Milk Cows, Not Workers: An Ithaca Forum on the “Milked” Report

Milk Cows, Not Workers: An Ithaca Forum on the “Milked” Report

It’s lunchtime right now in the Groundswell office, and I’m enjoying a Black Cherry Chobani yogurt. My mind immediately goes to the panel of dairy farmworkers who spoke in Ithaca on Monday night, sharing their experiences and the findings outlined in the 2017 Milked Report*. The report from the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York shared conditions in the dairy industry for immigrant dairy farmworkers based on interviews with 88 workers on 53 farms in the Central, Northern and Western parts of New York state. Many of the farms in the report sell directly to Chobani, a leading dairy purchaser in upstate NY. Monday night’s event, organized by the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition and titled “Milk Cows, Not Workers!”, and of which Groundswell Center was a sponsor, asked the audience to consider our own dairy consumption and whether we’re aware of the abuses that take place in the industry, as well as action steps consumers can take to support those who bring dairy products to our tables.

The co-authors of the report who were present, Carly Fox, Kathleen Sexsmith and Rebecca Fuentes, shared that the goal of the report is not about one particular farm or farmer but rather about a system that excludes farmworkers from basic labor rights. Farmworkers (along with domestic workers) are excluded in national labor law from basic protections guaranteed to other workers since the 1930s, such as workers’ compensation, health insurance, disability and the right to unionize and engage in collective bargaining. This makes fighting back against injustice in the industry even more difficult for immigrant workers, many of whom are also living in isolation on rural farms and are at risk of detainment and deportation by immigration enforcement.

Photo Credit: Milked Report

The Milked report outlines the various ways that farmworkers may struggle, including working 12 hour shifts 6 days per week, dismissals and threats from bosses when asking for a break, low wages, wage theft, inadequate training for dealing with workplace hazards such as aggressive cows/bulls, heavy machinery and chemicals, substandard and unsafe housing, isolation and retaliation from bosses. Some harrowing statistics included 2 out of 3 workers experiencing workplace injuries one or more times (68% of whom needed medical attention), workers leaving the farms on average once every 11 days, 41% of workers being detained by immigration enforcement when they have left the farm, and 80% of of dairy farms not qualifying for OSHA inspection because they have fewer than 11 employees.

Hearing from the farmworkers themselves was the most powerful part of the evening for me. Crispin Hernandez, a leader in the farmworker movement who is currently fighting for the right for farmworkers to organize in NY State, worked at his previous place of employment for 3.5 years and received no on-farm training. Milking 2,800 cows every 7 hours, he experienced insults from management, health impacts from the chemical sprays used on the cows’ teats, and witnessed a manager physically assaulting a coworker in front of the crew. When he took initiative to organize a protest in front of the farm and for all of the workers to receive longer gloves to protect them from chemical residue, the police were called and he was fired. Another worker spoke of an insect infestation in his on-farm housing, sharing a bed with other workers who were on different shifts, extreme cold and extreme heat without proper gear, and the fear that comes when you’re isolated and being exploited by your boss.

But these workers have also been organizing. With the support of advocates from the Workers’ Center of Central NY and the Worker Justice Center of NY, they have been working to pass legislation that ensures equal access to driver’s licenses for all residents of New York State, regardless of immigration status”. Those on the panel spoke of the irony of not being able to drive to the store to buy the products that they’ve worked to produce, and how a lack of drivers’ licenses restricts the human right to movement, connection with friends, buying food and more. Crispin Hernandez is also currently suing NY State for the abuses he experienced on the farm, and fighting for the right for farmworkers to organize in the state Supreme Court.

Take Action

So as I sit here finishing my yogurt, I think of the action steps provided to us by those on the panel risking so much to fight for their rights. One was to sign the Driver’s License Campaign petition – you can do so here. Another was to write to Chobani, asking that they read the Milked report and commit to ensuring the rights of farmworkers from the suppliers they purchase from. To write your letter, click here. There are organizations locally such as the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition that work to support the rights of immigrants and need help– reach out and see if there’s work you can plug into. You can also read the Milked report and share it with friends and family, or even host a discussion group about ways to help advance farmworker organizing. Groundswell is in the process of organizing a “Farming for Justice” group, to support farmers and food producers to plug into these issues– stay tuned for more

As one of the panelists stated, dairy farmworkers help cows stay alive, which keeps our economy and this country alive. Without basic labor rights guaranteed by law, farmworkers will continue to feel like “ghosts who don’t really exist” as another panelist shared. At Groundswell we advocate for a local food system that is ecological, viable and equitable, and we see no equity in the current arrangement. We can’t let racism determine who has the right to protection from workplace abuses. We need a more just way of bringing food to our tables that supports the human rights of those who get it there.

-Kate Cardona, Outreach & Equity Coordinator, Groundswell Center


*Carly Fox, Rebecca Fuentes, Fabiola Ortiz Valdez, Gretchen Purser, and Kathleen Sexsmith. 2017. “Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State.” A report by the Workers’ Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York.

Farm to Plate Conference Re-Cap

Farm to Plate Conference Re-Cap

Farm to Plate Conference 2017: Uniting for a Just and Sustainable Food System

By Kate Cardona, Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming

Photo Slide Show Below

As farmer and educator Damon Brangman reflected on the many food and agriculture conferences he has attended around the country, he realized last fall that Ithaca, NY, with its abundant farmland, fresh food, and community members interested in the connection between food and social justice would be an ideal place to host a conference. Through conversations between Brangman, staff members of Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming and Cornell Professor Rachel Bezner-Kerr, a collaborative vision for the Farm to Plate Conference was born.

This May, that vision came to life as over 300 people gathered in Ithaca for three days to “Educate, Celebrate and Create a Just and Sustainable Food System”. One of the underlying questions throughout the conference was: What makes a food system both sustainable AND just? The many powerful keynote speakers and panel presenters had lots of valuable experience and insight to help answer this question. The conference kicked off Thursday night at Cornell’s Africana Center with a speaker panel of four Black farmers and food activists, Rafael Aponte, Jamila Simon, Karen Washington and Malik Yakini.

Thursday’s panelists each spoke about the work they do for food sovereignty, or “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”*. Each panelist works within an organization that support Black community members to grow their own food on their own terms. They grounded the discussion of their efforts in the history of racism in the U.S. food system, including the genocide of the indigenous peoples of this continent, the reality of slavery and exploitation as the economic backbone of this country, the food desert neighborhoods decimated through racist zoning and housing policies, and the ongoing exploitation of immigrant farm and food workers. Yet, as each panelist made clear, as long as these unjust policies have existed, so too has resistance. People of color have long been at the forefront of movement for food justice, land access and healthy, fresh food for all. This work continues around the country today.

Friday began at the Greenstar Space with an exciting panel of farmers and academic agro-ecologists thinking through the meaning and importance of agroecology on both a local and a global scale. Agroecology is “an approach that seeks to integrate ecological science with other disciplines (e.g. agronomy, sociology, history, etc.) and knowledge systems (e.g. local, indigenous, etc.) to guide research and actions towards the sustainable transformation of our current agrifood system.”** Through lessons learned from local farmers Thor Oechsner and Erica Frenay, to insights gained from the international research of professors Hannah Wittman, V. Ernesto Mendez and writer and activist Raj Patel, the importance of taking a holistic, transdisciplinary approach to agriculture – looking not only at its ecological implications but also its social, political, and economic impacts – rose to the forefront.

Patel continued digging into these topics in his keynote talk Friday afternoon entitled “Reparation Ecology”, asking the audience to consider how European colonialism and capitalism combined to create our current food system. While the local food movement provides part of an answer to the imbalances and injustices these systems have created, it does not fully address the underlying issues of patriarchy, racism, or climate change. To truly transform our food system, Patel advocates for first, a recognition of this history, leading to reparation, redistribution, reimagination and finally, recreation.

Conference participants applied many of these themes on Friday afternoon, through facilitated Roundtable Discussions on the topics of food movements, urban gardening, school food, food policy and more. The Roundtables enabled people to connect to existing efforts and resources as well as brainstorm new ideas for strengthening our Finger Lakes food system. The afternoon offered tours of many regional farms including Kingbird Farm, Wellspring Forest Farm, Interbrook Farm, Farmer Ground Flour and Groundswell Center’s Incubator Farm and gave participants insight into some of the innovative practices employed by the sustainable farmers of the Finger Lakes. Friday concluded at BJM Elementary with a fundraiser dinner for Brangman’s project, Roots Rising Farm, plus an award ceremony honoring several key individuals who have contributed to the vibrant Finger Lakes food and farm community. The evening was well-capped with a powerful keynote from Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Food Security Coalition.  

On Saturday, community members, educators, farmers and food justice activists offered workshops and skillshares on topics ranging from Food Policy to Growing Mushrooms to Cooking on a Budget and more than a dozen more. It is more clear than ever that this community has so much knowledge to offer each other toward creating a just and sustainable food system. The Conference closed with an Action Planning session where participants discussed how to ensure that those who are most directly impacted by inequities in the food system are centered in decision making. Exciting ideas emerged related to school food policy, urban gardening, food waste and others. The Farm to Plate Conference created a space for people from different sectors of the food system to learn together and continue to address the most pressing food issues of our time and place, with a holistic, justice-based approach. Stay tuned for next steps!


Video’s of the keynotes will be posted soon. Get notified by joining the Groundswell Center newsletter and liking us on Facebook!



photo credit: Noah Levin, Jamie Love

The Just Food Conference 2017: A Call to Collaboration

The Just Food Conference 2017: A Call to Collaboration

On March 12th and 13th I attended the Just Food Conference in NYC. It was exciting to reconnect with the Just Food community, as I spent much of 2012 as an intern with their Farm School NYC program. Just Food has always inspired me with their commitment to lifting up the leadership and capacity of diverse communities in the food movement to build a more just, equitable and sustainable food system, and this year’s conference entitled “A Call to Collaboration” was no different. The conference included workshop tracks ranging from Community-Led Food Projects to Policy and Advocacy to Youth Leadership in the Food Justice Movement and more, keynote speakers, local strategy sessions, and opportunities to plug into local campaigns for food justice and sovereignty.

The core question of the conference was “through collaboration, what can we do together across our many disciplines to increase the amount of fresh, locally grown food available in our most marginalized, food insecure communities in ways that support self-determination and ensures economic justice for all?” One of the workshops I went to that best represented the theme of collaboration was a panel called “Farm to Bed Stuy: The Worker Cooperative Approach to Building a Local Supply Chain”. Worker/owners from Rock Steady Farm and Flowers, the Brooklyn Packers and Bed Stuy Fresh and Local shared their model of moving food along the supply chain from being grown in Millerton NY, getting packed in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, and then delivered to a Bed Stuy cooperative storefront to be sold to the local community.

All of the worker/owners of these three cooperatives spoke about their desire to merge profitability and food justice, and the possibilities and challenges inherent in this goal. Building a network of support along the supply chain and working in economic partnership with other businesses with shared values was a huge boost for this work. Priorities for all three businesses included finding creative ways to fund projects in an effort to keep prices affordable for consumers, and supporting not only food access but business ownership for residents of color in Bed Stuy. The panel was moderated by a staff member at The Working World, a non-extractive lender who funds and offers training to cooperative businesses. It was really inspiring to learn about a financer who is not interested in taking people’s money to turn a profit but instead in genuinely supporting small co-ops to be successful.

A large part of the conference on the second day focused on action planning and next steps. I went to a strategy session on Food Chain Issues and why it’s so challenging for good food to be both affordable for communities and profitable for small farmers. We identified many of the barriers to food access, including lack of a shared baseline understanding of what affordability means, a food chain that is ambiguous to many, lack of a shared analysis of historical inequities in the food system, federal policies, and more. We also began a group brainstorm of ways individuals and communities can work to reduce the cost of food without harming farmers.

Both keynote speakers, Director of FoodLab Detroit Devita Davison and Dr. Ricardo Salvdor, the Food and Environment Program Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists spoke about the historical roots of racism and classism in the food system that continue to play out today. Dr. Salvador shared that “the future of food justice is the future of the country”, and that food and the struggles around it are so core to who this country is and has been that there is no way to make forward progress without addressing it. He spoke to the reality that the ways Black, Latinx and Indigenous people and low income people have been deprived of their food base throughout history through land theft, enslavement and disenfranchisement have been core to the creation of the economic poverty many people experience today.

Devita Davison shared about the importance of Black ownership and entrepreneurship in food and farming, as opposed to charity models. It was powerful to hear her talk about the human revolutionary capacity to exercise creativity in the face of destruction, and the importance of visioning, faith and relationships in bringing forth the food justice work and labor of love we want to see. It has been a large focus of Groundswell in recent months to ground ourselves in the history of both oppression and creativity/regeneration in U.S. agriculture, and it was beneficial and inspiring to hear the perspectives and framing of these two leaders.

In all, I was glad for the opportunity to attend the Just Food Conference, connect with old friends from NYC (and Ithaca farmers too!), brainstorm with people from around the state about justice and equity in the food supply chain, and learn about the work and organizations of many powerful farmers and activists. It also made me even more excited for the Farm to Plate Conference, coming to Ithaca May 11th-13th!

Grafting and Pruning in the February Sun at Indian Creek Farm

Grafting and Pruning in the February Sun at Indian Creek Farm

By Kate Cardona, Groundswell Equity, Outreach and Course Coordinator

On Saturday, February 18th Groundswell hosted a Grafting and Pruning Workshop at Indian Creek Farm! It was a strange, gorgeous 60 degree and sunny February day, and we were glad to spend much of it outside getting hands-on experience with tree pruning.

The workshop began with an introduction from Groundswell Center to our organizational mission, which includes supporting diverse learners to gain the tools needed to build equitable and sustainable local food systems. For Groundswell, part of remaining accountable to that mission means engaging our course participants in conversations about food justice, or communities exercising their right to grow, sell, and eat healthy food. Healthy food is fresh, nutritious, affordable, culturally-appropriate, and grown locally with care for the well-being of the land, workers, and animals” (definition from

Indian Creek is located in Ithaca on land that was stolen from the Cayuga people of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy during the Clinton-Sullivan Campaign of the Revolutionary War in the 1770s. Following this time of genocide and land theft, a tract of almost 2 million acres in central New York was divided into military bounty lands, and given to soldiers for their service against the British. This includes the 40 acres of Indian Creek Farm. We began the workshop by honoring the land, looking honestly at its history, acknowledging that the Cayuga people are still here, and asking participants to sit with the question of what it might look like to honor their requests and vision for land use. We can’t have food justice unless we acknowledge the injustice present in our food system since the founding of the U.S., from colonization to slavery to immigration policy and beyond.

We then spent time hearing from workshop participants about their own experiences in the realm of food justice. There were many powerful stories shared, ranging from school programs that teach tree grafting to students for their student run orchard, to community gardens that redistribute land and resources to residents for growing food, to the Philadelphia Orchard Project, community owned orchards in low-wealth neighborhoods in Philly.

Hearing these inspiring examples was a great way to dig into the hands on grafting education that the instructors Greg and Dusky had prepared! We learned about what grafting is and why we do it (tissue cloning to propagate fruit trees!), how to insert scion (the first year shoot of the variety of the tree you want) into rootstock (the hearty, established bottom part of the new graft), what to call the vasculature of the tree (cambium!), and a variety of grafting techniques. These included chip budding, tying, top working, bridge grafting, and bench grafting. We focused on bench grafting for the next few hours, and all participants got a chance to graft and bring home two or three of their own fruit trees using the Whip and Tongue technique. Check out the photos to see participants in action!

Post lunch break we gathered in the sunshine for the Pruning section of the workshop. After discussing the reasons for tree pruning (tree health and productivity), Dusky and Greg demonstrated various pruning techniques on apple tree branches, creating the needed “scaffolding” and talking through the reasons for their decisions of what to prune and what to leave. Participants then worked in teams to prune their own branches, leading to an apple tree fashion show where everyone shared their logic with the group! For the final part of the workshop, we went out into the orchard and watched Dusky and Greg prune the large established apple trees. Participants made suggestions of what to cut and took turns using the hand saw and loppers while Greg demonstrated how to use the chainsaw. The orchard was covered in snow that melted quickly under our boots as we walked around in the sun, taking in the breathtaking beauty of the winter orchard and the Finger Lakes hills. Thanks to Greg, Dusky and Indian Creek farm for hosting such an informative, participatory and fun workshop with Groundswell!

Groundswell goes to Soul Fire Farm

Groundswell goes to Soul Fire Farm

maxresdefaultThis fall the staff of Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming along with Ithaca community members took a day trip to Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, NY, a “family farm committed to dismantling the oppressive structures that misguide our food system”. Soul Fire is farmed by a mixed race family who grow vegetables and small fruits on 1.5 acres and also have a one acre mixed orchard and 3 acres of pasture for egg and meat chickens. A sliding-scale farm share CSA feeds 70-100 families in the nearby cities of Troy and Albany, and educational programs run during much of the year on topics ranging from food justice training for youth to sustainable development support for grassroots activists.

img_3056 img_3054Soul Fire Farm’s focus is on ending racism in the food system, and their programs are run by and for people of color, low-income people, women, religious minorities, and those targeted by the criminal punishment system. Their commitment to centering those most historically marginalized in the food system is evident in programs like the Black and Latinx Farmers Immersion, a regenerative farming training for people of color.

Groundswell staff had heard many wonderful things about Soul Fire Farm over the years, and we were excited to finally see it in action. When we arrived on Saturday morning Soul Fire’s “Community Workday” was already in full swing. Around 40 people were busy at work around the farm, some helping to terrace a hillside for a new orchard, some cleaning the abundant garlic harvest, some chopping and stacking wood, and some kneading cabbage and filling mason jars with delicious kraut. After being warmly greeted by Leah and Jonah, the head farmers, we jumped in and spent the morning talking, laughing and learning with the other attendees who had come from around the region.

One thing that stood out to me from our morning working together was how openly our multiracial group of participants talked about race, racism and the food system. As we filled the kraut jars, talk flowed from was learned at a recent Undoing Racism training for white farmers to issues of gentrification in downtown Troy to the marginalization many folks of color experience when trying to broach the subject of race in the workplace. There was a refreshing sense of shared understanding of how these topics are all intimately connected, and how issues of land, food, and health are so often also issues of racial and economic injustice. It was clear that Soul Fire provides a unique space where clarity and honesty about systemic oppression is the norm, and the health, healing and well-being of people of color is centered.

Before lunch, we stood in a circle and each person named something they were grateful for, which was then echoed back by the entire group. Community, health, bodies, liberation, sunshine, garlic, connection, hard work and more were lifted up before we gathered on the grass for a delicious potluck lunch. Afterward Leah led a circle to share more about Soul Fire’s food justice mission, sharing pictures of the farm through the years and opening up the space for questions. We talked about the difficulties inherent in trying to have a profitable farm business and providing accessible food for communities, flawed agricultural policy, ways to support the leadership of people of color in the food system, and more. Leah was clear that she does not have all the answers, but that these questions, conversations and resulting actions are what lead to transformation.

It was very inspiring for all of us to be at Soul Fire Farm and to witness the spirit of positivity, justice and love that Leah, Jonah and all of the farm apprentices and residents bring to their work. They are creating a space where farmers of color can speak to the injustice they experience in the food system, get support, and build the skills to address it. We returned to Ithaca feeling nourished by the beautiful vegetables they grow and the sense of community and warmth they are cultivating.

Our Thoughts on Recent Tragedies and our Role in Social Injustice, Systemic Racism

At Groundswell today our hearts are heavy with the ongoing murder of Black people by police officers. Tyre King, a 13 year old child in Columbus, Ohio, Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlottesville, North Carolina were murdered within days of each other by law enforcement officers over the past two weeks. Their deaths have left people around the country reeling, heartbroken, terrified, enraged, and wondering what it will take to end the violence against Black and Brown people that has plagued the United States since its inception.

In my new position at Groundswell I have been asking the same questions, and what our role is as a farming organization in contributing to an end to this violence. What are the connections we must draw between injustice in the food system and murders of Black people by police? What is the connection between the small percentage of farmers of color in Tompkins County and the land theft/labor exploitation that built the foundation of this country? Farmers and food justice activists of color have been drawing the connections for years, urging the food movement to genuinely grapple with systemic racism and how it undergirds all of our work when left unacknowledged.


I have also recently been inspired by the National Young Farmers Coalition statement “Ending Violence Against People of Color in Food and Farming”. It is a document created by a predominantly white organization recognizing the need to affirm and center that Black Lives Matter in their advocacy work for young farmers. More predominantly white organizations must address racism as a central barrier to creating a vibrant and sustainable food and farming movement, and commit to action steps to dismantle it. All of our lives depend on it. The NYFC statement makes me hopeful that this will continue to happen.


To further our own learning on these topics, tomorrow the Groundswell Staff head to Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, NY. Soul Fire is a family farm committed to ending racism, injustice and food apartheid in the food system. With a focus on training and empowering Black, Latino and Indigenous farmers, they are doing the crucial work of ensuring food is being grown by and for, farmland owned and operated by people of color. I am excited to learn about how we can support this work in the Finger Lakes Region, and how we can better recognize the interconnectedness of all of our issues in a food system that serves the interests of so few people.


We will share more in the upcoming weeks on our reflections from Soul Fire Farm and about the work we are doing concretely as an organization to address injustice. For now, we say the names of Tyre King, Terence Crutcher, and Keith Lamont Scott. We send our love and solidarity to their families and to those who organize around the U.S. for a country free of racist violence, from the cities to the fields, from Columbus to Tulsa to Charlotte to Ithaca.


– Kate Cardona 9/23/16


ADDENDUM: If others would like to join us on our trip to Soul Fire tomorrow, 9/24, we have available space. Current traveling cars are full, but if somebody can drive their own car, is willing to take others, Groundswell will cover the mileage.  Please email us if you would like to come along.