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.

From the Field: June CRAFT Tour at Westhaven

From the Field: June CRAFT Tour at Westhaven

What were you doing this past Father’s Day? Well, whatever you were doing, just remember you missed out on CRAFT – West Haven where you could’ve been picking sweet, sweet strawberries…

Sunday June 19, 2016

Now what is CRAFT? C.R.A.F.T., Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, is a cooperative model for sharing complementary farm training in collaboration with participating farms. Participants visit a host farm for a tour, a talk, or demonstration on a specific topic. These visits offer beginning farmers a chance to see how different operations work, to develop practical skills and to network with other farmers and farm interns.

Finger Lakes CRAFT was initiated by the Groundswell Center in 2010. Our CRAFT group was developed through the guidance of our mentor farms and they have helped sustain these meetings over the years by leading exciting, interactive sessions that continue to inspire the next farming generations.

West Haven Farm was started by John and Jen Bokaer-Smith in 1992 and has been serving the community since the early ‘90s by growing NOFA-NY Certified Organic produce for the farm’s CSA and the Ithaca farmer’s market.

Seth of West Haven farm talking strawberries in the field at the CRAFT tour in June.

The first part of our tour was led by Seth, West Haven’s farm manager. He showed us around the heart of West Haven’s operation, the veggies.  We explored everything from the solanaceae in the hoop-houses to the strawberries in the fields

Seth also gave us a taste of the decision making process at a CSA. West Haven is dedicated to and is here to serve its community throughout the growing season. Part of that dedication requires its 10 acres to be in production for most of the year so customers can get what they need.

Without much of a break over the past two decades, West Haven has developed a nasty weed seed bank. Seth showed us what the farm has been doing to control the weeds, but they persist.  As a Certified Organic producer, West Haven has had trouble finding land nearby to rent and utilize that fits into the Organic requirements.

Next year, West Haven is going to be able to move some of its production to another

Chris, West Haven orchard manager talks trees with our CRAFT tour attendees.

site at EcoVillage, giving its main ten acres a well-deserved break.

Chris, West Haven’s orchard manager, rounded out the tour by teaching us about apple tree growth patterns and how to effectively prune fruit trees. We even got a taste of early cherries!

On the recent events in MN and LA…

Here at Groundswell our hearts are heavy this morning with the pain of the murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minneapolis at the hands of the police. We are saddened, disheartened and angry along with so many in our community near and far. We send love and solidarity to the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and join in the call for justice resonating around the country.
While it is easy to feel helpless in times like these, Ithacans will be coming together in community to express grief, anger, hope, and solidarity tomorrow afternoon. Black Lives Matter Ithaca has organized a rally and march from Southside Community Center (305 S Plain Street) beginning at 4:15PM. We hope to see some of you there.
With ongoing commitment to a safe and just world for all,
Groundswell Staff


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.

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.


2015 Groundswell Program Snapshots

2015 Groundswell Program Snapshots

Want to know what we’ve been up to so far this season?  Check out this great slide show . . . as they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words!”


Slow Money on the Move in Central New York

Slow Money on the Move in Central New York

Slow Money advcate and Groundswell advisor Krys Cail reflects on her participation in the Third Annual Slow Money Gathering. Krys also recently wrote an article in TCLocal, Relocalizing Investment in Our Local Food System, which delves deeply into this topic.

The Groundswell Center has been participating over the past year in the development of a Slow Money Central New York group. This growing planning group sent me, as the convener of the group, to the Third Annual Slow Money National Gathering in San Francisco last week. Three packed days long, this gathering was the largest meeting yet of people inspired by Woody Tasch’s ideal, set out in his book Slow Money, that local investment in farm and food enterprises at a relatively modest rate of interest—no higher than a natural rate of return based on sustainable agricultural methods—could transform both farming and investing.

Any reader who is interested in more detail about the Slow Money movement should see (and, if you agree, sign!) the Slow Money Principles. They are available on the Slow Money website.

The Slow Money Alliance local and regional groups across the country sent representatives, and it was very interesting to learn about how different groups were organizing their work and beginning to move funds to local farm and food businesses. The models in use in Boulder, Colorado and Madison, Wisconsin seemed particularly interesting and good for local emulation to me, resembling as they did the Ithaca area in the make-up of investors, members, and farm and food businesses. Also of note is ACEnet, an Ohio regional economic development organization that predates the Slow Money Movement, but has adopted the Slow Money Principles and is developing related programming.

Krys Cail
Since the last annual gathering, more than 9 million dollars in investment has been put to work through the programming of national and regional Slow Money groups. The tremendous energy to do more to bring patient capital and farm and food entrepreneurs together was evident at all the plenary and break-out sessions. People were inspired by the talks given by thought leaders such as Wes Jackson and Winona La Duke. They became eager to do due-diligence on some of the business plans briefly presented in the Entrepreneur Showcase, and make investments. A number of the conference attendees were themselves qualified investors, or represented investment clubs or investment funds.

Slow Money Central NY has a couple of local farm and food businesses currently looking for investors, and some introductions have been made. Some of these connections were facilitated through the National Gathering, and some in collaboration with Slow Money NYC. However, most Slow Money investment is initiated and carried out on the local/regional level. If you are interested in working with the Slow Money Central NY group, please consider joining us at our next meeting, Thursday, November 3, 7-9 pm at the Alternatives Federal Credit Union (corner of Fulton and Seneca Streets in Ithaca). All are welcome, whether you are interested in gaining access to debt or equity capital, or have a small or large amount of money that you want to invest in local sustainable farm and food enterprises, or just want to help move money into a more sustainable economy locally. As was noted frequently at the National Gathering, we are all potential investors in our food system, as we all eat!

Read Krys Cail’s “Relocalizing Investment in Our Local Food System,” published in TCLocal in June of 2011.

Woody Tasch’s “Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered” is available for purchase at Slow Money’s website.

Groundswell Goes to Kentucky, Finds Friends in the Local & Just Foods Movement

Groundswell Goes to Kentucky, Finds Friends in the Local & Just Foods Movement
Wendell Berry greets the crowd at the SAEA conference.

By Sam Bosco, Groundswell CRAFT Coordinator

It may be strange to see Groundswell, Lexington, Kentucky (over 650 miles away), and the word “local” in the same sentence. But indeed, two weeks ago, Groundswell and over a hundred people from across the country (and some from as far as Norway) descended upon the University of Kentucky’s (UK) campus from August 4th through the 5th to engage in a national conversation about education in local, sustainable agriculture – for students of higher education, youth, and adult learners, especially those in traditionally underserved communities. 

The Sustainable Agriculture Education Association (SAEA) provides the only forum for discussing education within sustainable agriculture on a national level. I represented Groundswell at the Association’s 4th conference,  presenting about Groundswell’s mission to provide diverse learners the access to knowledge and resources, through our educational programs, in order to facilitate the growth of a sustainable and equitable food system. 

In a series dedicated to new farmer training programs, I gave Groundswell’s presentation alongside the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Michigan State Univserity’s Organic Farmer Training Program, and the Farm Life Ecology Summer Intensive at Green Mountain College (Poultney, VT). The overall notion was that there is no one right way to grow a farmer and the diversity of approaches shared by the presenters is a testament to this. We all felt that each others’ offerings provided learning experiences and resource access in unique ways suited to our local context.

Through a Service-Learning field trips organized by the conference, Groundswell was able to meet and briefly partner with two organizations dedicated to bringing fresh, local food to those that need it the most. Seedleaf is small not-for-profit community garden on donated land in downtown Lexington whose mission is to “increase the amount, affordability, nutritional value, and sustainability of food available to people at risk of hunger in central Kentucky.” They accomplish this through several avenues: offering community garden space, work share u-pick, food preservation and cooking workshops, personal garden installments, garden based educational programs, community-wide composting, and food distribution.

    FaithFeeds is another not-for-profit “cooperative association of individuals and faith communities who seek to assist in alleviating hunger in the Bluegrass”. FaithFeeds engages in four main activities to support their mission: gleaning extra or utility grade produce from local farmers, cooking workshops for youth and adults, urban garden installation, and food preservation of gleaned goods. Since June 2010 they have gleaned 59,000 lbs of food; 21,500 lbs of which is from this year alone! All of the acquired food is donated, raw or preserved, to several emergency food providing agencies. Groundswell helped to glean nearly 300 lbs of peaches and yellow squash (check out the pictures on the FaithFeeds website)! Now central Kentucky has a bit of Ithaca love.

    One of the most jovial moments was during an astounding farm-to-table farmside feast at the UK organic research and CSA South Farm. The meal was catered by local chefs as well as the UK Sustainable Agriculture Program’s own chef, Bob Perry, specializing in farm-to-table meals. After the feast, we were surprised by a guest speaker: Wendell Berry, a prolific agrarian writer, Kentucky native, and friend and confidant of the College of Agriculture’s Dean, M. Scott Smith. Wendell read us his short story titled Sold, a historical and current commentary on the loss of small farms in the United States. After the reading he answered a few questions. An audience member asked him, “Mr. Berry, do you have hope?” Wendell replied, “Yes. But, hope is a virtue, we cannot assume it.” At that moment I felt his words speaking through to the core of Groundswell and I was reminded of why Groundswell (and each of the other groups at the conference) was there: to change the story of the present and help to write the story of small farms in the future.

Sam Bosco is Groundswell’s CRAFT coordinator. He is also a graduate student studying horticulture at Cornell University, where he is president of the New World Agriculture & Ecology Group.

Report from the Field: The Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started in Farming

Report from the Field: The Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started in Farming

What kinds of pathways can an aspiring farmer take to get up and running? And what new tools can be found in a Northeast-based beginning farmer’s toolkit? This past January, Melissa Madden of The Good Life Farm teamed up with other farmers and resource providers to present “The Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started in Farming” at the NOFA-NY Winter Conference. Here, she reflects on the presentation and shares some tips for those just starting out.

By Melissa Madden with input from Erica Frenay and Maryrose Livingston

As a beginning farmer, I am typically hungry for resources to help my planning and skill development. Before I reached my current stage in the process of Farming as a Career, I was able to bounce around through apprenticeships, manager positions and an incubator farm opportunity. These resources were essential to my personal development as both a farmer and a citizen, and when working with “aspiring” beginning farmers, I often emphasize this path. What is clear to me now is that over the past 5-10 years, resources to support the beginning farmer population have blossomed into a well-rounded set of tools designed for multiple learning styles. While both my partner and I took a very hands-on approach that landed us at our new farm (The Good Life Farm, Interlaken, NY), we barely tapped the current plethora of resources which range from non-profits, like our dear Groundswell’s programs and affiliates (Ithaca Crop Mob, Finger Lakes CRAFT), to increased offerings in sustainable agriculture at universities and colleges (see the Beginning Farmer Project, for one), to more focused apprenticeships and management positions offered through farming associations (see NOFA-NY’s new apprentice matching tool and the BioDynamic Association for examples).

From my perspective as both a farmer and Cornell’s former staff member assigned to the Dilmun Hill Student Farm, public and private resources are providing new farmers– young and old–with everything from land acquisition advice to accounting to farm safety training and essential technical skills. Trying to encapsulate the variety of things a new farmer needs to know in any one session or resource can be daunting, and that is exactly what a group of Groundswell and Cornell- affiliated farmers and educators did this past January at NOFA-NY’s 2011 Winter Conference in Saratoga Springs, NY. Led by Erica Frenay, Cornell Small Farms Program’s Beginning Farmer Project Coordinator, we guided workshop participants through a day-long session focused on de-mystifying the farm start-up process. The “Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started in Farming” topic was in its second year at the 2011 conference, and presenters Erica Frenay and Jamie Edelstein (Wylie Fox Farm, Cato, NY) brought in extra muscle (literally) with Donn Hewes and Maryrose Livingston (Northland Sheep Dairy, Marathon, NY) and the beginning farmer perspective via my partner Garrett Miller and me. Our focus sweepingly included advising participants about goal setting, getting access to good land, start-up financing and business planning, assessing resources and skills, and marketing and profitability. The way it turned out, we might have addressed many more topics than those specifically, but these were the framework for our day.

An important part of the session was getting a handle on who exactly our beginners were. This sort of assessment is something that Groundswell in particular finds itself doing more and more as programs supporting beginning farmers grow. I was personally surprised and impressed by the diversity, especially in age, in our beginners’ session. Erica sent out a survey to those signed up for the full day session several weeks before the conference, and while we intended to tailor the session to the survey results, we ended up finding that they were broad and hit on every topic we intended to cover anyway. We stuck to our original set of topics, and allowed each farm to facilitate one or more. Garrett and I facilitated the start-up financing and business planning focus and very much enjoyed putting all of our financial and production information into presentable format. We spent a good part of the preceding
weeks detailing how certain crops and animals in our perennial polycultures fit with our general values, our short- and long-term goals for the farm and our short- and long-term income cycle. Each topic was presented in a different style- some free-form with a discussion format and others, like ours, with detailed spreadsheets and PowerPoint backup. We also created several activities designed to let the audience assess some of their own resources and skills. Many of these resources are available online through the Northeast Beginning Farmers Project.

One topic that we all struggled to address was how to gain access to land as a beginning farmer. Each farmer at the workshop had a different path to land acquisition: some bought cheap land without outside financing, some farmers bought existing farms financed through older, retiring farmers, and others used a plethora of funding options to obtain productive, well situated land. The land access issue became an ongoing point of discussion throughout the entire conference. NOFA-NY had done so much work to attract young and beginning farmers to the “farm movement,” yet those start-up farmers are still struggling to find and finance land. This is a subject that we all hope to address further in the future.

The majority of our participants seemed pleased and felt well-informed after our Friday-long session. As a team, we left feeling that we’d brought useful resources to an eager group, and helped them on their way to a certain degree. Upon writing this, I find myself reflecting on what exactly led Garrett and I to decide we were ready for our particular (and peculiar?) farm start-up. At sessions like these, someone will inevitably ask “How do I know when I’m a farmer?” On the way to the winter  conference, our carload joked that “you can tell you’re a farmer when you don’t have a social life and all you can do is talk about farming.” I’d amend that with “when most of your dreams revolve around your farming activities.”

Resources from the conference:
Northeast Beginning Farmer Project
• Production Plan worksheets
• The Alphabet Soup of Agencies and Organizations Serving Beginning Farmers and a Beginning Farmer Service Providers Map
• Beginning Farm Start-Up Template
• Beginning Farmer Skills checklist
• Guide to Farming in NY, updated for 2011

Melissa Madden and her partner Garrett Miller run The Good Life Farm in Interlaken, New York, a farm guided by permaculture, season extension, and animal-power principles. She is also one of the mentor farmers of the Finger Lakes CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance in Farmer Training) She can be reached at

Policies and Polycultures: Reflections on Race, Class and Ethnicity at the NOFA Winter Conference

Policies and Polycultures: Reflections on Race, Class and Ethnicity at the NOFA Winter Conference

by Rachel Firak

In January, I was lucky enough to attend the annual Winter Conference of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY). This year’s theme was a nod to that all-around health- and equity-promoting principle: “Diggin’ Diversity.” Fittingly, presenters took this theme in several different directions, speaking on the necessity of diversification of crops and animals, schools of farming, and, most importantly, people.

This was my second time attending the conference, but looking around, it was clear that this was some folks’ 15th, 20th, even 30th+ year of involvement with NOFA. Over the decades, NOFA has managed to serve as a common ground for both organic pioneers and young activists. It’s no small feat; often, sustainable agriculture programs are led by Generation Y, for Generation Y. Refreshingly, nearly every workshop at a NOFA conference begins or ends with a word of acknowledgment to the numerous older farmers present who blazed the trail, and a blessing to the young farmers just setting out on their journey.

NOFA has certainly succeeded in building a multigenerational organization that fosters communication and mutual respect among age groups. Now, NOFA is beginning to address the ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic monoculture that has dominated its membership for quite some time.

This winter, NOFA awarded 75 full scholarships to low-income beginning farmers to attend the conference (normally participants pay $225-$300 for the weekend). I counted six workshops that offered simultaneous Spanish translation via audio headsets for up to 20 audience members at a time. Saturday’s keynote speaker Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network spoke urgently and fearlessly about remediating injustice and fighting oppression in the food system. And a handful of workshops explicitly addressed the issue of community food security1 in our cities and rural areas. The importance of these steps in creating a more inclusive community cannot be overstated. But they are also only a starting point.

While Yakini eloquently asserted that many white food activists do not recognize their own well-intentioned-but-damaging “missionary approach” to reaching out to communities of color, and challenged attendees to let go of deficit model conceptualizations2 to embrace an asset model, he refrained from explicitly commenting on the demographics of NOFA itself. The next step, I believe, is to engage in direct dialogue about the ethnic, racial and socioeconomic makeup of NOFA and other similar groups. This essential conversation, while potentially uncomfortable for some in the short term, would be ultimately illuminating and constructive.

Why is NOFA so white and upper middle class? NOFA, like most agricultural, environmental, and good food organizations (including the one I work for, Groundswell), suffers from a massive affluent white majority. The factors that have brought about this are many, varied, and deeply embedded with the institutional racism3 of our society. We can point to the historical failure of environmental movements to emphasize environmental justice, remaining blind to and therefore complicit in the funneling of pollution and toxins away from rich white communities and toward poor communities of color. We can notice that the leaders of the sustainable agriculture and food movement—Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, Joel Salatin—are an all-white cast who write, speak, grow, and cook for the wealthy. We can realize that since the advent of the Green Revolution and NAFTA, Latinos have been forced off their land and into jobs as “farmworkers” in the US, and that discriminatory lending practices committed by the USDA have caused many black farmers to lose their homesteads and farms. And we can recognize that only the privileged have the opportunity to learn about sustainable ag in college, to travel to conferences, to volunteer on organic farms, and to afford good food in the first place. But even so, we would only scratch the surface of what has been a history of exclusion and outright bigotry in the food system. Much more time, education, and honest conversation is needed to satisfactorily answer this question.

On its website, NOFA states its mission as follows: “to create a sustainable regional food system which is ecologically sound and economically viable… [and] to make high quality food available to all people“. The latter is an essential principle for any certifying agency, as one criticism commonly leveled at organics is that they widen the food gap between the rich and the poor. While the affluent can simply pay more for healthier, higher-quality, toxin-free foods, there is no choice for those without the purchasing power to, as Michael Pollan suggests, “vote with your dollar.” Further, when rich consumers disinvest from the conventional food system, there is less money and incentive pressuring the conventional food system to offer safe, healthy foods, and at a reasonable price4.

But justice in the food system goes beyond consumption alone. I suggest an amendment to NOFA’s mission statement: All people should have the educational access and leadership opportunities necessary to build food systems themselves. NOFA, whose work focuses largely on farm education, is in a position to start a chain reaction of positive outcomes by broadening both its membership and leadership within communities of color. If NOFA expands its outreach and its job recruitment to inner-city Latino/a youth, for example, not only will the youth benefit from access to NOFA’s educational toolkit, but the white liberal culture of NOFA will benefit immensely from the experiences, perspectives and knowledge of those Latino/a youth. Their collaboration will yield more ecological, efficient, profitable and fair food systems for inner-city neighborhoods and society as a whole.

The ball is in NOFA’s court. However, NOFA’s white liberals are not off the hook. Organizational change cannot come from the top down; it must co-occur with the increasing mindfulness of its members. During the conference, I attended a half-day session entitled “Community Food Security and Urban Gardening Policies in NYS,” facilitated by five food system leaders who had enabled city residents to develop and access peri-/urban farms and gardens. During the Q&A that followed, many implored these leaders to explain exactly how they had managed it. The gist was, “How can we help them?” The presenters and some of the attendees patiently explained that while outsiders can provide resources and assistance, true leadership and change must come from within.

This year, NOFA’s Policy Sub-Committees proposed a resolution called “Garden at Every Public School,” which called for a society in which “as many children as possible… have the opportunity to learn how to grow food“. It’s a good place to start in working toward a future in which one’s race and socioeconomic status are not prime indicators of diet-related disorders and food insecurity. However, the road is long, and much work is still to be done. I am enthusiastically and anxiously watching for NOFA’s next move in ensuring that the next generation of farmers and food activists accurately reflects the diversity of the Northeast as a whole.

1 Community food security can be defined as the ability of a community to provide safe, healthy, culturally appropriate foods for all of its members from a variety of sustainable and accessible sources, including supermarkets, farmers’ markets, and farms and gardens. It also refers to the ability of individuals within the community to be empowered and active in ensuring their own food self-reliance and independence, or “food sovereignty”.

2 The deficit model of conceptualizing communities defines them by what they lack or what they are not, instead of what they can offer. For example, the term “underserved” can be considered a deficit model term because it couches communities of color, first-generation communities, and low-income communities in the language of insufficiency.

3 Institutional racism, as opposed to personally-mediated and internalized racism, is a system of racial inequality perpetuated in an organized way by social structures, such as schools, government policies, and private enterprises. Some widely recognized examples of institutional racism include redlining, racial profiling, and under- and mis-representation of certain racial groups in the media.

4 I’m not arguing that organic food shouldn’t exist; instead, I stand with NOFA in the belief that organic food should be accessible to everyone—while simultaneously affirming the farmer’s right to earn a living wage in selling it. This seeming paradox can be navigated with creative economic approaches, for example, by shortening the production chain from farmer to consumer, by using a CSA model or sliding-scale pricing strategies, and by appropriate use of government subsidies, such as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

Rachel Firak serves as the Program Assistant for the Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming. She can be reached at

Groundswell Highlights of 2009

Groundswell Highlights of 2009


Thanks to the efforts and talents of so many Groundswell volunteers, we made steady progress in 2009 towards the goal of establishing comprehensive farm-based training and education programs in the Ithaca area.
Building our base. Groundswell depends on a community of supporters who share our ambitious vision for farm-based education. That community came together for the very first Groundswell fundraising event on October 17. It was a terrific success, providing great food, farm tours and entertainment to over 70 supporters and raising nearly $2,000. Half of the proceeds will support Groundswell programs, with the other half going to our “parent” organization, the EcoVillage Center for Sustainability Education.
Reaching out. 2009 also marked the beginning of our outreach efforts, both to potential students and to supporters of the Groundswell vision. We shared our materials and information at many local and regional events this year, including a Local Foods Evening at Ithaca College; the Ithaca Festival Sustainability Fair; Judy’s Day at the Cornell Plantations; the Bioneers Conference at Ithaca College; the national Farm-Based Education Association Conference in Tarrytown, NY; and a “Local Foods Fair” at Cornell.
Going for grants. We developed a strong proposal for a comprehensive suite of training and support programs for new farmers, which we submitted to USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program in May. Although we weren’t selected for funding in 2009, we’re in a good position to update and resubmit our proposal in 2010. We also submitted a small proposal to USDA’s SARE Sustainable Communities Program, and will hear about funding decisions in March.
Community college connection. We’re very excited about the collaboration that Groundswell is embarking on with Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3). We’re working closely with Dr. Kelly Wessell, Chair of the Environmental Studies program, to begin planning several classes for TC3 students including an intensive 8-week Summer Practicum, which will be launched in 2010.
New farmer training. Working with a small group of local farmers and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County, we took the first steps in 2009 towards organizing the new Finger Lakes “CRAFT” — Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training, which will provide enhanced education and training programs for beginning farmers in the area. Intern Veronica Drake conducted a series of interviews with local farming interns, and confirmed a high level of interest in the CRAFT and other Groundswell programs.
Sustainable Farming Certificate Program. In the fall, the Groundswell Center was selected to work with Community Impact, a student run small business consulting firm operating out of the Johnson School at Cornell University.  We’re delighted to be assisted by with three talented MBA students, Ann Rickley, Dolph Warburton and Amber Steinhilber, who will be conducting a thorough market analysis for our Sustainable Farming Certificate Program.
International attention. Groundswell farmers and organizers are featured in a very cool online video about Ithaca’s vibrant local food system, recorded last summer. The Ithaca video is one of ten international video case studies being developed by the “Agriculture Bridge” project. It will be used in college classrooms in the US and abroad as an online teaching tool in sustainable development Click here to view the video.
Collaboration with Cornell. Groundswell was a key partner in designing and securing funding for a brand-new Cornell Sustainable Food Systems Initiative. We continue to collaborate with this diverse group of Cornell faculty and staff to address key sustainability issues relating to food and farming.
New Roots! Groundswell worked with faculty and staff of the New Roots Charter School to begin designing a farm-based curriculum for high school students.  In early September, the entire New Roots faculty visited West Haven Farm, and by mid September, all 110 New Roots students had spent a day at the farm with farm managers Todd McLane and John Bokaer-Smith, learning some basic principles of CSA farming and getting their hands into the dirt.
Bioneers. Groundswell was featured in the first Finger Lakes Bioneers Conference, held October 16-18 at Ithaca College.  Our session, titled: “Farm to Fork: Tapping into the Groundswell in Farm-Based Education,” was very well attended and sparked some excellent discussion and networking on the topic.
Farm-based education. Groundswell Center Director Joanna Green and Farmer-Teacher Todd McLane participated in the fourth annual Farm-Based Education Association Conference in Tarrytown, NY on November 12-14. We were impressed and inspired by the energy, talent and commitment of the farmers and educators involved in the “FBE” movement… for it truly is an exploding movement all across the US and Canada. We learned a tremendous amount about how to run successful farm-based education programs, and connected with dozens of new colleagues.

Reflections on the 2009 Farm-Based Education Association Conference

Reflections on the 2009 Farm-Based Education Association Conference

By Todd McLane, West Haven Farm Manager todd_brooke_joanna_

It was a cold dark November morning as I prepared to embark on an exciting trip with Groundswell’s Director Joanna Green. We were headed to the national Farm Based Education Association conference being held in Tarrytown, NY.

Although the rigors and tiredness of a long farm season were beginning to show, I was filled with an almost uncontrollable energy. I sensed it in Joanna too (even though we left around 5 am!) I think there was only about 10 minutes where we weren’t talking during the 4 ½ hour trip. From Groundswell brainstorms to philosophies on life, we covered it all! Here we were, headed down to the national FBEA conference. I thought that was a pretty big deal. After months and months of volunteer hours by all of the Groundswell Committee, the ship continued to move forward.

As a farmer, I love having the opportunity to provide good wholesome fruits and vegetables to my community. But I also have a passion to teach, whether it’s exposing someone to their first farm experience or showing the proper way to hand hoe a bed of broccoli. I was about to spend 3 days immersed with others in the growing farm based education movement. One of the great things about the weekend was the fact that there were workshops geared both to administrative/organizational development (Joanna’s focus) and educational programming/models (my focus).

It wasn’t just the sessions were motivating; it was all of the educators from around the country that I met. There were so many inspirational stories and innovative ideas being shared. I truly felt humbled to have the opportunity to attend this conference and be around all of these amazing individuals! I was feeling real good about what we were hoping to accomplish with Groundswell. The foundation has been set and I feel that we are going to start to fill a void that has been missing in our area.

During our journey home, you could see that our energy level had grown. As darkness fell, we shared our notes from the different sessions we attended under the light of my headlamp. It was a very tangible experience and the knowledge that I gained was very reassuring. I think that one of the things that got me really excited was the uniqueness of Groundswell. There are so many incredible programs and models throughout the country, but I truly feel we have something special here nestled in the Finger Lakes. Many programs have a focus for elementary age students and are held at non-profit/educational farms and ours will be aimed at secondary and college aged students and held at for-profit production farms. Needless to say, I am looking forward to what 2010 brings!!

-Todd McLane

The 2009 FBEA conference was held on November 12th-14th, 2009. For more information, visit