The growing strength of agriculture as social justice

A new crop of farms is taking root in the Capital Region, with shoots and leaves spreading towards the light of social justice.

The fertile soil of the Hudson, Mohawk and Schoharie valleys has long attracted urban transplants to try their hand at farming, but more of these farmers are now incorporating strong dietary and social justice practices. in their routines. There, agriculture is a tool to fight inequalities in modern society, but the challenges of justice and equity are daily struggles for the farmers who work the land.

“Food justice exists as a sub-category, but it shouldn’t just be an activist project. It should be our everyday reality, ”said Amanda Wong, farmer and partner at Star Route Farm in Charlotteville, Schoharie County. Formerly from Queens, where she worked as an artist, Wong got into farming after keeping a small garden and being introduced to farming by a friend. She began interning and working on farms in the Hudson Valley before joining as a farmer, then partner, at Star Route Farm with farm owners Tianna Kennedy and Walter Reisen. (Kennedy also manages the community-supported agricultural distribution network 607 for small farms in the Mohawk and Schoharie valleys.)

“We were all really touched by what was going on in the Black Lives Matter movement and the way governments don’t take care of people. We kind of saw the community organization going around, resisting the lack of help from the government. We all wanted to deliver food justice, but we didn’t know how to do it in the past, ”said Wong of the move towards mainstreaming social justice initiatives into Star Route Farm practices in 2020.

Wong, who is Chinese-American, said his experiences as a person of color and his work in food distribution networks in New York City made him understand how whitewashed food systems are in America and how aid designed for agriculture is often geared towards the needs of white land and agricultural property.

“My experience working with distributors has shown that everyone receives the same food. It’s not culturally relevant, ”she said. Growing foods that reflect the culture of the recipient is essential to Wong’s mission. Becoming a member of Star Route Farm’s leadership has exposed her to the unfairness of government funds and grants that exist for small farms, and more so for farmers of color who are just beginning their journeys and often lease land. “Working within the limits of the existing agricultural infrastructure is not enough,” Wong said. Along with Kennedy and Reisen (who are white), she farmed four acres of land and decided to keep it small, allowing her to focus on farming and not managing the employees.

Star Route Farm has been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing agricultural efforts deeper into activism for social justice. Most of the farm’s income came from wholesale to restaurants before the pandemic, and massive restaurant closures have directed products to local food banks, community groups, and alternative distribution models, like the 607 CSA that Kennedy is leading. A portion of the $ 800 memberships, community fundraisers, and grants have kept the farm afloat since the start of the pandemic, but simply donating money is often not enough.

“The consciousness of people is led to validate a lot. People have to meet needs beyond themselves and understand how they are contributing to oppression, ”Wong said. Part of that oppression, she said, is the expectation that all food will be available at all times. The pandemic has put stress on food systems, and more so on low-income workers who work in agriculture to provide food. (Wong said most of the farmers she knows live below the poverty line.)

“You can’t just spend the money to fix this problem,” said Ashanti Williams, who founded the Black Yard Farm Collective near Sloansville, Schoharie County, with her partner Arian Rivera. Many of the financing programs for agriculture take the form of crop insurance, which generally only applies to staple single-crop farms. (Like the large soybean, corn, and wheat farms of the Midwest.) Other USDA federal programs have strict tenure requirements – how many years a beneficiary has farmed the land – or ownership. Without existing access to land, BIPOC farms are forced to start their path to sustainability small and inexpensively.

Williams and Rivera raised over $ 48,000 in a GoFundMe campaign to help secure farmland for their project. They operate a property owned by a group of investors, initially under the promise that the property would be transferred to Williams and Rivera, but those conditions have changed and now the duo are seeking land in the area for themselves, their farming activities and the 400 animals (mainly broody hens) that they reared each year.

“Land is generational wealth,” said Rivera, who said lack of access to agricultural property prevents many BIPOC farmers from succeeding in farming and passing on resources to the next generation of farmers. . The “40 Acres and a Mule” promised to former slaves after the Civil War granted land to black Americans, but Rivera said a generational disconnect with agriculture occurred when Jim Crow’s policies and the Endemic racist tactics have forced people to leave their lands and head north, industrial centers of work and relative safety.

The internalized racism of agriculture is still present, even in traditionally liberal states like New York. “Once you get into rural spaces, nobody wants to talk about that stuff,” Rivera said. “It’s not good to be repressed and bite your tongue.”

“You have to humanize yourself and express yourself. People ask, “Why do you need a document? “They don’t understand the extra work (of activating for BIPOC farmers) and the hurdles you have to go through even to be on the farm,” Williams said.

Rivera and Williams said the goal of the Black Yard Farm Collective is to build this generational land wealth. Working on land borrowed from white owners is a modern form of sharecropping, and “well-meaning people giving access to the land are not enough,” Rivera said. According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, only 4 percent of farms in the United States are owned by people of color, and the majority of those farms are under 180 acres.

By owning their own farm, they control what crops and animals are raised and how these goods are distributed to the communities that need them most. Many upstate farms direct their wares to urban centers, especially New York City, whether for food banks, restaurants, or paying individuals at farmers’ markets. But Rivera said food insecurity is also present on farms.

“Our neighbors are our neighbors. Food insecurity also applies to white people in rural communities. We need to move away from the idea that food insecurity and injustice only happens in rural communities, ”said Rivera, adding that when people realize their struggles are more about the economy than race, this poses a real threat to the existing power structures that control Resources. “Pay what you can” farm models, like that of white-owned farms like Biscuitwood Farm in Esperance, contribute to the mission of social justice through agriculture, Rivera said.

Wong, Rivera and Williams all say monetary reparations to black Americans (like those proposed by U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey) help establish fairness for BIPOC farms but still ignore other marginalized communities, such as than the indigenous communities who first inhabited the land. “We keep aboriginal names on everything, but we don’t give them any right to the land,” Williams said.

The act of choosing to farm is the first step towards social justice through farming, “and just being here is representation,” Rivera said. Williams contributed to the feeling and the fact that just being a person of color while cultivating is a form of activism, even if you don’t get involved in a change in policy.

“You don’t need permission to be in contact with the earth. Agriculture is the most liberated I have ever felt.

About Keneth T. Graves

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