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Diversifying NOFA-NY

Diversifying NOFA-NY

By Elizabeth Henderson, Member of NOFA-NY Board of Directors

In our newly completed Strategic Plan, NOFA-NY sets out this fine vision: A just and resilient farming system grounded in a diverse community now and for future generations. Yet NOFA-NY is a largely white organization - not too surprising since farm ownership in the US is predominately white. As millions of family scale farmers have gone out of business over the past 50 years, farmers of color have been five times as likely as white farmers to lose their land due to multiple forms of discrimination. So how do we change the complexion of NOFA-NY? How can our organization, and the organic farming community it represents, better reflect the diverse population of our state? How can we navigate the delicate balance needed to support our present membership, while avoiding tokenism, condescension and do-goodism?

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How I Spent My Summer Vacation

[caption id="attachment_574" align="alignleft" width="300"]Lexington Community Garden.  Photo courtesy of Paul Minor Lexington Community Garden. Photo courtesy of Paul Minor


One of the beautiful things about food and farming is that inspiration and gratitude are constant companions, unfettered by any definition of "on the clock".

Last week during my summer vacation  I took the opportunity to visit with my good friend Judy Bennett and some of the urban gardens managed by the Rochester International Academy Interact Club, which is sponsored by the Rochester Northwest Rotary.  This is a unique 50 member club, comprised of refugees from many countries such as Congo, Eritrea, Nepal, Somalia, Thailand, Vietnam and Yemen. Students in the club worked in partnership with Foodlink and the Rochester City School District, and with a grant from Wegmans Food Markets, Inc and donations from Johnny's Seeds to raise almost 5,000 vegetable plants this year in the greenhouse attached to the former Jefferson High School. The seedlings have been distributed to the Foodlink sponsored community gardens throughout the greater Rochester area, providing healthy, affordable produce to emergency food programs and a source of meaningful connection to the earth and their food for many refugees.

Judy took me on a visit to two of the gardens, the first behind the Calvary St Andrews Presbyterian Church off Averill Avenuein Rochester’s Southwedge neighborhood.  This church runs an emergency mobile food pantry, with donated food augmented by an array of fresh vegetables in season that are grown in the Foodlink-sponsored Alison Clarke Community Garden – an oasis of 18 beds of fresh produce growing behind the church.  The mobile pantry had just run that morning, and an abundance of swiss chard, kale, and collard greens had been picked and distributed.  We discussed the challenges of composting in city gardens and checked out the progress of an impressive plot of summer squashes and cucumbers.

[caption id="attachment_572" align="alignright" width="225"]Swiss Chard at the Alison Clarke Community Garden Swiss Chard at the Alison Clarke Community Garden


From there we drove to the Foodlink sponsored gardens on Lexington Avenue.  Every time I visit a farm or garden I am inspired by the creative genius of farmers and gardeners, and this was no exception.  These community gardens are largely managed by Nepalize refugees. There on a vacant city lot, old walk-in coolers had been transformed into raised beds.   Instead of using conventional stakes and trellises to support the plants, tree branches were stuck in and around each raised bed, creating an amazing effect of a forest in the middle of the garden!  Around each bed the twisting limbs were green with slender tendrils of peas, pole beans, and cucumbers and carrying the weighty branches of tomatoes and their promise of ripe fruit to come.

Thank you Judy for this wonderful visit and for letting me see collaboration and inspiration in action, bringing healthy food to so many.
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A Chef, a Famer and a Child Transform a Field at Katchkie Farm and the Sylvia Center

[caption id="attachment_161" align="alignleft" width="225"]Flowering Bok Choy at Katchkie Farm Flowering Bok Choy at Katchkie Farm


Inspiring was the first word that entered my mind as I drove into Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, NY.  What had been a tangled mess of scrub brush, weeds, and rocks just 7 years ago had been transformed to a vibrant, year round organic farm certified by NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC.  As I pulled in the drive and stepped out to meet my guide, Julie Cerny, my eyes quickly feasted on the rows of vegetables and flowers, brimming greenhouse, and the bordering woodland preserve.  Julie explained to me that the transformation was made possible by the imagination of chef Liz Neumark, owner of the catering company Great Performances, the vision of farm manager Bob Walker, and the lively energy of children and young adults participating in the on-site Sylvia Center.

Katchkie Farm is dedicated to building connections between food professionals, families, and healthy delicious local food. Katchkie prides itself in holistic stewardship of the land and its bounty, celebrating local flavors, and through its partnership with the Sylvia Center, inspiring children to eat well.

Katchkie supplies Great Performances with fresh produce for special events, as well as farmer’s markets and Great Performance’s cafes.  This focus on farm to restaurant meant a few pleasant surprises for me. I was treated to the taste of my first summer tomato from the high tunnel, a sample of an unbelievably sweet strawberry from a field – and perhaps my favorite, a nibble of a flower from a bok choy that had been let go specifically for the purpose of providing edible flowers for salads.  They are a lovely yellow and taste like a brassica.  Katchkie also supplies an 800 member CSA.

Katchkie Farm also hosts the Sylvia Center, which is a non-profit organization that works with over 1000 youth and their families each year.  Through its garden-to-table program, the Sylvia Center inspires young people to discover good nutrition on the farm and in the kitchen.  Julie toured me around the rainbow shaped garden, where children and young adults are able to taste fresh food right out of the garden and learn to plant, tend, harvest and cook food for their own fresh meals.  A popular spot is the amazing wood-fired pizza oven, designed in the French style and impressively stationed in the nearby gazebo overlooking a pond and meadows.  I had to stop and admire the flowering bee garden that made up part of the rainbow.

[caption id="attachment_162" align="alignright" width="225"]Pizza oven at the Sylvia Center Pizza oven at the Sylvia Center


At the end of my visit, Julie helpfully gave me a copy of a calendar with tips on eating locally grown food year round.  For more information about Katchkie Farm and the Sylvia Center, you can check out their website at www.katchkiefarm.com.
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A Three-Journeyperson-Farm Bonanza!

Last week, I found myself walking fields with some very awesome, very smart, very hard-working new farmers.  I was in the Hudson Valley, where we have a "cluster" of Journeyperson farmers thanks to some generous funding from the New World Foundation's Local Economies Project.  There was an added effect I hadn't anticipated, visiting three farms in close succession: I could see a few recurring themes (similar to what I talked about with Ben and Courtney a few weeks back) like the challenge of keeping good notes and records, like feeling limited by equipment, of wondering how to farm and recoup investments, of having enough income to save for bigger ideas and scaling-up infrastructure, of distributing food effectively to those who want it, etc.  Of course there are a lot of common positives, that the farmers are finding solid guidance with very proactive and hands-on mentors, that they are indeed producing lots of good food, they are indeed finding eaters to purchase their food, and they are all finding joy in the daily success, despite the uncertainties.  I thought I'd share a little about what each are up to:

Peter Harrington, Ten Barn Farm in Ghent, NY

Peter's growing a lot of food--that was my first big takeaway!  I of course was happy to see and munch on my first peas of the season (my odd travel schedule had me miss a few farmers' markets at home), but could sense that Peter is producing much more food than he's able to move at his current markets and through his small CSA membership.  He's learning (that's the point, to accompany these farmers in their learning process) about how to spread the word to more likely buyers, and is finding out how to be flexible with late sign-ups.  While the initial boost of income before a season helps the farmer make investments, a farmer like Peter might plant a good deal extra to protect against crop failure--that means that when things are going well or if not enough people signed up before he made a decision about how much to plant, he's got an amazing, unsold harvest!  Though Peter sells at nearby farmers' markets, casual purchases are note the same kind of security as the support of a CSA.  I promised I'd remind our readers that you can definitely still help him earn back his investment in materials and labor by signing up for his CSA, late!  I reminded Peter that he should be flexible with the commitments, enough to give people a sense of CSA, but he shouldn't let the logistics of prorated/short-term membership detract from his actual farming.  So, the lesson is that he must keep good notes about planting, harvest, distribution and customer accounts and be firm in his limits with sales options.

[caption id="attachment_113" align="aligncenter" width="300"]What a perfect head of lettuce! What a perfect head of lettuce!


[caption id="attachment_114" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Peter's mom milks goats and makes cheese, so of course we stopped in and said hello to "the kids." Peter's mom milks goats and makes cheese, so of course we stopped in and said hello to "the kids."


[caption id="attachment_115" align="aligncenter" width="225"]Kohlrabi, already. Kohlrabi, already.


[caption id="attachment_116" align="aligncenter" width="225"]What a dreamy fence. What a dreamy fence.


[caption id="attachment_117" align="aligncenter" width="225"]Peter has extra-long beds of vibrant vegetables! Peter has extra-long beds of vibrant vegetables!


Jalal Sabur, Sweet Freedom Farm

Jalal draws connections between growing food, youth empowerment and a better life for many more people than you'd think could be reached by the action of one farmer.  Food that Jalal grows is added to other local farmers' vegetables, eggs and fruit in a box that a person can purchase.  The big bonus?  Someone purchasing this box is part of the Victory Bus Ride CSA, which includes a ride from New York City to upstate correctional facilities.  The price is less than other prison bus services, and it builds a community around healthy food and healthy lifestyles.  Beyond his farm fence, Jalal works with youth at River City Gardens in Hudson specifically as a food system educator via Roots & Rebels.  The focus of my visit with Jalal was hearing how these all combine into a unified vision (he's still hammering out his "elevator pitch"), which he can market and gain support for.  He explained some deep connections between the abolitionist movement and maple syrup (maple producers historically rejected slave labor), which is just one example of what he brings to the surface for youth, adults, and anyone who has a conversation about the food system with this great beginning farmer.  Jalal has no equipment, which has made doing all this work especially challenging.  Thankfully, many of nearby farming community friends and all the people he helps out are pitching in as they can.  I hope you would also read more about this important work and see how you might be able to learn, get involved, and actively support farmer-led food justice projects.

[caption id="attachment_120" align="aligncenter" width="225"]Michelle and Jalal hard at work weeding. Michelle, Jalal's mentor, and Jalal hard at work weeding.


[caption id="attachment_121" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Jalal was proud to tell me he'd built this greenhouse on a shoestring, following a NOFA-NY Winter Conference workshop on that topic. Jalal was proud to tell me he'd built this greenhouse on a shoestring, following a NOFA-NY Winter Conference workshop on that topic.


[caption id="attachment_122" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Michelle, Jalal's mentor, regularly visits to help with production and marketing/promotion of the farm. Michelle regularly visits to help with production and marketing/promotion of the farm.


John Agostinho, Fatstock Farm

This world of cute/funny farm animal videos (a world I'm happy to live in) hasn't completely ruined my sense of wonder at watching a livestock farmer in action.  John has a relationship with all the animals on his small multi-species farm.  The sheep herd is one he's slowly earning equity in: the first year he had the flock he made 1/3 of the investments, earned 1/3 of the income from the meat sales, and owns 1/3 of the remaining flock.  This year, he's a 2/3 investor-owner, and next year, the flock is entirely his.  This is a simliar arrangement to what is called "sharemilking" and is very useful to transfer livestock and dairy farms to new hands--animals and good genetics are very expensive, so this allows a beginning farmer with the right knowledge and experience to get started much faster, with less initial investment.  John also has lots of experience with pigs, and I was introduced to some very happy, very chatty (yes, chatty) pigs, including one about to give birth (I didn't get to stay for that part of the day, though).  Again, this farmer is thinking every day about how to best market his product; with meat, there is the added question of humane, USDA-inspected and accessible slaughter and processing facilities.  John sells via a CSA model in conjunction with two farms that distribute in Queens, which helps reduce some of the logistical stress because he knows exactly what is sold, how many animals to process, and how it's going to reach customers.  Still, he is bound by regulations and the availability of infrastructure.  This is a huge issue in the organic community at large, and is an acknowledged roadblock to success for small-scale organic meat farmers.  Once the animal goes to slaughter, the farmer loses their control, so they must trust the facility and its practices.  The type of slaughter facility, and subsequent processing facilities, determines how the farmer can sell their meat.  If you're interested in some simple, complete definitions about livestock slaughter facilities, I'll direct you to the Cornell Small Farms slaughterhouse map.  So, back to John at Fatstock Farm.  I saw how John is attentive to the sheep in the field, plus got to watch Ella the sheepherding dog do what she is clearly always interested in doing--herd sheep!  One got away, all the way back to the house, which was pretty funny to watch.  Seemed like she wanted to hang out in the barn with her friends--John's been keeping small groups in the barn on rotation so he can monitor and treat a hoof concern.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/Iil9wSQxgIQ]

[caption id="attachment_124" align="aligncenter" width="300"]John Agostino and a soon-to-be proud pig mama. John Agostinho and a soon-to-be proud pig mama.


[caption id="attachment_125" align="aligncenter" width="300"]The sheep that made its escape. The sheep that made its escape.


[caption id="attachment_126" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Boars definitely smile. Boars definitely smile.


 

NOTE: The NOFA-NY Journeyperson Program is part of a multi-state project to support farmers in their first few years of independent farming, modeled off a highly successful program piloted by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).  We take on a few farmers per year for this program, and the applications open in the fall.  Read more at www.nofany.org/jp!
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