This painting shows Leslie, peering out from under the hand-me-down sunhat she inherited from her mother, taking a brief break from the endless work of organic vegetable farming to spend a moment admiring a box turtle. Never mind that box turtles amble through strawberry and tomato patches, taking a single bite out of each fruit within their reach, rendering the produce unsellable; Leslie loves turtles more than just about anything. I created this painting of her and this box turtle for an art show in our hometown of Columbia, Missouri. The show was entitled The View from Here, and artists were to submit pieces that centered around life in Missouri; that elevated its beautiful landscapes and people.
Leslie became a farmer not because of a family tradition, an environmental call to action, or to make a political statement against conventional agriculture. She became a farmer because of food. When she decided against culinary school, she followed her love of food to the vegetable fields instead. She approaches vegetable production with a sense of artistry and innovation, sentiments more commonly associated with the chefs that plate our food than with the farmers who grow it.
There may be no better way to illustrate how integral fine food is to Leslie’s being than by looking at her last name.
The diminutive form of a rare variety of French wheat.
Now, do not mistake Leslie as merely a foodie, or worse, a gardener (a term used in our part of the world by male row crop farmers to marginalize women who grow produce). Leslie loves food but she is also a damn good farmer. A good farmer and a hard worker who would only take a break from weeding or harvesting or building fence to appreciate a creature as lovely as a box turtle.
The three-toed box turtle is the state reptile of Missouri. I love Missouri. Though I recognize its flaws, it is home to me, and I will defend its honor until the day that I die. Missouri is a beautiful and complicated place—both Northern and Southern, hilly and flat, home to Mark Twain and Monsanto—and among the vast fields of Round-Up Ready soybeans and Bt corn, organic vegetable farmers like Leslie are trying to make it a little better. And tastier.
Sarah Cramer is a PhD candidate in agricultural education at the University of Missouri. Sarah holds a master’s in public health, and before returning to graduate school for her doctorate, worked as an educator at a school gardening non-profit in rural Missouri. She is also a beekeeper (did you know that the state insect of Missouri is the honeybee?), painter, and an avowed vegetarian with a newfound and paradoxical passion for raising broiler chickens.
Leslie Touzeau is a master’s student in rural sociology at the University of Missouri. After spending eight years as a full-time organic vegetable farmer, she returned to school to study African-American farmers like herself. Her research has taken her throughout Missouri and the Deep South, and spurred her to investigate her own family’s roots in agriculture and slavery. She is the best cook that Sarah has ever met.