The Spirit in Our Food

Interview with Jayme Oates, Founder of Farmscape Solutions

by Katharyn Privett-Duren

Farmscape Solutions is a 501(3)c nonprofit organization in the state of Alabama. Its founder, Jayme Oates, works with the local university, the extension office, and local farmers to provide counsel and connections for her community. My own friendship with Jayme was seeded at my home, Little Halawakee Farm, years ago when she brought multiple women farmers together for tea and farm talk. Since then, she has advised me on everything from generating income from our tiny farm to preparing for the agony of cutting down an old oak. I asked her to sit down with me, and over the crow of roosters and Owen’s (he son) welcome interruptions (home-drawn superheroes need acknowledgment), I learned more about my dear friend.

The following is an excerpt of that interview.

Kathryn Privett-Duren: So, how did Farmscape Solutions come into being?

Jayme Oates: [Laughing] Well, that took thirty-five years of life experience. I’ve always been connected to gardening. My dad had a garden growing up, so I always had trees to climb and there was a lot of biodiversity there. We didn’t have social media, computers, or cell phones. So, I spent a lot of time outside with my animals. It created a love in me for biology and natural sciences, chemistry and those sorts of things. That being said, I’ve never really liked working for people, so I knew I had to do something that I could lead on.

I came to Auburn, Alabama and eventually graduated with degrees in Biology and Chemistry and later received a scholarship to earn my graduate degree in Horticulture. Afterward, I worked with the university’s associated programs as opposed to getting a job as an instructor. Again, I didn’t like the nine-to-five aspect of the latter. You know, working with soft money, you have to meet your own milestones and objectives. And I can do that, just don’t ask me to punch a time clock. [Laughter] Specifically, I worked with Alabama Water Watch and its subsidiary Global Water Watch, which led me to work with citizen scientists–and that was just an eye-opener for me. For so long, it had seemed to me that there was a dichotomy between science and spirituality, but when you work with citizen scientists, you have to be willing to meet them where they’re at: culturally, mentally, physically, financially—all of those things.

These regular folks learn to connect to their own environment, using science. We would train people to go out to their local creek where they swim, fish, where their children play, and test it for its chemistry and bacteria. We did biological assessments to tell what the quality of the water was, and you have to make that useful. You need good data, but it [the plan of action] also has to be doable. I was a conduit, really, to teach people to become more connected with their environment using science.

KPD: That’s empowering! It sounds like that was the foundation for what you do today.

JO: Oh, it’s huge.

KPD: What you do at Farmscape? It’s just a wonderful effort. It all sounds very supportive of the farmer but also the land and the community. It’s as if it is a total organic thing.

JO
: Well, it is. You speak of this organic entity, but I like the word “holon.” It’s this concept of cells, organs–one holon of all those things. Everything on a farm is that–the land, the animals, the plants and the living water, the processes . . . it’s an organic whole that is living and breathing and even sentient. I think a lot of farmers know that, and I think a lot of consumers believe it, but what I want to do is make that connection between the consumers and other skilled folks in the community and the farmer. There needs to be space for personal relationships between these holons within the community.

For example, you see this person in the grocery store, and they say, “Why should I pay a dollar for this pepper?” In this relationship of farmer to consumer, they say, “I know what went into it.” Suddenly, that pepper has more worth. Those holons created connections between them that speak to the work, the value, the natural fellowship between farmers and their communities.

KPD: I’m envisioning while you are talking a “town hall” of sorts.

JO: Yes! It’s bringing civics into the farming realm. What we have seen in the US is this overlay of money and economics and political power. How do we communicate across cultures to balance that trade without disturbing the culture of the landscape, the waterscape, the food sheds, all of it? We need to shape our civics to preserve that, or more–to create that.

KPD: Since a lot of the readers are “farmer-ish,” why is the backyard or small farm still important to any agricultural movement?

JO: You know, because of the pandemic, everything’s a double-edged sword because of what we went through. Something I’ve noticed is that a lot of people who would have never tried to grow anything were at least trying to grow some food, even if it was just one plant on a patio at their apartment. But because of the isolation, and because the supply chain started to get kind of slow, people thought, “Maybe I’ll grow a tomato plant, and then I’ll be sure to have that tomato sandwich come the first of July.”

It’s like a gateway drug [laughter] because people are like, “Well, if I grow this one tomato plant, why don’t I grow herbs and such and I can make my own spaghetti?” And then, suddenly, people begin connecting with actual food quality and they want to eat better food. When people want something like that, they do it. They make it happen.

KPD: Does that mean that they might go to more CSAs? Try out more farms?

JO: Support restaurants that publicize that they buy local? Yes. It’s an ideology. It’s a movement, and it is happening. So, what are the next steps to make that movement more of a daily way of life? That’s what I’d like to see. It’s not a flash in the pan, but it’s a race against time right now—quite honestly. Because if we don’t change the way our food is produced, our planet is going to get so hot, we’re going to be dead. That’s the bottom line. Producing your own food on your own little piece of land is food security. That’s the way it should be. You know, the whole Andes forest was a manicured food forest until Europeans started coming in and raping it.

KPD: They [indigenous people] were just doing it in balance with everything . . .
JO: Same as the Choctaw and the Chickasaw and the Cherokee and Creek and the Iroquois–they were in balance. You could walk down into the woods from the time you were a toddler until adulthood and you were watching the seedlings grow. Imagine doing that for thousands of years. That’s the kind of connection we all deserve with the landscape . . . there’s no spirit in the food that we eat anymore. We are disconnected from that landscape and death creates death. The only way you can get anything living is to use life. That goes with soil health, procreation of any organism—you’re not going to get life from death.

KPD: So . . . grow something?

JO: Yeah, but we are. We’re all growing something, always. It’s just a question of our choice. What do we want to grow? Do we want to grow selfishness? Or grow this monetary wealth, so that my family will want for nothing—yet they will want for everything? And that’s because of the lack of connection to our land, our food, our community. Those are the things we have to get back to, not filling this void with materialistic things to escape.

KPD: Then, with Farmscape Solutions, that’s what you are trying to do? Would you call yourself a liaison between farms and market toward that end?

JO: You know, when we started this, the university kept asking “what’s your title?” Well, we give technical assistance. But honestly, what it comes down to is that we offer counsel.

We do walk-abouts on the farm, the gardens, the greenhouses, the grow rooms, whatever it may be. And we talk with the farmer and get an idea of what they want to do, what they are doing, and what the land can actually do right now or in the future. It usually equates to some value . . . it may be monetary, it may be bounty, it depends on the farm. It might be anything from taking a soil test, to figuring out the best crop for the land, to connecting the farmer to another individual that can provide a skill set.

From here, we hope to help create security, sustainability. Often, these aren’t one shot deals. I meet a farmer and we’re friends for life, so often its hugs. Empathizing. Struggling with them. Dusting off our knees and figuring out what’s next. Because farmers are people, and to me: farmers are family. I don’t like to think of us as an organization. I like to think of us as an idea, generating and brainstorming together. The essence of all of that is food: and it’s not just food, not just produce, it’s a meal.

KPD: Sustenance . . .

JO: Nourishment, because we are not just trying to survive. We’re trying to evolve and thrive.

KPD: So, what’s next for Farmscape Solutions?

JO: We want to create something I’ve been calling up until now a “Farmscape Market,” but the idea is that people would have access from rural communities–as well as folks that are not able to leave their houses.

It’s a full-time job to feed a family out of a garden, period. So, we want to create a location, and source the building, to have a commercial kitchen. We would purchase produce from the farmers and then offer it through our store either as fresh or preserved produce–or even as a ready-made meal. We have lots of ideas, such as getting signature recipes from the local chefs and include them in our commercial kitchen that can also work as promotions for their restaurant, while allowing the community to enjoy real food. We want to connect the consumers, the farmers, and everyone else through that chain. We envision having meetings that talk about fair pricing and value . . .

In essence, we want to create a food system that is vertically created within the community to use 100% locally-sourced produce, meats, and dairy products to offer back to that community.

KPD: I want in, by the way.

Last question: I know that your days are spent counseling and putting your hands in farm soil, connecting folks with skill sets and offering solutions, yet you are too busy right now to grow a garden. You know how the title of this wonderful journal came to be—so, I guess that you are also “farmer-ish?”

JO: [Laughing] Yeah, I guess I am.

As our talk went long, some beautiful moments had to be cut from this interview with Jayme. Her story about Bill Deutsch, how water is life, and how a shaman confirmed a scientific test in the Philippines was one of those moments. The following is pertinent to any farmer (or human being for that matter) who understands the critical nature of our connection to this powerful life source.



Interviewer’s note: Owen likes bugs, growing carrots, and strawberries. He rides along with his mom to visit farms on a regular basis and draws one tough-looking, colorful superhero.

To learn more about Farmscape Solutions, visit farmscapesolutions.com.

header photo credit: Aaron Cloward, Unsplash