Growing a Son

by Michael Ableman
Kid's Fall 2001

I raised my son, Aaron, alongside lettuces and carrots and melons and french beans. When he was a baby I placed him along the edges of the fields or orchards where we were working. I would keep him within hearing and sight distance of us as we hoed or thinned or harvested.

His world was filled with the smells and sounds and tastes of the farm: boxes of fresh food, people working with their hands, textures and changing temperatures, shadows and light. My son developed an uncanny ability to find, out of thousands of plants in a field, the season's first ripe strawberry, or in vast orchards, which tree had the sweetest peaches or plums.

Life at school was another reality. I remember stopping by to visit my son at lunchtime. The cafeteria was shut down. The ladies with white aprons and hairnets and the trays with hot food that I remember as a kid were gone, and in their place was Pizza Hut and Snapple and Taco Bell.

A crowd would gather when my son unveiled the lunch that he himself was required to harvest and prepare. Most days he would sneak off to the restroom to eat his sandwich of home-grown tomatoes, basil and cucumbers, embarrassed to be so different.

In his thirteenth year he came home from junior high school and proclaimed that he didn't want to eat fresh food and be so different from his friends. I allowed him to rebel and drift from the farm and the world in which he had been raised. He ate at McDonalds and spent his spare time hanging out in shopping centers and video arcades. Eventually his need to rebel mellowed and the farm boy in him returned.

Recently I asked my son about growing up on the farm. I expected him to talk about the peaches or apricots or Santa Rosa plums. Instead he told me that growing up on the farm had taught him about the sacredness of food and the land. His understanding included more than the knowledge that food didn't magically appear on store shelves: My son knew that it didn't need to be dowsed with poison or shot up with gamma rays or have its genetic makeup messed with.

He struggled with the contrast between his experience and what he witnessed elsewhere. He recalled the seven- and eight-year-old children in Guatemala we visited who sprayed crops without wearing masks--crops that would end up on northern tables. He was confused that with all of our technology and all of our agricultural cleverness, thousands of children die each day as a result of malnutrition and related illnesses.

My son is almost 20 now. He wears a safety pin in each ear, long sideburns and a partially developed goatee. He writes poetry and plays, listens to hip hop music and plays college soccer. He loves to come home to the farm, harvest, eat from the fields, and revisit the special place of his childhood. Each time he leaves to pursue his own dreams, I let go knowing that he has been well nourished by the land, nourished in a deeper soulful way than from the beans and the carrots and the tree-ripened fruit.

About the Author

Michael Ableman has farmed 12 acres of land in Goleta, California for the last 20 years. He is the executive director of The Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens, and the author of From The Good Earth (Abrams, 1993) and On Good Land (Chronicle Books, 1998). Ableman is currently farming a small piece of land on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, and is at work on a new book, The Hands That Feed Us.