Growing Interest in Agriculture
By Jennifer Wilson
Almost none of the crops planted in early spring 1999 at Maysie’s Farm in Glenmoore, Pa., survived the summer’s long drought. By the time Abigail Youngblood ’01 arrived to help farmer Samuel Cantrell with the August harvest, tomatoes were pretty much all that was left to collect. The cooperative’s 130 members, who paid about $300 each for a seasonal share of the organically grown fruit and vegetables, complained that they wanted more herbs, squash, lettuce and melons. But the cooperative’s investment helped keep the five-acre farm afloat during that dry summer, and the members were rewarded the following year with an abundance of organic produce.
Youngblood’s experience taught her about the realities of agriculture. Working in the fields for two months, she saw Cantrell struggle with too few farmhands, no irrigation system and low production. Youngblood also learned how a small, independent farm could be sustained by cooperative ownership.
“It was a very hard time for the farm, but I saw how resilient a community-supported farm is. Had Sam owned the farm himself, he might have gone under,” Youngblood says.
A physics major at Bryn Mawr, Youngblood cultivated her interest in environmental issues during her college years. She worked with the Bryn Mawr College Greens, a student environmental group, and helped start the Green Plan Committee, which drafted an environmental mission statement for the College that was endorsed by President Nancy J. Vickers.
During her senior year, Youngblood also led a “dumpster dive” to raise awareness about the impact of waste on the environment. She and her fellow dumpster divers separated trash from 13 different campus buildings and demonstrated that 44 percent could have been recycled.
After graduating summa cum laude, Youngblood went abroad for a year on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to study sustainable farming systems and food-security issues. Youngblood spent the first five months of her fellowship in Ugunja, Kenya, where she developed educational and demonstration gardens, and volunteered at the food-security department of the Ugunja Community Resource Center.
Youngblood then traveled to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Kerala, India. In Tamil Nadu, she devoted four months to studying the conflicts between independent farmers and large agricultural corporations. Youngblood also had the opportunity to meet M.S. Swaminathan, the geneticist who is regarded as the father of India’s Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s for having developed a new variety of high-yield, crossbred wheat.
“It was really interesting to visit Swaminathan. One of the key things I was looking at in my project was the impact of the Green Revolution from the perspective of farmers. I learned that even the principal scientists leading the revolution were saying that it was a failure, and it seemed like sustainable farming was being co-opted by ties with corporate interests. In some of the villages where the Green Revolution scientists are working, what they’re doing is good; but there’s still this connection with companies that don’t really have the best interests of the farmers in mind,” Youngblood says.
From India, Youngblood moved on to Russia, where she spent two months in St. Petersburg and the Kitezh Ecovillage, a community of foster families who adopt and educate orphan children, in the Kaluga region. In St. Petersburg, Youngblood studied rooftop gardening and volunteered at the Live Earth center, where she taught children about organic gardening.
After Youngblood returned to the United States, she joined the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, a nonprofit group that brings together community-based groups and volunteers to address hunger in the region. Youngblood works with the Coalition’s food-stamp outreach program to provide information about the Food Stamp Program to low-income people.
“There are more than 100,000 people who are eligible for food stamps and not enrolled in the program. Food stamps are the most critical defense against hunger, so it is a big problem that so many people who should be getting food stamps haven’t applied for them,” Youngblood says.
Her main effort is to organize an outreach campaign staffed by student volunteers from Bryn Mawr College and other local universities, among others. The volunteers visit local soup kitchens and food cupboards, where they conduct eligibility pre-screening and offer assistance in the food-stamp application process.
In pursuing her interests in environmentalism and agriculture, Youngblood has put her passion for astrophysics on the back burner. But she still enjoys sharing science with others. While in Ugunja, for instance, Youngblood taught physics at a local high school and worked to develop partnerships between Ugunjan and American schools.
“Even though my direction changed intellectually, I decided to go forward with my physics degree because I was so happy with the physics department at Bryn Mawr. It was exciting to teach the Kenyan high-school students a bit of physics while I was there,” Youngblood says.
Youngblood’s experience working the fields at Maysie’s Farm has inspired her to emulate farmers like Cantrell, who produce healthful, organic food in a manner that doesn’t harm the environment.
“In 10 or 20 years, my dream would be to have a small organic, community-supported farm, maybe in Pennsylvania. There’s a great farming community here,” Youngblood says.
About the Author
Jennifer Fisher Wilson is the science writer for the Annals of Internal Medicine.