From the Director May 2016: Seeking the Balance of Equity in Local Farming

From the Director May 2016: Seeking the Balance of Equity in Local Farming

Perhaps you saw the article last week After a Century in Decline, Black Farmers Are Back and on the Rise.” The article received great attention, as it should. It was published originally by Yes! Magazine, and republished by more than a half-dozen other online news sources. The article was forwarded to me by 5 individuals and came through my inbox via 5 different list serves.  To be honest, I momentarily found it refreshing to know that I’m in the loop on current events involving farming and people of color. Rather, I should say, at least my inbox is in the loop.

I ask myself almost constantly; what are we, Groundswell, doing to change a ‘business as usual’ paradigm in farming?

If you read our newsletter regularly, you know that Groundswell’s mission includes the word “diverse”. In the context of our mission, diverse means multiple cultures, nationalities, races, genders, classes, and ages; however, we have a priority to engage diversity in race, culture and class. Diversity is key to establishing a just and sustainable food system that enhances the lives of farmers, food producers, eaters and our planet.

In my four months as director, I have spent much of my time listening to people and reflecting on past actions of the organization with regards to equity and inclusion. I have heard praises, disappointments and all things in between. What is clear is that we have done amazing work training people to be new farmers and to support the continuing education of existing farmers; and we continue to do so. We have provided land access to New Americans through our Incubator Farm Program, who have in turn been able to start successful farm businesses.  Through our farm business class and one-on-one support, we have helped and supported Cha Cha and the development of the non-profit he has created in Ghana called Ndor Eco Village.  We have involved people of diverse races in planning meetings and hiring processes. We have reached out to communities of color in hopes to bring more diversity to our programs. We have paid consultants to educate our staff and board on equity and inclusion and specifically, to help us understand how to diversify our work.

Yet, most of our program participants are not people of color.  

We are still a predominantly white organization.  

This story is not new. Just last fall, Groundswell founder and former Director Joanna reflected on our inclusion and diversity efforts when she wrote this blog post in response to a staff member of color resigning. It’s important for us to revisit these lessons repeatedly.

Consequently, many questions arise for me at this point in the job. Are the relationships that exist between Groundswell and communities of color synergistic and built on trust? Are we having an impact on “creating equitable food systems” and how do we know? What systems have we developed to hold us accountable to ensuring that priority is placed on inclusion and equity in our work?  What are we teaching in our curricula that recognizes the racist and brutalist history of agriculture in our country or the land-theft in this State? How are we committing to diversity and inclusion in all our work, and not just as a “project” of our work? Does being a mostly white organization mean we are not successful? What does “success” look like in this work?  

I’ve just begun to ask these questions and to establish the foundation to be able to answer them. It feels important to me to keep you well-informed to the work we are doing in this regard.  With time, my hope is that transparency helps elicit trust and provides an opportunity for feedback and support.  Food justice work is complex. It is challenging. It is personal. And it takes a committed community working together.

Here are just some of our current efforts:

  • Learning about, engaging with and participating in food justice efforts in the immediate and regional community that support and celebrate all races and cultures.
  • Continuing to educate ourselves through conversations with others and enrolling staff and board members in workshops and trainings on diversity and race including but not limited to NLI – From Scarcity to Abundance.
  • Developing a set of evaluation tools and preparing to conduct assessments of Groundswell program effectiveness.
  • Including in the job description of all Groundswell staff the responsibility of attending and assisting local or regional groups in ways they say they need support.
  • Drafting a hiring protocol that holds us accountable to create accessible position descriptions that value lived experiences as well as ‘traditional’ experiences, publicizes these positions near and far both online and in person, offers alternative forms of interviewing methods, and requires a team of diverse reviewers who make the final hiring choice. We will be sharing this draft protocol soon, through our e-lists and with our partners, in hopes to receive feedback and improve it before it’s implemented.   
  • Hiring staff members who were chosen in large part because of their commitment to a just food system and the promotion of anti-racist communities. We will share more about these new positions once they officially start this summer.  
  • Beginning the developing of curricula to be included in all of our programs that will include but not be limited to historical information about how the legacy of racial discrimination affects black Americans to learn farming, develop food businesses and secure land and what land-grab efforts were like in New York State and the impact on Native Americans.
  • Planning a series of stakeholder meetings in part with the intention of designing programs with input from the groups for which these programs are supposed to serve.

Though the work of Soul Fire Farm deserves recognition and to be shared far and wide, we hope that stories like this becomes less and less rare. Like you, we envision a society where there is an increase in farmers and food producers of all races, classes, genders and cultures; a society without food insecurity and injustice. We are committed to doing our part to train and support these producers. And furthermore, we are committed to expanding and improving our efforts and behaviors to be more inclusive, respectful and celebratory of diversity.  We look forward to working together to achieve these goals. We will make mistakes.  We will make people happy. And we welcome your feedback and support to hold us accountable to this imperative work along the way.

Farmer Interview : Evangeline Sarat talks Living Wages

56bb8d40a0c1d.imageSweetland Farm, in Trumansburg, NY has been in operation for 10 years. In 2015 owner/farmer Evangeline Sarat decided to start paying  her employees a living wage. Groundswell Director Elizabeth Gabriel sat down with Evangeline to talk about how she came to the decision to offer living wages, and how she is making it work on her farm.

 

EG: How did your decision to pay a living wage come about?

ES: In 2014 I began running the farm as a sole proprietor. In that year we offered normal pay. Being an only manager, I was able to make a decent salary (around a living wage), pay my loans and build equity. Plus, being a single mom, I prioritized my relationship with my kids over the farm. So I would stop farming when the kids got off the bus, the workers would still be working. That was all possible because of the farm workers.
I’ve been going to meditation retreats and developing spirituality practice. As a result, I started being very aware of this fact, that I was living this way, and my employees were not. One day the idea came to me (to pay living wages) and I couldn’t see anyway not to do it, even though I knew it was very risky.

EG: I’m sure many farmers in our area have thought about how to pay their employees living wages. How did you make it work, financially? 

ES: First, I raised the price of our CSA (2 person share) by $60-100 (sliding scale). Then, I decreased the season by 3 weeks. That was healthier for everyone. For me, my employees, the farmland. I felt like this was a reasonable request of the CSA members – asking them to support a fair community food system. I didn’t run the exact numbers, but with the new wage in place, I figured I would need 300 CSA members paying about $675 per share to make the farm run as it was. I also wrote a letter to CSA members explaining the goal of providing a living wage for my employees. I first offered it to the employees who worked here for a year (2 workers) and then by November everyone got a living wage (4 workers). It was terrifying. I didn’t know if we would run out of money or not.

EG: So what was the response? How did everyone take it?

ES: We lost some of our CSA Membership, though nobody said it was because of the price increase. (Many stated it was our location.) Members seemed to understand the concept, but some also thought that because the cost of the share increased so would the value of what was included. 

For my employees, I can see a significant change in their lifestyle and ability to live comfortably from month to month. It is definitely impacting their quality of life. And I think this opens the farm work to being an option for people with less privilege.

EG: Since you have done it, what would you say to other farmers contemplating increasing wages for their employees? 

ES: It’s a risk. So is farming. I don’t feel like it’s something that if you don’t do, you’re not being moral. I get why people can’t do it. But I was willing to take the consequences of leaving the farm if I couldn’t make it work.  I do think it would be really cool to see other CSA’s jump to Living Wage and all CSA’s increase their prices.  Everybody might lose a few members, but it could be an overall success for the CSA model.

From the Director April 2016: Living Wages & Sustainable Outcomes

Greetings Groundswell friends, farmers and supporters,

The minimum wage increase signed into law this week by Governor Cuomo is big news for all New York State businesses and employees – including farms. The bill states that there will be an increase in the minimum wage in upstate NY to $12.50 (over five years), ​while in the rest of the State the wage increase will increase to $15/hour (see below for more details). While the bill is a major accomplishment in many ways, of course, as with any bill, there are strong supporters as well as critics.

For example, $12.50 falls short of the current Living Wage in Tompkins County, which is $14.34/hour. While the same high cost of living exists for other upstate counties, the bill is accused of not recognizing the expensive cost of living in NY outside of the New York City region. Others critique the governor’s phase-in plan, saying its unrealistic and that the State should figure out a way to help small business owners pay this wage.

Groundswell seeks to build strong, vibrant communities by promoting sustainable land-based livelihoods. Though it’s not the focus of our efforts, we feel fair wages are a key to these goals; yet, we also know most small-scale sustainable farmers are unable to pay themselves a living wage, let alone their employees.  The issues are complex and financially challenging and we are just beginning to explore them in more depth. Additionally, we are exploring ways Groundswell can support regional farms to prepare for the wage increases through information sharing, workshops, and more.  To begin this effort, we are sharing a brief interview I held with Evangeline Sarat, owner of Sweet Land Farm CSA in Trumansburg. Evangeline began paying her employees a living wage in 2015 and is a Certified Living Wage Employer. Read the interview on the Groundswell blog here.

I look forward to having more conversations with you about living wages and more! Please call or email me anytime.

With thoughts of warmth for your flowering trees and plants,

Elizabeth


 

Minimum Wage—The minimum wage will increase on the following schedule:

Region Final Wage Final Phase-in
New York City $15.00 12/31/18
New York City (<10 employees) $15.00 12/31/19
Westchester & Long Island $15.00 12/31/21
Upstate $12.50 (index to $15) 12/31/20

Upstate Schedule

Minimum Wage Phase-in Date
$9.70 12/31/16
$10.40 12/31/17
$11.10 12/31/18
$11.80 12/31/19
$12.50 12/31/20

 

From the Director: March 2016

It’s been a busy and exciting first month since I have begun working as new Director of Groundswell. I’ve met with community members, farmers, and partner organizations in order to build and maintain relationships that Joanna and the Groundswell staff have cultivated over the years. Fortunately, Joanna has been generous with both time and energy, enabling us to work together and create as smooth of a transition as possible.
As I settle into this position, a few of my top priorities have become clear:

(1) Continue our commitment to being an inclusive and equitable organization while focusing on our mission to train small-scale farmers in order to build sustainable local food systems. This commitment is critical, and it will take time. Thanks to the guidance we receive from community members and organizations, we are developing strategies that are specific, realistic, and measurable. We will continue to be transparent about our plans and hold ourselves accountable to this important work.

(2) Expand the reach of our programs by offering exciting, unique, and high quality learning opportunities for new and more experienced farmers.  Thanks to our skilled farmer-educators, we have a wide array of programs and events scheduled for 2016 including the popular Draft Animal Practicum and two new technical courses on Managing for Better Soils and Grazing & Pasture Management. Also to come in 2016, a workshop on Scything and Appropriate Technology (stay tuned!…)

(3) Create a more financially stable organization by diversifying our funding sources. I am currently creating a Business Sponsorship Program that will provide opportunities for like-minded businesses and their employees to get involved in Groundswell’s work to foster an equitable and just food system.

Of all the work I do, my best days are those in which I get to meet and learn from Groundswell supporters. I welcome your ideas, input and feedback – on my work as the Director, or on the work of Groundswell as an organization.  I encourage you to email or call me at any time.  Together, we will continue building an equitable and sustainable food system that supports our farmers, our land and our community.

Warmly,
Elizabeth