Lessons from weeding: grassroots action

Francine Stephens

I’m 47 years old and this month was the first time in my life that I’ve ever weeded a garden. While this might be surprising to many, as I am the newly appointed Food & Farm director at Philo Ridge Farm, I’ve spent the better part of my adult life on the social and culinary side of food and agriculture. Furthermore, other than my college years at UVM, I’ve spent my entire life in the city. 

During the course of my career, I’ve been advocating for a deeper connection between what we as consumers eat and those who produce our food. I’ve fought for a public understanding that where we spend our money matters and has a direct and meaningful impact on our local communities. I’ve explained that the products we eat and put on our skin directly affect our health and well-being. However, despite the near constant mindfulness around agriculture, I’ve never spent time in the garden.

When Jane Engelman, our Market Garden manager, asked for help weeding the asparagus patch, I didn’t think twice to offer my help. Jane let me know that the asparagus field on the farm has been very challenging—the beds were never prepped properly when the asparagus was first planted and thus the weeds were particularly tenacious. 

Under the hot sun, Jane gave me a trowel and bucket and put me to work. Within about 30 seconds I knew I was wearing the wrong clothing. Within about 5 minutes I understood the challenge of our Champlain Valley’s clay soils. Most profoundly, within the first 30 minutes I was in awe of the strength of these grass roots that I was trying to pull out of the soil. 

I’ve since learned that grass has rhizomes, a horizontal stem that forms new roots and shoots. Many invasive plants form rhizomes, making them difficult to eradicate. Indeed. This grass was deep, entangled, strong.

I’ve spent much of my adult life forging bonds in my community over real food. I’ve felt deeply the importance of coming together over common threads and achievement through collective action. In our lifetime we’ve seen, firsthand, groups of people coming together to represent themselves and speaking out on issues that are important to them, their families and their communities. I believe in strong grassroots action. But no, I’ve never made the obvious connection between the term grassroots and the powerful, multi-layered, intertwined roots of grasses. How glaring the connection now is.

I plan to help my fellow co-workers weed the gardens here on Philo Ridge Farm throughout this growing season as well as with other tasks that Jane and the rest of our team need assistance with. I am sure I will come away with many profound and obvious thoughts. Helping others is, after all, a core tenet of being human. I look forward to many years ahead as I become an active member of this community of Charlotte, Vermont.