Edible will be sharing Lindsay Morris’s Farmer Portraits throughout this season. She first introduced her beautiful and important series with a portrait of Quail Hill Farm’s Scott Chaskey back in June. In July, she unveiled her portrait of farm manager Layton Guenther. In August, she revealed her portrait of farmhand Katie Doe Putkowski. Here, she continues the series with farmer Melissa Mapes.
“Fertile land, fertile women,” said farmer Melissa Mapes, in conversation with Edible’s own Kelly Ann Smith back in 2017. At the time, Smith was interviewing Mapes about her work with East Hampton’s Share the Harvest Farm for Edible’s innovation issue. And Mapes was the best kind of source when it came to fertility: Not only was she a farmer, coaxing treasure from the dirt, but she was pregnant simultaneously—with a daughter.
Smith met both Mapes and her colleague Marielle Ingrams that day, and later wrote that “both women grew up proud Bonackers admiring the farmers around them yet watching their numbers dwindle. By holding onto a location tradition, they see their generation as a resurgence of sorts, taking back their beloved community.”
We are so proud to introduce Mapes’s portrait by Lindsay Morris above—and so honored to share our interview with her below.
Edible East End: What do you think people can learn from a farmer’s face?
Melissa Mapes: A farmer’s face is a window to the reality behind farming; the daily appearance of dark, tanned-skin dusted with a healthy mix of rich soil and human sweat mirrors the intimate connection to nature that a farmer has. The hours upon hours we spend with bare hands and feet deep in the earth while the sun dances on our bodies adds an additional toll on the human body as we sweat and struggle to accomplish the daunting, but enjoyable manual labor required to get farm tasks done. This additional toll is exhausting, yet always rewarding; this is clear in the farmer’s face that is always tinged with dirt but full of joy, pride, and a deep conscious connection.
EEE: What is the latest lesson that farming taught you?
MM: Acceptance. However, this is a reoccurring lesson that farming teaches us, it seems to be a cyclical lesson that returns every year around the same time. As we pass through the summer solstice, and the sun reigns the sky kingdom for long periods with full solar strength, all of the natural world responds accordingly. The plants explode as they rocket towards the sun, peaking with fruits and vegetables that all need to be harvested at once. Simultaneously, the competing weeds fight to grow alongside the crops and grow as tall as they can, as fast as they can. Here we reach the pinnacle point where we encounter the greatest struggle, understanding and accepting the human limits. We are forced to pick and choose our battles, which sometimes results in great losses, but ultimately we learn that we must accept our limits. We have to play the role of the “creator”, and decide who lives and who we must let go of. We must accept the sacrifices that must be made.
EEE: What has been your biggest success as a farmer? Your biggest failure?
MM: My biggest success has been learning from my mistakes and succeeding with my corrections, my biggest failure is making the same mistake twice. You live and you learn, right? Or so they say…
EEE: Can you describe the satisfaction that growing things gives you?
MM: As a mother, I feel as though the the satisfaction of farming and growing plants is very similar to growing tiny humans. The satisfaction of growing a creature from a seed, nurturing it, and watching it succeed at its purpose in the world feels so similar to raising and watching a child thrive. Both processes fill the soul with amazement, wonder, and gratitude for life and all of the experiences that the natural world has to offer us.
EEE: What was it like to farm during your pregnancy?
MM: It was an absolute privilege to have the capability to farm throughout my pregnancy. Pregnancy and childbirth are such natural events that it only made sense to me to remain as close to nature as possible throughout the whole baby-growing process. If we take a look around at the global picture of humanity, the majority of pregnant women are physically active in agricultural chores and tasks everyday, as it is simply a part of their cultural norms. Many of these women have numerous children and birth freely, as their bodies are in optimal condition for labor and childbirth after months of keeping active and eating healthy. I think having the privilege to farm throughout my pregnancy gave me the ability to have the best pregnancy and childbirth experience. In addition to that, there was something absolutely magical about growing life within my womb while planting seeds and growing plant life, watching both the stalks climb higher and leaves bush out as my belly would get bigger and rounder as the days passed. Once the fruiting crops were ripe and ready to be picked, I felt my body join in communion with nature and knew that the time was here for our seed to sprout.
EEE: If you weren’t a farmer, what would you like to do?
MM: In a past life, not that long ago, I was trained as a art conservator, specifically for metal, stone, and ceramic objects. If I weren’t farming, I would like to be working with the on-site art conservation crews at archaeological digs in the Middle East. There is something so meaningful to me about preserving the cultural heritage of the birthplace of modern human civilization. I think that being aware of our history and understanding where we come from can help us understand where we need to go. Switching to farming seemed relevant in a way, as I continue to have the potential to preserve human civilization history by continuing the agricultural traditions of our ancestors that have grown into life as we know it.
EEE: What is your favorite thing to grow? Why?
MM: I think flowering herbs are my favorite things to grow. I love each and every plant for its own reason, but the all encompassing five-sense experience that flowering herbs have to offer is just such a delightful treat to experience. I feel as though they are nature’s form of antidepressants, allowing you to take in all of their bright rainbow of colors, aromas, flavors, delicate petals, and soft rustling in the wind, plus they are amazing pollinator attractors! How can you be sad when you smell lavender or lemon balm? How can you look away from the beauty of butterflies and bees that dance around and pollinate echinacea and hyssop? That will make anyone’s day better, guaranteed.
EEE: What is the funniest thing that’s happened to you at work?
MM: I’m not sure if I could pick one thing as the funniest thing that has happened to me at work because I am fortunate enough to work alongside a bunch of goofballs who are like brothers and sisters to me. They have me dying laughing in the fields on a regular basis. I am so grateful for the special bond we all have, at the end of the day we are like a bunch of kids playing in the mud and cracking ridiculous jokes which usually tend to lean towards the inappropriate side. It’s probably better that I don’t go into detail about the funniest things…
EEE: What’s your favorite part of each work day?
MM: Walking barefoot on the earth.
EEE: If you could live anywhere else in the world, where would you want to be?
MM: I grew up out here and I understand why everyone comes to vacation here, this is Paradise or as my Aunt Sue always says, “This is God’s Country”. The only thing that makes me want to live somewhere else is the traffic and overwhelming crowds here, with that being said I think the anywhere else I’d like to live would be somewhere more rural like the Catskills, or in a dream world maybe some mountainous wildflower and honey farm in the Swiss Alps.
EEE: Who inspires you? Why?
MM: My fellow farmers inspire me the most. Watching all of the work they accomplish, always with a smile on their tired and tanned faces, inspires me to always push myself harder and harder. I am especially moved by our young interns who sometimes join us with no farming experience and I see them blossom like a flower—pushing themselves to limits they never imagined and never looking back. It inspires me so much to see others grow and expand, realizing their truest potential is limitless. It is a nice reminder to observe this phenomena unfold and remember that no matter where I am or what I am doing, I can always work harder and go farther. As we always say on our farm: “The Sky’s the limit.”