Tribute to Juanita Nelson delivered at 2015 NOFA Summer Conference
It's an honor to be invited to pay tribute to Juanita. For much of my life, Wally and Juanita Nelson were my second set of parents and dear friends, which of course they were to many of you as well.
Lifelong civil rights activists, the Nelsons devoted their last several decades to authentic democracy that takes into account the health of the soil, air, and water.
But it might not have been so. Born into African-American families whose lives were marked and stressed by the poisons of injustice, their early years directed them away from farming. Wally, born in 1909 in rural Arkansas, noted—at the age of six—that his family's work as sharecroppers bore a striking resemblance to the old-timey slavery that had battered and scarred his people for generations. As an adult, Wally achieved his goal of making an honest living while wearing a clean suit, dress shoes, and a dapper hat.
Juanita—a city girl—had no wish to get her hands dirty. Her parents had been part of the Great Migration from the Deep South to northern cities where Blacks found jobs and a measure of increased safety, though by no means guaranteed. Her family settled in Cleveland and spoke in somber tones of the great aunt who'd been lynched by a Georgia mob enraged by a strong Black woman speaking up for her rights. Work the land? No, thank you. The first in her family to attend college, Juanita dressed to the nines and went to work as a journalist, and later, a speech therapist.
Yet in midlife, the Nelsons sought to become more self-sufficient and to decrease ties with oppressive systems. Juanita suggested they consider farming. Wally railed against this idea, reminding her that—especially for Blacks—farming equaled slavery. Juanita countered with this observation: the people who seem most free are those who work the land. She won Wally over (as she often did) and the Nelsons embarked on the rhythms, heartbreaks, and triumphs of farming.
The big shift came when they sold their Philadelphia home in the late 1960s and rented a place in New Mexico. With pointers from new friends, they grew enough produce in a large garden to feed themselves and to sell at market. Within a few years, Wally and Juanita—now about 65 and 50 years old—were invited by the Woolman Hill Quaker Center in Deerfield, Mass. to live on and farm a parcel of land. They did so without running water or electricity, and provided inspiration and leadership in a host of areas, including land trusts, farmers' markets, economic justice, pacifism, and living as local-vores long before the term was coined. They welcomed visitors from around the world, changing thousands of lives simply by living their ideals.
I'll wrap this up by saying Thank You to NOFA. The Nelsons, frequent conference participants and workshop presenters, found kindred spirits here and affirmed the truth that it is not, in fact, farming that spells slavery, but rather the toxins of oppression and injustice that must be exposed and addressed. (There's obviously a lot of work for us to do in that regard.)
NOFA aided the Nelsons' discovery that living close to the land can be transformed from a bitter pill (in Wally's case) or a foreign concept (in Juanita's case) into a blessing, a means of right livelihood, and a type of freedom that had been out of reach of their ancestors.
Juanita would have been 92 this Monday, and is missed by many. For some, this is the first time we've been at a NOFA conference with neither of the Nelsons present.
The sting of knowing that the Nelsons are both gone is decreased by seeing that their ideals not only live on, but have caught fire and need not resemble slavery, if good folks like you work the land with your hands, your hearts, and your minds—ever with your eyes on justice.