Farming at the White House

First Lady Michelle Obama at work in the White House vegetable garden (Chuck Kennedy/White House)

When it comes to statecraft, it’s better to be a hunter than a gatherer. Our current political dramas are red in tooth and claw: Frank Underwood whips his votes and smothers his opposition on House of Cards, and Olivia Pope oversees a grisly carnival of murder and machinations on Scandal. 24 will restart soon, and the great game of geopolitics will again be reduced to smashed kneecaps and busted noses. Ruthlessness has a mandate.

My dad is a farmer, a profession not generally known for being coldblooded, but a few years ago the White House called and asked if he would help the administration. Barack Obama had just been elected and the first lady needed help growing a garden on the lawn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. My dad jumped at the opportunity.

My parents, Jim and Emeline Crawford, have been farming vegetables organically for 40 years. The farm is in Pennsylvania, but they sell most of their vegetables in Washington, D.C., both at farmers’ markets and wholesale to restaurants, co-ops, and natural foods stores, so they’ve had their share of contact with politicians. Walter Mondale came to our market in Cleveland Park to shop for tomatoes, and Al Gore watched his son play football against my high-school team. My parents’ customers populate late night C-SPAN and offer congressional testimony to empty galleries.

My father had actually considered politics before becoming a farmer. He was a casual activist in college, trying to convince football players and debutantes at Rice University of the need for racial justice, and he’d almost been a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War. Instead, he was sent to the Naval Language Institute in Monterey, California, where he graduated at the top of his class. At first it looked like he’d avoid deployment, but then he was denied security clearances, partly because of his early activism, so they sent him to Vietnam anyway. Years later I was talking to a woman in San Francisco whose father had also been at the Naval Institute. “Oh, your dad must have been training to be a spy,” she said. She seemed so certain that I felt a little naïve. I never asked him about it.

The political stakes were higher by the time he came home in 1970, and he moved to Washington and joined a group of officers organizing against the war. He got more involved and consequently angrier, and eventually he resigned his officer’s commission. He left for Russia soon after his discharge to take part in an educational program.

When he came home he went to work for Representative Bella Abzug and was briefly courted by Marty Peretz to work as a political organizer, but he decided on law school instead. He lasted a year before he started farming. His political activism was all in the distant past by the time he went to work for the White House. My dad still had strong convictions, and he was a fierce supporter of Barack Obama, but by 2009, vegetables were his life’s work.

* * *

I was living in Boston at the time, and my dad called to tell me. I could hear my mother yelling in the background: “I just want Michelle to invite us to dinner! That’s it!”

It’s hard to describe exactly how this felt. The country was still in its deep post-election swoon, and being tapped to help this president, even in a tiny way, seemed like an invitation to join history.

My dad went to meet the White House chef—a young guy named Sam Kass who had already been working with the Obamas for years—at a Greek restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. There would be important political considerations for this garden. My father had to keep his role completely secret, and the messaging from the White House—the optics—had to be crystal clear.

My dad was asked to provide seedlings from our greenhouse, help adjust the soil quality, offer some tips about pest control, and generally advise. When he got home that night my dad made a sketch of the layout of the plot, reviewed different varieties of vegetables, made a chart of the ideal planting times and a list of the tools they’d need.

The first time he visited the White House, he looked at the grassy patch where the garden would go. He dug up the dirt in a few spots and kicked the clumps apart to try to get a sense of what the soil was like—fine but somewhat overworked. He looked at the surrounding trees to judge how the shade would fall, and at the slope of the land to make sure there wouldn’t be any issues with drainage.

A week later a local man drove down our dirt road with a backhoe. He lumbered up past the barn, scattering barn cats as he went, and swayed and rumbled down to the farm’s bottom land along the creek and filled his dump truck. He drove down to Washington that afternoon and dumped our dirt on the White House lawn.

In the first days of April my father went back to plant the first seedlings—marked in our greenhouse with little plastic tags that said “White House.” He called my mother on his cell phone when he was done and said that and he could hear the Marine Corps Band practicing in the distance, and that Obama’s new dog, Bo, was rolling around in the newly turned dirt.

* * *

In the middle of July I went with him to see the garden. We hit traffic at Democracy Boulevard and we were 40 minutes late. My dad had been having arguments with the Marines at the gate every time he visited that summer, partly because he was never on time, and he grumbled about how a kid who could barely shave was being so unreasonable. They eventually waved us through, and a crowd of tourists parted for our Camry.

Arlo and Jim Crawford (Melanie McLean)

What struck me most was just how empty it seemed. It was a hot day in D.C., and the White House felt like a sleepy country estate. There were wide lawns stretching off into the distance, and the cicadas buzzed in the trees. It was easy to imagine cows—like the Holstein named Mooley Wooly that President Taft grazed here for fresh milk—lying in the shade under the tall maples and oaks.

The garden was cut off by hedges, and we felt unsupervised. My father looked around the garden for problems, and I went inside the basketball court that sat behind the garden and took a picture of the backboards with the presidential seal on them.

After we’d been working for a few minutes the chef came around the corner and found us. “Your dad is the hero,” he said. “Seriously, this garden is awesome. We’re getting a shit-ton of stuff out of it.”

My father looked at some carrots and gave some advice about watering.

"Jim has spoken!" the chef said. He went to look at some lettuce and said, “Oprah’s going to be here next week, we really need this to be ready.”

We spent an hour transplanting broccoli and kale, and I took some pictures of the beans. We took some shots of each other standing in front of the White House with a shovel, and then we packed the now-empty flats and the trowels in the trunk of the car and drove back home.

* * *

My father wasn’t in the public eye, but everyone on our farm knew what was going on. During the first few weeks an obvious thrill went through the barnyard each time the phone rang and someone yelled out, “Jim, the White House is calling!”

The summer got going and the garden kept growing. There were a few moments of tension; a slightly unreasonable demand that a crop of kale be ready in time for the taping of TV show, and the abandonment of a perfectly good crop of spinach because no one bothered to thin it. It rankled my dad a little that the White House didn’t seem as interested in actually teaching people to grow vegetables—that is, in promoting the practical aspect of the work—and he thought that it was a missed opportunity.

Things went a little downhill after a press event toward the end of the summer. Michelle Obama was harvesting squash with a group of kids, and my dad had casually answered a few questions from a reporter standing in the back. Someone from the White House called the next day and gave him a serious dressing down. He was devastated. I found him in his office afterwards, practically in tears.

But the incident blew over, and he continued to go down to the White House every other week or so to give his input on a problem with the beans or how to stake the tomatoes. The groundskeepers had a good handle on the work by then, and various staff members were enthusiastic participants—a staffer in the Labor Department might help with weeding, and a policy aide could harvest cherry tomatoes during his lunch break.

With the full weight of summer bearing down on our farm, my dad was too busy to think about the White House much, and by early September we were having a beer at the kitchen table and talking about how it had all turned out. The political realities of the farm had left my dad a little bit disillusioned.

 “I wouldn’t mind a thank you from Michelle Obama,” he said.

 “Well,” I said, “She’s pretty busy.”

“Yeah, it was fun, I guess. It just wasn’t really real, you know? It wasn’t really a farm.”

The White House, for obvious reasons, focused on big, important, but abstract concerns like reducing childhood obesity. My dad’s worries about the spacing of the collards seemed less important in comparison. But my dad can be obsessive—he once had a bout of nightmares involving an imaginary crop of unharvested cabbage. He understood and appreciated that there was a bigger picture, but he made his living by fixating on the fine details.

* * *

A gingerbread model of the White House vegetable garden on display in the State Dining Room (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

By December my dad’s work at the garden had finished up, but the chef called a few days before Christmas and offered to give our family a tour of the White House decorated for the holiday. We parked on K Street, my father handed over his pocket knife at the metal detectors, and we were ushered to a waiting room where my dad paced, compensating for his nervousness by occasionally stopping to adjust a lamp or straighten a chair. 

My mother perused the portraits of the first ladies and tried to distract us from how my dad was rearranging the furniture: “Look, I think this one is Bess Truman!”

Eventually we saw the massive Christmas tree in the Blue Room and the famous portrait of a pensive John F. Kennedy, and we watched Rockettes in sweatpants practice the routines they’d be putting on later that night at a special function. We went to the State Dining Room to see a gingerbread White House with a tiny vegetable garden in front, with little eggplants and tomatoes made of sugar.

We trooped out into the snow to see the garden and take a few pictures with the humps of frozen dirt. Afterwards we followed the chef up two flights of back stairs, and stepped back into a long carpeted hall that was quiet and luxurious, understated like a nice law firm. We went to the end of the hall and around a corner when he ushered us toward an open door. I walked in first, and the first lady looked up from her desk.

“Get in here, come on in, don’t be shy!”

The walls were pale peach, and there was a Christmas tree in the corner. We shuffled around and stayed close to each other.

 “This must be the farmer!” she said.

My dad nodded and grinned a hard smile, but none of us really knew what to say. There was some gentle ribbing of the chef about how he didn’t know much about farming, and some discussion of the people who had enjoyed the vegetables.

“We get everyone in here, Dukes and Duchesses, and the first thing they want to see is that garden!”

There was a pause and we all looked around the little space. Eventually my mother spoke up, “So, what’s your family doing for the holidays?”

“Oh, we’re trying to get out of here and go to Hawaii. That’s where the girls’ grandmother is from.”

We shook our heads like we had no idea that the president was from Hawaii: “So interesting!”

“We just need to get this healthcare thing done and we can get out of here.”

More head nodding from us.

“Well, should we take some pictures?” she said.

We gathered around the first lady, and then the rest of us moved back while she took my father’s hand.

“You really made it all possible, you really did. That spinach tasted like honey.”

My father spoke for the first time, “Well, you’re welcome.”

The flash went off, and everyone relaxed.

I felt a little mortified that my dad hadn’t said more, hadn’t made the normal sounds of deference and humility, but we were all nervous and our time felt brief in the awesome presence of the first lady. Her open Diet Coke was right there on the table. There was a box of Kleenex, and if we wanted we could have just grabbed one. The first lady’s Kleenex! Just sitting there!

It was more than that, though. When Michelle Obama mentioned that spinach, when she spoke so sincerely about the garden, I think my father finally felt heard. She understood our concerns about the collards. She knew the carrots were important. She believed in us. For a few moments, caught in the full beam of her political power, there was no way to feel cynical, or invisible, or impotent. We were the most important farmers in the world. 

Then we said goodbye and filed out of the office. Our jaws hurt from smiling and we didn’t talk much on the way back to the car. In two hours we were back on the farm, just normal people again. My father went out to his office to get his invoices done and the rest of sat in the kitchen and ate leftovers.

Politics can seem like a brutal game played for nothing but chits, but every once in a while—a visit to the looming black angles of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or watching a scratchy film of Eleanor Roosevelt offering her hand to smudgy little girl standing shyly outside a shack in Appalachia—it feels true. These are the moments when we are suddenly, unexpectedly, citizens.

We still have the picture with the first lady, my father shaking her hand, on the sideboard in the dining room. Most of the other pictures in the room are of vegetables; a watercolor of a farmer’s market, a framed label from a tomato crate, a pastel of a rutabaga. Our brush with politics was thrilling, and a very small, easily given service to the country. But my dad made his decision a long time ago about what was really important to him. Politicians run the world, but a farmer’s first loyalties are to a smaller patch of dirt.

Arlo Crawford is a writer based in San Francisco and the author of A Farm Dies Once a Year. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Gastronomica.


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