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An Interview with Carissa Unger, Production Farmer

How did you get into farming?

I got interested in farming when I was ten or eleven years old. My whole family moved out to the country, and my dad started a large garden that produced food for my family to eat in the summer. I am the youngest sibling and my dad would always say that I was closest to the ground—which meant that I was the best person for picking the beans, weeding the corn, harvesting the corn and planting seeds—even on hot July days. We had to carry water to the farm before my dad had installed sprinklers on the property—which took two years. I never went to summer camp; I would just spend my time at home with my brother and gardening. At first, I didn’t realize I liked it—at the time it was a chore. Then, when I was a high school and signed up for a horticulture class—a class by luck that was offered to students at my high school—and I fell in love with it. I studied horticulture at my state university, and now I am happy to be here.

In college I started working in public gardens specializing in ornamentals. For the first three years of my time at UW Madison, I interned at a small public garden where I designed landscaping there, did installs, and managed the edible gardens. Then, I realized I was really into food, so I pursued my interest with vegetable crops. At the same time, I was working at the departments green house, producing seedlings which led me to assist with education for the horticulture department. I worked at the farmers market for three years. At first, I was buying food with the head chef. He was really interested in having close relationships with his farmers, and I was curious about what he was doing. He connected me to a lab within my own department, which hired me to work on a tomato breeding project and eventually I started working with beets. Although I was studying all these topics in the classroom, my real learning came from the small jobs I had as a college student. There was a project at the time with my mentor and the chef that I worked for to breed the best tasting vegetables. A lot of crops are bred for appearance and disease resistance, but not really for their taste. How would you evaluate something like that? [The university] put together a huge panel, and I was able to support it. Since then, I have been doing similar work and have never left the food industry. I saw that project from many different angels, when I was still at the university. I was able to take classes by the professor who lead that project[…]and now the chefs at Fenway are interested in growing this beet and see the value in open source breeding—it has been very cool for me!

Why do you think what you are doing at Green City Growers is important?

The most meaningful parts of the work that I do comes from all the interactions I have with people, and the interactions they have with the work that I do. When I am working at Fenway Farms, I am gardening, but I am fully on display. I am being passed by hundreds or thousands of tourists a day who are photographing and maybe telling other people about it and think about how strange it is to have a green space in the middle of the city. They are hearing from the tour guide about the environmental impact that our rooftop farm is having in that area, both in terms of reduction of heating and cooling, and rainwater management, but also the community aspect of donating food. Along with this, the other part of work that gives me a lot of drive and meaning is that a third of what we grow at Fenway Farms is donated. Access to nutritious, fresh and good tasting food, is a right everybody deserves, and that is not the reality for a lot of people in Boston. Helping make that possible for some people in the area where I am working by producing the food gives me pride and lets me know that what we are doing matters.

What is your favorite part about your day at work?

My favorite part about my day at work would have to be the beauty of harvesting something like kale; something repetitive you do at the early hours of the morning when the traffic is still quiet. Bunching kale very methodically brings peace to my mind and it is the same way all year round. The thing about farming in general is that it’s very unpredictable. I have a routine, but I never know what is going to happen when I show up at work, and that can be stressful. But, bunching kale has always been the same and I really look forward to it.

What’s your favorite thing to grow?

My favorite thing to grow is June berry strawberries. They come all at once, then I can make a strawberry pie! Strawberries are just so good when you grow them yourself. A lot of food you grow doesn’t taste that different than it would in the store, but strawberries blow everything out of the water with how good they are, freshly grown from your garden. They are relatively little work to grow compared to vegetable crops. I don’t spend that much time managing my strawberries and they reward me generously.

This interview was conducted by Jackie Nutter, GCG’s Fall 2019  intern. 

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