Doug DeCandia: Westchester's wild plants 'hold the knowledge of this place'
Growing up in Katonah, New York, Doug DeCandia learned some of his first lessons in food justice in his grandmother’s kitchen as she prepared Sicilian feasts for their monthly family gatherings. But it wasn’t until years later, walking through a food co-op in Vermont’s northeast corner, that a handful of dry beans began to transform the way he thought about agriculture, nourishment, and his own childhood experiences of food and family. Having managed Ryder Farm in Brewster, New York, DeCandia also worked for years to grow organic produce for the Food Bank for Westchester at five farms located at correctional facilities. He also writes about his experiences in verse. DeCandia, a former board member for Slow Food Metro North, told us that his work as a farmer is centered on interrogating the relationship between food and colonialism, creating an equitable food system, and paying attention to place.
Was there a particular plant that first drew you toward food justice work?
When I started moving in this direction, I was trying veganism. It was a big shift for me from a full-on meat-eating person to nothing like that, no animal products, in a pretty short amount of time. It impacted my body, my physicality, my spirituality and everything like that, for good and not so good. I was kind of forced into having to learn how to cook for myself, and I learned pretty quick the importance of whole food.
I was living in Vermont, and I remember going to the local co-op and looking for dry beans because that was pretty much my sustenance, dry beans and grains, and seeing that the dry beans they had for sale at the co-op were grown locally in Vermont. That was a really big opening time for me because I didn’t think dry beans were growing anywhere in the Northeast, much less the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. That was really powerful, [learning] that I could grow my sustenance.
Another time that was really transformative for me was visiting a farm in Kentucky called Salamander Springs. It’s a small permaculture farm owned by an amazing woman, Susana Lein. I’d been thinking about all these things for years, envisioning in my head what my ideal space and growing would be. Not the conventional row crop thing, but a more integrated agroforestry permaculture. I hadn't really seen it done before. But when I went to Salamander Springs in Berea and stayed with Susana for awhile, she was doing all these things I had dreamed of. I felt so held in that space.
What I have felt in agriculture is this remembering of our roots, and then also that we are from a place. For me, being a person of settler descent on this continent, I know this is not my place, this continent. My people come from Europe. ... But I’m here and I have to understand that history, and I need to be connected to place. Everybody needs to be connected to place and to land.
Is there anything in particular that’s been useful in your process of connecting with place?
One of the biggest things for me has been building relationships with wild plants. I try and think about how I can practice medicine in agriculture in a responsible way, being a person of European descent on Turtle Island. I don’t know enough about Italian and French medicinal history to be able to connect to what I can grow that is in line with my ancestry, but right now, I’m here, I’m in this place. Anywhere I go I’m somewhere and the plants are gonna tell me where I am and remind me of the ways that the land and human beings have always, have evolved together and grown together. Wild plants—they hold the medicine, they hold the knowledge of this place. They’re healing this place from the damage that people have brought. Weeds are the healers of deforested land, opened-up land, tilled land.
What are some good entry points for people who want to learn more about native plants?
Look around, see who’s growing near you. Mama Earth is strong, and even in cities, there are plants that are breaking through the concrete. There are plants everywhere. … When you look at them, when you see them, you see that they’re dandelion, or purslane, or chickweed, and these plants that are medicine. And they’re growing everywhere. That attention we pay to place—the place will pay attention to us, and we can start to heal some of these things.
Can you describe your work with the prison system?
I started working in Westchester County jail in the Woodfield Juvenile Detention 9 years ago. My job was basically to grow food for soup kitchens and food pantries and doing it in these locations, in these facilities. And whenever folks on the inside wanted to come out to the garden, it was open. There wasn’t any program set up, any curriculum. If and when folks would come out, we did what we were doing on the farm. There was no expectation on anybody to do any work. It was really more centered around just getting some space from the noise and all of the stuff that goes on inside prisons. The garden became this kind of safe space where we could just do what we felt like we needed to do in that moment for these kids. … I just felt like what I could help to do is make a space where they could come back and have a moment with their humanity again, to be reminded that they are somebody, that they are a precious human being.
About three years ago I started working, volunteering in Sing Sing Prison in Ossining and Taconic Prison in Bedford Hills. And building gardens, working with folks that are inside, growing food, medicine, herbs, flowers and using that time and that space to be an active remembering and rehumanization.
What have your conversations about food justice been like recently?
We’ve never had a food system that is equitable for all people in this country. What we’re moving towards and working towards is something this country hasn’t ever had before. If we’re going to envision and build a system that is just and equitable and serves the needs of all people, all people need to be involved in that process. And what that looks like is a shift in power. So it can’t be white people, white men, determining what regenerative agriculture, organic agriculture, looks like. That has to be determined by all people, and mostly by those who have been impacted by it. ... What I’ve been seeing is a greater movement toward supporting that work.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.