Interview with Adam Graffunder, Urban Farmer
by Alix Anne Shaw
February 28, 2013
Adam, I got to know you in Providence, where you have started an urban farm on an abandoned lot. Can you describe your farm and the work that you do?
I moved to Providence in July of 2010 and was looking for a way of making money by gardening. I started meeting people at farmers’ markets who were growing vegetables and became interested in the food aspect of growing. I just did a walking and bicycle survey of nearby unused properties and made a list of 16 or 17 properties. Then I looked up the owners on the city property database and made a flier that explained my experience and intentions, and what I was looking for. I sent it out in an envelope to each of the owners of the properties that looked promising. I got one response, and that’s where I started the garden.
What initially got you interested gardening / farming in this way?
I lived in Seattle before I moved to Providence. I guess I’ve been interested in gardening for most of my life, but I had an office job when I lived there. I also lived in a house that had a double lot. The second lot didn’t have a house and I spent a lot of time cleaning out and growing vegetables for the house. I was at my office job ordering seeds and plants and thinking…wouldn’t it be nice if I could do this as my work? When I moved to Providence, my goal was to make that be more of my work, and I have.
Would you rather live in a rural environment or an urban one? Is there a tension between what you do and where you live?
I guess I’d rather live in an urban environment. It doesn’t really make sense to farm at such a small scale in a rural environment–transportation is not economically feasible.
Now I’d like to ask you some questions about food issues and sustainability. What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?
I hate playing favorites, you know? Probably the takeover of local, indigenous homes and farms by international corporations that are trying to take control of the source of seed. In taking control of the agricultural infrastructure, they are removing the agency of local cultures and small-scale producers.
As a small-scale urban farmer, do you see yourself as radical or an activist?
I don’t know if I would self-identify as a radical, but definitely as an activist. I’m not really doing a lot to organize a movement. I’m just representing a simple option. I definitely participate in the culture that does some of that organization and know people who are working on those things, but I feel that my role is as a support role. Trying to act on behalf of the local community and people who are doing that work on a larger scale. I think of myself as a worker, as a grass-roots worker.
What is one really simple thing that you do that has political implications?
Composting. That’s as simple as it gets, I think. Being conscious of my waste streams. That’s dead simple. Transportation–that’s another thing that is important and often invisible–just doing transportation under my own power, by bike and simple machines. In farming, I don’t really use power tools. Occasionally I use an electric drill, but 99% is simple tools powered by human bodies.
What is your ideal vision of what our national food system would look like? What would be your ideal way of having us grow, distribute, and consume our food?
I would prefer that people look to their local community as a first resource, and consider what can be produced locally. What are people already doing that I can support? What are local products that are as good or better, fresher? What can I do to support economic localization? I think it’s unrealistic to say, don’t eat anything from less than 100 miles away, but–know–find out what you can get locally. What maybe can you get that haven’t you tried? Do you really want to eat a banana today or can you eat a delicious apple grown 5 miles away?
Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?
I have a complex relationship with Whole Foods. It’s hard to say whether it’s more or less competitive or cooperative. Some of the volunteers I work with at the Co-op work at Whole Foods, so I’ve been hearing a lot about them lately. I don’t necessarily support some of the weird things they do, but if someone calls up asking for something I don’t have, it’s a common recommendation I’d make.
Why are urban farms important? Is this something you’d encourage others to do?
Yeah, totally! If you’re up for it. It’s a high-effort, low-return game, but if you’re motivated, yes. On a direct, practical scale, [it’s important because] there are a lot of post-industrial cities with big potential. We could be getting a large portion of our freshest seasonal produce miles from the people we live. And since they’re so close to population centers, they play an important role in introducing people to local food systems and local economies.
Your farm is in a kind of decimated, inner-city environment. What kind of response have you gotten from the residents?
Most of the residents are really positive. Yesterday I was composting coffee grounds in the rain and someone walked by and said, “I see you workin’ it!” That seemed perfect–a comment in solidarity.
In Providence there’s a high level of lead contamination in the soil. How do you deal with the issue of soil contamination?
It’s definitely an important thing that I consider. In urban farming, particularly in post-industrial cities, you have to–if you’re going to be conscientious. I have the soil in my garden tested by the University of Massachusetts Agricultural Extension. The tests returned an amount that was “medium.” I do significant intentional organization of my crops in order to reduce the impact of lead on the crops that I grow. When I grow crops that absorb lead, like brassicas, I add lots of material that’s not lead-contaminated on top. The highest danger is from soil splashing directly onto weeds, and the next highest danger is from crops that take up significant quantities of lead. I try to amend the soil so that the roots of the plants seek out nutritional elements of the substrate as opposed to the parts that contain preexisting lead. I tested the soil this past year. The acceptable lead levels have reduced, and the nutrient levels are improving, apparently as a result of the management I’ve been doing.
Now I’d to ask you a bit about food. You also sell fermented foods. How did your interest in fermented foods develop? Is it connected with farming?
It’s separate from the farm…I mostly ferment foods other people grow, although there is some overlap. I guess I got interested when Evelyn, my girlfriend at the time, started buying kimchee at Whole Foods. I said, “What? That’s so expensive! We can just make that!” It seemed like a simple thing to try it. I found it to be satisfying, and it was easy to do something that was delicious, better, and cheaper than what we could purchase. When I moved to Providence and started trying to make money by gardening, I brought some to a party and people were like, “this is great–can I buy this?” That’s how it got started.
Now I sell fermented foods and have a blog.
Where can we find it?
Most people interested in sustainability wear many hats. What other things you do that are connected with what we’ve discussed here?
Spring is on the way! I’ve been thinking about the first thing to forage for spring, which is greenbriar shoots. I should look back to my calendar and see when I started doing that last year. I also keep bees. I I’ve been waiting for a day to check them. They were doing ok in December…we’ll see.
What are your current new projects?
Im producing for a CSA for the first time this year–that’s pretty exciting. I don’t know how it’s going to go, but I’m hopeful. As a produce manager at a co-op store, I can deal with myself, so I’m looking forward to being able to sell my produce to the store. Working both sides of the local economy.
The Rooting Symposium aims to bring together farmers, artists, and chefs, as well as people who do more than one of these things. Is there any way in which you see yourself as an artist? Is there a relationship between food and art?
The grocery cooperative I belong to was founded by a group of people who consider themselves artists, but I don’t really consider myself an artist. If I were to, it would be as an artist of the hustle or an artist of scheduling and accounting. I do consider myself an artist in terms of food preparation, but that’s mostly for my own consumption, on a non-business basis.
Speaking of that, you are also interested in cooking, and I’ve known you to be pretty experimental in the kitchen. What is the most interesting thing you’ve made lately, and how did it turn out?
Last night I made something I refer to as “not-baked, not-beans.” My roommate last year grew sour corn for corn meal and we’ve been eating it as hominy. She got the wood ash from a friend who has a wood stove. The water ran out in the pot and the hominy got a little burned, so my idea for saving it was to make something that ordinarily has a smoky flavor. I thought, baked beans! But in this case, most of the beans were corn. I made it in a pot on the stove, so it wasn’t baked, but I put all the regular baked bean seasonings in it–mustard, ginger, garlic, onions, molasses. Then I threw in a few beans and some maple syrup. The beans took a lot longer to cook that I expected, but it turned out pretty well! I had it for breakfast this morning.
Oh yes, and last Friday, I attempted to make vegan larb (pork salad). It was made out of mushrooms and tempeh. I used some dried foraged mushrooms from last year. The water I used to rehydrate the mushrooms was sitting on the counter and it started to ferment. It got this lovely dark color. It grew a powerful yeast culture and it smelled so good. Yesterday I fed it some buckwheat flour and I’m going to make some fermented buckwheat pancakes out of it. So there’s three experimental things I’ve been doing in the kitchen!
Thanks so much for talking with me. I’d like to conclude with just a few more questions. What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to make them more sustainable/ to change their relationship with food?
It’s going to be better for you and for the community you live in to eat locally. And transportation. A lot of eating locally is also transportation-associated. Consider whether you need to drive half a mile or whether it would be nice to walk or take the bus. I guess it comes down to mindfulness in everyday existence.