The “Growing Right” project provides an oral history of Ohio's ecological food and farm movement
Imagine moving to the Golden State to live like a Quaker. That was Columbus native Jess Lamar Reece Holler's experience during 2011 and 2012 as an instructor at the Woolman Semester School in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California.
“We taught sustainability and environmental science and social justice and peace studies,” Holler said. “[We] also had a one-acre organic … garden that fed almost everyone at the school.”
You could say the passion for organic farming runs in Holler's family, though her grandfather might not have described it that way.
“My grandpa was a green grocer and did all kinds of organic gardening in his backyard, [but] he didn't call it that,” Holler said. “He got [Rodale's Organic Life magazine] … and fed my mom's family with everything from the garden, but he didn't talk about it a lot. So I grew up with that, but in more of a taciturn, old-man-Ohio sort of way and not like hippie California organic.”
As a graduate student in the folklore studies program at Western Kentucky University, Holler documented stories of sustainable and organic farmers in the area, but wanted to apply her skills at home.
“I liked Kentucky a lot but so many of my friends and people I know are a part of the food and farm movement here in Ohio,” she said. “I want to know the specific story of how this all came about [here].”
And so the “Growing Right” oral history project was born. In partnership with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA), Holler is documenting the history of the state's ecological food and farm movement, which began in the 1970s. Since 2016, she has driven to more than 40 farms in approximately 20 counties in her 1997 Honda CR-V, or “fieldwork mobile,” recording audio interviews with farmers and taking photographs. The content is being archived on growingrightproject.com, and presented via pop-up installations at farmers' markets and grocery stores in Central Ohio. The next stop on the tour is Raisin Rack Natural Food Market in Westerville on Friday, July 14.
“Today, people take for granted that organic is available at grocery stores and farmers' markets, and it really wasn't that way back in 1979 when our organization was formed,” said OEFFA Program Director Renee Hunt. “We're really excited to be able to capture [the farmers'] stories and engage that next generation of not just people who are consuming the food but that next generation of farmers.”
At the pop-up exhibits, attendees can listen to multimedia shorts featuring audio and slideshows (full oral histories are online), as well as study posters created using Holler's photos and read stories in print.
Hunt and Holler were thrilled to receive funding from Ohio Humanities and the Greater Columbus Arts Council, considering “Growing Right” is not a traditional arts project.
“In the past, people who get these grants might be the big cultural institutions: the art galleries, libraries [and] museums,” Holler said. “[The funding] shows a really deep commitment to access [and] to a new type of public humanities and arts programming … that's also concerned about environment and health.”
Holler's interviews not only touch on the foundations of the organic movement, but also the farmers' current challenges.
“You've got someone like Mick Luber in Harrison County doing small-scale, diversified vegetable production … totally surrounded by fracking. [He's] fighting a completely different battle than someone like the Greggs, who are in Knox County, which is still the capital of no-till chemical farming,” Holler said. “So the stories look really different.”
Although the pop-up tour ends in August, the “Growing Right” project has opened up future areas of research for Holler, pending access to grant money.
“I'm looking at documenting more organic farmers who are trying to farm in counties impacted by fracking in eastern Ohio,” Holler said. “Another big issue that's come up has been women in farming and … what's accessible to them and possible for them in mainstream agriculture versus organic farming.”
Holler also acknowledges the gaps regarding cultural diversity in the “Growing Right” project, which is missing “black and brown faces,” due, in part, to the areas of research.
“Just because the folks who were at those founding meetings of OEFFA in the 1970s may have been white rural folks, it doesn't mean there weren't consonant movements that are part of this story happening in other places, too,” said Holler, who makes efforts to collect stories from diverse communities visiting the pop-up exhibits. She's also considering new signage to pose questions about “missing voices.”
“I'm excited to connect those dots,” she said.
Holler hopes the installations are also starting points for visitors to put more thought into the “ecology behind their food.”
“We want to … have people think about that history and think about the entire world that's behind the piece of corn or the peach they might buy,” she said. “Farmers' markets, at heart, are about making choices, and we want to showcase some of what goes into the choice to buy something that's certified organic.”