In 1991, Ann Harvey Yonkers bought Pot Pie Farm, nine acres in Talbot County, Maryland, surrounded on three sides by the Chesapeake Bay. Knowing that how she grew food would profoundly affect the bay’s ecosystems, Yonkers—already a committed environmentalist—took sustainable farming to new dimensions. Her love for fresh, seasonal food then led her to create FreshFarm Markets (FreshFarmMarket.org), which she codirects with Bernadine Prince. FreshFarm’s five markets—four in Washington, D.C., and one in St. Michaels, Maryland—encompass forty-seven farmers, more than 5,000 acres of farmland, and more than 90,000 customers. The group’s mission is to build and strengthen the local food movement in the Chesapeake Bay region, create vibrant urban and community places, and showcase the region’s agricultural bounty. Here’s what Yonkers has to say about the world we eat in.
Tell us about your philosophy.
Food is the most intimate relationship we have with the world—we take food into our bodies, and it becomes who we are. Choices about what we eat and who we buy it from are probably the most profound environmental decisions most of us will ever make. Choosing what we consume and who we buy it from creates a different world in terms of our health and pleasure and how our countryside looks.
My work with farmer’s markets brings together three important aspects of my life: my love of good food, my environmentalism, and my need to do meaningful work. So much environmentalism consists of telling people what’s wrong. With farmer’s markets, it’s a delicious revolution; I’m urging people to eat fabulous fresh food, to meet the farmer, and to connect with where they live.
What’s your vision?
People learning to honor the earth that gives us food and feeding themselves regionally by developing healthy farms and supporting farmers. Also, I dream of people taking pleasure in eating seasonally and locally.
What led you to do what you’re doing now?
In the 1970s, my husband, Charlie, and I and our two children spent four years in the Peace Corps in the West African country of Benin. West Africa had a major impact on my palate because everything we ate there was local. I learned to look for what’s good at the market rather than going with a list of what I wanted to buy. I experienced many new tastes and was introduced to the pleasure of eating delicious, flavorful food close to home.
You created the American Table in the 1980s. How did that enterprise lead you to where you are today?
Through the American Table, I taught cooking classes to small groups of students. From that experience and from creating a classroom-cooking program for the Washington, D.C., public schools, I learned that people are transformed by their experiences of working with food. Once stressed students began preparing ingredients, they began to laugh and chat—the whole mood of the class would change to become more human. We tend to confine education to reading, talking, and writing. When food enters the picture, the senses of touch, smell, sight, and taste come into play, and suddenly we have more pathways to learn and live by.
You’ve said we should stress “sustainability” rather than organic. Why?
Organic agriculture defines what does or doesn’t go into growing food. It’s a good system as far as it goes; food grown without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides is better for you and the planet.
However, there are some important bigger questions that organic doesn’t always address, and these come into play when you ask: “Is the system sustainable?” Is food grown in a way that can be continued over time? Is the soil renewed so it can sustain crops over time? Can the farmer make enough money farming so he/she can stay on the land? Is there enough farm diversity to naturally break disease and pest cycles that come from raising only one type of crop? Does the farm or the system sell locally or ship nationally or internationally? How dependent is the farm on petroleum to produce its food? Sustainability is a more holistic viewpoint.
What’s your advice for people who want to start a market in their area?
Structure it as a nonprofit and treat it like a business. Just twenty-five years old, the farmer’s market concept is really a grassroots movement. As a result, most markets are run informally, lack active management, and rarely collect important statistics such as customer counts and farmers’ sales intake. If farmer’s markets are going to prosper and replicate, they need better tracking of their progress.
What do you think the future holds?
This is an exciting time to be working in the sustainable, local food movement. I see lots of signs indicating the conventional system of farming and food distribution is bankrupt. Meanwhile, farmer’s markets are growing at a fast clip; in 1994, there were 1,755 farmers’ markets in the country, and in 2004, there were more than 3,600—an increase of 105 percent.