Featured (Farmer) Foodie: Marysol Valle
Everywhere you look, you’ll see details that say Urban Roots is a community farm: an oversized get well card cut from construction paper and taped to a barn door; a random assortment of vegetables dangling on twine from the branches of a peach tree; a stray bottle of water — “Reynesha” scrawled in sharpie on one side, and a line from a Chris Brown song on the other. At any given time at Urban Roots, you’ll find the farm manager Marysol Valle there, tinkering with her spader or leading a group of volunteers. Marysol’s farming career started unsteadily twelve years ago, with sudden moves, money woes, and an uncertain future. But Marysol pursued farming with a steady drive that eventually landed her a job at this locally loved non-profit in Austin, Texas. Employing students ages 13-17, Urban Roots uses sustainable agriculture to empower Austin’s youth, while increasing the city’s access to fresh food. Last year the crew at Urban Roots grew over 30,000 pounds of vegetables, 40% of which was donated to local hunger relief efforts and food banks. The other 60% was sold at Austin farmers markets by the very youth who helped grow it. Marysol has been with Urban Roots for three years. To her, farming should be close to all foodies’ hearts. After all, without farms, there is no food.
Name: Marysol Valle
Website: Urban Roots ATX
Hometown: Austin, Texas
1. How did you start farming?
Well, I actually wanted to be a trumpet player first. When I was 19, I moved to New York with my trumpet, hoping to be a poor musician but end up as the next Miles Davis. I remember the moment when I knew musical fame wasn’t going to happen for me. I was in a subway station in Brooklyn, and I saw a homeless man sitting against the wall playing the trumpet. I thought, ‘He’s better than me. And he’s homeless. I’d better do something else.’ That’s when I met Michael and Ananda Kenedy at Sacred Seed Organic Farm in Ithaca, New York. They introduced me to farm work and I lived and worked on the property during the summer of 1999.
2. What did you like about the work?
The work was extremely hard at first. I had never used my body like that before. But the food was amazing — have you ever eaten food straight from a farm? More than ten years later I still go back to Ithaca in the summers so I can pick and eat fresh blueberries from Sacred Seed. Plus, the challenge of the work kept me interested. I liked how everything worked in tandem, and that you learned a lesson every season that you could apply the next year.
3. Tell us about Urban Roots. How did you get involved?
Urban Roots is a youth leadership program. We have a 7 acre vegetable farm (about 3 1/2 in production) where the youth in our program come to seed, weed, harvest, and wash and pack vegetables. We grow everything sustainably — chemical free. We then donate about 40% to hunger relief efforts, and the rest we sell at the Austin farmers markets. In 2006, I was working as the farm manager on this piece of land. At the time it was owned by a landscaping company called Oasys Gardens. I was farming and living there — I had a good-sized CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and even some interns who were helping during the busy seasons. I enjoyed my work, and I wanted to expand. I really wanted to increase the community involvement on the farm. That’s when I met Max Elliot and Mike Evans. Max and Mike were interested in starting an urban farming program that reached out to high school students in the Austin area. For a few years after that, we shared the land and the equipment. I was happy to support them in any way I could. I really wanted them to succeed. In the third year, Max hired me on as Urban Roots’ fulltime farm manager. Last year, Urban Roots we produced over 30,000 pounds of food for the Austin community!
4. What do you want people to know about farming?
Three things: first, I think people think farming is sort of fringe. I want people to know that farming is not all that disconnected from the everyday. For instance, farming has really tempered me. In farming, you put so much work into everything, and some crops live and some crops die, and you can’t spend your time worrying about the ones that die. You just have to pivot fast. I see so many metaphors for life in farming.
Second, I think we should all be supporting young farmers, whatever that means for you. Shopping at the market, supporting legislation, whatever. Supporting young farmers is the best investment we can make in the health of America. We need ag extensions that are fully resourced to deliver grants and microloans to small farmers, and pieces of land set aside where young farmers can go to get their feet wet, without the financial risk of starting a farm from scratch. Growth is key! In Texas especially. If we just put a fraction of the money we put into football into the food we eat, then things would be a lot better.
And third, farm fresh veggies are the best!
5. What’s next for you?
My dream is to start a farm school that will rival UC Santa Cruz. There’s great farming programs in the Northeast and on the West coast. We need to spread that out to the American South. Together, we can build a healthy, sustainable food system.
This interview was adapted by Neysa King from her original interview with Marysol, which appears here. You can reach Neysa at neysa AT keyingredient DOT com. All photos taken by Neysa King except #3, used with permission from Urban Roots.