Britt Browne: LALA Farm
Starting off with your background, how did you become interested in urban agriculture? Is there a specific moment/memory of being in nature that inspired you or made you curious about the environment?
There are such great stories to share. What happened to me was I would come home from high school, I was really into art but I didn’t have a car and I started a little garden. It was just kind of like, oh let’s see how this goes, and I really liked going out there after school and being able to space out in my own world and connecting that way. All of a sudden I thought, gosh this hobby makes me feel good and I liked the escape. The garden was so much like an escape for me, into my own imagination. I also lost my grandmother when I was in fourth grade and she was the closest person to me. I started to realize that she died of cancer and that there was something else happening around cancer. It was something that I was going to fight against because it was such a hard loss. I found out in high school that McDonald’s was taking down the rainforest to have more land for their cattle. I had also read at the same time that there was a natural cure for cancer inside the rainforest, that the rainforest held all of these natural remedies. It was like the treasure of our world and none of us really knew how to get there and survive in it but at the same time it held all of the answers to Western civilization’s problems. I started realizing that there were companies who didn’t do what McDonald’s did and I had a choice in who I was going to support. As soon as I found out about the McDonald’s thing, I knew I was going to stand up for the environment. In that scenario, I knew I had to choose to support the environment instead of purchasing their hamburger because it didn’t have to be that way. However, McDonald’s is very hard to stay away from; on road trips, with friends who didn’t make that choice. It was very hard. Some of my friends would say to me, Britt don’t be so difficult, get a fish filet, stop it.
How did this project with the school come about? What are your goals for the farm?
I was working on a garden down in Montecito Heights, a personal family owned home where the orchard had been left for 20 years and so I was bringing it back to life. I was growing food in raised beds, that type of thing. I volunteered at Alma Farm, that’s where I met Fei. She was the farm manager here before I came on, since she was pregnant. She asked me to come and work with what was going on. She left on her maternity leave and all of a sudden, reality set it and I inherited this project. I saw what it could be from the beginning. You know how characters in cartoons, their eyes become dollar signs? Mine become sunflowers and I see a space and I just light up with ideas. I couldn’t help but see what it could be. Having the school right here, and feeling like all of these students could also be a part of it, really inspired me as well. Since the school was founded on social justice, this project was taken on as food justice and I could feel my activism fired up around that issue. This was a safe place where I could be an activist. Believe me, I am an adult in the real world but there are certain places professionally, where they don’t want you to be an activist about the environment in their company. They want to keep it with the status quo and they don’t want any challenges to the system. This school really encourages students to challenge the status quo and speak up about issues they care about.
I remember last time I came you talked about how this land has never been built on in LA’s history. What was your reaction when you found that out? Do you feel an additional obligation to keeping this land in a natural state?
Yes, absolutely. I feel that I must act as a steward of the land and protect it and take care of it in the best way I know how to. My mission is to bring it to its optimal level and growth and treat it with kindness. All of our farming methods are organic and biodynamic so since we are on untouched soil, this is one of the cleanest growing practices definitely in LA, and probably in California I would say too.
Is there a quote/motto that you believe in, is important to you, or that you practice through Lala farm?
Yes, so many. I recommend that make a little jar of affirmations and open one every day and read it and remember where your devotion is. It’s really grounding. Little ones would be: “Courage, dear heart” by C.S. Lewis. I think with this, it’s a real practice of patience. The students have been through so much with the school program, in getting this off the ground, we’re going to have a really amazing program this year. Patience really pays off in agriculture, over and over again. We live in a world where we want it now, where you want to be 16 and do this and that at that age. Life is not like that, it never will be.
How do your choices reflect your values and do you feel like you make more environmentally friendly decisions now that you run LALA Farm?
Yeah for sure. It is a commitment that I have to reaffirm over and over and over again. Again, the world is not built with this model in mind. You’re constantly subverting the norm by doing this. It’s a choice to listen to yourself over the noise. I felt that composting was something I couldn’t teach without personal practice. I have compost at home, it’s truly an amazing thing. As an art director, I won’t take on any job where I see holes in that brand’s morals or ethics. Since I’ve worked a lot with food, people will say: Oh well would you do this for food? It's always a concept, not a process that they’re selling. The farm really is an expression of my activism, for sure. I went to visit a farm that was part of a college program and it was all hydroponics, no heirlooms, nothing from seed. It was all conventional monoculture. Physically, I came home with a migraine and I was exhausted. I thought to myself: You are teaching everything that we’ve studied that doesn’t work. So I have become a lot more sensitive to this issue and I think not everyone is sensitive to the environment like this, but once you start to get closer to it you become a lot more sensitive to it all around. Your relationships get better, everything gets better.
How has your gender impacted/shaped your involvement with the environment?
I was lucky to grow up in a family where I had brothers and I was allowed to always go along with what they did. I was really lucky that way. Oh my gosh, you think the world is like that and even you think your family is normal like that. I’ve talked to my group about this since we are really lucky that our culture is continually reexamining gender and expectations. For example, when I went to college and I saw all of the people in agriculture there weren’t any people who looked like me. I’m not a super buff woman, I wasn’t MVP of all my sports in high school or something. There’s a body type to a job like this and I didn’t fit that. I didn’t know how I was ever going to do it, but my passion and will took over. We went to the farmer’s market this summer with the farm and people said that the women farmers are far superior to the male farmers since we focus better, have more stamina, and it is our passion that keeps this moving. I remember when I turned 30 and I started to really focus on my passion and dream to be a farmer since I had been an art director in New York. I went back and there were women in their late 30s and early 40s who were doing this and I didn’t see that here around LA. I didn’t see this sort of physicality and I had always assumed that women couldn’t be stronger the older they got but I was meeting women who were. Then I met a French woman farmer who said, You don’t know this but you’re actually digging more life into you when you’re in the soil and the earth since it’s a life force. I thought to myself, wow I’m going to get younger doing this?[laughs] I really found that to be true and there’s this social idea that the older you get as a woman, that you wouldn’t be a strong. That you’re not as strong at 40 as you are at 20. I’m stronger now than I was. So that is a myth and there are plenty of women who plug in to this sort of exercise. Again, you don’t even feel your body since it’s your will and your passion that moves you. It could be anything that moves you with the environment, it could be documentary film making. You do not feel the physical hardness when you are chasing your heart.
Finally, what advice would you give to teenagers who feel too small/insignificant to make a difference?
I wish we all could be meeting here every Thursday after school. I wish I could reach all of the teenagers who feel this way and send some type of message to the high schoolers. You need to know and remember that you are your best self and to find your best self when you forget who you are. Remember and seek out that person who knows your best self and all you have to do is your best. You don’t have to be anyone but you and there’s things that allow you an escape into your own imagination, whether it’s the environment or a really good drugstore with amazing products. Whatever gets your imagination out. Film really did that for me when I was in high school. Escape is okay, go there. What all those ideas are giving you are pathways into your future. When you are surrounding yourself with people who you want to be your best self for, those are the footholes that allow you to grow into your best self. You don’t want to be mainstream, you don’t want to be the average bear, you don’t. You want to be you and you do you. That was a long winded way to say you do you. [Laughs]