Farm Aria: From Opera To Overalls, A Conversation With Amanda Dumont.
Posted on July 27th, 2011
FG: How did you come to farming? How did you move from opera singing, to farming?
AD: So, I went to college for music, and I went straight from college to grad school, at the New England Conservatory in Boston, for music, and I was just so eager to really immerse myself in a conservatory, coming from a more broad liberal arts-based music education. So, really, sort of the gateway was when my husband, who went to UMass Amherst—and you of course know that out there there’s just so much farming, and the whole culture of the importance of local businesses and local agriculture is really just thriving out there—so he had a CSA share at the Food Bank Farm, so, when he and I finally got together post-grad school, that was my first introduction to that model, that it even existed. That there was small-scale organic farming that was involving young people, not just your typical fields and fields of wheat and corn in the Midwest—I think everyone has this picture that you do cows, or you do wheat, but, no, there are other types of farming. So that was really my first introduction—I didn’t even know that the CSA model existed, and how cool [it was] to be able to eat locally, and focus on what was available locally, and to eat that way, based on what was available, as opposed to going to the supermarket and having everything available because it’s been flown or shipped in from every which way all around the world. I just really found myself connecting to local food, and local products in general—that whole idea of being able to connect to your community in that way, and to have a more sustainable lifestyle in that way. So, when my husband Tyler moved to Boston, where I was, we found another farm to have a share at—we have a share at Waltham Fields Community Farm, in Waltham, Mass. And we were share holders there for about four or five years—and I would see these people working out in the fields, and I would think wow, I come here to pick up my vegetables, but, I just really want to be a part of that—they look like they’re having such a good time. And how fulfilling it would be, what a direct thing—you do hard work, and then you get a vegetable!
AD: Right! As opposed to the years and years of taking the Fung-Wah bus down to New York City, and singing my heart out at an audition, and sometimes getting it, and sometimes not, but the only immediate kind of recognition that you get back is that ‘thank you’, and then you leave the room. Laughs
FG: Very different from pulling a turnip out of the ground and being able to say ‘yeah, I did that’.
AD: Exactly! I think I was, and I am still, just really hungry for real life. You do hard work, you get this, you have this reward hopefully, assuming that the weather cooperates, but even if it doesn’t cooperate, even if the outcome isn’t perfect and the deer come and eat all of your lettuce, you feel that you’re doing something that means something—you know, what’s more basic than food? When the shit hits the fan, what do the people need? They need to eat. And they need to connect with other people over food. So I think that that really hit home for me at a time when I was probably subconsciously questioning my chosen career in music, but I didn’t really want to admit to myself that I was allowed to be interested in anything else—you know, it’s like ‘if you’re going to do something in the arts, it’s going to be blood, sweat, and tears’, and you’re going to eat, sleep, and breathe this craft, and you know what? That actually isn’t my personality, and I don’t think that that’s really practical—how can you be a whole person, how can you really express anything as an artist if you haven’t really lived real life? And that’s not to say that growing up in the Storrs, (CT) area wasn’t real life, but you know, have life experiences–
FG: It’s not real life, we can just say that (laughter) it was a really wonderful, beautiful bubble that we lived in
AD: Yeah—and at least it was a college town, but, more or less growing up in the ‘burbs, and going to the supermarket, and everyone’s the same, pretty much, in one way or another—and I think it was also timed with the whole lifestyle thing as well of thinking ‘well, Tyler and I are getting married, and I want to be able to see him’. I’ve known so many of my friends, who are still doing music, and they go for months or years at a time where they’re not seeing their partner. And, you know, what the hell? Really? You’re cool with that? I just didn’t get it, and thought ‘sorry, that’s not for me’. I think down the line I’m going to want to have my music in my life in a way that feels relevant to me, and makes me happy—so, anyway, back to the whole how I actually started farming thing! So, I saw people out in the fields, and I thought man, I really want to be more involved, I want to be out there getting dirty, and having that connection with these people, and the land, and the food that I’m eating—so I ended up working part-time and partial season at Waltham Fields, for two years. And I was just bitten by the bug—the relationships that you form—you know it’s almost like when you’re in a play or a musical or something, where you’re with those people a majority of the day, and you’re working so hard—just to have those connections with the people, not only with the food and with the land, but with the people, I’ve found is just really important to me. So I worked there, and I decided—I had been working full-time in the box office at my old school, at the New England Conservatory, and I was the box office manager at Jordan Hall which is the big concert hall at NEC, and I was just done. I was done with being in the Conservatory atmosphere, I was done with being in a tiny box—I wanted to be a farmer, and to see if I could actually do it. So last season was my first full season, full time, working at a farm—I quit my job at the box office, and I worked at a first-year farm, in Sherbourne, Massachusetts, and then this year I’m at a farm called Powissett. I just started about a month ago, and this is my second full season—I’m an apprentice here at Powissett—I’m actually watering today, so I’m here at the farm as I’m speaking to you—and this particular farm is part of the Trustees of the Reservations, which is basically a conservation group—so they maintain a lot of trails, if you’ve ever been to, for example, Crane Beach in Ipswich, Mass., that’s their property. So they have a website that you can look at if you wanted to—I know that I was surprised to see how many properties they have, all over the state—and just within the past five or so years they started having small farms as one of their types of properties—like Appleton’s Farm, which is up in that same Ipswich area, is one of the biggest CSAs in the state. So I’m here at Powissett, this is the fifth season—and I think Appleton has been around longer, but we’re starting our fifth season here at Powissett, and we have about 300 shareholders that we grow for, but we also do a good amount of donations as well. And I’m just super-psyched to be continuing my learning, and to just be getting on the tractor almost every day
I know, it’s crazy right? Little Amanda on the tractor, who would’ve thunk it? (more laughter). It’s so fun! You feel—especially I think after you’ve spent so many hours hand-cultivating, hand-weeding, with a hoe, you just feel ‘damn, this is awesome’–the freedom and the power! You still have to go back and do the fine work, but it’s just like man, this is awesome. I never thought that I’d be so into driving a tractor, it’s kind of wild.
FG: Well, a common refrain that I’m hearing, especially from younger people that I’ve interviewed, who are farming, is that part of why they really enjoy it is what you were just talking about—being able to see what you’re actually producing, and putting a lot of effort into something, and having a tangible reward, afterwards. And a question I’ve been asking is, is that why you think people seem to be so fascinated by farming right now—we’ve gone through lots of different back to the land movements, but this one in particular seems to have really seized the cultural zeitgeist, and everybody seems to be really drawn to this way of life.
AD: Yeah—I know, I think….I personally feel that with the sort of disconnection that’s been happening, not just with food but among people, with the computer, and facebook—or living in the suburbs, where you have to drive thirty minutes to the nearest whatever—or growing up, anything that we needed to drive to was about twenty-five minutes away. If you needed to go to the grocery store, twenty-five minutes, if you wanted to go hang out with your friends, a twenty-five minute drive, not even a walk, a drive—I feel like we’re really disconnected from each other. We’ve gotten so disconnected from each other in so many ways, and I think that people are really just finally waking up out of this long slumber, and thinking ‘I really need to be connected to something’—I need to be connected to food, I need to know where it’s actually coming from, I need to be connected with people, in a real way, and not just over the internet– I think there’s been a dull sort of depression that a lot of people in our country have been going through, and you’re just trying to fill it with having the most expensive electronic toys, or big cars, and pretty houses that you can’t actually afford—but actually, all that you really need is just to connect with the people around you, and bond over the most basic things like food, and taking pride in your surroundings. You might not have a big house, or a lot of money, but you can make the best choices with what you have, as opposed to making the worst choices and ending up with a lot of sub-par, not fulfilling life choices—like going to the grocery store and thinking I’m going to buy this lettuce that tastes like crap and a lot of it, because it’s cheap. The author of The Long Emergency, James Howard Kunstler—I’ve been really inspired by a lot of his writings, he’s very funny, with a sort of dark humor—but he talks a lot about the peak oil crisis and a lot of these ideas about people having their priorities out of whack—just the situation that our whole country, and our whole world, really, has gotten itself into, in terms of having misplaced priorities about our consumption, how we use resources, and where we get our food, and the role of technology. He does a podcast that I listen to a lot, talking about how, with any sort of craft, if we let farming die, we’re gonna be up the creek—people aren’t going to be able to drive around, because there’s no more oil, and they’re not going to be able to buy anything at the grocery store, because we don’t have any more oil to truck the food in, and nobody’s going to know how to grow food. And it’s a little fatalistic and whatnot, and who knows if it’s ever actually going to get to be that severe, with the economy and oil prices etc., but it certainly seems as though it’s heading in that direction, little by little. So that’s made me think a lot about what matters, and learning how to provide for yourself, and being self-sufficient. I think that’s a big thing with why I’ve decided to farm—not that the arts aren’t important, of course they’re important, but first you need to eat, you know?
FG: Yeah, everybody needs to eat. So, do you feel that farming has changed, or how has it changed, your relationship with your community? And your relationship with the greater Boston community? Has your sense of place shifted since you started farming, compared to what it was before?
AD: First, just starting off my relationship with farming as a shareholder at the CSA, and now being the farmer, and connecting with people who are shareholders—just seeing the same excitement that I had as a shareholder, in their eyes, and being able to talk to them about how to cook things, and how important this whole movement is, if you want to call it a movement, it’s really brought me a lot of joy, and a sense of community, just connecting with those people. And yeah—it’s pretty amazing, just the little cluster of this eastern Massachusetts farming community—everyone’s pretty tight-knit. There’s a group that has formed—it’s called the eastern Massachusetts CRAFT—(Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training)–we all get together every other week, and we’ll all visit each other’s farms, and talk about soil health, and marketing, and that sort of thing. And that sort of sense of realizing that we’re not just, again, our farm here at Powissett isn’t just a little satellite, or a little pod—we’re connected to all of the other farmers in the area. The farm manager, Merrill, she’s just really great at valuing community and connecting with the people who are eating our food, and connecting with the other farmers in our area, and making a concerted effort to see the bigger picture, and to help people understand how important what we’re doing is. So it’s pretty cool, this little pocket out here, and I never would’ve known, from comparing it to the five-college area (in western Mass.)–I never would’ve thought that there would be as much farming out here as there is. I just figured that it was mostly out in that area (western Mass.). So it’s really just pretty cool to see all of the little farms that are just kind of nestled away that people might not know about if you weren’t looking. I don’t know if that answers your question!
FG: Oh, I definitely think that it answers part of my question—do you feel that the types of relationships that you have with people within the farming community, and the types of relationships that you have with people now, are different from the ones that you had with people when you were working as an opera singer?
AD: Yeah…I feel like that’s part of the reason that I’ve changed careers is that I wasn’t finding fulfillment—I wasn’t getting the sense of community, out of my music community that I wanted, and I don’t even think that I realized how important community was to me, until I started getting involved in farming. It’s hard to explain—with music, granted, you have to rehearse with people, and everyone, unless they’re just performing some solo a capella thing, everyone is collaborating in some way, even if there’s just a singer and pianist, you’re still collaborating to make that music. But I just felt like it wasn’t enough—it was too much about the individual, with the music, or, at least it seemed to be with the individuals that I was interacting with, and less about having a good experience together, and really doing something meaningful together. It was more ‘I’m going to go take this audition because that’s what I’m supposed to do’, to forward my career, and hopefully I’ll achieve some sort of nebulous success. It was a little too much ‘me me me’. So the connections that I’ve had with the farmers that I’ve worked with, and meeting some of the other farmers in the area, part of that eastern Massachusetts CRAFT group—there’s so many situations where one farm has a tractor, and the other farm needs to borrow it, just little very practical things where one farm will need extra help, and people from another farm will just drop what they’re doing and go and help to carry one hundred fifty-pound fertilizer bags for a few hours. You need help from others, so, when they ask you for help, you want to give that help. You just want people to feel that they’re not alone—and I feel like with music, you spend so much time in the practice room, fine-tuning your craft, all by yourself, and it’s kind of a lonely profession. I’ve cultivated some really meaningful relationships with a lot of the farmers that I’ve met and worked with. It’s been really eye-opening—because I feel that a lot of relationships that I had with my fellow music students and musicians in the Boston area haven’t really held up as strongly as the relationships that I’ve had with the other farmers that I’ve worked with. When you’re out there doing a really hard task together, that’s definitely one way to bond.
FG: Yeah, I remember that in sort of a parallel experience, when I spent the summer working on a volunteer trail crew for the Appalachian Mountain Club, and I’ve never bonded with people so quickly and so hard. Because you’re doing heavy intense manual labor in the middle of nowhere, and all sleeping together in a tent, and you all smell, and you just have to get over that and say well, we’re all here, and we’re all doing this thing, and it has to get done. No one else is out here to build this bog bridge or move that boulder so that it doesn’t crush somebody coming up this hill.
AD: Totally—when you’re doing something like this, or, with the trail maintenance stuff—none of those people would be out there, or out here at the farm if they didn’t share a base vision of why it’s important to do that—why it’s important to be out here farming, and everyone has their own kind of different perspective on that vision, but there has to be some kind of consensus of it being important, and it’s not just about me—I am working towards this vision with other people, and the goal is what’s really important, not just putting myself out there to be a star.
strong>FG: Right. Which is kind of the opposite of the message that you’re getting growing up in our hometown, for sure, I think–
FG: We’re sort of a generation that’s been conditioned to be lonely, in some ways—both our generation, and then the one directly behind us—the one that’s directly behind us, if they’re going to follow the example of community farming, as that becomes more popular, might have a better shot at not doing that. But I think that all of us have sort of been trained to just think in terms of ourselves. And how we’re all special little snowflakes. And we all have to prove to everybody else that we’re special little snowflakes. And I think it’s left us all really hungry for community. Because we don’t have that—all of the things you’re describing make me think about the relationships that our grandparents probably had with their neighbors and their friends, and people in traditional rural environments who had to get along with one another, at least some of the time, because you would all need help, eventually. Nobody could be an island.
AD: Exactly. And I think we’ve sort of become a country of little islands—just the idea of people having to have their own swimming pool—swimming pools are awesome, I enjoy swimming, but why couldn’t you use a community pool? Sharing is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great thing. It makes your community stronger. My sister-in-law lives up in New Hampshire, and you know, it’s the sticks, dirt roads and all—and it just so happens that everyone on her little road has a particular skill, so that if someone needs their roof fixed, everyone just goes and helps out, because you know down the line that you’re going to need some similar thing, and you’re not going to know how to do every step of it, so someone else is going to come and help you. And it’s just so cool—and it makes me think back to how things used to be, with our grandparents or our great-grandparents, when everyone pitched in and helped and had a trade and a craft, and didn’t just sit on the computer all day and know a little bit about lots of things, without really knowing anything.
FG: Right—knowing lots of little things about other things that aren’t ultimately relevant to your day to day functioning life, and your needs.
AD: Right, right, exactly.
FG: So when you think about the future of food in America, then, if you were thinking about an ideal future of food—what would that look like to you? Now that you’ve started farming, what would you hope to see happen?
AD: Well—I would hope to see more and more people realizing the importance of looking for local products, not just food, but everything—more people finding it a priority to have their food and their other products be locally sourced. And it’s hard—I think we have way too many people in this country to feed them all by organic farming, and not everyone can afford a CSA share—the kind of average price that I’ve seen in this area for CSAs is anywhere between 500 and 700 dollars for a season, and then if you’re adding on this option or this other option it’s even more, and even though it comes out to be a really good deal, a lot of people can’t afford that up front. So, finding ways for there to be lots of different ways for people to connect with local food, whether it be people having more farm stands, and farmer’s markets, or CSAs—CSAs having been sort of the hot thing now for the past five to ten years—having more people trying to do, not just vegetables, which we need, but finding ways to have more local dairy, and more local grains, which is particularly hard in this part of the country. I think that’s going to be a hard thing, but hopefully people will pull up their bootstraps and say ‘well, I want to be able to have cheese that comes from where I live, so I’m going to be the one to make it, and not just wait for somebody else to do it’. I think that there’s a lot of that—the ‘oh, wouldn’t it be great if there was X’ and then people saying ‘oh well’ (and forgetting about it). So I think that would be, in my perfect world, there’d be more of that–[people making their own products]. More people figuring it out, and reviving those crafts.
FG: Yeah—I was talking to one of the other people I interviewed, Nick Zigelbaum, who’s sort of working as a tenant farmer on this farm in North Carolina right now—and we were talking about ways in which agricultural subsidies could be reworked to do the things they’re actually supposed to do. So instead of paying farmers to produce cash crops, you put the emphasis back on paying farmers to produce food. It seems like one way to make more things accessible to more people locally is to put the focus back on self-sufficiency instead of profitability—changing what ‘profitability’ and ‘success’ mean. And I was curious about how your own definition of what it means to be successful, or what it means to have a successful day has changed, since you started being a farmer.
AD: You know—coming from being a singer, and working in a box office, the success was just so intangible—with practicing, and with auditions, or selling tickets to all of these really well-off people, perpetuating people buying really expensive tickets to go to concerts—I really started grappling with thinking ‘what is the point of my days?’ When the day is done, what can I say that I accomplished? I sat in a room and answered a phone and sold tickets to people in person, and yes I’m forwarding the arts, but, what did I really do, or what fulfillment did I really get from that? You can only get so much fulfillment from making people happy by selling them tickets. And then the fulfillment that you get from your music—if you had a really good rehearsal, or a really good performance, that fulfillment is indescribably wonderful, but it’s really hard to come by. And it’s hard to get it consistently. You’re really lucky if you’re in a situation where you’re actually making a living and finding artistic fulfillment at the same time. And nowadays, with being a farmer, it’s just so great to feel as though I’m…that the season has started, that everything just sort of slowly ramps up and by June, we’re going to be really cooking with gas, and to feel that the steps that we’re taking, starting seeds in the greenhouse—just that everything is part of a bigger picture, working towards getting these vegetables grown, and getting them to people who are excited about them. I like the structure a lot—the hopeful predictability of doing something, and it’s going to end up being successful, and then you can do the next step and the next step to aid in the success of a happy vegetable. The ritual of ‘this is what we do now, we do this kind of weeding’–and the reward, and the joy of being outside—that’s another thing that we haven’t even talked about. People not really realizing the importance of being outside in the fresh air, and having the sun on your back, those really simple pleasures that we’re really disconnected from nowadays. All of those things give me a ton of fulfillment. It’s just a breath of fresh air to feel that you’re a part of something that people have been doing for thousands and thousands of years—and a lot of things [about it] haven’t really changed! Especially this kind of farming that we’re doing—a lot of the tools are really similar to how they were when they were first invented. Or things like trying to do cover cropping, to replace the nutrients in the soil, as opposed to spraying fertilizer and chemicals—it’s really fulfilling to know that you’re part of a tradition. Which is, again, something that I think that we’re probably lacking, in our society—which is another kind of connection, feeling that connection to your past.
FG: Right. Would you say that it’s sort of made you feel more American? In some ways? Because the America that exists now is such a nebulous concept, but the land is something that we all have in common, that everybody can sort of do something with.
AD: Yeah…to tell you the truth, I’ve never really had a clear vision of what it means to be American—which I’m sure doesn’t really come as a surprise to you—I think it’s more just feeling a connection to being a human. That you need to grow food, and connect with people—kind of the basic things that make everyone the same.
FG: So, we’ve talked about what some of your favorite parts of farming are, and what’s really rewarding—what’s the hardest thing about it for you, or the thing you weren’t prepared for, when you started doing it full-time?
AD: Hmm. Aside from the work just being hard sometimes….maybe that’s the hardest thing. Just the conversation that you’re having with yourself, of ‘this is really hard, I haven’t really done something like this before’–finding ways to kind of pace yourself and to do something in a meditative way. Sort of saying ‘alright, this has to be done, we have to get through it, let’s get through it together’–it’s hard work. Like in June, when all you’re doing is just weeding—and it’s really important to do, and you need to find ways to kind of find your zen, and think that this has to happen, and it’s bigger than me—it can be really humbling to be in the heat, and to be really tired, and get really pissy, and just think ‘AUGH, I don’t want to do this anymore’–but, you find your strength, your inner strength or whatever it takes for you personally to get the job done. That can be really difficult. But hopefully if you have a team of enough people, to do it with you, you can get it done with a greater degree of success, and with more laughter—keeping it light. And just like with any job, any of the interpersonal stuff of finding a group that you can really gel with, and have a really good time with, and just really connect with—making sure that you’re all really on the same page in terms of how you work, that’s been really interesting for me. I’ve had some really great experiences, and then I’ve had some really not so great experiences, just interpersonally—and I think you find that in any job, but I think when you are doing work that can be so taxing, and working really long hours, it can kind of magnify everything.
FG: Do you think that it’s taught you to sort of be more patient? Do you think you’ve become a more patient person through farming, just because the pace of everything is so different?
AD: Yeah, I think you sort of realize how important it is to communicate really clearly and be really sensitive to how other people learn, and how other people communicate, and to have patience with someone who is trying to figure out how to communicate effectively. Or taking a step back and realizing oh, maybe I’m not being as patient as I could be, or being as clear as I could be—especially because a lot of these farms, including our farm, get a lot of volunteers coming in to the farm, and a lot of people just have not done work like this before. So, finding ways to just keep them excited, explain things clearly, be patient with them if they’re not moving as fast as it would be if it were, say, just the regular farm crew doing something—just taking the time to help people have a good experience. If it’s their first time on a farm, transplanting something into the ground, make it be a good experience for them so that they’re going to want to come back and do it, and they’re going to remember that it was fun, and they learned a lot of stuff, and it was a good experience. And I think that’s something that should be, for any farmers at farms like this one, where you’re introducing the idea of farming to people, that it’s a real responsibility to have it be a good experience, so that they’ll tell other people hey, you know, farming is awesome, and it’s an important thing! But yes, I think just the general pace of life, and doing repetitive tasks really changes how you interact with yourself—I think we generally just have really scattered brains, that are used to watching quick sound bites of things, so it’s a really interesting process to then become a farmer, to be doing one thing for three hours straight. And to find a way for your brain to be able to do it, and your body to be able to do it in a healthy way—and it can end up being kind of meditative, and you have to find patience with yourself if you’re not doing something fast enough. I definitely feel that my brain has sort of changed since I started farming. My pace of how I move through the world—sometimes farming has taught me that I have to be a lot faster, but also that I sometimes have to just settle in, and think all right, you have a long way to go here.
FG: So what would you say that your favorite moment of the day on the farm is? Do you have a favorite thing to do, or a favorite time of day?
AD: Hmm….I love when we’re all out, doing any sort of task, together, and we’re just laughing our heads off. Having a moment where you all just really feel like a team, and part of a community, I just love those moments. When you feel that sense of connection with people. The reward that your body gets for doing something useful.