In the middle of the pandemic, she left a lucrative tech job to become a farmer
Portrait: Courtesy of Nicole Yeo | Collage: Alice Heyeh for The Counter/iStock
Portrait: Courtesy of Nicole Yeo | Collage: Alice Heyeh for The Counter/iStock
Confronting Covid-19, ongoing social inequities, and worsening climate crises pushed Nicole Yeo to ask herself: “What is the most impactful thing I can be doing with my time, being alive on the Earth?”
Nicole Yeo had always wanted to orient her life toward social justice, but in the years following her college graduation, she struggled with career inertia. Having landed a string of cushy design jobs at various startups amid the tech boom, Yeo never quite felt an immediate urge to upend her life—until the pandemic hit.
In the spring and summer of 2020, Yeo found herself bearing witness to multiple crises: the public health emergency, its accompanying economic recession, ongoing police brutality, and worsening weather events caused by climate change. She began actively to consider what it would look like to chart a different professional path. That search eventually led her to a newfound passion for agriculture, and an interest in the role that restorative relationships with land can play in repairing both communities and ecosystems.
In March of 2020, I was a director of product design at a tech company. I had been working in startups in New York City and San Francisco for about 10 years, following my college graduation right at the beginning of the tech boom.
Throughout my career I had wanted to work within social justice eventually, but that was always in the back of my mind. It’s like, ‘I’ll do it right after this next couple of years, after a little more experience, after a little more money.’
With a pandemic and the climate crisis and the survival of our species at stake, I found myself thinking about what kind of world I would want to bring my child into—if I were to have a child—and also what I want them to see me doing.
With a pandemic and the climate crisis and the survival of our species at stake, I found myself thinking about what kind of world I would want to bring my child into—if I were to have a child—and also what I want them to see me doing. Then, in June and July, after George Floyd’s murder, while participating in weekly protests, I realized that all of these things that I care about have nothing to do with the things that I spend the majority of the hours of my day on at work.
It was very scary to think about what life would be if I wasn’t doing the tech job. But looking at socioeconomic inequity both all over the world and also locally in New York City, I was just, like, ‘I can’t live with myself just trying to numb away the pain.’ That brought me to this place of needing a change, needing to do something different.
So I took one week of vacation and I told myself, ‘I’m going to figure out what I’m going to do with my life by the end of the week.’ I did a lot of research pursuing this question: What is the most impactful thing I can be doing with my time, being alive on the Earth, in this moment of the climate emergency? What is the best thing to be working on? So many things—such as writings by Sarah Taber and wisdom from A Growing Culture’s farmer network—pointed to agriculture. Farming is the way that we are impacting the land the most because everybody needs to eat and everybody is trying to grow food in so many different ways. On the last day before I had to go back to work, I asked myself: What if I just told myself I was going to be a farmer?
I started volunteering in August, made a lot of connections, and met some great people. As the winter came on, I began looking for educational opportunities, so I ended up taking all these courses on vegetable production, on poultry, on mushrooms via the Cornell Small Farms program. I also read a ton of books on indigenous philosophies, including Wisdom Sits in Places and The Wayfinders; I read Farming While Black by Leah Penniman; I read 40 Centuries of Farming, which is a book about agriculture in Japan, China, and Korea.
Farming is the way that we are impacting the land the most because everybody needs to eat and everybody is trying to grow food in so many different ways. On the last day before I had to go back to work, I asked myself: What if I just told myself I was going to be a farmer?
Meanwhile, I was also really involved with this organization called Heart of Dinner, which is a mutual aid organization that provides culturally relevant meals to Asian-American elders every week. It was just such a powerful thing to be a part of during the winter. This is something we can all do to make sure everyone can eat and everyone has attention and is cared for.
When January and February came around, I made a spreadsheet of farm jobs and then as soon applications opened up, I applied. I ended up getting a job as a seasonal farmer and environmental educator at Randall’s Island Park Alliance—a non-profit dedicated to the maintenance of Randall’s Island Park in New York City—which was really exciting. I felt like it was a longshot, so I was quite in disbelief.
Photo courtesy of Nicole Yeo
Four months into the job, it has been amazing. It has been hard. It’s been a new learning experience every single day. Learning how to work outside and with my body has been a fascinating experience. How do you pace yourself? How do you relate to different soreness in your body? How do you hold your body when you’re doing different tasks that are repetitive? Just learning to be a physical human in the world with physical tools working outside in a range of conditions is really fascinating.
Fifty percent of my job is being an environmental educator. This is the first time I have taught children and teenagers, who do field trips on our farm twice a week. Every weekend, we also host volunteers, and hosting them is so, so beautiful. It’s such a rewarding experience to be able to share the land with people and share the work with other people of all different demographics.
Farming has helped me feel—not absolved, because there’s so much more work to do with being anti-racist—but it helped me see a light and direction to move toward
In the months ahead, I’m looking forward to fall, a time of closure and reflection. There’s a lot of rituals, like saving what we grew to be able to last through the winter and all of these things I’m excited to experience. I’ve been really interested in preservation.
Farming has helped me feel—not absolved, because there’s so much more work to do with being anti-racist—but it helped me see a light and direction to move toward. I am a settler here, and I am not indigenous to this area, but I’m here now, and it’s our work to understand how to be in balance with the land that we currently live on. How are you protecting that water? How are you protecting this air? How are you protecting the ecosystem that is here? How do we heal our relationship with the land that we live that sustains us now?
The pandemic, for me, has really been one variable in a larger climate emergency. We really need to learn from this moment about how important it is that we have to work together for our collective health. Everything that we do impacts each other—whether it’s the air we breathe or the viruses that are spread among us or how much we plant and interact with the land.
So I’ve seen the pandemic and the way that we react to it as a kind of a microcosm for whether or not we’ll be able to work together to tackle the climate crisis. The same anxiety that I have about just the habitability of our planet is the same as the pandemic anxiety. There’s also a kind of slow and steady hope every day that more and more people are going to wake up and be able to move beyond individualism mentalities and to see that we really need each other
The same process of how we need to not be extracting from land, extracting from other people and laborers, and extracting from ourselves—that whole shift is all related to the same pivot and the same adjustment to see that we need to be in reciprocal relationship to both ourselves and the land, and then also to each other. It is a lot of internal work. I’ll probably be working on it for the rest of my life.