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My Farm Roots: In Hip Brooklyn, Connecting With Farm Past

Abbie Fentress Swanson
Harvest Public Media

Johnson’s farm roots are in Moundville, Mo., a 124-person town near the Missouri-Kansas border.

Monica Johnson, 36, watered edible yellow kale flowers on a recent sunny morning at a rooftop garden in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, N.Y. Standing in front of the Manhattan skyline in her sleeveless top, shades and blond ponytail pulled back in a trucker cap, she looked part-farm girl and part-hipster.

“It’s always been interesting to me that I can be up here in the morning completely covered in dirt and then out at a fancy restaurant and cute dress at night,” she said. “And I think that maybe a lot of people have those two sides to themselves and they only think that they can embrace one.”

Luckily Johnson doesn’t have that problem.

“Yes, I live in the city. But I'm from Missouri,” she said. “I’m proud of it and I’ll break into my southern accent if I need to. I definitely -- when I need to say that I have farm roots -- I do."

Johnson’s farm roots are in Moundville, Mo., a 124-person town near the Missouri-Kansas border. Although she grew up in Missouri’s capitol, Jefferson City, her father Sherril was raised on the family farm, which consisted of a small herd of cattle, 600 acres of soybeans, wheat and corn and 200 acres of timber. The farm is no longer in the family; it was sold in the 1990s because it was no longer profitable. Johnson didn’t think much about it at the time but now thinks losing the farm is incredibly sad.

“I grew up going to the farm a lot – especially in the summers,” Johnson said. “I loved it. I learned what Angus cattle were and why they were for beef and what Holstein cattle were and why they were for milk.”

Though this slice of rural life couldn’t be farther from the record stores, coffee shops and Polish bakeries that make up this part of Brooklyn, Johnson’s farm roots are thriving. Besides helping to maintain Eagle Street Rooftop Farm, she’s also sold produce at the farmers market for upstate New York farms, written articles on raw milk and genetically-engineered salmon for the online journal Food Politic and even got a degree that focused on Food Studies at The New School. One of the subjects Johnson studied in school was the wide gulf between rural and urban areas.

“There’s a disconnect between cities and the country, and I think, too, that that can be a personal thing,” Johnson said. “It’s been really awesome to be able to make that connection with myself personally and to kind of connect back to my farm roots and to see where I come from and to maybe get to know my family a little bit better.”

To that end, Johnson is making a documentary about the Moundville farm. Doing research for the film has also had a side benefit: getting to know her father's family better. She learned, for example, that her dad went to the same one-room Hackberry School where her grandparents first met during a social. At one point in the farm's history, her grandfather kept peacocks before the coyotes got them. Johnson also discovered that most of her family is buried in Welborn Cemetery, a 15-minute walk from where the farm was.

“My dad’s going to be buried there. And I always remember this growing up: my grandmother -- her father Granddad Franks, his stone is there. And as long as I can remember she would take two Mason jars, one of wheat and one of maybe corn, and place it on each side of his head grave. So that’s a lot of memories there,” Johnson said. “We are in the land, literally.”

Although Johnson is proud of her farm roots, she said any Brooklynite could get connected to agriculture by simply volunteering to work at an urban garden.

"You don't have to come from Missouri and from generations of farmers," she said. "But I do think there is something that we can all tap into from our past.”

Editor's Note: This is the second installment of My Farm Roots, Harvest Public Media’s series chronicling Americans’ connection to the land. Click here to explore more My Farm Roots stories and to share your own.

Abbie Fentress Swanson left KBIA at the end of 2013.
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