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.

| September/October 2016

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.”

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