2017 MARISA PREFER
FOOD & GARDENS MANAGER, SWALE
Marisa can’t seem to keep herself away fro the intersection of food, art and social justice. In addition to tackling these issues with the Swale floating food forest, Marisa is also a Land Steward at Pioneer Works, a nonprofit center for research and experimentation in contemporary culture.
If you want to learn more about Marisa’s work, you might consider applying for a scholarship to the upcoming Resilience + Resistance Eco Practicum, taking place this spring aboard the Swale in New York City.
When did you know that you wanted to work in food?
I’ve been digging my fingers in and eating dirt since I was in diapers, but the relationships I have made along the way between then and now are what has encouraged me to keep doing it. During college I lived in a 14-member food-centric cooperative house where we purchased, prepared and enjoyed food together. Each housemate was tasked with spending one afternoon/ evening each week cooking meals for the entire house, which quickly became a highlight of my week. I had always loved cooking, and was lucky to be brought up with an appreciation of shared mealtimes, but planning and sourcing food for 14+ people was taking it to the next level. Maybe it was something about the intentionality of bringing traditions together from different corners of the world – housemates would often call upon family recipes – or perhaps it was the creative freedom and performative nature that came with orchestrating every part of the meal.
Whatever it was, I was hooked. Every season, each housemate had a job – liaising with college staff, organizing trash, cleaning the fridge and shopping for food at local markets. After a few trips to the Downtown Bennington farmers market to chat with local farmers (who were some of the nicest people I had ever met) and some concurrent farm visits where we would participate in a work-share, I could see how this was my kind-of gig.
I began to work as part of a committee of students to cultivate a small food garden on campus, which was fuel for a fire that re-started the farm at Bennington College. I think most of those folks are also still working with food and gardens in some way. Bennington has a deep agricultural history, and this became my gateway to learning about the local food movement. After college I spent a few disgruntled months in my home city of New York, and then decided to move to Seattle and work on a farm. Nothing could have prepared me for that experience – it was the first time I really understood what farming meant.
How did you get your current good food job?
Both jobs that I have right now came to me through the grapevine. I have had the incredible fortune of meeting amazing folks who have been instrumental in sharing knowledge, resources and opportunities. I started working with Swale after emailing artist Mary Mattingly because I really loved her work and the collaborative nature of her projects. It’s great to work on a project that crosses so many disciplines (public art, architecture, permaculture, agriculture, land use).
How did your previous work or life experience prepare you for a good food job?
Food is such a huge part of most people’s lives, whether they know it or not. I had a background in nonprofit arts management, sculpture and critical thinking. Some might argue that these type of professional trainings have nothing to do with food, but I use them every day as I collaborate with a small team that is working to turn a public art project about growing food in public space into a nonprofit. It’s an amazing place to learn, and there are so many great teachers along the way shepherding different paths to walk. Everyone has some sort of experience with food, and that’s a great place to start.
I think anyone can work in the food movement, and you don’t really need formal training beyond the skills you already possess. If everyone played even a slightly larger role in understanding where their food came from, what it takes to get it out of the fields and into the markets, we might have a better chance at strengthening our failing food system in America.
What was the greatest obstacle you had to overcome in pursuing your Good Food Job dream?
Feeling that I was gainfully employed. Working in a field that relies heavily on climate in a place where seasons are drastically different (and recently, more and more unpredictable) means that everything shifts with the weather. Winters can be rough. Lots of folks I know who work seasonally spend winters in planning mode, or largely away from their work, but it’s not really a sustainable or ideal position to be in. I try to balance my outdoor work with more independent education gigs (among other side-hustles like design projects, and a little bit of travel) in the winter. It’s always a challenge to find balance and put faith in the things that are around the bend when spring comes.
Name one positive thing that a former employer taught you that you continue to appreciate?
It’s amazing to work as part of a cooperative team, and really feel like you have a hand in how decisions get made. Working as a member of a collaborative group pushes me to become a better communicator, and more clearly identify how I can be an asset to group efforts. I have learned so much about understanding from folks I have worked with, like how to check your privilege and be an ally to folks who have starkly different experiences in the world, even though it often feels like an impossible feat.
What can you identify as the greatest opportunities in food right now?
I see major opportunities for white folks to step back and listen, and invite people of color, indigenous folks and gender-nonconforming people to the table. We are in a deep transitional moment as a country and can work stronger as a collective towards framing food through access, sovereignty and justice. What does it look like in your community? How can we all take steps to address racial, sexist and ageist biases in how we interact with food, education and farming? There are some great projects and people that I am admiring from afar right now, like Rowan White and Sierra Seeds and Soul Fire Farm, that are great inspiration for work like this to ricochet.
If you could be compensated for your work with something other than money, what would it be?
Time. There’s never enough of it and it’s almost always moving too quickly! Slowing down feels like a luxury, but it is so important.