Finding Self at the Farm
‘Sye’ Sneed, Neighborhood Restorer
Baltimore, MD - Interview May 26, 2022
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Personal Transformation is Possible
Rising from despair in the midst of COVID, Sye shares his own transformation. “Life is so much better!” Since graduating from the advanced farming course, Sye has become an urban farmer, healing his neighborhood that once was traumatized by racial violence through building a community farm.
Rebuilding a Broken Neighborhood
Popular to his west-Baltimore neighbors, Syeed, called “Sye” for short, is more than a mentor and teacher. He is a healer who has brought his community together after residents experienced tragic racial-related violence. He is a friend to the young and older. Sye lives with a purpose now - to connect people with the Earth, plants, and the food that comes from farming. Farming has helped Sye break out of a downward, dark spiral and find joy teaching others.
As a project was required to graduate, each member of the advanced farming class was challenged to grow something for their community. It was then in his neighborhood that Sye noticed two broken-down houses next to the lady’s yard which he had cleaned. “What if this could be a garden for the community?” he thought. His neighbor saw no problem with that, so in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood in west Baltimore, he started to remove the rubble from two neighboring, imploded houses. Over the next few months, he, with the help of some intrigued neighbors, changed a trash dump into a little farm. Raised beds with vegetables and flowers of all types are bringing life, fun, and children back. Sye recalls, “At first a few neighbors weren’t pleased. I could hear them making jokes. But after a few weeks, they realized I was committed. They not only helped me clean up the trash, but now they offer to protect it while I’m not there ....”
Suffering Inside from Military Experience
When asked how his military experience impacted him, Sye, a veteran, shared, “After high school, I decided to enlist in the army. I signed up for four years. In Baltimore, I had been exposed to killing. I had relatives in the military. They transferred me a lot stateside from Alabama to California to North Carolina and then to Georgia. I handled communications. My handle was “31V/11 Bravo”. But, I saw things that really disturbed me. I saw a suicide attempt. I was jumped myself. What I didn’t realize was that inside I was suffering from trauma. I just had to be silent and keep my mouth shut.”
Finding my way through Life
“For years I learned to just deal with life. I got married and started making kids and carrying mail. For seven years I was masking my issues. For the next 22 years, I worked for the railroad. My kids grew up and went off to college. I did the girlfriend thing. I did the party thing. My sister Nikki contracted lupus, so that gave me a reason to be. She was someone I could protect, but she died in 2013. That’s when everything seemed to come crashing down.
At 45 years old, I was seriously depressed. All these memories that happened to me came back to me. I couldn’t function. I just couldn’t get them out of my head for a long while. I was trying to find an answer, and I couldn’t find one. It was hell to me.
Remembering My Roots
It was then that I started thinking about my childhood. My father died when I was 8 years old while we were living on a horse plantation. That meant my grandfather, a sharecropper in North Carolina, taught me the ropes of farming. He had 15 brothers and sisters. I got to work alongside them on the Sneed Farm. My mother had ten brothers and sisters who also used to work on the farm. After dad died, we moved to Baltimore, but I was a wild child. I took up a paper route at nine years old and kept track of my money every day. But during the summers, I worked with my granddad in North Carolina. Everyone dreaded going down there because of the heat. It was the prescribed ‘punishment’ for those who didn’t do well in school. But I liked farming anyway.
Taking a Different Path
I was always standing up for kids being bullied. But that’s when I got kicked out of school. In ninth grade, I got ordered to go down south to work for my other male cousins who also had messed up in school. Grandma would set wicker baskets out at 3:30 am. We would wake up at 4 am and knew our job was to fill them. Butter beans, squash, watermelons, carrots, cucumbers - you name it, we grew it. By the time I returned back to high school in North Carolina, I was a seasoned farmhand. Based on my aptitude test, I was placed in the twelfth grade. That’s where I got to exposed to Islam and learning about God and discipline.
After my sister died and during this depressed time in my life, I started visiting a mental health specialist. I came out of my mindfulness class and saw an elephant plant in the lobby. One of the leaves was dead. I asked the instructor, ‘whose plant is that one?’ It was Ms. Joanne’s plant. I then asked, ‘Can I have a piece of it and try to root it?’ With a startled look on her face, she asked me, ‘You know about farming?’ When I heard that question, my eyebrows raised! I was so happy to hear her say that!! The next day she approached me to find out whether I would be interested in the agriculture and horticulture program they were trying to start. From that moment for the next six months, I could not get that thought out of my mind. I remember how happy I was - happy back then on the farm. I couldn’t think of a happier time in my life. Even with bikes and trains kids love, nothing compared to my time on the farm. When I was living there, everything tied together: the Earth, the plants, and the food. Growing has been so powerful for me. It was a way of life for me. So, I signed up!
Experiencing the Farm at TALMAR
In 2019, COVID hit. Sye read the back of a menu that his dying sister had the nurse write her life requests on. It read, “Sye, will you provide my kids the same experience of love that I experienced growing up under your care? Will you teach them how to plant like we learned on the farm?” He pondered, “How do I get back to that?” So when he heard about this farm program, he was overjoyed. It was an answer from heaven.
The only problem was learning farming on video because of COVID restrictions. Sye explained, “I remember crying so hard because I still had no connection with the real Earth. I was literally crying because I couldn’t get the video thing down. The instructor was showing a video of the farm. You can imagine how thrilled I was to be able to come to the farm in 2020 for four months of class starting in May. All of us came out to take in the beauty and the life of the farm. Gradually, through kneeling on the soil, digging holes in the ground, and dropping that seed in the Earth, that chain of action developed us into a family. The staff were eager to see how that experience would impact us. The psychiatrist would come out once a week to assess how we were responding. She saw the significant progress we were making.”
Sye continued, “The introductory course was finished all too soon. That’s when they offered the advanced course. I jumped at the chance. This farm and farming were helping me so much! I was the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave every day. I’d spend the morning down at the creek and hear God speaking to me. From those sessions, I learned how important the pollinating, the worms, and the insects in the soil were. I equated myself to being that seed - in my neighborhood and in my family. People were watching me grow and blossom. I have no words to describe the advanced course. God has nature aligned so the best possible outcome can manifest itself. He provides the components, but He relies on willing participants to put them together.”
Sye added, “As a team, we shared the responsibility to monitor the growth as well as the ill effects of certain insects. Once noticed, we were to pull them off. I started noticing the early flowering of the plants and was taught to pull those off so stronger fruit would follow. We collected chicken eggs. You can really taste the difference, and I know the chickens personally!”
Taking the Farm Home
Sharing his home life, Sye said, “I’ve taken the farm home with me, too. My living room is full of plants - wall to wall. It's the company I keep. The only entertainment I have is my plants and me. My family lives out of state, but my plants are here. I have elephant ears. I grow thyme and basil with my daughters. They know I have a ‘green thumb’. I have a relationship with each plant - all growing things. We each have a duty and responsibility to do our share to keep them growing. My bonsai is taller than you and I!”
Mentors in My Life
When asked who has had the greatest influence on his life, Sye said, “My mother. She’s not only been through it all, but she is a giver like me. Through all the difficult times, she has been a sponge of resourcefulness for all around her. She gives everything possible there is to give. Kate Joyce, the farm director, has also shaped my understanding. Kate is doing all she can to employ us, get the word out, and get the funding. Her heart is in it…Even with her running around letting everyone know about TALMAR, she still has time to work one on one to help each one of us. She watches us come out with something to hold on to. She often brings her son who also sees us evolve. She remains teachable the whole time. Her humility knows no bounds. In her efforts to make people feel welcome, you can just feel her love when you stand in her presence.”
Words for Young People
Reflecting on his own experience, Sye remarked, “So many people are sick, and the Earth wants to heal. When I work with young people in my neighborhood, I see the change in them as they work in the Earth. A couple young drug dealers never knew how to hold a shovel. Now they are proud of it! You should see ‘em! It’s a major awakening for someone not knowing. I have people now talking about growing their own food. They are taking more interest in their intake and are more aware of the toxins in their food. We’re all a part of something bigger. My interest with farming is to exemplify that. I would tell people, ‘Don’t limit yourself to anything. Let God be your limit.’”
Plans for the Neighborhood Farm
Considering his plans for the farm’s future, Sye commented, “Now that we’ve got the farm going, I hope to let it continue to grow. I want to put up a billboard with lessons on each plant. We’ve built a walkway and a gazebo. We’re collecting rainwater to water our plants. A neighbor donated a canister. That’s what I mean by growing. When people catch the vision, they want to give. Since doing this farm, businesses have come around to donate mulch. People are looking for ways to contribute to this beautiful oasis in our neighborhood. To this day, we still don’t know who owns the lots. My hope would be to one day own it myself, so I could preserve this wonderful farm for our neighborhood.”
Author: Farmer Karl
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Transformation at TALMAR Farm