The Story of Burnout Fueled by Climate Grief and Food Injustice – An Interview with Amber Tamm

Interview by Maia Wikler - Video & Photos By Syd Woodward & Alex Harris.

Amber Tamm Canty is a young, black female farmer and healer from Brooklyn, New York whose work connects diverse communities with the earth and nourishing foods. Based in the concrete jungle of New York City, she has worked as a horticulturist, florist, landscaper and urban farmer/gardener. What is typically overlooked, and not discussed often enough, are the extreme hardships that result from working to fix broken food systems in the midst of climate change. Amber felt this is a story that needs to be told. 

Two months ago, we visited with Amber who shared stories of healing and urban food systems that culminated in the film above. During the period of time between our first meeting and this interview, Amber realized she was experiencing burnout and felt it was important to share her experiences with the hardships of farming. At the time of this most recent interview she had decided to take a season off from farming and tend to her burnout. Burnout is a term that has become increasingly familiar amongst grassroots communities. It aptly describes the experience of spiritual and physical exhaustion from the weight of justice-based work. Maia Wikler, writer and climate justice organizer,  spoke with Amber for Come to Life about her experience with burnout, the roots of it, and how she is approaching her work in the midst of it all.

Maia: Before we begin, how are you feeling? Is burnout something you are wanting to talk about?

Amber: As honored as I am to be a part of this regenerative agriculture campaign, because I have access to a community that a lot of people don’t, being a black woman from the hood [and] living in the projects, when this campaign dropped there was one message in particular where this one woman was like, “Because of you, I was able to show my mom that having a career in farming is possible and I’ve been searching for someone who represented me, who is from the hood and a black woman who is doing it.” In that moment, I was like I haven’t been completely honest. I genuinely love farming, but I haven’t shown or talked about the hardships of it and it’s only giving one side of something that has many sides. I think it’s super important. Yes we can talk about the beauty and importance of it, but it is important to talk about how hard it is; to consider that on a deeper level.

M: When you went into farming, was there someone you looked up to who inspired you? Did you feel like it was going to be hard going into it? Or is this a conversation you would have liked to have seen?

A: Yes! And that is exactly why I want to do this. I knew I wanted to be a farmer when I was 7, I was going to school in Lower Manhattan and on my first day of school everyone was going around sharing about their summers and there was this one girl sharing about how she went to her family’s farm and they had harvested beans, she had this photo of her holding greens. My brain was so overwhelmed with the idea of someone being able to harvest greens and in that moment I was like this is what I have to do. I didn’t know that the apple in front of me was actually picked from a tree. I had no context that this is coming from the Earth, it shattered my reality. It awakened this whole side that everything I see in front of me is from the Earth. That was a critical moment in my lifetime.

This year, which is only my fourth year farming, has really caught up to me. I have not seen a successful way to do regenerative agriculture, which is honoring momma earth, honoring the people, giving low income communities access to fresh produce and taking care of myself. So it hit my very hard this year because I have been looking for this pathway, and like you said, I have not had anybody to refer to- if anything I am the person people are referring to.

M: It’s like how doctors are very much uplifted and celebrated. They are well paid, it’s prestigious to be a doctor and to go to medical school but food is also another source of medicine, we need it to survive. I wonder how that discrepancy of value happened.

A: Yeah! You are so right and touching on a great point because when I think about struggles, how we are all struggling to get through a day or job it is all down to the food system. This can really free people in understanding that it is not any of our fault that this is the way things are and we cannot take it on as an individual but together. That’s where my burnout was coming from, I felt I am responsible for this food system! But nothing I’m doing is working. My biggest point is that this food system was built on imperialism and slavery. The food system is broken if the way that we are getting the food, the farmers growing the food are not paid well. How can anything else be ok when that’s the foundation three times a day for the average person? Nothing else will make sense if we are overcomplicating how food is going into the ground and how we are eating it.

M: Is it isolating to do this work in a such an industrial city?

A: Yes, but I think that’s because I’m from New York City. I feel a disconnect from my culture in this city. It’s hard to be on farms because I’m separated from my culture and people who look like me. When I’m on the farm, I can’t keep up with my culture and black folks because I’m isolated on a farm that is predominantly white. For me, it’s about getting access to land and creating intentional community so one doesn’t have to choose between the city or the farm, or being around black folks or culture. I think both situations are very isolating in two different ways. The solution for me is creating space where that separation doesn’t exist.

M: Can you expand on how you are experiencing climate change and how that comes up for you?

A: I’ve really exposed myself to the harshness of the climate crisis. The first farm I ever worked on, all of the fruit trees got stripped in 2015, the year that New York City was having snow and then it would get warm. We had an apple and peach orchard, every single one of them didn’t last because it was snowing in May and going through extreme weather patterns. This year there wasn’t really any spring, it was cold and rainy then shot straight up to 80-90 degree days in late, late June. That [weather] caused a lot of flowers we planted to not blossom into fullness or the petals fell off. Flowers are cash crops for farmers, if you don’t have flowers you are in for it. Sunflowers you can sell 3 for $15 so if your cash crops aren’t coming through, there is a problem because your cash crops facilitate you selling vegetables.

M: With that heightened sense of awareness, is there a heightened sense of grief with climate change?

A: Working closely with the land it will show you where people are at. One of the first farmers markets I ever did, an older man came up to me who was a tea grower and manager of a famous reggae band. I said, ‘What! You manage a reggae band, why are you here?’ He said, ‘If you really wanna know what’s going on in the world, you’ll keep one hand in the soil. That will tell you the truth about where humanity stands.’ For me on a personal level, losing my parents in a day when my father murdered my mom, I know what it feels like to lose a mom… I hold onto agriculture farming and momma earth the same way I did with my mom. When I saw my mom going through what she was going through, my dad refusing to not treat her better, for me that’s what I see with momma earth. Here is this woman who is really letting you know she is not happy and she wants better, and it’s about all of us because if you do right by her you do right by all of us, and it’s like we are refusing to do it. My urgency with climate change is the urgency I had with my mom, like we need to do better. I feel this because I’ve seen it happen with my own mom.

M: Do you ever feel like you internalize the way people might not value agriculture in how you value yourself and your work?

A: I definitely think that is one of the things happening with my burnout. I don’t know any farmer who farms because they make money out of it, you do it for the people. I want to grow food for you and your family, I am so passionate and determined to do this even for a lousy salary, I will give you this produce for less than it really costs because that’s how passionate we are. Farmers are cities’ connection to nature… farming is a different reality, you are really aware of the pain of this planet and you are aware of some level of the solution but for some reason you can’t reach it and you can’t do it on your own, it’s a different pain body.

M: How would you explain what burnout is to those who aren’t familiar with it?

A: For me, I have witnessed this as a mixture of depression and an extreme frustration and anger at the same time. It’s those things coming together because you are doing something for the sake of everyone and you aren’t being received properly for it and you have no time for self care. I am giving all of my time for this cause, for this project, for this farm, and that leads to burn out because you are sitting with the question, ‘Is it worth it?’ But then, it’s an internal conflict of, ‘I have to do it because it’s a climate crisis and if I don’t do it then who will?’ Like you want time to slow down for yourself, with your family and your friends, you want time to not feel the weight of the climate crisis but internally you think it’s on your shoulders to do it and you are doing it with a very limited amount of resources, a limited support system of sorts and that leads to this major anger and depression. It’s also an isolating thing because the rest of the world isn’t part of it, the rest of the world is just receiving what you are doing they don’t know what’s in the background of it.

M: What does it mean for your experience to be able to identify burn out?

A: For me, I didn’t know it was happening to me. It was one of my really good friends on Instagram who called me out, she said you are experiencing burn out and you need to take a season off. That was the first time I ever heard that word and learned about it. For me that’s how it manifested, I needed to take a season off and really sit with it and say can I continue this season and not feel mentally ill? No, that was not possible for me. For some farmers they can’t walk away from it, but I think identifying burnout will help you with your family and community. And if you say you are experiencing burn out, they will know to be extra gentle and extra sensitive with you because they know you are in a particular kind of space.

M: What is your everyday like navigating this? What kind of space are you trying to create for yourself in this burn out, or are you even able to? Sometimes self care can feel hard to do too. 

A: When I’m farming and present, there is this sense of urgency. As a farmer, you are constantly moving and working. If you aren’t constantly moving and working you feel inferior, like you aren’t doing enough. When I would see farmers going into 15-20 hour days, I would feel inferior and I would be spiralling while working many hours. Being able to step back, I’ve been writing so much about what I envision, what I want the land to look like. I’ve been really trying to find ways to work with the earth from a passionate place not trying to get paid for it. This is something that we all need the same way that we need doctors. I need to work with the earth in a passionate lens.

In order for us to come up with more climate crisis solutions we, farming communities,  need to create that space for vulnerability and this is hard. This is where the medicine is, talking about the hardships of it with each other because we need each other. With farming, especially with how isolating it is and a culture that is being decimated, the more we can talk to each other, the more we can strengthen each other. But we have to talk about the harsh realities. We need to create vulnerable human spaces where we can say this shit is so hard and nobody gives a fuck about it and cry hard with each other.

M: What is nourishing for you in burn out?

A: I find freedom in reimagining a food system and allowing myself to create a realm in which I can make a food system much better. What I’m advocating in this climate crisis is for that. We are all held accountable for what the food system is right now and for this climate crisis, personally, but also on an ancestral level. So free yourself up because it is heavy. It’s reimagining, those are the seeds we want to plant for our children. We know the climate crisis is happening, I know farming is going to be a struggle to adjust to these extreme weather patterns. But I find it very nourishing to think about what farming could be if I had all the resources to move it the right way. I encourage that, in order to experience some joy, to reimagine it and redesign it in your head, I find that in thinking those thoughts, I’m moving toward it in some shape or form.

This interview has been edited for brevity. 

Follow Amber on Instagram.