Sarah Karlson | Madison, WI
I was a middle school and high school science teacher for a time in my life. I love teaching, but teaching in a classroom was not my happy place. I really wanted to be teaching in the natural world. I love plants and growing things, but I also love people and community. And I am very interested in the intersection of growing food and social justice. I’ve tried to follow my heart and I’ve been really fortunate to be able to do that. Sometimes I’ve had five jobs at a time to make it work financially. I’ve had a long and winding path, but 15 years into my career, I am finally in the right spot.
I came to Madison four years ago to work as the Farmer in Residence at Badger Rock Neighborhood Center. Essentially, my job is to manage the community gardens and I also run gardening programs with the local middle school. During the school year, I’m very connected with Badger Rock Middle School. We have about two acres of land and do a lot of garden-based education. I collaborate with teachers to help develop curriculum, and gardening and cooking is part of it. We garden and cook everyday and eat together at the end of each class.
I also do educational programming for our community gardeners. My first goal when I started at Badger Rock was to build community relationships to learn from the wisdom and expertise that already existed in our community. This neighborhood doesn’t have access to healthy food or fresh produce. So, we grow a lot. In an urban area you need to grow in a small space. I believe anybody can grow food and I teach how to maximize the space you have, for example, how to do container gardening. We have a very diverse community of people at Badger Rock and we grow a diverse range of plants. All the food that we grow goes to the community through weekly farm stands. What we grow is in part determined by what the middle school kids want to grow and in part by what people want to see at our farm stand.
What I love about Badger Rock is that this is a place where we really get to know each other as a community, like a family. All of our community gardeners know each other and the youth who work in the gardens are getting to know the adult gardeners. So there’s an educational connection with elders who are sharing from their experience how to grow and prepare food from their cultural traditions. The first year I launched the community garden we had 6 families, then 10 in the second year and 16 families for the third. This year in response to Covid we bumped it up to 45 families since we knew people were going to want space to grow their own food. When COVID hit, I wondered how we would continue to do education. I knew how to handle the garden and how to farm safely. But how would I educate our students, their families and the larger community? This I had to figure out
Food sovereignty takes it a step further in that it is more about community control of food systems. The community, determining what their food system looks like, supporting itself to grow food, supporting the people who grow the food, and making sure there is land access for people to grow their food.
The week after COVID shut us down I did my very first Facebook live. Since then I’ve been doing a Facebook live garden and a cooking-based workshop every week. Just like in normal times, I try to invite guests in from our community to lift up different cultural foods and different ways of growing food. I also provide one-on-one mentoring to our community gardeners since a lot of them are new to gardening. And this year for the first time, we’ve been able to offer a stipend to five of our community gardeners, to become mentors and organizers for future seasons.
Many of our youth are really depressed and lonely right now. The teenage years are a time when kids are supposed to be branching out from their families and getting out with each other and spreading their wings a little bit. So, having this outdoor farm space for our youth to come to is helpful during these times. We’ve partnered with Briarpatch, a youth support organization down the street. They usually have a paid summer internship for youth but they can’t do that now because of COVID. But they were able to funnel their resources to us and that has allowed us to employ seven youth at Badger Rock this year and they are helping us with everything garden and farm related.
COVID-19 has affected me personally. I have family members who have tested positive and have been going through the process of healing. I have a grandmother who is towards the end of her life. My mom has been making hard choices about when and how to go see her as she lives in the South. I would love to see her myself and support her, but I don’t feel like it’s smart for me to do so because in my job I interface with so many people. Plus my husband is a hospital chaplain, so an essential worker. My own kids are here at Badger Rock with me everyday and for now that works as they can be outside.
At a time when a lot of people are feeling lonely and isolated, coming to this place can be a sanctuary where people can connect with the natural world, reconnect with each other, and get an emotional boost. I think that’s really important. And I think that’s a really important part of farming in the city in general. I remember one woman I worked with in Oakland said to me, “Growing food is actually not my goal with my garden. My goal is to have a place that feels peaceful, where I can go to find peace.” Those words have always stuck with me.
Sarah’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s Covid-19 series. Through this series we are featuring shorter stories to offer a time capsule into life in Wisconsin during this extraordinary time.