crawford.
NNAMDIHe is the author of "A Farm Dies Once A Year: A Memoir." If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call. Have you ever learned anything profound from trying to take care of a garden or a farm for a season? What did the experience of caring for those crops teach you? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Arlo Crawford. He is the author of "A Farm Dies Once A Year: A Memoir." His parents, Jim and Moie Kimball Crawford are the owners of New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania. Arlo, a lot of people might not know that your father was asked at the beginning of Barack Obama's tenure as president to advice the White House on its kitchen garden project and apply the same kind of obsessiveness to detail and to the vegetables growing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as he did to those at New Morning. How did that come to fruition? And what exactly was his role in the White House garden project?
CRAWFORDWell, it's a complicated story. And to be honest with you, it's not -- I'm not even today entirely sure how it all worked out. The first I heard about it -- I was living in Boston at the time. The first I heard about it, my parents just called me. Obama had been elected not long before. They called me and said, well, you know, they just called us and asked us to be involved in the garden. A chef had -- this -- having been in D.C. for 40 years and knowing a lot of chefs, I'm sure that the White House went out and spoke to chefs and my father's name came up.
CRAWFORDHe's just a farmer longstanding in the area. So he was sort of a natural choice just because he knows the climate and he knows some of the expectations for the vegetables. His role was really -- it was an interesting one. He was really just a -- he was consulting. So he would come periodically, once a week or once every two weeks sort of near the beginning and he would bring, when he would come to the White House, he would bring seedlings. And he would bring mostly -- he'd bring advice.
NNAMDIWait a minute, he also brought dirt.
CRAWFORDHe also brought dirt. Yes, yes.
NNAMDIHow does the consultant now end up bringing dirt from New Morning Farm and dumping it on the White House lawn?
CRAWFORDWell, you know, I mean, that was sort...
NNAMDIIt's not what consultants normally do.
CRAWFORDYeah. You know, the White House obviously is an extremely manicured and longstanding piece of lawn, although Taft did keep cows on the lawn for milk. But -- so I think it was more just -- I don't think there was any particular need for it, but almost just a safety measure. You know, to know the dirt requires spending some time with it. So I think that was the reason why they brought some dirt from New Morning.
NNAMDII've got to bring my own dirt because I noticed that in the end what do you think your father and, frankly, your family got out of the experience of working for the White House on that garden project?
CRAWFORDWell, it was an amazing, amazing experience. And I think it was -- it seems funny to say, but it was sort of a small, a very small, easily given service to the country for my father. And I think it was interesting to me also because he had, we talked about this earlier, that he had considered -- he had come up in D.C. going to law school, thinking about politics, being involved in activism and then he stepped away to be a farmer. And you think, well, he dropped out of that scene. Somehow 40 years later...
NNAMDIOh, no that itch came back.
CRAWFORDHe ends up at the White House somehow, which is a really funny kind of -- I think a funny loop to have made.
NNAMDIAt one point in the book, you and your father drove out to the first place where he gave growing vegetables a shot. He shows you around. You even have an encounter with locals who live there now. But during the growing season you spent at New Morning Farm, it was clear that your dad was long past the point of being that guy with the straw hat planting every seed and harvesting every crop with his own hands.
NNAMDIHe was at a different point. The one where he was spending hours upon hours running the farm from his office, obsessing over every detail of the operation. How do you describe his routine?
CRAWFORDWell, I think it's a lot like many -- any small business owner has, an entrepreneur has a huge amount at stake in their business. And one of the things that is interesting about this business when they started, there were no sort of rules to follow. There were no models to follow. So I think they had to do -- they had to figure out everything on their own. They had to build this systems on their own.
CRAWFORDAnd so my father today, you know, these systems have gotten more and more and more complicated and more complex. And so, my father's routine is really to manage all these systems that he's set up. I mean, he's -- I don't mean to say that he's never had any help or that hasn't ever been -- I mean, it's always a cooperative experience. But, you know, he might have set-up this idea about how to manage chickens 30 years ago.
CRAWFORDAnd that's something that he still needs to think about today. And he thinks about -- he runs a firewood business in the winter. So it's, okay, how do I manage all the people involved in this firewood business. And just a business -- you know, like this farm involves such a huge network of people. I mean, local people especially to the farm and people in Pennsylvania. There's the people -- just in the firewood business, there's the people who cut the wood.
CRAWFORDThere's the people who deliver the wood. There's the people who do the accounting around the wood. And he also deals with the, you know, the person who's having to fix -- come and fix the cooler and he's dealing with the person who knows how to fix tractor tires. And he's dealing with somebody who has a big -- who he's called and said, oh, I have a huge amount of rhubarb in my backyard, do you think you can take it?
CRAWFORDOr I want to buy some chickens, can I come by and buy three chickens from you? So he just has a very, I would say, a very large network of tasks, a very large network of people and he cares very much about getting things right and making sure that these systems that he's set up are being refined and are working efficiently.
NNAMDIBefore I go back to the phone, I have to talk about one of his most striking characteristics because while he's doing all of these things on a regular basis, apparently he is the kind of person who can look at a situation and immediately the first thing he notices are potential mistakes.
NNAMDIWhat can go wrong?
CRAWFORDWhat can go wrong? That's right. I think there's a line in the book. He says he sees a new puppy and sees the chickens, the dead chickens its going to drag into the yard in a year or two. I think that's just -- one of the points of this book is that there's so much involved in a farm that can go wrong and there's so much uncertainty that the only way you can protect yourself is essentially to sort of be a -- to always be on the lookout. Not to be a pessimist, but to sort of always be aware of the dangers and always sort of be watching your flanks at all times.
NNAMDIWell, he might want to give a listen to Denise. Here's this email we got from Denise in Rockville, "I was told by my parents one year after I had gone through some distress that gardening might be therapeutic for me. Every morning of every day that first season began with me freaking out over what I'd see in the plants, thinking about other things I could be doing better, asking questions about why they weren't growing faster."
NNAMDI"It took two or three summers before I finally had to give in to the fact that there were things beyond my control like weather. Duh. It might have taken a year or two for these lessons to sink in, but I feel I'm way more at peace since I became an amateur garden."
NNAMDIFascinating. Well, his father is still obsessive. Here is Fred in Alexandria, VA. Fred, you're on the air, go ahead please.
FREDHey guys. Listen, I've got a son, 26-year-old son who's a physicist and left his job at the naval research lab and he's going -- later this summer, he's going to South America to work on organic farms. It's a program called WWOOFing. I just wondered if you are familiar with it and could talk a little bit about it.
CRAWFORDYes, I am familiar with that program. It's not one that we have done work with a lot on New Morning Farm, although I remember, God, it must have been 15 years ago two British women came and lived for maybe a month during that program. There are a lot of different programs involved in the farm that are similar, though. Mesa (sp?) is one which brings people interested in agriculture from primarily I think from Latin America, but also from Thailand.
CRAWFORDAnd so people all around the world have come to New Morning Farm to learn about how a farm like this works. So there's -- and obviously there's -- the current flows the other way, too. Like with your son, things like the Peace Corps and a lot of people from those programs have also come back to work on New Morning Farm, they learned their interest in farming in Kenya maybe and came back and wanted to make a go of it here.
CRAWFORDSo that's a really -- that kind of international exchange in kind of the small, intimate way is a really important part of this kind of farm. I think one of the things that I would say about that is when you leave your job as a physicist, I think one of the things I learned is you have to realize that going to a farm isn't an escape from your life, it's a new life that you're entering. You know, and one with it -- all of its same pressures and obligations. And so that was to me was an important lesson to remember.
NNAMDIFred, thank you very much for your call. Another big part of the story and your family farm's story and your mother Emily or as she goes at home by Moie, where does she fit into the daily business of the place and what pieces of her personality do you think have defined the place the most?
CRAWFORDMy mother is from New Hampshire, came down and met my father on a blind date in West Virginia. He had already started sort of farming, which I think is like sort of amazingly an interesting thing for her to have done. She took the train all the way down from New Hampshire to West Virginia of all places. So I think my mother is just as much a part of this farm as my father. On the other hand, my father has always -- this has been his project since he was a little kid.
CRAWFORDSo, I mean, his passion since he was a little kid. So I think my mother's role there, she has always been -- she manages sort of discrete projects. She manages the chickens. She manages the greenhouse. And I think she's also the one that sometimes can step back and say, Jim, you need to relax. The carrots are going to be okay. Or if the carrots aren't going to be okay, the world is going to go on.
CRAWFORDMy father probably will not listen to that advice, but my mother is sort of can be the voice of reason sometimes and sort of -- she can be the kind of moderating influence that a farm really needs.
NNAMDISo much of your mother's story from her decision to travel to meet your father and they've been setup on a date as young people to her willingness to get onboard with the dream of owning and operating a farm is about really taking risks, living life without knowing what's around the corner. What in the final analysis have you learned from your parents' lives about what it means to live life without certainty?
CRAWFORDYeah. Well, I mean, a lot of people ask me, they say, are you going to take the farm over? Is this something -- is this a family farm that's going to pass on? And I also have a little sister. And I don't think -- and it won't because neither of us are interested in farming. But I think what my parents do pass on to us is that example that you're talking about, that example that you can take these big risks and they can work out.
CRAWFORDAnd you can build a life from scratch and you -- both the commitment to a project like this can be difficult but it ultimately is, in the final analysis, amazingly satisfying and an amazingly satisfying way to have put a life together, I think. And I think there's all different ways to make that happen. Writing a book, I hope, is one way.
NNAMDIAnd living in San Francisco, which is where you're living now. Another way of making it happen. I'm afraid we're out of time. Arlo Crawford is the author of "A Farm Dies Once A Year." His parents Jim and Moie Kimball Crawford are the owners of New Morning Farm in Pennsylvania. Arlo Crawford, thank you very much for joining us.
CRAWFORDThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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