Alumni Profile: Sarah Simon '13

Sarah Simon
Posted on December 1, 2014


Comparative Literature

Professional role and organization:

Vegetable apprentice, Dandelion Spring Farm, Newcastle, Maine

How do you define sustainability?

I think sustainability is the goal of balancing the needs of humans with the needs of the larger ecosystem, so that human existence can continue.

How does your work relate to sustainability and how did Princeton prepare you for your role?

While at Princeton I worked at the Princeton Garden Project, the student-run organic garden. What began as a diversion from my studies blossomed into an interest and passion that has directed my activities since graduating in 2013.

Whether or not small farms can feed the world, they can preserve plant and animal diversity while additionally contributing to human and soil health, and without necessitating reliance on external inputs and fossil fuels. I am convinced that we need more farmers, not fewer, since larger farms have not yet shown themselves able to produce efficiently while also consuming energy sustainably, and while also meeting the needs of soil and livestock health in particular. Additionally, growing food, being outside and using my body are a source of great joy for me, and while it is certainly a triumph of the modern world that not everyone must farm and can pursue other things, I am convinced that maintaining connection and awareness to the food we consume is part of a meaningful life.

Importantly, I do not find farming, even on an organic or small farm, to be inherently 'sustainable'. Farms are also businesses, and the drive to profit can redirect the ambition to care for the whole farm ecosystem by shifting focus to the quantity of food pulled from the ground. "Feed the soil, not the plant" is a mantra of farmers working to sustain healthy whole farm ecosystems, and I find that this idea can be broadly applied if we understand it to mean work for the long-term solution rather than taking the quick fix. It will pay off eventually (in the case of healthy soil) and it will do so because the farmer has created a truly elegant and sustainable system through building a healthy soil structure, rather than zapping the plant with nutrients pumped in through tubes. I know many small farmers who manage to be relatively profitable while maintaining their sanity and their values. This is not easy, however, as there often arises a conflict between profit and other human values. As I look towards owning and managing my own farm, I have come to realize how implicit profit as highest value can feel in a small business, and yet sustainability and all that it entails in different settings have to take on a higher value as individuals make their choices, for change and responsible stewardship of the planet to occur.

What advice would you offer to students seeking to focus on or incorporate sustainability in their careers?

I think it is wonderful that highly educated people are now increasingly interested in farming, and I would encourage Princeton students to consider careers that fall outside of their major or outside of the norm in their social circles. My education has not ceased since I left Princeton, and I have found plenty of fellow young people who are also still learning and trying different jobs and moving on. Princetonians have a lot of doors open to them, and I would encourage students to consider the range of options in the realm of sustainability, rather than settling too quickly upon what is lucrative, stable or conventional.

Careers aside to some extent, an aspect of sustainability that I wish drew more attention is what I began to allude to in the last question, namely that we need to be less greedy. Rather than implicitly focusing on profit, we need to cultivate the importance of other values . Rather than waiting for renewable technologies to catch up with increasing consumer demand (especially since there is no certainty that this can or will happen) we can be taking steps now to reduce our consumption of unnecessary things. There are no prizes for austerity, but fighting the inclination to greed and overconsumption is an important battle even if the notion that our individual choices can 'save the world' feels ridiculous. Learning to 'need' less necessitates self-awareness, restraint and compassion for the needs of others, which have value outside of a sustainability context. Learning what one truly needs, and then figuring out how to meet those needs in a peaceful, kind way with respect to others and the environment, are the tasks lying before people who want to incorporate sustainability in their lives.