Trainee Spotlight: Nasiha Ocasio

Ever since I was young, my parents told me to follow my heart.  When I was six years old, this meant being a whale biologist.  Every time a nature show came on television featuring whales, I would sit in awe and marvel at nature’s awesome power and almost supernatural mystique.  I have always been infatuated with the world around me, so much so that I often got lost as a small girl because I was following a butterfly or a rabbit.
Later on, I studied biology in college and became a marine science teacher in my hometown of Brooklyn, in the hopes that I was fulfilling what had always been my passion.  As a teacher, I became aware for the first time that I was passionate not just about science, but about our environment.  Teachers will often say that they learn more than they teach, and during my time as a teacher I found out so much about how our food system works in this country and throughout the world.  I thought to myself, “How is it possible, with all of our technological advances, that something so basic as food isn’t done properly?”  I decided that I could not think of a greater cause than to provide clean sustainable, local food alternatives for my family and my community.
The idea was a culmination of many goals that I am passionate about: family, sustainability, education, and stewardship to name a few. My idea was to approach farming as a business, and to get my family involved. I didn’t know much, but I knew farms don’t really make money, and I had family members with good steady jobs to convince. Some family members with similar goals to mine, were relatively easy to sway.  Other, more practical family members, needed to be presented with a solid business plan with earning potential before they would sign on.  I am grateful to these family members, as they forced me into approaching potential problems in the most practical way.
One of the motivations for me to get into an agribusiness is the lack of products that meet my community’s specific religious dietary restrictions.  As someone who is Muslim, I prefer to eat halal.  As someone who believes in sustainability, I prefer to eat grass-fed/organic/local.  The tricky part is finding foods that meet both of these criteria.  My product idea for organic halal foods originally stemmed from necessity, as I found that the current market is not catering to my food preferences sufficiently.  I have talked to many other Muslims who feel the same way, and are very frustrated with the choices currently available to them.  My family is very well-known and respected in New York City, and we can use those connections to carve out a niche market where this kind of product would sell.  And so, a marketing strategy was born.
The next step for us was to get some training.  We are city folk, and we have never lived or worked on a farm before.  We all agreed that we would not go into a farming situation blindly, without any experience.  So I started my search for an internship or course that would be my first introduction to farming.  At first I had difficulty finding a diversified training program from NYC.  Many of the urban farming programs are focused only on vegetables and perhaps some backyard chickens.  This is when I came across Groundswell. I found the Sustainable Farming Certificate Program through an internet search. I was very excited until I learned I would need to be available from April through October.  I had to leave my teaching position in NYC.  My commitment was certainly tested at this point, but I decided I would do it.  
It took a few years before everything aligned and I could move to Ithaca, but I have never regretted this decision.  Being surrounded by people with similar goals and values, it became clear to me that not only did I have a viable business and marketing plan with lots of potential, but the invaluable experience and advice I could obtain through Groundswell would be the key that unlocks this new world of farming for me, my family and community.