Harvesting Community at Local Midwest Farmers Markets
During this time of harvest and seasonal change, there are telltale signs of the coming winter—the chill in the morning air, neighborhood leaf pick-ups, and local winter farmers markets. Before joining the Midwest Region of AFT, my journey to regenerative agriculture started with my family’s love and passion for cooking. This led me to manage our local farmers market and become a part of a community. Wrapping up my first year with AFT, I’ve realized the full scope of our work has been shaping a future where wholesome, locally grown food can become accessible and the norm, a future I’m aligned with from my core.
Born to a young Peruvian immigrant on a work visa in the US, joined shortly after by my mom’s family, including my Abuelo (grandpa), Alfredo, or ‘Aby’ as he would be named by his newest grandson who didn’t speak Spanish. Aby was the chef in our family, managing large corporate cafeterias in our home country, he would open several restaurants in Newark, New Jersey, that supported bringing more of our community from Peru. My childhood was spent with that community in restaurant prep kitchens, back storage rooms converted to daycares for me and the ‘primos’ (cousins and children of close family friends), and my favorite, the East Coast commercial wholesale markets. With the restaurant as the lifeblood of our tight community and the market directly supporting that effort, a deep impression was made on me; it felt like nourishing the community was my family’s legacy. During this time, Aby was diagnosed with and passed away from cancer. With the patriarch and lynchpin of the family gone, my mom and stepdad decided to move to central Illinois to reconnect with my stepdad’s family and open our Peruvian restaurant.
Moving to the middle of the country, away from the only people I’d known, was a culture shock. Another stark change I didn’t appreciate until I was older was the supply chain for the fresh ingredients that made our food authentic and delicious. We had taken for granted the coastal imports and variety provided in the multicultural hub of the northeast. Cafe Peru, our restaurant in Pekin, Illinois, would open and close within three years. This time was tough and would create a wound in our family as my parents would struggle but eventually find other careers, both landing in sectors far removed from our roots in food.
A few decades later, I was leaving a lucrative career in mobile wireless sales, burnt out in Springfield, Illinois. Luckily, I would discover and feel drawn to the Midwest farmers market, Old Capitol Farmers Market, remembering the times spent with Aby at the wholesale markets and my visits to Peru with the fresh open-air markets. I felt that deep connection with food rekindle as I walked through the market, browsing the produce and sensing the deep community of passionate farmers and those who support their efforts; it was a familiar feeling.
I wanted to continue my family’s legacy and carry on our passion for nourishing communities, so I got back in the kitchen, learning how to bake croissants that would be sold at the market. Soon, my network grew as I joined the ranks of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance as the Communications Coordinator, helping shape policy that would support regenerative agriculture and expand local food systems. Led by my love of food and training in photography, I began to find a community to which I could belong to. These connections would lead to me becoming the Farmers Market Manager for the Old Capitol Farmers Market for two seasons.
While running the market, I became more aware of the work of the American Farmland Trust. The market participated every year in the Americas Farmers Market Celebration, a large national program led by AFT to highlight farmers markets across the country. Voting every year for the top markets in the country I would see the full map of hundreds of markets and felt connected with them, I felt part of a movement, a community much larger than myself. To support our farmers and help them expand, I learned about different grant programs like the Brighter Future Fund which was helping farmers scale and uplift their communities into robust regional food systems. Then, the opportunity to join the AFT ‘farm-ly’ presented itself, and I took the chance and joined as the Midwest Region’s Communications Manager. Since then, I’ve become more exposed to the full breadth of work AFT has been doing to not just keep farmers on the land feeding their communities but also to protect that farmland and ensure the best regenerative practices become the ‘New Conventional Agriculture’ to preserve our soil and water into the future.
Returning to my winter Midwest farmers market this year, I found a new appreciation for the community that gets built around local food, communities American Farmland Trust is helping grow, become more resilient, and inclusive for all those looking for their people. As a final punctuation from the universe, I ran into a former market customer turned vendor. We recognized each other and celebrated the new chapter they were starting and the community they were joining.