One farmer’s new mission: To explore the world and write about how to feed it


Joneve Murphy will leave her job at the Inn at Little Washington this summer and head off to learn about farming methods around the world. (Molly Peterson)
March 20

For three years, Joneve Murphy has been growing food for a living at the whim of chef Patrick O’Connell, a gig that comes with a steady paycheck, praise and plenty of microgreens. Yet this summer, the farmer is leaving her dream job at the Inn at Little Washington (which is hiring another farmer) to live another dream: She’ll spend a year satisfying her wanderlust and curiosity about foreign farming methods.

Beginning in June, Murphy, 34, will travel much of Europe and Southeast Asia, farm-hopping and offering her labor in exchange for the chance to learn, grow and cook in a variety of cultures. Murphy hopes to bring new life to the ideologies she has championed while growing for the area’s quintessential farm-to-table restaurant, and she hopes to expand her followers’ perceptions about the best ways to feed the world.

One week, she’ll work at a rice farm in Thailand and follow the grains to a resident’s home, where her cultural education will continue in the kitchen and at the table. Among her 20-plus stops: cashew farms in India and vegetable farms in Bhutan, the latter of which is on track to become the world’s first 100 percent organic nation.

A skilled photographer, Murphy will record the experience on her Web site, where she plans to delve into such deeper issues as what “sustainable agriculture” means in parts of India where unaffordable genetically modified seeds have led to a rash of farmer suicides (and a new seed-exchange program is working to mend the countryside’s wounds).

Murphy has saved $10,000 to kick off the trip and launched an Indiegogo campaign this month to raise another $10,000. I spoke to her about her plans; edited excerpts follow:

How did you come up with this idea?

I told myself when I hit my 10-years-farming mark that I was going to do something big. I’d always wanted to just travel for a year, and I always thought it would just be for myself, and I’d work on people’s farms. My best friend suggested I should just do a Kickstarter campaign or something. The more I thought about it, I thought, “I have some good things to offer, and why not try?”

My original idea was to do something that was more just for farmers. But I feel like this is the first time in a long time where there’s an opportunity to not just preach to the choir but to actually get things out to people who are starting to be interested in food issues.

Which locations are you most excited about?

Right now, I’m really excited about urban gardens. There’s so much going on with them everywhere: Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Brazil, Beijing. I think urban agriculture is really important. What better way to battle the food deserts that are often found in cities than to grow the food onsite? In Beijing, there’s a guy I found who’s growing food on his rooftop, and the plants hang, like, three stories down the side of the building. In the middle of Beijing, to find an oasis like that is amazing.

What are some misperceptions you’ve had to correct when you talk to people about this trip?

People assume I’m doing this trip to go to these countries and teach these farmers how to grow. As much as I hope I can teach people something — because that’s my personality, to share information — it’s not the goal of my trip at all. I honestly think it’s presumptuous and pretty pretentious to say you’ll go into a completely different climate and ecosystem from your own and say you’re going to teach people how to grow food better than what they’ve been doing all along.

What makes you the right candidate for a trip like this?

I have a lot of experience in my career with different types of farming: CSAs, farmers markets, private gardening and animal husbandry, too. Once I started farming, I started traveling to farms in Asia. I’d meet someone and offer help in exchange for a place to stay or something like that. I’m not intimidated in terms of going to these countries and finding my way around.

I think it will be really interesting to have some of this from a farmer’s perspective. There’s some interesting stuff going on with global food exploration, but it always seems to be from a chef’s perspective or maybe a journalist’s. But a farmer’s perspective is different. You have more in common with the people you’re talking to.

How do you think this trip will give you and your audience a new perspective on “organic” and “sustainable” farming?

Well, I think that it’s important for people to realize how many hats sustainable agriculture can wear. I think that there are some misperceptions out there that anything that’s large is not sustainable. But there are large diversified farms doing really interesting things. I’m just hoping to show lots of different models.

Pipkin, a freelance journalist in Alexandria, blogs at ThinkAboutEat.com.

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