A Conversation with Kayann Short

Kayann Short

Why did you become a writer?

I don’t think of myself as having “become” a writer. I’ve always written, from short stories in elementary school to an editorial column in my high school newspaper to my dissertation and journal articles as an academic. Along the way, I’ve written letters to the editor and kept a myriad of journals and created a blog. What’s different now is that I’m publishing my writing in a new form: an ecobiography, or ecology-based memoir, in a more personal voice that describes my own life events and reflection on the larger context in which they occur. Like growing vegetables, writing is something that’s always been a part of me and always will be. When I was working on A Bushel’s Worth, I read Adele Crockett Robertson’s The Orchard, which was published by Robertson’s daughter after her mother’s death. Before I found Torrey House Press, I joked with my daughter that she’d have to publish my book someday. I’m thrilled to be publishing my book with Torrey House, but even without a publisher, I would have written this book because I wanted to record my experiences at Stonebridge for myself and as a history of this community-supported farm, the first in Boulder county and second in Colorado.

Stonebridge Farm plays an important role in nurturing your relationship with your partner, John (and vice versa).  What are some other aspects of your life that nurture your relationship with John?

John and I met while sharing an office at the University of Colorado, where we taught in the same academic program. We were both single parents raising daughters, we’re both handcrafters, we both had farming backgrounds, and we shared values of social and environmental justice, all of which created common ground from the start. Our relationship is nurtured by incorporating our interests into the activities of the farm like monthly knitting nights, musical events, educational workshops, and political activism. We spend lots of time with our families as well, and now we have a new grandchild who makes that time even more precious. To stay connected despite our busy schedules, we prioritize making dinner together, taking time to sit down for a homegrown meal. We bring our day to the table, like news we’ve read or heard or progress we’ve made on our mutual projects, and then plan our next steps. We spend a lot of time together, especially now that we’ve retired from the university, but on ten acres of land, we still have plenty of space to be alone when needed. We’re both strong-willed and don’t like being told what to do, so over our fifteen years together, we’ve worked out a pretty good system of consultation and cooperation to ensure we’re nurturing each other’s ideas.

What is your advice to those just learning about the CSA movement and hoping become more involved, or to those who perhaps do not have access to a CSA but wish to eat more healthfully and locally? 

I encourage everyone who wants a healthier, more locally based diet to find the resources in their area (localharvest.org is a good place to start) or create them, if that’s necessary. As I discuss in the book, one of the roots of CSA is in Japan following WWII when mothers wanted chemical-free food for their families and approached farmers to grow it. If a CSA or what’s now called NSA—neighborhood supported agriculture—is missing in an area, surely someone has a farm, garden, or growing space that could be cooperatively developed. If there’s no farmer’s market, work with city or county officials and local gardeners, farmers, and businesses to get one started.

But I also caution that local eating isn’t just a different way of buying vegetables. It’s also about changing eating habits to what’s available in certain climates and seasons. It takes a commitment to eating differently, from washing, storing, and preparing the vegetables to spending more time planning and cooking meals, as well as having a more plant-based diet. Again, look to the resources and models in a community, whether it’s recipes provided by local restaurants and farms or workshops on cooking and canning. The pay-off is not just better personal health, but a more vibrant agricultural system. My hope would be for everyone to have some way of “putting a farmer’s face on food,” whether through farmer’s markets, CSA or NSA, or schools, churches, hospitals, restaurants, and grocery stores that support local food.

What does being a feminist mean to you and how does it affect your involvement in CSA?

I’ve been a feminist all my life, although I didn’t use the term much until I went to college and joined the campus feminist group. I always bristled at the idea that girls couldn’t do certain things like wear pants to school. It wasn’t until sixth grade in 1971 that we girls challenged that ridiculous rule—and won. I reject the idea that people are divided into only two gender groups with rigid demarcations that privilege one group over the other. What was called the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s made incredible strides in this country to eliminate gender bias and the women of my baby boomer generation grew up benefiting from that activism. We shouldn’t take any of those gains for granted and we still have a long way to go in areas like gender-based violence, reproductive rights, and wage equity, but I don’t think we’ll go back to days of women’s second-class status because we’ve experienced what gender equality provides for families, employers, and in governance. I taught women’s studies for many years, incorporating service learning community projects in areas of women’s health, labor, and education. I especially loved teaching women’s literature classes because of all the great books with strong female protagonists as empowering role models.

Certainly one area impacted by feminist change is agriculture, where women have become actively involved as farm owners, managers, and marketers. The return to smaller-scale farms and organic methods in particular has attracted women to farming. I’m not the one who drives the tractor on our farm—although many women do—but I am usually respected for my farming expertise. Sometimes the older, conventional male farmers will look right past me to John in meetings but in the CSA and organic fields, we’re generally treated as equal farming partners. Having come from a farming family, I’m proud that agriculture is becoming open to women in all levels of participation.

ABW has a lot of music in it—could you tell us more about your musical background and taste?

I grew up in a family that loved listening to music. My Grandpa Smith would rock me to sleep with songs like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” and “You Are My Sunshine” and my Grandma Smith could dance an Irish jig upon request, so those old tunes are in my blood. With the exception of my aunt Lola, who played a rollicking accordion and piano, my family listened to music more than performed it. In elementary school, I was lucky to have a wonderful music teacher, Mrs. Mickens, who not only taught us the fundamentals but organized elaborate all-school music programs. My parents bought an old piano when I was in second grade and I took lessons through high school, but in our school district, we had to wait until fourth grade to start an instrument in school. At first I thought about playing the flute, but Mrs. Mickens thought I could be a violinist and I’m glad she did. I took private lessons all through school from her husband, Mr. Mickens, a beloved musician who was head of the string department at the University of Northern Colorado and the concertmaster of the Greeley Philharmonic and Ft Collins Symphony orchestras. When I went to college at CSU, Mr. Mickens helped me tape (on reel to reel) an audition that earned me a music scholarship. That paid my tuition for four years in exchange for playing in the chamber and symphony orchestras. After I graduated, I played in the Ft. Collins Symphony, sitting with Mrs. Mickens, which was always a lot of fun. I also taught Suzuki violin for a few years when my daughter was young.

Years later, I’ve taken up mandolin, but I’d call myself a semi-competent player rather than a true musician like our farmmate Joe Kuckla and the many other fine singer/songwriters and instrumentalists in our community. As for taste, I tend to listen to musicians with their feet in folk like Emmy Lou Harris, Gillian Welch, and Bob Dylan, but I love to play old-time music because it takes me back to my roots. Now I sing those old songs to my grandson, making up new lyrics like “We’ll all feed the chickens when she comes, peck, peck!”

If I wanted to write my own ecobiography, what’s the first question I should ask myself?

I locate ecobiography, or ecology-based memoir, in the intersection of life writing—first-person autobiography, memoir, diary, letters, and their variants—and nature writing, which tends to be less subjective than observational and descriptive. I think of this conjunctive space as “writing the self in nature.” Like all lifewriting, ecobiography examines events and relationships that shape identity, so the first question I suggest my students and clients ask is, “How has your life been shaped through your connection with the natural world?” This reflection leads to childhood memories of awe and wonder that we don’t just live in rooms but on something called planet earth. Next, I have them contemplate what I call “ecological kinship,” my term for relationships formed with elements, occupants, or phenomena of nature, be it landscape, plants, or creatures. This relationship may occur within a wilderness, rural, or even an urban setting and may challenge the human versus nature dichotomy. In ecobiography, a realization of one’s position within the natural world can lead to the discovery of important life lessons. Ecobiography is often place-based since some of our deepest experiences in nature are set in a particular environment.  When we write our selves in nature, we locate our place within the interdependent ecosystems we inhabit and discover the ecological kinships that connect us to the web of life’s embrace.

You include entries from your grandmothers’ diaries in ABW.  Do you keep a diary?  If so, how do your entries compare to those of your grandmothers?

I do keep journals, several, in fact, that I use in different ways. One is for writing down events that I want to mark for the future or re-mark on for analysis or contemplation. I keep that journal pretty regularly, although sometimes the entries are composites of several weeks’ activities. I also keep a farming journal of unusual facts—like a crop that did particularly well or a favorite variety—and of ideas for the next season. I restart this journal at the beginning of each new farm season but it always tends to slack off as the work gets busier. I do consult it when we’re ordering seeds and I use it to create an ongoing list of the “stand out” crops for each year so we can remember each one uniquely, like 2012, year of the onions. A third journal is for writing, which is the one I carry with me when I know I’ll have some time to write. I jot down ideas for books or articles or blog posts and I free-write when the mood strikes and I may even draft something in that journal. Because I don’t like to spend too much time at the computer, I also keep a separate notebook for a particular project in which I draft my writing. I filled two notebooks for A Bushel’s Worth, which started with the title “Farmgiving” and then became “Farmroots” before we chose the current title based on one of the chapters. I now have a journal for my next book, which will be a guide to writing ecobiography. My journal system may sound confusing but it actually helps keep me organized since I have a pretty good idea of what’s in each.

My daily journal is different from my grandmothers’ diaries in that I tend to be more introspective about the events of my life, but we all share the sense of recording, whether for ourselves or posterity, what those events were. I also don’t record the high and lo temperature each day as my Grandma Smith did! I wish I had been able to ask her why she did that, although I know the obvious reason of how temperature determined what she did each day. I think it lent a structure to her diary and perhaps laid a patina of practicality over any introspective motive.

If you could choose one thing, besides food, that everyone had to buy locally, what would it be and why?

I think of the local movement in terms of participation rather than consumerism. Because we all have a stake in our local communities, we have an opportunity, if not an obligation, to shape those communities through becoming involved in so many ways. Sometimes that seems to take the form of buying something, like eating at a locally owned restaurant or shopping at a locally owned store, but we’re also forming cooperative relationships that encourage our participation in groups like community foundations that support local social and educational projects, governing or non-profit organizations that link volunteers with civic needs, or sports teams that bring people together in new ways. This kind of participation helps individuals feel connected to something larger than themselves, making our social networks more place-based and helping people feel less isolated. I think we need “be local” initiatives that urge people to look to their own communities for what they need. In the book I talk about how communities used to provide their own entertainment by singing and playing music together. In our town, we have musical events, both formal and informal, every night of the week. We can stay home and download music from the internet or we can go out and support those efforts. Which of those builds a stronger, more connected community?

What do you see as the greatest challenge facing the CSA movement?

For all farmers, no matter what form their market takes, the changing climate is a major concern. Weather conditions have always been unpredictable in farming, but climate zones were fairly stable so we knew which types and varieties of plants would do well in our particular ecosystem. Today, things like the length of the growing season and temperatures during that season are less predictable. Add unusual and even catastrophic weather events and dwindling water supplies to all that, and the challenge to know what to grow and how to grow it becomes even greater. With climate change, farming becomes riskier but, even more frightening, our food supplies become even more unstable.

What’s in store for CSA?

CSA has reached the point where newer and older farmers have some differing concerns. For new farmers, farming has a pretty steep learning curve and reaching new members requires ingenuity. For those of us who helped create the CSA movement more than twenty years ago, our concerns also lie with the future: ensuring that our farms continue past our own lives, especially for those of us farming in the midst of development pressures.

The CSA model is a flexible one and is even being adapted for other realms like community-supported artwork. Each CSA has to find its own niche and as that happens, I hope more people will join a CSA and stick with it. We’re lucky that a large portion of our membership returns each year because we know that in this fast-paced, convenience-based society, incorporating fresh vegetables into their meals isn’t for everyone. The members who do return year after year know that CSA is not just about what the consumer gets, but about maintaining agricultural land and heritage. As CSA farmers age, the CSA movement will need to consider what traditional farmers have been facing for decades: how to keep a farm a farm.

Who were your role models, literary and otherwise, and how did they shape you as a person and a writer?

One of the assignments I gave my students when I taught coming-of-age in women’s literature was to write about a literary role model, so I’ve thought a lot about that myself. In terms of characters, the earliest role model I remember is Meg from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. I loved Meg because she was unflinchingly brave, even though she was full of doubts about her own abilities. She risked her life to save her father and her little brother and never questioned that choice. She was my first “girl adventurer” and opened my eyes to a new kind of protagonist.

Like Meg, other early literary role models didn’t let their gender cast them in secondary roles. Jo March in Louise May Alcott’s Little Women and Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s novel of the same name fought female conventions of their time by following their hearts and their intellects. They were “smart girls” who wouldn’t hide their brains behind feminine deportment. Jo also introduced me to the idea that women could make a living as a writer; she encouraged my creativity and love of words. All of these writers, too, inspired me as women who spent their time writing books, which always seemed like an ideal occupation.

It’s no wonder I taught women’s literature for twenty-some years at the University of Colorado. I had so many excellent books to choose from, I always had a hard time committing to just a few on my syllabus. I taught books by women from all around the globe with a diversity of cultures and experiences, but all featured strong female protagonists who fought for their right to be the girls and women they wanted to be.  In my own writing life, I’ve loved reading the diaries, memoirs, and essays of writers like May Sarton, Anais Nin, Toni Morrison, Natalie Goldberg, Linda Hogan, Alice Walker, and Virginia Woolf. I keep Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary next to my bed because her struggles as a writer continually inspire me. I love the fluid lines of Woolf’s writing. In a letter to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf once wrote, “Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that you can’t use the wrong words.” I think of Woolf when I’m crafting sentences and trying to get the rhythm right.

Women writers of the West like Teresa Jordan, Mary Clearman Blew, Molly Gloss, Terry Tempest Williams, and Gretel Ehrlich are also role models in their painting of the West’s possibilities for women. Finally, Louise Erdrich’s works inspire awe in my writerly self because of the deep sense of storytelling I find in all her works. No matter the characters or the plot, I’m always absorbed in her shimmering levels of narrative truth from beginning to end.

What do you hope readers will receive or learn from reading your book? 

In A Bushel’s Worth, I alternate between memories of my grandparents’ North Dakota farms and stories of our own farm, Stonebridge, today. Whether by viewing family farms of the past or small farms of the present, I’d like readers to see that farming is not inherently synonymous with industrial agriculture and its mechanization, chemical inputs, and export commodity profit motive. I’m an advocate for small-scale, organic agriculture because I believe that local foodsheds offer hope for the future of healthy eating and healthier environments. I’d love readers to be inspired to connect with farms like ours in whatever way they can—as growers, members, consumers, cooks, neighbors, volunteers, or advocates for the preservation of rural land. If each person has some relationship with a small-scale farm, the growth of the local food movement will be tremendous and, in turn, will influence the politics behind the way we grow, eat, and live.

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