Growing Community at a Social Justice Farm in New York

Four women farmers combine their passions for food justice and community garden projects to run a cooperative farm in upstate New York.

Bees

Hayes manages the farm’s bees, which aid in crop pollination and provide honey.

Photo by Ethan Harrison

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It’s one of the greatest thrills in life when we get the chance to make our dreams a reality. Lorrie Clevenger, Michaela Hayes, Jane Hodge and Karen Washington, longtime food justice, community gardening and urban farming advocates, manifested their dreams in the shape of Rise & Root Farm, a 3-acre organic farm in Orange County, New York. Having spent years helping people learn how to grow food, fighting for farmer equity and talking about issues surrounding food justice through organizations such as Just Food (where the four women met); Farm School NYC (which they all founded, Hodge directed and where they’ve all worked as instructors); and Black Urban Growers (which Washington and Clevenger founded), these talented women decided to come together and move from theory to practice by founding a cooperative farm focused on nutritious food, community and education.

Founding Women

The four owners of Rise & Root met through their work at Just Food, a New York-area nonprofit that empowers and supports community leaders to advocate for and increase access to healthy, locally grown foods. There the four began developing their close relationships—what they’ve come to call a family. But each woman came to farming from her own unique direction.

For Missouri native Lorrie Clevenger, the path to farming came via her work as a community organizer and volunteer. Despite her rural upbringing, she’d never grown food before. But when she moved to Manhattan, she got interested in community-driven initiatives, which led her to Just Food. There, she started working in community gardens, and discovered a love she didn’t know she’d had. “I’d never thought about farming,” she says. “I’d never known any women farmers or black farmers growing up. It was never anything I could imagine myself doing, until I started gardening at Taqwa [Community Farm]. And then I had the actual experience of putting seeds in the ground for myself and harvesting my own vegetables.” She pauses. “It always starts with the tomatoes,” she says, as the others confirm with nods and “yeps.” “Once you start growing your own tomatoes, you can’t go back.”

For Jane Hodge, the first steps to farming came in high school, when a diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome spurred an interest in food after she learned to manage her symptoms with a healthy diet, and discovered first-hand how impactful food is to one’s well-being. Then, a study abroad program focused on environmental conservation showed her the vital importance of food to cultures around the world. “I started realizing that, everywhere we went, in the places where the communities had completely lost control over their heritage, their culture, their livelihood and their health, it always started when they lost control over their agriculture, over their food sources,” she says. When she came home to New Jersey, she was determined to help people grow food in one of the hardest places to do so—New York City.

For Karen Washington, farming was an extension of a lifetime of work fighting for food justice and food rights for underserved communities in her native New York, specifically in the Bronx. Washington bought her first home in 1985 and started growing a garden. She was amazed at the difference between what she grew and what she could buy at the supermarket. When a vacant lot across the street from her house was abandoned by developers, she joined with others in her neighborhood to make a community garden. They founded the Garden of Happiness, a new project under the New York Botanical Gardens and the Bronx GreenUp program. Once she got into community work, there was no going back for Washington. She started to hear from her neighbors about problems in the community—people with no heat or hot water, overcrowded schools, crime, police profiling. “I got involved in the community center that deals with organizing, the Northwest Bronx Community Coalition,” she says. “I became a community organizer fighting for rights of tenants, immigration rights—from there I learned about the political system and how it worked. I found my voice and became able to speak up and challenge the status quo,” she says. Then she started work with Just Food.

In 2008, Washington got the opportunity to take part in the prestigious apprenticeship program at the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) in Santa Cruz, California, called the “mothership of organic agriculture.” (Hodge and Clevenger also did the CASFS apprenticeship in 2010 and 2013, respectively.) She came back, as she puts it, “on fire.”

It was at CASFS that Washington realized that the food system was changing. However, she says, the voices of people of color were woefully underrepresented. She would attend farming conferences with hundreds of people, yet could find only a handful of people who looked like her. She decided to do something about it. So she and Clevenger worked together to found Black Urban Growers, an organization of volunteers committed to building networks and community support for growers in rural and urban settings. And they decided they wanted to get into farming.

Michaela Hayes’ path to the farm came via the kitchen. A former commercial photographer, Hayes switched careers after moving to New York and realizing she wanted to turn a lifelong love of food into a profession. She went to culinary school and found a passion for sourcing and preparing organic, seasonal, local foods. After six years of cooking in restaurants, she sought out chef Michael Anthony, who shared her devotion to sourcing from local farmers. She started the pickling program at his restaurant, Gramercy Tavern. She also started teaching canning classes for Just Food, where she met Hodge (the two are married today), Clevenger and Washington.

Technically, Hayes’ food preservation company, Crock & Jar, was the first component of Rise & Root to launch. Even before CASFS, the group knew it was their dream to start a farm. But they didn’t yet have the land or the means to make it happen. Still, they were unfolding the blueprints to their plan, and they knew a value-added component (when produce is converted into specialty foods, it can be sold for a greater value) would be crucial to their success. Because they couldn’t wait to get some part of their goal underway, Hayes decided to launch Crock & Jar, a food preservation company whose mission is to increase the amount of food purchased in season from local farmers. This made her able to start supporting other local farms right away, and Crock & Jar became Rise & Root’s first customer when it got off the ground. Hayes sells her signature line of fermented foods to specialty stores and markets all over New York City, as well as online. Now the group is working to integrate the two businesses more closely, bringing more of the value-added production under the umbrella of Rise & Root Farm.

Fight for Your Rights

Today, Rise & Root grows vegetables, herbs and flowers on a tract of organically managed land in the “black dirt” country of upstate New York. Gaining access to land was, perhaps, the most pivotal moment in the women’s move from farmer advocates to farmers. After they returned from CASFS, the group dreamed, schemed and envisioned their farm for years. Then they decided they needed to start talking about it to others—to get their dream out into the world—if they wanted to make it happen. As Washington puts it: “After many times speaking on panels, and hearing people to the left of me say, ‘I’ve got some land,’ and people to the right of me say, ‘I’ve got some land,’ I’m looking at these young whippersnappers and saying, ‘How come they have land and I’ve got no land? Where’s my land?’” she says. “They say if you have big hopes and dreams to put it out there, so we started to put it out there. I met this guy, Steve Rosenberg of Scenic Hudson, who heard what I had to say and said, ‘You and your friends need to meet some people who can give you some land.’ And that’s how we came to Chester. We just put it out there. It was part of our farm dream.”

The group got involved with the Chester Agricultural Center (CAC) LLC, which had recently started work on an organic farm initiative. With a long history of farming, members of the community around Chester were dedicated to remaining an agrarian region. But many of the large-scale conventional farmers in the area had started to retire. The CAC LLC decided to purchase the land and lease it to farmers planning to develop organically managed farms. The group also wanted to guarantee that the farmers were treated fairly, so they offer long-term leases to help ensure farmers are able to recoup the time and money they invest in improvements such as enhancing soil health and infrastructure. The program also requires check-ins on all farms regarding farm worker treatment, fair pay and reasonable hours.

All of these requirements were music to the ears of the Rise & Root women, especially Clevenger, whose social justice work often focuses on farmer equity. In fact, the CAC hired Clevenger to work on its Farmer Equity Project, to ensure fair treatment of farm workers. “Part of what the Farmer Equity Project is about is...creating an expectation that’s very different from what we’ve seen historically,” Clevenger says. “The farmers that sign leases have to agree to fair labor practices. If they’re hiring people on, particularly with laborers in the field, they need to get fair pay, have a voice in how the farm’s being run, have regular check-ins to hear if there are grievances or mistreatments or abuses of any kind...Right now—and this may be changing soon in New York state, because they’re looking at passing a new act for farm workers—farm workers aren’t legally required to be paid minimum wage. They’re not required to have a day off. They can be asked to work seven days a week up to 15 hours a day. There are no protections for farm workers in this state, or nationally.”

Part of the problem with both farm worker rights, and with U.S. food production in general, comes down to farm labor practices with direct ties to slavery. When the nation’s minimum wage law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) first passed in 1938, to help the measure pass it specifically left out farm workers (along with some others)—many of whom were former slaves. Today, minimum wage regulations technically do apply to farm workers, but only if those workers are full-time. Seasonal or temporary workers aren’t protected by the FLSA, and thus aren’t required to be paid minimum wage or overtime pay—a situation that often leads to abuses.

This underpaid labor helps contribute to the expectation of cheap food prices, which often rely on the underpayment and mistreatment of farm workers. That’s one of the reasons the women behind Rise & Root are committed to creating a financially sustainable farm—one where they can pay themselves and their workers fairly and offer health insurance and other benefits. They’re hoping to act as a model of the farm of the future, one that isn’t reliant on the mistreatment of humans, land or animals. “This is a for-profit business we’re trying to operate here,” Washington says. “We’re trying to make people understand the cost and value of food.”

That doesn’t mean the women of Rise & Root are out to sell their food only to the highest bidder. On the contrary, Hodge explains: “We are committed to building a sustainable business while also supporting our low-income communities in New York City, and we’re really determined to do both of those things, not one at the expense of the other. It’s still something we’re figuring out, but we’re committed to it.”

The farm has a wide range of outlets for its food and charges a range of prices depending on the customer. For example, thanks to Hayes’ ties, some of its specialty organic produce clients are high-end New York restaurants. Other produce is sold at the Union Square farmers market, where the clientele is made up of Manhattanites who are okay spending more on local, organic food. On the other side of the equation, the farm provides lower-priced food to the La Familia Verde farmers market, part of the La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition and Resource Center in the Bronx, which Washington helped found in 1998. They also donate food to the local Chester food pantry housed in the Presbyterian church, where Hayes trades cooking classes (the church says its food pantry recipients are often hesitant to take fresh produce because they’re not sure what to do with it) in exchange for use of the church kitchen to produce Crock & Jar goods.

Because they’re on a new farm and trying to find their footing, the Rise & Root farmers are experimenting with a wide variety of tactics to figure out the best ways to support themselves, and they’re always discovering new things. For example, some of the farmers were resistant to growing flowers, preferring instead to focus on food—until they discovered that luxurious herb-and-flower bouquets sold like hotcakes at high-end markets, and offered a great return on their investment. They’re also exploring farm tours for agritourism groups, schools and other educational groups—and figuring out how to monetize the time and energy those tours require.

Although their techniques may shift over time, the farmers at Rise & Root are determined to both build a thriving company and farm, and to provide fresh and healthy food to the people who need it most—something they think they’ll be able to accomplish thanks in part to the web of connections they’ve built during their decades of work fighting for food rights. “Now we have this following of people who are so supportive of the work we’re doing,” Washington says. “They know our intention is about food and social justice and growing food the right way, so all people have a right to the food we grow. No matter what their economics, ethnicity or race, everyone has a right to food that is good and healthy, and that is what we are trying to provide here at Rise & Root Farm.”