Moretta Browne - Alum

July 06, 2020


What brought you to Center for Agroecology?

I got bachelor’s degree from Virginia Commonwealth University in creative advertising in 2011 but wasn’t feeling passionate about what I got my degree in. I realized that a lot of what I’d been excited about before college was around nature, to put it broadly, and specifically looking at diet and nutrition and that whole realm of work. So I started looking more into that and doing research around where our food comes from, just Googling and reading books to find out, what is a food desert? What does that mean? Do I live in one? I remember reading somewhere that someone said you don’t truly know where your food comes from or what it goes through unless you grow it yourself. And that was kind of my lightbulb moment, so to speak.

I volunteered with a nonprofit group called Renew Richmond which focused on growing food in what had been deemed a food desert in Richmond to redirect the food back into the community. A lot of folks were involved in the project, but the people heading it up were predominantly black and brown people and I was really excited to be involved in that. I was also working full time at a store and I realized that I wanted to know about farming as much as possible and that I wasn’t going to be able to do that working full-time at the store. So I started looking at places I could go to learn about farming. I had a friend from Santa Cruz and she told me about Center for Agroecology. I still remember her words to this day. She said, “You know, I’m pretty sure you’re on the side of the mountain, you’re growing food and you’re living in a tent.” And I was just like, “Sure, sign me up.” It sounded like the complete opposite of what I was doing at that time. So in September of 2015 I applied and in March 2016 I packed a suitcase full of stuff and flew out to California.

Do you have some favorite memories of your time at Center for Agroecology?

The first thing that came to mind, just recently, acknowledging all that’s happening in the world, specifically around police brutality and the black community and my community, and how we’re living in an age where, you know, we talk about the pandemic and how that’s disproportionately affecting indigenous people, black people, brown people, and so I think one of the most impactful moments on the farm was the Black Lives Matter Garden. It was a space where we all felt seen by each other, we all felt heard, held and cared for. A lot of things happened in 2016-2017 that were almost replicable of what’s happening now, and we’d gather in the Black Lives Matter space to talk about those things. I still think about this space because it really was something that I felt wholly connected to and I’m really happy that we were able to build that space for future farmers of color who come to the program and my only hope is that they are able to lean into the space as we did in 2016-2017 and feel safe in that space.

And then, it was to the credit of Edgar Xochitl (2016) and Clare Riesman (2016) that I was introduced to Queer Ecology. I remember just being completely floored by this concept, by this idea of a nonhierarchical collective living with nature. I believe Movement Generation called it a regenerative economy where not only are we taking care of each other but we’re taking care of nature and not being extractive of its resources, not being extractive of people, and then also acknowledging that however you show up, however you present or acknowledge yourself as a person, you can find a lot of that relationship to gender and sexuality and relationship already in nature and that felt so affirming and now the three of us have been sharing space for folks who want to learn more about Queer Ecology at different conferences and garden spaces around the Bay Area. It’s felt very rewarding because if folks could feel how I felt when I learned about Queer Ecology for the first time,that’s what I want. If I’m solely imparting that feeling into other people, my work here is done.

What are you doing now?

I now work at Berkeley Basket, founded by City Council Member Sophie Hahn and Willow Rosenthal of City Slicker Farms. Berkeley Basket came out of this home gardening legislation and it basically allows Berkeley residents to sell unprocessed food from their homes. And now we have cottage foods laws, so we can now sell processed foods out of the home as well. And so Councilmember Hahn and Willow Rosenthal basically created the Berkeley Basket as a way to show people how it’s possible to grow food in your backyard. It started out with one backyard, but each year it’s grown. Different farmers have taken the project over throughout the years. With the addition of two more backyard gardens over the last few years, we are lucky enough to be able to feed 21 families now which is up from 13 we had last year. We grow and forage about 40 crops each season, which is a lot coming out of just three backyards. Our season runs from mid March to the end of November. I’ve been grateful to co-lead this project because it’s just what I’ve been wanting to do.

How did your time at Center for Agroecology prepare you for what you’re doing now?

One of the biggest takeaways from my time at Center for Agroecology is taking what I’ve learned and adapting it to different situations. But it’s also looking at the resources Center for Agroecology gave us. To this day I still reference a lot of the materials that we received to help us run Berkeley Basket. Berkeley Basket is really community driven. Without folks donating their backyards or neighbors donating compost, Berkeley Basket wouldn’t exist. So it’s all about who do you know and how do they show up for you and how do you show up for them and I learned that at Center for Agroecology. And being able to still talk to Kellee and Christof and having that kind of mentorship still accessible even after leaving Center for Agroecology, it’s something that I don’t think I lean into enough and knowing that channel is still open for us is amazing and I want to honor and value that.

Do you have advice for people aspiring to farm or work in the food system?

Get to know your local farmers. Look at who’s around you and have those conversations. And look to those who are “farmer adjacent,” working for grassroots organizations who are centered on food and social justice, or if you want to get involved in environmental advocacy like climate change, who are the players in your area who could be a resource or mentor for you? I want to stress the importance of that and also acknowledge that a lot of the farm practices being taught are ancient practices and are things that are being done in a way that may be called a new name now but folks have been farming in your area for a really long time, so acknowledging that we’re on land that was stolen from someone and with that, a lot of agricultural practices, so doing the work of learning about those people and their practices is important. Even people who just want to grow carrots and don’t care so much about food justice, environmental advocacy, etc. I would gently ask those folks to educate themselves as well to give themselves a broader picture.