by Felipe Contreras
In my role as an associate producer on the Storytelling team at Nia Tero, I have a bit of a reputation. Whenever there’s a photo or video shoot on a farm, they call me — “the farm guy.” So when I was asked to do a photoshoot on an Indigenous-run farm in Tacoma last fall, I accepted the assignment with glee.
That I’m “the farm guy” at Nia Tero might be a surprise to people I grew up with in Los Angeles, including my blended Latine family and community. The only farms I knew during my childhood were the ones our family car passed while driving on the 5. Before I would see the farms, I would smell the stench. And then we would see thousands of cows crammed in the isolated confines of what I now understand were factory farms. Once my dad saw me looking at the cows, and he said, “Those are not happy cows. Those are sad cows.” This was in stark contrast to commercials about “happy cows” from the same time period.
These sights and smells shaped my idea of what a farm was.
I moved to Seattle during college and graduated with an anthropology degree, strong media skills, and a deep desire to tell stories with a sense of purpose about people who protect Mother Earth. Inspired by Latine photographer Cristina Mittermeier, I dedicated myself to an intense, year-long environmental visual communication program founded by Cristina in Toronto, which led me to an internship on a farm in the Pacific Northwest. I not only got to take pictures of crops, animals, and landscapes, but I got to spend time with happy cows (actual happy cows) and draw on my favorite subjects, including biology, food justice, and regenerative agriculture. I honed my ability to tell stories with beautiful images that honor both the individual and the larger narrative.
I brought all of this practice and training with me to Nia Tero when I shot The Native Sharing Garden at Wild Hearts Farm in Tacoma last October. Originally, I thought I was only going to the farm for an hour or two to do a photoshoot with owner Jodall Mattson (Aleut from the village of Port Graham in Alaska) for a piece she was writing for the Emerald’s Seedcast column. But the experience quickly unfolded into something much more rich and — the more I think about it — not totally unexpected. It made sense that once I got to Jodall’s farm and learned about her experience as an Indigenous farmer, business owner, and community member, her deep connections to other people around her also started emerging. Jodall not only showed me the different pieces of her farm (the healing garden, the place where Indigenous people from all over visit to contribute, learn, and play; the old chicken coop she’s transformed into a photography studio; the pond she’s removing the ducks from in order to save the frogs native to the land), but she also started telling me about the other Indigenous farmers in her neck of the woods.
Pretty soon, Jodall was bringing me to the next farm over, Rose Island Farm, and introducing me to Melissa Meyer, who is matrilineally Eagle clan from the Gis’paxloats tribe of the Tsimshian Nation in northern British Columbia, as well as Scandinavian and German on her father’s side. On the day I was there, Melissa was hosting her Work as Medicine program, so I got to see a lot of people visiting and reconnecting with the land, preparing it for the coming winter. The program is based on the understanding that physical work with the land, the movements of our bodies and the feel of the soil on our skin, can connect our bodies to our ancestors. Melissa also showed me something important on her farm I’d heard about but never seen with my own eyes: The Three Sisters, or the communal intergrowth of corn, beans, and squash. When grown together, the height of the corn gives beans support to climb; the beans provide the other plants nitrogen and stabilizes the corn plants so they can better withstand wind and rain; and the squash wards off predators with their spiny stems, provides weed-busting shade, and eventually becomes nourishing mulch. This is regenerative agriculture at its most fundamental.
While talking with Melissa, she decided Jodall and I needed to meet Bryan Mesa, whose De La Mesa Farms was also close by. I witnessed Bryan and Jodall’s first hellos and tentative comparisons about what they were up to and dreaming about. Bryan, who was born in Mexico, learned a lot of what he knows about farming from his time in Hawai‘i. De La Mesa Farms is very outward facing, taking produce to market and providing customers with CSA boxes.
While the three farmers have different plans and passions, they share one important goal: to share their knowledge with others who visit so that visitors can, in turn, share that knowledge with others. Watching these three Indigenous farmers compare notes and ideas was like watching those Three Sisters grow and protect each other. They are each other’s peers and mentors, all stewarding their lands in the best way they know how. I’m excited to see what all three of them accomplish over the coming years, individually and, invariably, together.
Last year I learned that my great-grandparents were farmers in Puerto Rico, and unlike the mostly flat farmland I saw in Tacoma, their lands were mountainous. I got a sense of what farming on Puerto Rico’s mountainsides looked like in Cecilia Aldarondo’s documentary Landfall. Tucked into Aldarondo’s stunning story of political strife and hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico in 2019 are glimpses at Puerto Rican farming life, including the use of livestock for tilling on steep slopes. Seeing Landfall gave me a sense of what it must have been like for my great-grandparents back in Lares, and it also helped me understand what drew my grandmother to settle down in our barrio, the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, with its altitude and inclines. It also made me recognize the root of my personal affinity for climbing the hills and mountains around L.A. and Seattle.
At the end of it all, I spent five full hours taking pictures and documenting those three BIPOC farms in Tacoma, from 11 in the morning until about four in the afternoon. As I drove away with a memory card full of images and a belly full of treats from Melissa’s herbal shop, I remember calling my parents to tell them how special the experience was, how I wanted to get my own hands in the dirt more often, about how Tacoma isn’t that far from where I live. To continue to meet farmers here in the Pacific Northwest would be an honor; to travel the world to meet, talk with, and photograph Indigenous farmers and their lands from around the world would be a dream. I can’t wait for my next assignment.
This piece was written with the support of Julie Keck, a consulting producer with Nia Tero.
Felipe Contreras comes from a proud Puerto Rican/Salvadoran family and is a photographer, media maker, and storyteller.
📸 Featured Image: Green tomatoes at Wild Hearts Farm. (Photo: Felipe Contreras)
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!