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Fraser brings medical background to Future Harvest CASA position
By JONATHAN CRIBBS
PRESTON, Md. (Dec. 20, 2016) — When Aleya Fraser graduated from the University of Maryland in 2010 with a degree in neurophysiology, a long career in science and medicine was expected to follow. For a time it did.
She taught science in Camden, N.J. She researched hepatitis C at Johns Hopkins University. She planned to attend medical school.
And then several urban farming experiences in Baltimore signaled a sharp left turn to where she is now: growing on two acres in Caroline County and helping to expand the Eastern Shore presence of Future Harvest CASA, an agriculture advocacy organization in Maryland.
“The entry point was health and medicine and working at Johns Hopkins and wanting to go into medicine and thinking of how important food is to that and how it’s not always part of the conversation,” Fraser said earlier this month from her Future Harvest office inside the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy’s Easton headquarters.
She said her interest in agriculture reaches back to visiting family in Trinidad where she learned local growing techniques and began planting the roots for a socially conscious agricultural approach inspired, in part, by international farming cultures. While working in research at Johns Hopkins, Fraser decided to volunteer on a farm, loved it and eventually was given a 40-by-40 plot as part of Baltimore’s Adopt-a-Lot program, which allows farmers to lease vacant lots for farming.
“Those were long days,” she said. “I would work at Johns Hopkins from 9 to 5 and then I would go to the farm after.”
She also convinced friends to volunteer on the farm.
“I think farming can be pretty lonely if you’re jumping out there with it, but if you have a lot of people around you with the same visions and doing a similar type of farming, it makes you feel like it’s actually possible,” Fraser said. “Every Sunday — that’s the day I would volunteer — I would bring like 10 people from the city and we would just go out there and help this farmer, and it helped his business. It was his best year ever because he had so many people invested in the farm. For me a farm is a business, but it’s also social capital, a community resource. And that’s how I see farms thriving.”
She grew potatoes, tomatoes, onions, a few flowers on her plot. It became so involved, she said, she was faced with a big decision.
“I took the (medical school entrance exams),” she said. “My scores were fine. I sent off my medical school applications, and I was farming at the same time, and I literally decided, like, either/or. Am I going to continue with this application process or not?”
She decided on farming.
She joined Future Harvest’s beginner farming training program and eventually moved out to her current acreage on the Eastern Shore where she grows ginger, tomatoes and cucumbers in addition to rutabega, squash and onions; mostly food she said she enjoys eating. She runs the farm with her partner, Blaine Snipstal, who makes greenhouses, sheds and other farm structures, and has wide experience farming in foreign locations such as Brazil and St. Croix.
They’re part of a CSA in Washington, D.C., and they also sell at farmers’ markets.
“Anyone who has the intent or an allegiance toward the land, food, justice and really peaceful livelihoods, we embrace all that and see a way to tie that together,” Snipstal said.
They call their operation Black Dirt Farm Collective and have started hosting gatherings of agriculturalists that focus on agri-ecology, fieldwork and political coordination, she said.
“The wider picture is the farm as a place of social change. And I guess that can sound nebulous, but it entails being able to have jobs and create local economies,” Fraser said. “It involves healing the soil through our practices. Bringing more biodiversity onto the farm. Bringing more diversity into our communities by having farms. And just overall health because healthy food means healthy people and healthy ecosystems.”
The educational element prepared her well for her new job as Delmarva program manager at Future Harvest-CASA, said Dena Leibman, the organization’s executive director.
“We see a lot of scientists come through (Future Harvest), many of whom were destined or who already had a career in laboratory sciences,” Leibman said. “She understands the big picture and she’s able to relate it to everybody else and relate it in terms that most people can understand. She’s a natural educator, and I think she’s kind of a rising star in not only farming but sustainable agriculture advocacy.”
In her fourth season of farming, Fraser said she sees Black Dirt Farm Collective growing in the future. Possibly by taking on additional nearby acreage for lease. She wants to look into organics and other crops such as sorghum or millet.
“A farm and a school, basically. That would be my ultimate goal in like 20 years,” she said.