A Change in Food Focus: Laura Otolski

When I first met with Gail Taylor of Three Part Harmony Farm in Washington, D.C., to interview her for Grounded Women, she felt strongly that I interview members of her crew as well because of the collective nature of the farm. “This farm isn’t just about me,” she said, which is something I came to deeply appreciate about the special space Gail has created.

Gail hires three part-time crew members who work from March through November. Laura Otolski was one member of the all-female crew for the 2016 season. “We’re all very different from each other,” Laura said. “I’m old enough to be the mother of the other two. We all have very different backgrounds and things going on in our lives. There’s a really nice element of diversity going on here, and we all enjoy each other a lot.”

Farmers Laura Otolski and Gail Taylor make funny faces during their lunch break from farm workIt would be hard not to enjoy time spent with Laura. She’s a great conversationalist and a thoughtful person with an easy laugh—”an introvert pretending to be an extrovert,” Laura laughs. It was enjoyable, too, to spend a little time with someone closer to the beginning of her farm journey, a “farmer in training” as Laura describes herself.

From dietician to farmer

Before farm work, Laura had worked as a registered dietician in D.C. for 12 years, primarily for the nonprofit Food and Friends. She managed their nutrition services department and worked with people with HIV-AIDS, cancer and other life-challenging illnesses. As she worked with her clients, it became clear to her that most people had a good understanding of what was healthy to eat, but in so many cases affordability and access kept them from eating well. “If you don’t have the money to buy the food, or you can’t get to it because of geography or financial hindrances—well…

“I finally realized,” Laura continued, “that through all my graduate school work to become a dietician, they never taught us anything about how food is grown. I felt like there was a gap in my education. I needed to shift my focus around food, and I decided I wanted to grow food for people who couldn’t afford or don’t have access to healthy produce.”

While she was thinking about making some kind of change, she  WWOOFed  at a market garden on Prince Edward Island. She loved the experience. Deciding to leave her job in 2011, she enrolled in a year-long internship at The Pfeiffer Center, an educational farm in New York that teaches biodynamic farming through the seasons. It was an immersive program that taught her the basics.

Farmer-in-training Laura Otolski tends a bed at Three Part Harmony Farm in Washington, DC

“At that point I hadn’t committed to the idea that I personally wanted to be a farmer. I wanted to learn more about farming so I could incorporate it into my dietetic work. I didn’t come out of that program saying ‘I want to have a farm of my own.’ It took me a couple more years to really admit to myself that that’s actually what I want to do.

“At the end of the internship, I came back to D.C. because my support system was here. I needed a place to stay while I looked for an apartment and a job. I did take a couple of positions as a dietician, and I just found I didn’t want to do that work anymore. I was back inside in an office, and I didn’t like it. After so many years in that profession, I just wasn’t feeling the draw anymore.”

She continued her education by interning with various farms in D.C. It wasn’t until July of 2015, nearly five years after leaving Food and Friends, that she asked herself: “Why are you still picking out these farm-related or gardening-related things to do? What’s your end game with this? I realized that I’d really like to have a little farm of my own. I actually had to have that talk with myself and say ‘Yes, this is really what you want to do. Stop acting like it isn’t!’ I finally woke up one morning and said, ‘Okay, you’ve got to make a choice here. You can’t keep shadowing farmers and not making decisions about your own life.’”

Farmer-in-training tends to seedlings on Three Part Harmony Farm in Washington, DC

During her year’s internship she felt like she was just beginning to scratch the surface. “I felt I needed at least another year. I’m not implying that after two years you are a farmer and are ready to go, but I just knew I needed another full season somewhere. I really want my own urban farm, and I wanted to get experience working on a farm I could model my own after. So I wanted to work with Gail Taylor.” She started volunteering at the farm in August and got hired in February of 2016. The day Gail hired her, she sat under the oak trees enjoying the stillness and thought, “This is it! I’m finally going to get paid for my farm work.”

Back on track

I asked Laura about the pull of working as a farmer. “I don’t want to knock dietetics as a profession, but there are things about it that made me feel like I couldn’t always give people what they really needed. There’s just something about growing food that feels very honest. That’s part of what has kept me going with it. The other part is just being outdoors. I’ve liked being outdoors since I was a child. If I had it to do over again, I would have taken a different route that allowed me to spend more time outdoors. I lost some of my understanding of how important that was to me when I was a teenager. There’s that shift when girls are maybe 12 or 13 when we start letting go of things we liked as a child. I feel like it took me till my 40s to realize that I really love being outside and communing with nature. So it was getting back to a part of me that I had ignored. You know, what you do to be successful in the world–you grow up, you go to college, you get a job in an office. There wasn’t room in that idea for ‘you could work outside somewhere!’”

A farm of one’s own

Laura plans a big move to Chicago to be near family and be an active aunt in her not-quite-year-old nephew’s life. Being a city dweller and interested in issues of food access, she wants to have an urban farm. She’s been told that there are so many abandoned lots in Chicago and they are easy to acquire for farming. “There’s a lot of support for urban agriculture in Chicago, helping people get trained and acquire land. I plan to apply to one of those programs to get myself integrated into the community. That’s one of the things I’ve found really encouraging—the network of support for new organic farmers. I’m excited to farm in the Illinois-Wisconsin area because there’s a very strong network of women farmers in southern Wisconsin that I can learn from.

“I definitely feel like I’m on this journey. I feel like I’m being drawn along; I mean, I have an idea of where it’s going, but I also like to remain flexible so that I’m open to other possibilities of how I might make this happen.”

Farmer-in-training Laura Otolski works in the vegetable beds on Three Part Harmony Farm in Washington, DC

“Recently I’ve been schooled a bit on the reality of being a white person coming into a neighborhood of color and putting down a farm. That’s part of why I wanted to work with Gail, since she’s a woman of color with an urban farm. We’ve talked about my plans and I’ve read other people’s comments on this, and I’m now paying more attention to the negative aspects of coming into a neighborhood and starting a farm. I’ve shifted my thinking. If I don’t actually live in the neighborhood where I’d be thinking of putting down a farm, I don’t think now that I’d do it.” I’m trying to be much more thoughtful about how I would integrate myself into a community if I were to have a farm where I would not be the dominant ethnic group or race—if I were someone who would appear more like an outsider.

“I now think that to come in to start a farm and then try to involve the community—that’s just completely the wrong way to go about doing it. Three years ago I would have thought that was great, but now I realize that that’s just not well thought out. You need community buy-in, you need to talk with people and find out what they are looking for. You can’t just assume that you know what the neighborhood needs. Maybe a farm is not what’s needed, and making that assumption is being shortsighted.”

At this point, Laura is mulling over the best way to proceed. She’s thinking it would be best to live in the Chicago area for a while before making any plans for a farm.

Teaching vs. growing

Having worked as both a food educator and a grower, “there’s something to me about getting the food out there that seems more impactful. Education is important, but I feel like the education is available. We need to break down more barriers to access and affordability. That’s where a lot of the work needs to happen, more so than the education. I don’t like making the assumption that people don’t know what to eat. I give people more credit.”

Farmer-in-training Laura Otolski weeds a vegetable bed at Three Part Harmony Farm in Washington, DC, while another crew member works in the background.

Something that has stuck with Laura from her NYU graduate school experience was something said by Marion Nestle, author of the seminal work Food Politics and chair of Laura’s department. “If we teach you nothing else,” Nestle said, “you need to understand all the factors that influence the choices that people make about what they eat. A lot of those choices are not simply about willpower and personal responsibility.”

Says Laura, “She really wanted us to understand all the external forces that shape how somebody eats. What their food environment is. When I worked as a dietician in D.C., I went around to all different neighborhoods around the city to visit my clients, and I saw what kind of options people had. So what determines how people eat? The majority of people—probably all of us when I think about it—we’re all influenced in how we eat by factors that we’re not even necessarily aware of. You like to think you have control over your situation, but I don’t think we always do. I’ve been influenced by reading Raj Patel’s book Stuffed and Starved too. That’s pretty much the premise of his book, that there are a lot of things that influence the foodscape of the world that aren’t because we are choosing that, but because other people are making those choices for us. “I think a lot about the challenges of having an urban farm and how you reach the people who need the food, who don’t have access to it. Those are things I’m still wrestling with—how do I address this? I’m not sure of that yet.”

Gail had said to me during a visit, “One of the things I love most about farming is there’s no right way to do something. Everything we do here at Three Part Harmony is a variation on how I learned. At the beginning I just did it exactly how I was taught. But then there’s this evolution that happens, and you just do it your way. And when Laura has her own farm, she’s going to do it her way.”

And whatever her future farm looks like, it will be carefully considered and executed with care, because she’s been working towards it for a long time.

Next week we’ll meet Sache Taylor, another crew member from the 2016 season.

9 Comments / Add your own comment below

  1. Beautiful piece. Thank you for the inspiration!

    1. Lise Metzger

      Thank you for reading, Jonathan, and for all your support.

  2. sarah hamilton

    Really nicely done, thank you! So nice to see women farmers my age acknowledged and supported.

    1. Lise Metzger

      Hi Sarah, thanks for reading. It is so exciting to meet so many young women taking up the call to be in the food world because that’s what’s needed, but I, too, like meeting farmers at least a little closer to my age. I’m definitely from an older generation!

  3. Sent this to Lucy for the day before her birthday. I so enjoy this blog!

    1. Lise Metzger

      Thank you, Perri!

  4. Great post. Laura is so thoughtful and articulate. Thank you, Lise.

    1. Lise Metzger

      Thank you, Chris. It was such a treat to get to talk with her.

  5. Lise, Thank you again for another gentle look into a world of women who share their thoughtful respect for nature and the courage to grow.

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