by nicole bluh
The themes of the title of this article are shared by someone who greatly inspires our local food community in Atlanta. Really this advice is at the core of her response to these questions we have had for her and quite a few of the stories she takes the time to share with us.
Knowing the very serious need for more farmers, more ecologically guided farmers, those of us who work in this local food system, contemplating its history, working day in and day out to build and heal it, can be very challenging. Endurance and continuation are guided by these principles.
Mena has done what many of us aspire to. She has made the personal decision to get on land that her and her family can pass on, grow, and use what she grows to heal herself and community. She often says that one cannot really plan. It is God who has the plan. However, this does not negate the need to make the personal decision.
In a world where so much division and pain are wrapped into the deed of caring for the Earth and tending the Garden; Mena’s reminder of the dignity, persistence, patience, and beauty that are ultimately born of growing food and feeding those you love, stands. Her story is a guiding light. Mena’s Farm is the name of her family farm; she grows and brings produce to Grant Park on Sundays.
We are in the process of hosting an educational dinner to celebrate her that will be at the end of April. Please stay tuned (to Grow Where You Are, Chicomecoatl, and Community Farmers Markets) for official details. Meanwhile in effort to plant the seed for this dinner as a chance for you to support her work, service and mission she took the time to answer a handful of specific questions for this article with us. Please note that her first languages are Portuguese/Creole.
Why did you decide to farm inside the city?
“First of all because I like it, and it’s my land. I am very excited because it’s my land. I didn’t grow up in the city and I don’t really like the city. I do it because I need it. Outside of the city houses were expensive and I couldn’t afford one. At the time and it was hard to get a loan. At the time it was more affordable in the city instead of the suburbs. I sent a lot of offers for houses and it took a long time. There were no pictures of this house; I still sent the offer and the next day the bank responded. My friend who has a house in Lithonia, she told me not to buy it because of the street in is on. After 1-2 years the economy got even worse and she tried to sell her house in Lithonia. She had to keep it instead because the value had dropped. She would have had to pay the bank just to sell her house. If I had listened to her I would have no place to live.”
Have you noticed a change in your neighborhood since you began growing?
“I helped a neighbor plant a garden a couple years ago but she’s gone now. The neighbors are interested in the food. They are not interested in doing the work. The neighbors know what I am doing even though they have never seen what I am doing before. On my street it’s mainly renters and they are not as motivated. There is an empty lot where there is a church. Other lots are not being fixed up. Some of the owners of these lots are holding onto the houses until they can sell them at a higher price.”
You speak often about the importance of taking responsibility for our own health. How do you see growing as a vital part of that process?
“To grow your own food, it is something you cannot have words for how valuable it is. It’s so valuable. Especially when you are sick and you use your own food to heal you. That is life, this is the life.”
Who inspires you to continue this hard work?
“When I grew up I realized all of the work my parents did. When I came to the US I saw how well you can grow here. My parents inspire me. When I lived in Florida, I saw so much fruit and greens, my heart grew back again. I worked someone’s land and I started to look for land. Sometimes you don’t have a plan because we don’t have much. God has a plan. Like with this land here, when it came to my mind. When my father got so sick, I thought back to a long time ago and realized no one was sick then. My nephew told me about the effect of food. I started to research, and value natural food. I didn’t know the food here in US was crap. When you are an immigrant you don’t know anything about the other. I had no idea there was such thing as crap food. My sister used to tell us not to eat fried chicken, but didn’t explain why. Even she didn’t know how bad it was. She still hasn’t changed, she doesn’t want to worry about organic food. My other brothers and sisters are trying to change and eat more healthy. She teaches english, and she knows about nutrition but doesn’t use the knowledge. She’s gotten sick in the last year.”
You have shared some really powerful stories about your family and especially your Father. How are you continuing the work of your family and ancestors with your farm?
“I would like to teach my grandkids. I was talking to my oldest granddaughter last month and I said ‘Someday when I leave this world I need you to continue to take care of this place. I am going to teach you how you can take care of this land.’ She was quiet. I wish for them to be interested in this work for the generations. Time will tell you. My plan is teach them to be a good farmer like I learned from my parents. We don’t know about plans, the plan is God’s plan Our plans… before I leave this world. I will plant until then.”
What is your highest vision for urban farming and the food system in Atlanta?
“A lot of people they don’t know yet [about Urban Farming and about the Food System in Atlanta]. Especially in Atlanta, in a couple years, more people will be inspired.
[At this year’s (2018) Lady Locavores event, she received the Leadership Award]
Like this old lady did all of this work by herself. They were touched by my work and very inspired. Your story is very inspiring. To be a farmer you have to have a passion and love. It’s not easy to farm. Sometime you can go half way then quit. If you are inspired you will be motivated because it’s in your heart. It’s not because of money, its because you enjoy growth. Otherwise it would be too hard. I met some new farmers yesterday, they were inspired and passionate. If you are that, then nothing can stop you. We talked about how one of them was going to be working in a program to do fake shopping to get money and how much do they get paid? $64-80/ day. You know, she said I am not able to do this because it’s not a real job I want to farm. She had passion to farm.
A long time ago in Cape Verde [Where Mena is from] everyone was inspired to farm. Here in the US people value money and will just buy. The young people here don’t want to spend time and money to go to college then go to work in the farm. People thought about what it takes to live before. Now they think about how to make money. 3 years ago i heard in the news 90% of people have no idea where their food comes from. I have seen a large increase in interest. I hope I see more people and young people interested.”
After some of these questions we took some more time to talk. I still had more questions but the best stories always come naturally. Often when in her farm or one of ours she takes some time to really speak with us about life. Today over the phone in particular she emphasized the value of loving life.
To many of us in Atlanta you are seen as a role model of beauty and creativity. Do you have advice for this next generation?
“Learn from someone who is farming. Start farming now. Learn to love it. Your school is in the garden. “