Important Work on Many Levels: Kelly Carlisle of Acta Non Verba Farm


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

(edited for clarity and length)

Kelly Carlisle


What do you do?

I am the founder and executive director of Acta Non Verba, Youth Urban Farm Project.

What is your role in the food system, as you see it?

Well, I teach young children to appreciate farming, healthy food, just being outside, healthy lifestyle, [things] like that.

Would you consider yourself a farmer?


What is a farmer in your own words?

Someone who grows food, for more than just themselves; they grow for the community or for markets. So it’s more than just for subsistence.

For sure. Do you come from a family of farmers?

No! No, definitely not. I tell the story about how my parents had a tomato garden when I was very young, like, 7 years old, and I thought they were the biggest freaks ever. Like, “Who does that?” (laughs)

How did you get started in the food system, or, farming?

Well, it was by accident. I had been laid off from my corporate job, and I was just really looking for something that my daughter and I could do together because nobody was hiring. It was during the economic downturn, around 2009. And I couldn’t find work, and I couldn’t afford daycare, so I was looking for something for the two of us to do together. And randomly I was walking to a nursery, and saw a lemon tree, and was floored by the idea that lemons grew on trees — which, people roll their eyes when I say that, but, like, intellectually I knew that lemons come from trees, but I had never seen it. And I had never done it. You know? I’d never actually produced a lemon. So, I bought those trees, and put it in a giant garbage can, filled it with soil, and it produced two more lemons, and it was amazing. So that was the beginning of everything.

What has your experience been like in the food system?

What has my experience been like in the food system? I don’t know how to answer that… In terms of growing, every season that I grow something[,] I am constantly awed by nature. In terms of running a nonprofit, it’s a challenge. But if you have supportive [people], and volunteers, that make[s] it nicer to do that.

What is one thing that you enjoy most about the work that you do?

Working with the kids and actually growing the food. The more I become the executive director, or, the more I learn about my role as an executive director, the less I’m able to actually farm or play with the kids, you know? Those are my two favorite things — playing with the kids on the farm and actually growing food.

Could you talk more about some of the challenges that you’ve faced in/with your experience in the food system?

Well, something is always a challenge — making sure that folks know about us, that they understand why we’re worthy of time and energy and funding. It’s one of the hardest things, having to be vetted so folks actually have heard of Acta Non Verba and have heard about the work that we’re doing and have met the kids and seen that it’s real. That’s also somewhat challenging. Outreach takes a lot of time, and the idea is to get folks to trust you, you know? So, that’s challenging.

Also, I didn’t come from a nonprofit background, so some of this is a learning curve, like, how to do storytelling and how to convey the work that we’re doing and why it’s important, as well as writing about it. And creating a budget — that’s like the hardest thing ever.

When I started, I didn’t even know what I was going to need. And I was just like, “I’ll do it! Whatever it is, I’ll do it. You want me to farm I’ll do it, you want me to run a camp, I’ll do it.”

Also, in the food justice world, in my experience, people — even like, people to collaborate with, organizations to collaborate with — need to have heard about you and believe in your mission. And so that was a big challenge in the beginning — trying to find partners that would take a chance on an unknown organization, and funders that would put money into an organization they weren’t sure was going to last, you know?

I’m wondering if you’ve faced any personal challenges regarding issues around gender, sexuality, and identity, or if you’ve ever felt uncomfortable, either in this job or in another job, drawing from your experiences before Acta Non Verba?

Well, most of the spaces I go to as a farmer are male-dominated. I have been at meetings where men have said, “you’re not a real farmer if you don’t own a tractor,” or… you know, all of those things.

But I think in term of sexuality, not so much. I think race plays a heavier part for me, being cisgender, and… you know what I’m saying? Like, that’s not one of my issues.

Like, some of my issues come from being an African American woman. I went to a very well-known conference two years ago where a man questioned whether or not I was college-educated when I was spoke about my farm. You know? (laughs) So, it’s shit like that. Class struggles, gender struggles, race struggles, and how all of that bleeds into just being in a space with other organic farmers, at another conference that was for mostly small conventional growers, a white man said to me that our mission was going to be a hard sell in our community because of my people’s history with agriculture in this country and “sharecropping: what a load of BS that was, right?” Like, you know. (laughs) That’s the kind of shit that I come up against. It makes it hard to want to go back to those spaces, like understanding that even though I am an organic farmer, and knowing that and identifying as that, people are still hung up on what they think they know about me being an urban Black woman.

It sounds like there is some insensitivity there, or…? I don’t want to put words into your mouth, but…

(both laugh)

Well, I mean, it’s certainly insensitive. But it’s also that institutional racism. Like, I attended a conference in LA, and I took a taxi from the airport to the hotel, and the driver was an immigrant from Africa. And he said “What do you do?”

I told him I was a farmer. And he’s like, “You don’t look like a farmer.”

“What does a farmer look like?”

He said, “Well, not so… female and not so… Black, and not so…”

(laughs) You know. “Like, what? Like short and fat and… what, what, what? (laughs) What else?” You know. These things have been ingrained because — I mean, and I think that this is also much more blatant, in my opinion — what a farmer look like is as blatant as what a veteran look like. You know, or what a thug looks like. These are the images that people grow up with, apparently even in other countries. You know? Like, “You’re from Africa, dude! (laughs) All the farmers you could identify are white?” That’s terrifying, right? (laughs) You know. It lets me know that what I am doing is important on many different levels.

Yeah, definitely. Actually this connects with something that I was going to mention at the end. Our graduate student instructor — her name’s Melina Packer — created a website called “This is What a Farmer Looks Like.”


It was looking at more specifically at gender and sexuality and identity. She’s leading this project, so it kind of focuses more on that, but one thing that she came up against, that was a humbling experience, was that she realized that most of the people that she was contacting, most of the people that she knows who farm, are white. And that was reflected on her website. So she’s hoping to increase visibility and diversity on that website. So, if you are interested in sending in pictures of you and/or your farm — it just sounds like, literally the same words, “this is what a farmer looks like.” So if you want, I can give you her contact information and stuff.

Yeah, that would be great.

Do you think there are many good resources in terms of queer and women’s empowerment in the food system?

I don’t think that there are many resources. Again, I’m speaking as an urban farmer. Last year I went to the Women and Farming and Agriculture Network conference in Iowa. And there are some programs for women doing farming in rural areas that I learned about. But being a woman farmer in the city is different. It has its own pot of funding. For example, because I am a nonprofit, and my income does not come from farming, according to one organization that gives out hundreds of thousands of dollars to farmers and research and what-not, they can’t fund me because none of my income is tied up in being a farmer. So by their and by the USDA’s standards, I am not a farmer even though the vast majority of my time is spent growing crops. I am still not a farmer. There are other programs that are acreage specific.

So, I’m sorry, I’m getting away from your actual questions.

I would say there may be some resources out there, but how accessible are they for all the types of women farmers? And how are they putting the word out, too? Like, if there are — other than federal grants, which are made public — if there are foundations and organizations that fund women farmers, then how would a woman farmer find out about them? Who are they talking to?

Yeah, that’s really helpful because these are the gaps, it sounds like, in the policy that need to be addressed. So it is great to hear from someone who’s actually in the field doing this stuff. So thank you for that. This is kind of related to that — do you know any organizations that support these sorts of projects that are empowering to queer people and women in the food system?

Not specifically, no. No. I would be hard pressed to rattle off a name. I think if I were to look for, specifically, foundations that fund queer women-led farms, I would do what everyone does, I would just put it in Google and see what comes back. You know? (laughs)

For sure… This is sort of a logistical question, but who are your customers?

We sell within the community, but we also have customers from East Oakland to North Berkeley.

What are your sources for inputs like seeds and so-forth?

We reach out to a lot of different places. Right now, Annie’s Annuals and Perennials is doing a wonderful job hooking us up with starts. We’ve got seeds from the Farmer Veteran Coalition. Kassenhoff Nursery in the springtime always loads us up with tons of tomatoes and squash starts. Let’s see… Yeah, I think those are our main donors of plants and seeds. The Living Seed Company has donated to us before.

You’ve talked a bit about not looking like a farmer because you’re a woman, and being told various sexist comments. Do you have any more stories or any more examples of ways that being a woman farmer, working in the food system, [has led to] other challenges that you [have] faced?

I know that I probably have quite a few stories, but right now I can’t grab one out of my head. Usually though, this shit goes down when I’m at a conference. Most of the people here in my sustainable food system that work here, see what I do, understand what it is that we’re trying to accomplish, and are more than willing to help. Like, the Oakland Food Policy Council or the Hope Collaborative — these are two women-led organizations that do amazing work around policy and implementation and like, really practical, big, systems-change work that I totally admire. This is also an interesting place to do this kind of work, right? Because we do have so many women-led organizations, and we are in the ultra-liberal Bay Area. Maybe if I were to go to a Southern farming conference, the conversation would be different.

What kind of practical systems approach solutions have you seen?

Well, Hope Collaborative is working on a healthy corner store initiative where they are inputting fresh produce, healthy sandwiches and snacks, into what’s traditionally a liquor store to make that more accessible to folks. So that’s cool. And then OFPC, Oakland Food Policy Council, has put out like a whole guide on how to do urban agriculture legally in Oakland, how to make it a business, how to make money from it. I think those are two very awesome, practical things that organizations are working on.

What are your hopes for the future, in terms of food and agriculture…?

I hope to get more land someday. I hope to be able to expand our production. I hope to be able to continue to do the work for many years to come. I hope that we are an asset to our community — and that kids might come to us and learn something.