Square Roots • Sarah Ann Horton
For the last century, the developed world has lived in its own lala land where fossil fuels are cheap and infinite, where factory farming is safe, and climate change is a "theory." We still light our homes with incandescent lightbulbs, and drive cars powered by combustion engines. Nowhere is this stagnation more dangerous than the agricultural industry. Fencepost-to-fencepost doesn't work in a world of floods, droughts, and fire tornados.
The good news? Visionaries like Sara Ann Horton, farm manager at Square Roots, aren't content to wait around and hope for change. Since its inception, Square Roots has focused on dynamic, technology-driven urban growing, and its potential to build community, create robust local food systems, and confront the challenges we face - and will face - to grow enough food in a chaotic and unpredictable environment.
What’s the story behind where you are today?
My farming career was definitely not linear. I grew up on a farm but my family weren't farmers. I started farming professionally about 7 years ago on an organic farm near my hometown. In that time, it wasn't nearly as easy for a young person to learn how to farm so I traveled throughout the Southeast whenever I had time off from college just finding different people to work for. Eventually farming started to pop up in Atlanta and I got into urban farming. I volunteered a lot, mostly because there weren't jobs yet as it was so new to the city, just hoping to learn more. Eventually I got a job as an assistant manager at a lettuce farm focused on job training in the parking lot of an old general motors factory using a mix of soil and hydroponics. This is when I finally got to apply my years of accumulated knowledge. I eventually ran the company before moving to Brooklyn. By the time I moved, I was ready for a new challenge and started with Square Roots in January. I'm not actively farming as much as I'm supporting others while they learn to farm. But I'm also in the role where I'm helping define what Square Roots is so I'm always asking, "How did I get here? What tools helped me succeed?" Farming is an incredibly hard thing to learn, even harder as a career, and I'm lucky that my experience has been full of kind people willing to help me. I really try to perpetuate that professionally.
What’s your Why?
Farming started as the only thing in my life that made sense. It was truly a selfish pursuit initially because it was what I loved to do more than anything else. I never had an end goal and I still honestly don't. I just keep asking myself if I'm adding something of value to the industry and check in with myself to make sure it feels right to me. I'm not actively farming right now, which is a challenge within itself; but I'm raising the next generation of farmers, which holds equal importance to me. Learning how to build a business that follows its mission while creating an environment for people to thrive has been my personal challenge the last few years.
What’s on the list for today? What’s next?
Well today, is Monday so it's a harvest day. Monday is always a harvest day. But we're also ramping up for season 3. Square Roots has a program where we teach people how to farm and run a business over the course of a year. The program manager and I also started a 6 month apprentice program this year that focuses on job readiness. The company is less than 2 years old so we're still really deciding what we are and how to prepare people best for a career in farming. That's been my priority. One of the best ways to teach people to farm is by being a good example. Make sure tasks are reasonable, respect peoples time, create spaces and systems that are functional and user friendly. Beyond that, there's a whole set of values in farming, particularly the idea of being a steward to the land. How do you instill values in young farmers? How can you be a steward when you grow in a shipping container? These are questions I face daily and hope to implement in the coming season.
Beyond that, I am not sure what I hope so next. I spent for many years asking myself "What do I need to learn next?". I still had that mindset when I got to Brooklyn but I made a very actively decision to stop asking myself that question. Instead, I just decided to be open. New York City has a rich agricultural history that I am new to. I've just been trying to get the lay of the land and meet other farmers, both in soil and hydroponics. I want farming to grow as a community and an industry and having a thriving network of farmers is really important to the perpetuating that so I'm just trying to get to know my neighbors. I'm sure I'll have an answer one day to what's next, but right now I'm just trying to be present.
What’s one thing that you’d like people to know?
Something I've been thinking a lot about is the value of a farmer. Yes we understand they grow food and we all eat food but how are farmers truly quantified? In a capitalist system, you have to have a trained labor force for anything to be a primary circuit in the economy. How are we training these farmers? Secondarily, for any labor force to grow there has to be incentive. And while passion is the main driver of new farmers, passion does not pay your bills. The truth is, farming as a career is unsustainable to people who participate. We don't have healthcare, benefits, retirement, or even fair wages most of the time. You often sacrifice your health to provide sustenance for others. Working over 60+ hours a week is the normal and then where is your time for personhood? For unwinding, hobbies, or relationship building? Beyond that, there's general amenities unavailable in a farm environment. Things like restrooms, meals, and even someone to report sexual harassment to. These challenges are not exclusive to either soil or hydroponics but I would say they're more prominent in soil farming.
In summary, farmers are not culturally or economically valued. We have designed food to be cheap and that has affected people's ability to thrive in the industry. Going to your local farmer's market is great but it's only moving the dial so much. It still takes 5+ years of minimum wage farming to even begin to feel qualified to run your own farm. And the risk of burnout is extremely high. This has to change. I don't have an answer but I think anyone interested in farming should be aware of this. Ask your local farmer about their challenges. Dig beyond the complaints about late blight coming early, aphids they can't get rid of, and the tractor breaking at the most inconvenient time. Ask them if they've had a night off, spent time with loved ones, or gone on vacation. Ask them if there's space in their life for more than farming.