October 1, 2014 – The Brooklyn Grange’s Navy Yard farm is big — 65,000 square feet, to be exact — yet no matter your location on the expansive rooftop and in spite of the strong winds, you can’t escape the booming, Midwest-tinged voice of farm manager Matt Jefferson echoing across the rows of vegetables.
It’s a voice that sent Ministry of Health officials scurrying under their desks (no exaggeration) each time Jefferson, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, stormed into their office to demand promised deliveries of vaccines and medical equipment. Now it’s more likely to be heard scolding farm interns for bringing inorganic baby carrots to the daily potluck lunch.
Jefferson’s amicability shines through his no-nonsense exterior. On a Wednesday afternoon in July I watched him haggle with a Navy Yard employee over three large sunflower heads — grown at the Grange to attract bees, they’ve found a market among local sunflower seed aficionados.
“Ten bucks a head,” Jefferson told the customer matter-of-factly. Then, after a pause, “…Make it eight.” And finally: “What do you want to pay?” He smiles and laughs after the transaction. “He comes here every week,” he tells me, “and I’m not breaking the bank on sunflowers.”
In addition to managing the Navy Yard farm, Jefferson volunteers as Project Manager for RIF’s Urban Farm Recovery Project, continuing the agricultural education work he began in Botswana. From orientation on day one to graduation in October, he’s an anchor for the RIF participants on their journey through the program and beyond.
Tell me about your time in the Peace Corps — what was that like?
It was great. Prior to that my wife and I had been traveling to Africa every summer, to different regions and doing little projects for a few months here and there. We just fell in love with the continent itself, and we asked ourselves, “What’s the easiest and best way to come back and live here for more than a few months?” So we decided to do the Peace Corps, and at the end of the day it was really good; it was good for us to go and do that personally, and the work that we got involved with was really impactful on not only us, but I feel like we made a little bit of a difference in some people’s lives in the village that we were in.
I worked on prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. That was my primary job, and I worked with mostly ministry-level people. But the main thing was, my wife and I noticed after about six months that there were so many young girls under 25, under 30, just doing nothing — either they had a child at 20, or they weren’t in the 98th percentile in high school and so they had “no future,” you know? So when we saw that we thought that it should be our number one objective, to try to figure out something for them.
So we took it upon ourselves to start this women’s empowerment group. We were teaching life skills, and we started a little bit of a farm kind of thing that was mostly focused on poultry. We had well-known business people from the country come and talk to the women about entrepreneurial skills and what it takes to run a business, and we built chicken coops.
We wrote a grant, and I still don’t know how we got it to this day — no one in the Peace Corps has ever gotten a grant for $150,000 for a youth group, ever. I wrote this thing up on the fly with an NGO that was there, and I got a phone call that we got the equivalent of a hundred and fifty thousand U.S. dollars — about a million pula, which is the currency in Botswana. And people were like, what? You got that? I still will never know how that happened.
But in any case, we got the funding through this NGO that was doing women’s rights stuff, and that allowed us to build all these chicken coops, do a lot of educating, and then we got 17 of the women back into high school at a private school — transportation paid for, room and board, books, everything. That was huge, and I’m sure a few of them did well enough to go to university, I’m hoping. We created this camaraderie amongst these women to feel good about themselves again, and empower them to just do something with their lives rather than sit around the village.
So, it was cool, and we learned a lot about a new culture, and got submersed in village life. I still call the old lady that we lived with every couple of weeks because she’s like my third mom, you know? You really get to understand what it’s like to be a part of that kind of lifestyle.
What was it like coming back to the U.S. after the Peace Corps?
I think we’d been ready to come back for a little while. It’s always so funny that you’re gone for so long and then you feel like you never really left. But the really interesting part was 95% of people, they didn’t really care or want to know about the last two years of our lives; they were just happy we were back. I wanted to talk about it, but I didn’t really have any way to talk about it.
What really stood out to you when you first got back to New York?
Just the abundance of everything. You walk into a grocery store, and there are 40 kinds of detergent, or 40 kinds of whatever it is — 40 different brands. And it was just like, really? Just the “everything-ness” about America, you know? Really, we need all that?
Were you already involved with the Brooklyn Grange at that point when you got back? How did that start?
I had no idea what was happening as far as urban agriculture; zero. No clue. And in Botswana people were asking me what I was going to do back in the U.S., and I’d say “I’m going to farm on a rooftop.” That’s all I said. I did no research; I tried to not use the computer at all in Botswana. I wasn’t there to sit on a computer at an internet cafe. So I had no idea what was going on, no concept of what existed. I knew there were community gardens and probably a few farms around, but that was it.
When I got back I was slowly getting my mind back on a computer, and I found out about the Long Island City farm. And this was towards the end of October, so that season was almost wrapping up. I just went to see it and to get worms for my home composting bin. That was the sole reason — I’m going to go check this farm out and get some worms. And I’ll never forget, I walked up and I saw [Brooklyn Grange founder] Ben, and he was picking cherry tomatoes, and he wouldn’t stop picking them to talk. And he said, “Just pick with me.” So I chatted him up for 20 minutes, got some worms and went home. And I thought, “That was pretty sweet.”
But the season was ending, the farm was closing down in a month, so I started looking for other stuff. I was looking for public health jobs because that was my background. I was looking at places like the International Rescue Committee and Doctors Without Borders, those real big NGOs, thinking I could do programmatic stuff. And I applied for a couple of city jobs at health departments doing community outreach work because I felt like I would be good talking about different health topics. But the job market in 2011 was basically zero. There was nothing. It didn’t matter if you had a master’s degree, had just volunteered for two years, and you had every credential you needed; there was just no work. I went all winter with nothing. And then the spring was starting up, and Laura was teaching again, so we had income coming in, so I talked with my wife and I said, “I’m going to go apprentice.” This was before the Brooklyn Grange even had a training program.
2011 was the first year, right?
Yeah, pretty much. First real year, I would say. Ben had worked hard getting the farm up and running in 2010. And I said, “Laura, do you think we can do this if I don’t get paid for who knows how much longer? It could be another year.” The quick answer is, I did that, and trained at the Long Island City farm that whole summer, and it was just perfect timing for me because halfway through the season their construction on the Brooklyn Navy Yard farm was being finished. The window opened up for me to get hired on and just manage this farm; all the pieces fell into place. This was after a whole year of being back from the Peace Corps and working really hard to get to where I knew I wanted to be. The chips all fell into place and my lovely wife was a huge part of it, and it just worked out.
How did you get involved with RIF and the Urban Farm Recovery Project?
It kind of all fits in when I tell you the pieces came together. I thought the project was really cool, and it was important for me to get involved with something on that level. I’m not saying I’ve been an immigrant or a refugee by any means, but I know what it’s like to live in a place and not know anything for a little while, and I’ve always thought it’s important to do something on that level. I’m very fortunate in all the stuff that I have; I’m a very fortunate person, and I remember that every day. And it’s important for me to have that give-back mentality, whether it be with these folks, or my neighbor, or whomever. It drives me nuts in this city that people don’t talk to their neighbors. It drives me crazy.
But long story short, it was important for me to get involved with RIF after I met Maria because I thought the program could develop into something that was really impactful, and now it’s one of my favorite things that I do up here.
Ultimately the Urban Farm Recovery Project is designed to help these asylum seekers gain a better foothold, but at the end of the day, or the end of the season, it’s amazing how many other people are impacted equally as much. Your objective is these eight people, let’s say, but really two hundred people over here learn just as much because there is a certain amount of cross-cultural exchange that goes on. Last year it was amazing — there were participants who went out to parties or dinners with other folks from the farm. I think everybody one way or the other is affected by it and it has some kind of impact.
When I first saw Denise today I asked “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you since the last time I saw you?” And she goes, “I got my housing.” That’s just a huge moment in her life in this country. She’s been bouncing around shelters for what, a couple of years now? She just got her own studio somewhere in the Bronx, and I just goosebumped up because it was such a feel-good moment for her. Just little things like that; it’s really powerful on a lot of levels.
That’s great news.
Oh, man, it made my whole day. The last couple years of her life have been hell, you know? All it takes is a studio with a toaster oven.
And a place like this to come one or two days a week.
Yeah, and she can freely speak English now. Not simply because of the farm — I think the farm has helped her a lot, but she goes to classes and all this stuff. She would barely speak when she first came up here. It’s unreal. I love that. I love seeing the little transformations throughout the six, seven months that I get to see them, you know?
I feel like a lot of people are in the same shoes you were in when you came back from the Peace Corps. People who care about important issues, they’ve spent a lot of time volunteering, and they’re trying to enter a job market where there’s not a whole lot available and you kind of have to reconcile doing what you really love to do and doing what’s available for you to do. And you managed to eventually be able to do that, by luck or by perseverance, or a little of both, so what advice do you have for that sort of idealistic person who wants to find meaning in the work that they’re doing?
Man, that’s a tough one. My wife has been a huge factor in the person that I am today; she pretty much built me to where I’m at. And she’s my heart and soul; she taught me so much about compassion, and that’s kind of why I’m here, especially with the RIF folks. It’s a passionate thing that requires a lot of hard work and drive. If you want to do something, you can do it, and the RIF folks are the prime example; whatever situation they came from doesn’t get any worse than that, you know? And we’re here with the ability to do something about it.
At the end of the day, the opportunity is there. That’s what this country is founded on –opportunity — and that’s why people think they can come here and do anything, but it takes a lot of hard work to get there. I think about my father-in-law, who’s probably the hardest working person I’ve ever met. My mom raised me to be an awesome, decent person, and that doesn’t happen to everybody. So when I tell you that I’m fortunate to have a lot of things, it’s mostly the people that have helped me get here. My mother-in-law has been incredibly supportive and compassionate. My brother taught me to be a tough, bad dude, and at the end of the day if I need to be tough, I learned that from him. It’s all these things that you learn from other people as you grow and progress in life, you know? And I have all these important people that have done all these different things for me, and it’s up to me to do that back for other people.
If I can raise my son and daughter to be kind and hardworking, that’s good. If you can do those two things, you’re going to be fine at the end of the day. Like I said, I’m very fortunate. Ben and the rest of the Grange team, to take me on and trust me to run the operation up here, it’s been pretty sweet.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited. Content originally appeared at Growing Together.
All content copyright © Chris Barrett 2015 unless otherwise credited.