Mission: be a bridge person

There aren’t many Muslim homesteaders around... yet

09 Dec 2019 | 12:34

Growing up in an immigrant family, Aysha Venjara knew she had to “make it, make it, make it.” And she has: a science nerd who edited every publication at her high school, Venjara scored her dream job as a creative director in scientific communications for a global PR firm. But her path has been, at least by Indian-American standards, “weird.” First it was art school, then came permaculture classes and biodynamic conferences, then she went whole hog and bought a three-and-a-half-acre homestead in Chester, NY.­­­­ These days she’s getting serious about mushroom cultivation; she just slaughtered her first lamb – at a Muslim-owned­­­ farm, in the halal way; and in its first year her garden produced 15 boxes of veggies for the food pantry. To Venjara, finally, this is starting to feel like success.

You’ve named your place the Falaha Center for Spiritual Agriculture. What does it mean?

Falaha in Arabic means a couple things. Falaha means to plow, to till, to cultivate the earth. But it also means to be successful, be happy, to thrive. And so in that one word, I stumbled upon this connection between my faith and farming.

In my community, as an immigrant, you come here and people are like, you gotta make money. You gotta be successful. That’s why we came to the United States. So, so much of that success is focused on money: buying a big house, buying a car.

And I’m not judging. All those things are great, because you need to provide for your family and you need to make sure that they’re educated. But I think the focus in the culture and by extension then the religion here in the United States is so away from the earth. It’s so much focus on consumption: how am I going to show that I made it? How am I going to show that I’m successful? We’re first generation, you know. That’s a natural inclination: make it, make it, make it. But at what cost?

What are you sacrificing? And so much of that sacrifice is happening on the part of the earth. What’s important to me, in my climb? Earth-care doesn’t really factor into that. It’s not part of the consciousness. That was one of the things I felt really strongly about in terms of educating members of my community.

You just did your first large animal slaughter, of a lamb. Was it hard?

I was like if I’m going to be a meat-eater, I need to be able to do this. I’ve done chicken, which was a good place to start because it’s manageable from a size perspective. You could do it yourself. Even knowing that you could do that cut yourself, it’s huge. That was the first step. I did it at the poultry school at Stone Barns [Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester.]

Then I was like alright, I gotta do this. The opportunity came up at Halal Pastures. They’re in Washingtonville, 20 minutes from here. A couple months ago they were having some students from Yale, a Muslim student association, come with their mentor, who’s a pediatrician. They reached out to myself and Amirah AbuLughod from the Stony Point Center and another friend of mine coming from the city, and we were just like yes? This is an amazing opportunity. They had two lambs just for this purpose.

I can’t even tell you. It was, I don’t want to say easy, but it felt calm, it felt comfortable, and this was all done in the halal way, even the prayers. They showed us how to isolate the animal within the pen, and walk the animal over to the slaughter area, and this pediatrician – he’s very familiar with this whole process – he was saying this prayer in the animal’s ear. And whatever struggle the animal was having, it calmed down.

It seems macabre to describe it. In my work at Stone Barns I was the person who’d stand next to the pig, or next to the lambs – obviously, that’s for the table, they’re not just for education. And I had all these people coming up to me, from the city generally, and they’d be like, you know, I’m so conflicted. They’re like well, I eat pork, but I don’t know if I can anymore.

And I’m like, good for you. You’re having a conversation with yourself, you know? For me, I’d had that conversation, and I was there. I knew the way this animal was designed inside. It was so easy to take out this cavity, and to see... I’ve studied gross anatomy, so to see the insides of this animal, and see how much they parallel ours. But that this animal is sacrificing itself and that we’re asking permission? It was a divine experience. Being able to connect that way, at that level? That’s the kind of stuff that I’m trying to do here.

Any kind of farming is somewhat exploitative, right? You are taking. But in sacred agriculture you are revering, respecting, and through biodynamics you can give back, you can heal. In spiritual agriculture, you are cultivating the soul. You’re taking it one step further, so it’s not just without you, but it’s within you.

Growing up in Rockland County, digging in the dirt was not part of your upbringing. What set you on this path?

Back in 2012 or so was when my lightbulb first started turning on. At Ramadan, at these big Iftars we have to break the fast: Oh my God so much garbage. So. Much. Waste. And I know you haven’t eaten all day, and I know you want to fill your plate, and then you only eat half of it because you really can’t stomach all of that after you’ve not eaten all day. And then it goes in the garbage. It was literally plastic bag after plastic bag after plastic bag. Now it’s a newer thing where people are like, okay we’re going to use compostable stuff and we’re going to watch our food waste and all this stuff, but like, how much waste comes out of this? Every night, for 30 nights, you have people gathering and throwing away all this crap. This is the month when you’re supposed to revere the place of food in your life and understand how precious it is. Because you are not eating, you are not consuming for the day. Think. Thirty days of that, and I’m just like no.

Gatherings do seem to get a free pass, maybe because they’re so much work and they happen so fast?

Even now, when I have people over, everyone knows, no plastic bottles at Aysha’s house. No plastic cutlery – I use the wood ones. And if people don’t want to use that one, whatever, okay, buy the pack of the dollar spoons from the dollar store, you wash ‘em.

Tell me more about your family.

My dad came over when he was 22, he got a scholarship to University of Rhode Island.

Over from where?

Bombay. He had like $1,000 and a suitcase. That thousand bucks was even on loan from the local community. He didn’t have much: he had a place and a goal, he was supporting his family at that point. He did his graduate studies here – engineering – went back. Was a good boy, got married.

Was it arranged?

To a degree. It’s not like they didn’t have a choice, but they knew of each other, they liked each other.

Came back here, had me two years later. I was born in Long Island, then we moved to Rockland, mainly around my dad’s job. I have one brother. But my dad has two brothers here, one on Long Island, one on Staten Island. My mom is one of six; she’s got sisters around the country. So now with all the cousins. I’m very fortunate, I have a really big family and I know all my first cousins like brothers and sisters. In India, cousins, we call them cousin-brother and cousin-sister. I have 30 brothers and sisters.

I don’t have my own family but I feel like I’m very well taken care of in my larger extended family. My one cousin’s got five children, his sister has four children. Whenever they come over here it’s like a madhouse. My brother has four kids. So they’ve got enough kids to like circulate.

I don’t think I was ever the kind of person who said, I want to have children. I was just kind of like – if it happens, if I find the right person. But it wasn’t this driving force for me. And it was really interesting, talking to all these farmers [at a biodynamic farming conference], we did a lot of these vision things, they would sort of put an idea in your head: and I missed my land. I closed my eyes and I was thinking about its shape, and the rolling things, and things about it that I loved.

I think it needed me and I needed it. It’s just like a person, it can change your life, you know?

Tell me more about this land.

You don’t find places that have been so loved. For 30 years, no chemicals, nothing. It was truly given that care and thought, and then it was a dairy farm before that, a biodynamic dairy farm. So for 50 years or more – I think it was 1955 when this barn was built? – it was just pure.

In biodynamics they talk about these evolutions of existence. This house burned down once, and it was rebuilt, and when they sold it to Laura and Martin [the previous owners] who converted it from the barn into a home, that was like that second evolution. Laura has sort of passed it over to me. You know, I feel like it’s that next evolution, bringing my... not will, because I keep trying to be very conscious of not imposing my will. But doing a lot of listening. This place will kick your butt if you don’t listen. What does it want?

How big would you say your garden is?

I’d say a quarter acre. It’s such an odd shape, and it’s not great soil, it’s very wet. Before I put this fence up, I did this thing – I looked like a crazy person – just walking the perimeter. What is this space? You put a skin around something, and it becomes a thing. The undefined idea of a garden, and you put a skin around it, and now it’s a garden. So I just kept walking.

So stuff like that, figuring out what’s there and what you do with it. Versus just like, I’m going to raze everything to the ground and start over. Like, how do I work with this? That’s when I really got started thinking about woodland cultivation, and that’s when mushrooms really came up.

Are you happy with that size so far?

I think so. I think for what I want to do and what’s manageable for me. I’ve talked to farmers and they say if you’re going to do pretty much hand cultivation, it’s one farmer per acre, is sort of the ratio.

And that would be for a full-time farmer. [Laughs]. Right. And you have another job.

Right. Something to pay the bills with.

I have a battery-powered wheelbarrow, but for the most part...

That’s cool.

Yeah, they have a 42-volt battery or something like that, something huge. It can carry 250 pounds. And you just press the button.

‘Cause how much do you weigh?

I’m just about 100 pounds, so it’s like, I’m gonna need some help. But other than that it’s hand tools, and just a lot of handwork. I put those beds in by hand.

And you built the chicken coop?

My neighbor Steve, he and I sort of designed it together, but I did all the siding on there. I broke down pallets myself. I don’t know what I was thinking when I built it that big.

It is palatial for eight chickens.

That amount of siding? To be done by pallets? I couldn’t feel my hands. And I’d never learned how to use a hackzall, a sawzall, a miter saw. So I learned all that stuff in order to do that. Last year was a huge learning curve.

Biodynamics is like: have animals. The biggest lesson is have animals on the land. They have such an important role in terms of not just cycling that energy and providing that compost, but in terms of the life they bring back.

Farming can be slow going, a lot of drudge work. What’s your frustration level?

This whole journey has been – yeah a lot of struggle, a lot of learning, which is what we’re here for. But there’s a lot of encouragement, and you see things happen and you’re like, this feels very guided. It’s hard in many ways but it’s so easy in others, when you open yourself up – and this is really what Islam is. Islam, a lot of people think it means peace, and that’s part of it. But Islam means submission.

To me, that’s one of the points of religion, is to understand the place of your ego. But you get out on that land, you sit there in the mud, and the sweat, and the sun and the rain and the wind and the snow, you know your place. You get your butt kicked, and you’re like, I am not the owner. I am the caretaker. This thing knows what it wants, and I have to respect that. To me, that’s one of the biggest lessons of being a fully submitted human being. A human being, I’m just going to say. A human being.

So you have another part of your life, which is in the hustle and bustle.

My hustle, for most of my waking hours, is I’m a creative director, I work for a public relations company in New York City, Edelman, and I work specifically in scientific communications. I’m trained as a medical illustrator. So I went to art school, and I studied science and anatomy and physiology all at the same time. I got my dream job as a medical illustrator. I knew I wanted to do this from high school. I was like art editor of every magazine, every publication in my high school. That was me. Including the science magazine. I was editor in chief or our literary and art magazine. Words and pictures are my jam, since I can remember. But when I had the opportunity to take it into the world of science, I was like this is amazing. Because you’re taking all these technical terms and making them just so easy to understand.

I think science, very much like religion, if you’re not into it, you kind of feel intimidated by it. I hate that. Because science is so cool. And now I get paid to make science accessible to people. Someone’s gotta pay for it, so it’s pharma companies, biotech device companies who have a new medicine or disease pathway or something that they’re working on and they need the media to understand it, or the lay audience, or policymakers. We just launched this huge virtual reality program on the link between diabetes and heart failure – it’s going on the road, and it’s a big tour and it’s for everybody. It’s coming to the Iowa State Fair, making this information accessible using technology.

That’s one side of life, and then I come here. There’s a huge storytelling component to what I do; bringing that desire to communicate is a huge part of what I do here, too. I love teaching people. I do everything I can do, all these workshops and stuff, to take all that information and then be a bridge person. Make that information accessible.

Are your parents into all this?

Yeah, they were actually here when I first saw the place in 2016. We were on a family vacation to Lake George and we stopped here on the way. This was the first places I saw. My parents seeing it with me, my mom was like, how could I say no? My mom especially, she said it just makes sense for you. She got it.

That must be validating.

It was. Of course, I’m an adult, whatever, and I’ll do stuff that maybe they’re not totally happy with. They deal with it. I would say my parents are very progressive. They didn’t impose that expectation, all the expectation that Asian parents put on you. I was listening to some Vietnamese comedian on BBC, he was asked, why did your dad make you learn violin? We’re Asian and we have 10 fingers. Why wouldn’t we?

But my parents just said, you work hard, that’s all that you need. It wasn’t like you have to become a doctor, it wasn’t anything. I went to art school... as an Indian, right? That was just really weird. They never put that expectation. They thought this was all weird. I think they knew that because I was coming at it from a Muslim perspective, like when I started working with the mosque and started thinking about all the waste, how to sort of get that green message that’s already in the Koran a little bit more obvious. They understood it. They thought it was weird, but they understood it.

I think my biggest gratification came when I took pictures of my fields when I had all the lettuce in full bloom, just before the food pantry came. I took a picture and sent it to my parents, and my dad forwarded it on to my uncle in California, he said, Look she’s a real farmer now. I’m going to cry. He was so proud of me.

So much has happened here in three years.

This whole idea was just a figment of my imagination. If there’s anything that I learned, it’s reinforcing all those things you’ve heard your whole life: dream big. Dream big. Yeah there’s a little bit of luck thrown in, but you want it, you go get it. And the bigger you dream, the harder you’re going to work. And I’m not going to say that this was something I planned for myself, because I try to steer clear of life planning, I don’t really see the point of it. But I think this is where I needed to be. I get it now.

But I had no way of knowing that back then. I wasn’t going to steer my life toward this. If I had some vision when I was younger: yeah I want to be a farmer. I would have gone to agriculture school. I wouldn’t have been able to afford this if I had done that, right?

Not only dream big, but put it out there. People learn this when you’re in college, if you want to do something you just blab, tell everybody, and someone will find you something. If they don’t know, they’re not going to be able to help you. But put it out there: speak it, think it, dream it, just keep emanating this idea of what you want.

I feel like this whole journey has taught me very much that idea of, when you have a vision, do not, do not cast doubt on what you want. ‘Cause people can be very... “this is stupid.”

Why is it that people are so dismissive of farming? Is it because this work isn’t well paid?

I don’t think it’s restricted at all to the immigrant community, but I think there’s this whole idea of money equals this tangible thing that equates to what you’re doing. When I bring people over, I’m so excited about the fact that these chickens lay these beautiful eggs. I see them as these little miracles. I actually put them on my holiday card – because I wanted people to see, look at how freakin’ gorgeous this is.

I think about the farm in that way, too. You make something beautiful and people want to come in, and people want to explore it. Creating beautiful spaces: there’s no money in that. But I have another means to pay my bills. The benefit I get from this work is passing it on. I think from a Muslim perspective too, that’s my job. That’s my goal, but it’s also my job as I’ve come to see it.

You’ve hosted retreats here. What was that like?

I’ve worked with the Islamic Center of Rockland, there’s a youth group – they’re not kids, more like teenagers. They’re more capable intellectually of understanding some of these higher minded principals, so they’re at that age where they’re maybe sort of starting to contemplate their lives, they’re trying to get jobs or they’re in college, and they’re thinking about their place in this world. I’ve seen them just get really quiet [when they come here]. They have no cell phone reception here, which is great. And something happens to people when they come here. I mean, it happened to me, you know?

I see these girls who come here with their bags, and they’re all obsessed with collecting these shoes. I’m like, you give so much importance to something that a human being has made. Look at that tree. Could you make that? Could you even contemplate making that?

If I can plant that seed, you know. Because I didn’t come to that thought until I was almost 40, and they’re 17. But no one planted that seed for me. So if I can just sort of shake up that priority list a little bit. I think there’s this fascination with human achievement, but in so doing we’ve forgotten all the magic that was there from the start because we’re sort of self-obsessed. The whole ease and convenience aspect of the world we’ve created, I am not at all dissing that, but again – at what cost?