From Cattle Ranching to Hip-Hop, a Family’s Love for Clean Food Prevails

The Story Of Sylvia and Dessa: The Mother-Daughter, Rancher-Rapper Duo That's Challenging The Food System

Food, they say, is a family affair. We celebrate around it, we mourn over it and, in many capacities, it’s just simply how we gather. That’s certainly the case for Sylvia Burgos Toftness, owner of Wisconsin farm and ranch Bull Brook Keep, and her daughter, rapper Dessa. While their careers may be worlds apart, their love of clean food keeps them ever closer.

I first learned about Dessa’s music just over five years ago, when a friend told me about Doomtree, a Minneapolis-based indie rap collective of which she is a member. During Doomtree’s New York stop on its 2015 All Hands Tour, I discussed the food system with Sims, one of her co-emcees, who told me, “You know, you might want to talk to Dessa’s mom. She owns a grass-fed cattle ranch.”

It’s something the mother and daughter joke about: How Sylvia, who grew up in tenements within the Bronx’s Fort Apache territory, became a farmer after years in corporate public relations, while Dessa, who was raised in suburban, middle-class south Minneapolis, became a hip hop artist.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know these women. Both are spectacularly intelligent and thoughtful. They’re both kind and, in an overstatement of the obvious, they both love food. Tracing my previous lines of communication with them, I recall that one of my first interactions with Dessa involved her exclamation of, “I just ate nine of your cookies!” in reference to a box of homemade goodies I brought to a show to thank Sims for his time. Sylvia’s Facebook posts, too, are a daily visual feast of not only what’s growing at Bull Brook Keep, but also, the artisan breads and delights being made at the farm’s baking classes (or, by Sylvia herself).

The respective routes to this point have been, at a minimum, circuitous for both women. For Sylvia, it began around age 12, when her grandparents bought into a Staten Island collective that owned property on the island, before it had much of a tangible association with the other boroughs of New York.

“It was very rural,” she said. “That really is what was imprinted on me: Those summers, spent outside, without traffic, without television, just listening to the drone of bees.”

She graduated from City College with a degree in journalism and, in an effort to escape the fiercely competitive New York landscape, eventually left her job with CBS Network Radio in Manhattan to work in Duluth, Minnesota. Though it was in that region where she found her way into PR, it was also the place that, as Sylvia put it, “reinforced my needing to be outside,” as well as her desire to support the organic and sustainable food sector.

Sylvia first joined a natural foods co-op in 1973: a time when she said “these things were all formulating,” and later volunteered with the Organic Growers and Buyers Association. It was an era, if one can imagine it, before the USDA organic label existed, and the purpose of the association was to provide certification.

“My work with them helped introduce me to other farmers … to meet certified organic dairy farmers that had several hundred cows,” Sylvia recalled. “As they were pushing through the Organic Foods Act … they were really the people who made that happen.”

In 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act passed, about nine years after Dessa was born. A working mother of two at that point, Sylvia found herself growing food for her family and practicing the teachings of the Rodale Institute in her home garden, often enlisting a young Dessa’s help.

“She hated it!” Sylvia laughed. “She would ask, ‘Why are there so many beans?’”

 

It’s difficult to imagine today’s Dessa, the tall, eloquent, rhyme-spitting musician, putting what little free time she has toward bean-picking. Still, she manages to incorporate agriculture and conscious food production into her work as a musician. Though a self-proclaimed sugar fiend (“I’m not a person who enjoys one square of dark, Swiss chocolate and can go to bed sated. I want two Snickers bars,” she once told me), Dessa has some immersion in the sustainable food realm: In part due to her mother’s work, and also as a result of her inspiration from author Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

In partnership with Clif Bar’s Green Notes, Dessa and her crew hit the road, tasked with eating at least one 100-percent local meal during each stop of her 2013 Parts of Speech tour. Along the way, she managed to wrangle Pollan for an interview and, among those commitments, found a moment to moderate a panel on the topic. Though her accomplishments within this realm, in addition to those in music, are well-documented online, Sylvia – who still refers to Dessa (birth name Margret) as “Maggie” – rattles them off like a list of medals.

“You sound very proud,” I told Sylvia.

“So, so proud,” she responded.

That pride is well-rooted, as Dessa’s work on behalf of causes is numerous, diverse, and borderline tireless. In 2012, Dessa collaborated with Minneapolis cosmetics label The Elixery to create a special edition vegan, non-animal-tested lipstick, the proceeds of which benefitted CARE’s Power Within initiative to provide education for girls in developing nations. Later this week, “as in years past,” she’ll host and perform at a fundraiser for the Southside Family Nurturing Center: A Twin Cities nonprofit that works on behalf of at-risk youth and families in crisis.

I once asked Dessa how these efforts are reflected in her work as a musician and a writer. True to her unpretentious nature, she told me, “I generally try to keep my advocacy apart from my songwriting. [My] lyrics tend to be intimate stories rather than social commentary.”

“To try to do both at once,” she continued, “often feels ungainly, or worse, patronizing.”

Those are two adjectives, I imagine, that a population of approximately zero would use to describe Dessa. She’s humble, often poking fun at herself as having grown up as a “prairie child” who, when asked about some of the best food she’s had on tour, cites cashew brittle as her “favorite find … somewhere between Minneapolis and Madison.” If invited to dinner, she said, she would choose to do so at the home of Leonard Cohen.

“Or maybe Oprah’s. Or Yo-Yo Ma’s. Or Aziz Ansari. Maybe Manny Pacquiao,” she went on. “Some I admire, some just interest me.” It’s the proclamation of someone who can truly see beneath the surface to discover and learn the full story: Of an individual, a meal, or a place.

Is there a collective outlook on food, then, from this integrity-filled, mother-daughter duo?

Not really. For her part, Dessa says, “Sweet, fatty food tastes delicious. At least, it does to me,” she admits. “Choosing healthy options, when so many engineered temptations abound, is a real act of discipline. And I believe convenience to be a larger factor than any of us are inclined to admit.”

That’s a lesson she learned first-hand during the Green Notes project, as she later noted in the official post-tour “In Focus” interview: Sticking to the good-willed intention, in some places, was “almost impossible, at least when you’re rolling through at 10pm and your dinner choices are pretty limited, and none of them are boasting local fare as a selling point.” And though she indicated the plethora of information on the topic to be, at times, a bit overwhelming and inconclusive, she’s not discouraged.

“My takeaway has been not to let the size and scope of the debate be so intimidating that I’m afraid to engage,” she said in the interview, “and also not to let the perfect stand as the enemy of the good.”

Sylvia, meanwhile, is encouraged by the numbers, pointing to the tremendous growth of the organic food industry.

“That’s been double-digits growth since the 1990s, except for one year during the recession,” she said. “At the same time, organic acres have made a parallel incline. The farmers’ markets have gone from 1,700 a few years ago, to over 8,000 now, according to the last USDA farmers’ market survey.”

At the same time, she doesn’t discount incremental change.

“I think people need to start from where they are,” she said. “You will make wonderful changes, a little bit of a time.”

For both, the interaction with new audiences, advocates, and consumers appears to be one of the greatest rewards of their personal efforts.

“What we’re doing right now, to me, feels like such a blessing,” Sylvia explained, “because it allows me to combine the skills and perspectives of over 40 years in communications with the lifelong interest in sustainable farming. Part of our mission is to have people on the farm.”

And Dessa? During the Green Notes process, she said in the “In Focus” interview, the human factor was an indispensable part of the experience.

I got to … engage my fans in a way that felt authentic,” she said, “and didn’t feel like it was scripted by a granter.”

It all came full circle earlier this month, when I had the chance to attend the Doomtree Zoo music festival in St. Paul. With Dessa’s help, I was able to orchestrate an operation to get another batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies past security. Later joking about it on my Facebook page, Sylvia left a comment: “Yes. Anything for chocolate chip cookies. Anything.”

Next time, perhaps, at a future Doomtree-led festival, she’ll join Dessa for a family cookie feast. Oh, for the love of food.

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Image: Sylvia Burgos Toftness