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Perspectives June 2014: Tribute to My Dad, Urban Gardeners and Farmers

Sara Merz - Headshot--reduced

Sara Merz, AHA Director

Some of you know that my dad just passed.  In recent years, and especially these last months, I’ve had a growing appreciation for who he was, for his stories, for his role as an advocate, and his love for being on the farm. He was born in Chicago to immigrant parents, grew up in a tough neighborhood, later was a city planner and then a college professor who quit teaching, started driving a cab, and grew his hair long, insisting he was never a hippie. And then my parents moved to learn how to farm, in Otter Tail County, Minnesota.

Recently I learned that years before my dad became a farmer, he was the driving force behind my parents planting in a garden in their yard in Baltimore when they were young professionals. This prompted their neighbor to start growing tomatoes by the fence. My dad started gardens at the Fargo, N.D., houses we lived in too, and we ate some foods straight from the plants. That still gives me incredible pleasure, and I’ve realized that a) not everyone feels this way–picking raspberries off the bushes at my old house, one girlfriend thought we should take them inside to rinse them, and b) I’m so lucky to love fresh food – a gift of health from my parents.

Friends and neighbors often asked my dad for advice in issues around government, and he got things done, although that did not always win him friends! Once there was a bounty on his pony tail, a story he told with great pride. In response, he cut the hair off a cow’s tail, not entirely clean, put it in a shoebox and mailed it off to the man who put out the bounty. His taking on “the system” resulted in a case before the MN Supreme Court where his side not only prevailed but set a new precedent on Minnesota’s open meeting law.

We held a storytelling service the week after my dad passed. A daughter of the family whose farm we bought talked about how, when she was 18, she met my dad with his long hair and ponytail, and thought, “This guy’s going to farm?” She cracked up. But she came to respect and admire him.

My dad loved the farmers he learned from, and had them rolling with laughter as he described learning things the hard way. Norman, his best and most fun farmer/teacher, told a story of a brush fire where my dad’s tractor ran out of gas, right in the path of the fire. As my dad was running toward the tractor (and the fire) with a gas can, Norman called out to him, laughing, “Water, Joe! You put a fire out with water!”

Farming made my dad feel good. I think of Last Child in the Woods, the book that coined the phrase “nature deficit disorder,” and how brain research in the last 10 years shows that being in nature is good for us. My dad figured that out. He loved the land and the animals. He said we were from good peasant stock, and it made him happy to feel connected to the farmers who taught him to farm, and who laughed both at him and with him. He helped me buy my first calf. I named her Queenie, and gave all of her calves royal names as they were born.

We Are All Advocates

I guess my take-away from all this reflection about my dad is that we all impact our community and the people around us – and the personal impact means as much as the “professional” work we do. Sometimes we have no idea how we affect the people around us. Growing up, I saw my dad’s impact as an advocate – externally, community focused. Yet his sometimes-fierce protectiveness was motivated by love – for people and the land. It was more personal than I understood. And in recent months, I’ve come to see his personal impact on his friends and others. As many outcomes as he got, he also inspired his friends and neighbors with his willingness to say what he thought, and with his presence and attentiveness to them. It made people feel they had the power to speak their truth, and helped them to feel connected rather than isolated. My tough dad made a lot of people feel supported and cared for.

So as I remember my dad and share this with you, I thank the urban and rural farmers and the community gardeners of Wake County and beyond who grow healthy foods for us because working on the land, in the dirt, or with the animals, makes them feel good. And to AHA partners and friends, thank you for the work you do, and also for the presence and kindness you bring. We often have no idea what we mean to others. We inspire and support each other, in ways we may never realize. May we all continue advocating, and supporting each other, personally and professionally. Thanks, Dad, and thank you all.

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