By Faryal Sharif
“Sometimes I want to move to Ecuador and work on Jorge’s farm,” I say to him on the phone, referencing a friend I’d met last summer.
He laughs at me. “You couldn’t handle that.”
These were the words said to me by the man I was dating at the time. He had grown up on a farm near Celina, Ohio, and hadn’t realized that I had just recently declared my major in the College of Agriculture at The Ohio State University. Those few words stuck with me for the next few days, and the following thought went through my head: “I’m not cut out for this, I’m not cut out for this, I’m not cut out for this.” When I questioned myself, the reply from the back of my head was “You don’t belong in Ag. You’re a small, wimpy, non-white, woman.”
When I first chose to study Community Leadership with a specialty in Extension, I had little grasp on what any of those words really meant. I just wanted to declare a major and move forward in my college career. But, as I fell deeper down the rabbit hole of my degree, I realized this was what I wanted to do. Despite not growing up in the exactly the same rural environment as many of my peers in ACEL, I’ve had a deep desire to work on farms, to help and connect with the people of rural America, and to be an advocate for citizens at the community level. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I wanted to do it, and because it was so hard to understand, I continued to argue with myself. Maybe I had a deep desire, but, well, was I really cut out for this? Once again, myself told myself: “You don’t belong. You’re a small, wimpy, non-white, woman.”
This attitude continued. I thought about changing my major. I thought about quitting college—if I wasn’t going to do this, I had no idea what to do otherwise. But I liked the discipline. I liked my classes, I liked West Campus, and I liked Columbus. I enjoyed the concept of leadership as something that could enable otherwise disadvantaged groups. Yet, I wondered what it would be like if I actually pursued a career specifically in the ag sector. Would people judge me for not knowing everything? Would I constantly feel out of the place? As I continued studying and doing job shadows of people in extension, I still couldn’t shake the thought: “You don’t belong. You’re a small, wimpy, non-white, woman.”
Then something magical happened. This summer I did an internship at Franklinton Gardens, an urban farm in Columbus. During my time there I started to get more involved in the field, traveling to places like Athens to work on more rural farms and interact more closely with members of the community. I packed CSAs and harvested tomatoes and planted microgreens. Every day of work, I would sweat and labor. One day, toward the end of my internship, I was clearing out some old beds to plant new crop. As I pushed a broad fork into some particularly stubborn soil, the following words resonated in my head, “You couldn’t handle that.” I smiled to myself. I just did. I went to lunch. Everyone around me loved and respected me. I wasn’t judged or told I was weak. I could do this. I was empowered.
That’s not to say everything that was in my head was completely wrong. Historically, women have not been invited to the big kid table in the field of agriculture, despite often being the backbone of the farming community. Women were expected to not only help in labor intensive work on the farm, but also be the ideal mother, daughter, and wife. In America, the role of people of color in farming had become invisible in many ways, as they lack access to many extension resources and are un-included in the agrarian identity. But, well, it wasn’t like we couldn’t actually DO it. It’s just that so many of us have been afraid to step up. We worry about the discrimination we may face and whether or not our qualifications will be undermined. But someone has to bear the burden. Someone has to help change the face of our agricultural landscape, and tell the girl who was majoring in Extension that “yes, you can belong.”
I graduate in a few weeks. I’m not sure exactly what I want to do. One day, I’d like to teach young people about the power of farming and good food that I had come to realize, and become a leader at the community level. Mostly, I want to continue getting my hands dirty with the soil of America. Who knows? Maybe I’ll go to Ecuador and work on Jorge’s farm.