CSUS alumna spotlight: Deepa Iyer
Deepa shares what makes her work as a farmer and educator meaningful.
Building community around food and farming is Deepa Iyer’s lifelong mission.
Based in Washington, Deepa is an environmental educator and farmer. Her deep connection with the land and with people is what inspires her to do transformational food justice work.
“Growing food and working with kids is really my passion,” she says. “Working directly with people and working directly with the land is what makes me feel alive and makes life worth living.”
Deepa received her master’s degree in the Department of Community Sustainability (CSUS), formerly known as Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies (CARRS). As a graduate of the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, she is using her talents to cultivate her community’s connections with the land and their cultures.
“I think my strength is to make space for people to have experiences that open their heart to the things that we really want to focus on in life,” she says. “What's really important is to care for the Earth and care for each other.”
Deepa works for the International Rescue Committee and manages the New Roots program, which connects refugees who come to the Unites States with resources related to farming, gardening, food security, and food justice.
She is also the co-owner of Ayeko Farm, located about 40 minutes outside of Seattle.
On the farm, Deepa and her partner Victor tend over 21 acres of land. Growing everything from cucumbers and amaranth to raspberries and bitter gourd, they work hard to grow culturally important foods for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in their community.
Working directly with people and working directly with the land is what makes me feel alive. Deepa Iyer
Deepa is also a Castanea Fellow. In the Castanea Fellowship program, she connects with other food justice leaders who are looking to develop relationships and create systemic change in the food system.
“Understanding where our food comes from and understanding our need to get rid of the oppression that's in our food system is a point of connection,” Deepa says. “How do we understand those roots and start to create something that is liberatory for people?”
Read below to learn about Deepa’s life’s work and how she is applying what she learned during her graduate program!
Degree and Program:
M.S. Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies
(This graduate program is now called Community Sustainability.)
Why did you decide to go to grad school?
I graduated from my undergraduate in 2000. I have such a deep love of learning - I love to read, I love to study and I love to learn hands-on.
What I noticed happening over the 10 years between undergraduate and graduate school was that I didn't feel like I was able to stop and think deeply about what I was doing, about what was happening in the world and what my next step should be. I wanted to really figure out how best to use my energies and my talents for the transformational work that I wanted to do.
What were some of the activities you participated in as a graduate student at MSU?
As a master’s student, my main project focused on elder women in the Himalayas in India and what their experience was with agriculture, traditional foods, and how it changed over the course of their lifetime. I did qualitative research and traveled around India for a couple of months, which was an absolutely amazing experience. I feel really grateful to have gotten to do that.
I got to interview all of these incredible women who had farmed in the mountains their entire lives and were able to share experiences of the way that they ate and the way that they farmed and how that changed over time.
I found out that there used to be a ton of traditional crop and seed diversity but there is way less now. There were more issues with landslides, mudslides, and erosion because people are farming in less sustainable ways. At the same time, women were like, “Well, we used to be really hungry all the time and now we’re not as hungry anymore.” There’s a lot more to eat now, post- Green Revolution.
I was also working for my advisor Wynne Wright for an assistantship, researching the impacts of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was totally new at the time. We were talking about the impacts of the Good Agriculture Practices (GAPs) on small and mid-sized farmers. I interviewed 60 asparagus and berry growers all around Michigan. That was a really amazing project as well. Getting to drive all around the state of Michigan, which is so beautiful, and getting to meet all these farmers all around the state was really interesting.
I also used to work at the MSU Student Organic Farm. I volunteered for a while and I was able to get on staff which was awesome. I really wanted to keep my connection to actually growing food.
What did you do after graduation?
During my second year of my graduate program I met Victor, who is now my life partner. We spent the second year of my graduate program getting closer. We moved in together and we lived one more year in Michigan.
I had the opportunity to work with this amazing woman named Gwen, who owns a farm called Rainbow’s End Farm in Fowlerville. I started going out to Fowlerville all the time and she gave me almost an acre. We grew a ton of vegetables and I was selling them at the Holt Farmers Market. It was a great experience.
I also worked for Kim Chung on a SNAP-ed project, so I was really connected in a lot of ways to Michigan State University.
What do you do in your current work?
Victor and I decided to move back to the San Francisco Bay area in 2014 and that's when I started working for the International Rescue Committee. International Rescue Committee is a humanitarian organization and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S. I’ve been working with them for seven years. I do a lot of grant writing, reporting, and program design, implementation, and evaluation.
I manage a program called New Roots. New Roots works with people who came to the U.S. as refugees and want to be farming here. We coordinate community gardens, food systems navigation education, youth leadership development, food justice and food systems change, and technical training for farmers who want to go into commercial directions.
What skills did you learn in your graduate program that you continue to use today?
I’m good at reading academic papers, writing, and asking lots of questions. I have a better understanding of the food system, social justice and ecological issues, and how to think about problems from multiple stakeholder perspectives.
My master's helped me get my job at the International Rescue Committee. A lot of the things that we learned and did in my program really prepared me for that position.
Tell us about Ayeko Farm.
I started out in Oakland and then moved to Seattle area after my daughter was born. I've been in the Seattle area for five years now almost.
It's always been my dream to buy land. We bought land in 2018 with my family's help. We have a 21 acre property about an hour outside of Seattle and we decided that we were going to do a mission-driven farm.
Our farm is called Ayeko Farm. Our mission is to create space for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community to reconnect to the land and to our cultures through food and farming. We do that through growing culturally important foods, through events and community gatherings, and through educational programming.
We’re currently in the business planning phase. I'm still working full-time and Victor is fully farming the whole thing.
One of the things that gives me a lot of satisfaction and joy is seeing people eat the food we grow. I had some friends come out. We were growing mustard greens and they tasted it out of the field. And they were both like,
“Oh my god. This tastes like the greens back home!” For me, it was just mustard greens, but they couldn't get that variety, that flavor in the store.
What are some of the projects you’re working on at Ayeko Farm?
We grow all sorts of veggies - cucumbers, tomatoes, beans. We have experimented with growing amaranth leaves, which is very popular in lots of communities. We're going to trying red carrot this year, which is very popular with Indian folks but isn't really found in stores here. We've also experimented with yardlong bean, roselle, bottle gourd, and bitter gourd.
Two years ago, we planted 400 raspberry bushes with lots of help from friends. We're going to open a small raspberry u-pick.
There’s a salmon-bearing creek running across our property. We're doing a whole creek restoration. We enrolled in a federal project and they pay a little bit of money for us to take our acreage out of production. The salmon in the Northwest is so important, but their populations are so down because of deforestation and contamination in the water. Deforestation increases temperature of the water, and salmon eggs can't hatch properly. That's one of the reasons we're going to plant a forest along our creek.
What has it been like to participate in the Castanea Fellowship program?
The Castanea Fellowship is amazing. I feel really blessed to be part of that. It’s a fellowship that’s designed to support the growth and development of food justice leaders, mostly food justice leaders of color. It's a two-year program and it comes with some funding for us to support our projects and ourselves. I feel really lucky to have been selected.
The other fellows are just absolutely incredible people. I cannot wait to meet them in person. It’s been tough to only be able to connect via Zoom.
What is your advice for current students?
If possible, take a year and experience the work you want to do. If you're in parks, go work as a camp site manager or ranger. Go do something with your hands and your body on the earth.
Taking a year to do that is going to be one of the most important things. Jumping from high school to college to graduate program to job – I just don't think that that's going to feed your soul. I also feel like it's not really setting us up to have people who have lived experience in leadership. We want people who are in leadership to have lived experience. That is the most critical thing for having wisdom.
The other thing which I would probably say to anybody is really, really listen to your heart. It doesn't mean you have to do everything your heart says, because sometimes your head is smarter, but you still have to listen to your heart. If we don't know who we are and we don't develop our gifts, I don't know if we can really be in full service to others. I think that should be our mission regardless of what path you take - to be in service to others.