By: Sun Butler In 1972, my Mom quit her modeling job in NYC to start the first natural foods cooperative in Westchester County – in our living room. Furniture, TV and her prized stereo were replaced with bins filled with whole wheat flower, granola and brown rice. She stocked our refrigerator with tofu, kefir and local farmers cheese. We often arrived home to a packed house for coop meetings. If customers arrived at dinner time they were invited to sample her latest health food creations and to trade recipes for delicacies like mung bean soup and tofu lasagna. For the three of us, brought up on a traditional southern meat and greens diet it was quite a shock. But the real shock came 6 months later when my step-father lost his job and our struggling family was left practically income-less.
One day my Mom sat us all down and laid it out for us. There was no money for camp, scouts, dance or judo lessons. In fact there was precious little money just to pay rent and buy groceries. If we were going to “get-by”, we would have to grow a garden. That would be our summer project.
Born on the tail end of the Great Depression, Mom learned the art of “getting-by” with less on her grandmother’s farm , where her large extended family gathered to grow cotton and vegetables and wait out the bad times. Her Cherokee aunts taught her to make fertilizer with vegetable scraps, straw and fish heads from the local groceries and fish markets. We planted the entire back-yard with spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and the classic Native American ‘Three Sisters’ garden of corn, beans and squash. My nickname that summer was Jethro since much of the heavy lifting fell on my 14 year-old shoulders.
We hand dug, weeded, mulched and picked bugs in that garden without chemical fertilizer or pesticides at a time when organic farming was only mentioned in a few obscure books. The rewards were stupendous. Our back-yard became a garden of eating. We kids were delighted that really fresh vegetables tasted so much better than what we were used to from the grocery store. When the garden chores were over we went swimming, picked berries and netted shad out of the river. I found an old pressure canner at a yard sale and we learned to can what we grew.
A year later my grandparents arranged for my sisters to attend Rabun Gap Nacoochee School in north Georgia where they were privileged to work on the Foxfire books and magazine. I became my grandfather’s right hand man in his declining years, helping to look after the farm until I finished college. Lynn and Juel came home on vacations to help Grama can and freeze the pick-up truck loads of corn, beans, tomatoes, apples and black berries that Grapa and I brought in from the farm. And we all learned to sucker and barn tobacco. I remember at the time feeling like the poor country cousin to my friends in New York when we came home for visits. It was worse for my sisters who toiled away at the cannery in Chase City while their drama queen girlfriends participated in summer stock in NY.
For all of our complaining though, we acquired a fearless-ness and sense of self-sufficiency that has stead us well through the ups and downs of our adult lives. As Grama often said, “we have lived high on the hog and low on the totem pole, but we always had something good to eat.” It is my goal here at Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Farm & Community Garden program to pass some of that certainty on to every volunteer and participant in our programs. We will see ya’ll at the Farm this Spring.