Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 014 - Accessible Food Systems featuring Molly Rockamann and Karen Washington

Karen Washington: If` it’s going to be sustainable, then we need to broaden our lens on how we look at urban agriculture. And hopefully it’s a movement that changes the dynamics of agriculture to be more diverse and more inclusive. Everyone has a role in that.

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future. A podcast by the SARE, the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. I'm your host, Mal. Our guests on this week’s show bring farming into a community-based context. You just heard from Karen Washington, co-founder of Rise & Root farm in Chester, New York. She spends a lot of time community gardening in the Bronx as well, a landscape not all that different from where Molly Rockamann runs EarthDance farm in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St. Louis.

Molly Rockamann: The thing that I think is really powerful about being a farmer and practicing agriculture in an urban area, in a suburb is the proximity to people. You have the ability to influence just literally a higher number of people. Having thousands of visitors each year really gives us the ability to bring up these issues and talk about social issues and talk about how all these things are all interwoven give people new ideas of ways they can plug into the movement.

Mallory Daily: Both Molly and Karen are strong believers of getting involved in federal, state and local politics to encourage the growth of food systems accessible to all. In order for agriculture to be truly sustainable, they say community organizing and involvement must be a key element in the production and distribution of our food.

Karen Washington: So this SARE conference is about sustainability. And I hear, you know, a lot of people use that word all the times. So what is your take on what sustainable agriculture is all about?

Molly Rockamann: Oh, that's such a good question. Well, you know, I feel like the word sustainable has been taken over by a lot of folks in agriculture who kind of are trying to jump on that bandwagon without actually having the real values behind it. So it's almost like we have to come up with a new word, you know, and the current buzzword seems to be "regenerative", which I like from the standpoint of--it's going past like, sustaining is just kind of like maintaining, you know, and regenerative is like, okay, how do we do more? How do we like actually build soil? How do we actually mitigate climate change and not just like not make it go further? What does it mean though? I mean ultimately it's thinking about things seven generations ahead.

Karen Washington: Yeah, I would agree, too. I think sometimes within the definition the emphasis is so much along soil and stewardship, but I want to make sure that we don't, I'll rule out social capital and people because I think that's really, really important.

Molly Rockamann: Yes.

Karen Washington: We've talked about sustainability and looking at the future of agriculture and the fact that, you know, the average age of a farmer is now 59. It's up. It used to be 58-an-a-half, but now I hear it's 59. And so how do we get the younger generation interested in farming if we are supposed to be "sustainable".

Molly Rockamann: Right. I liked that you brought that up and actually recently I heard LaDonna Redmond speak and she said something that is really shapeshifting my view on sustainable agriculture. And that often when we're talking about where "agriculture" went wrong, you know, with regards to the industrialization of agriculture as if that's when agriculture became unsustainable. And it ignores the fact that we're working to begin with on stolen land from indigenous peoples. And it ignores the fact that we kidnapped Africans and brought them over to work as free labor. And then it ignores the fact, she didn't say this, but I would add this, that our current agricultural system is still on the backs of mostly Mexican and Latino people who are doing the majority of the actual physical work. So if we're not talking about those things in that context that we're working in, then we're not really addressing like the root issues of the unsustainability of agriculture.

Karen Washington: That's why I love LaDonna. Yeah. You know, I known her for so many years and I know the fact that, you know, she is very outspoken when it comes to agriculture and a movement. I sorta want to sort of piggy back or "veggie" back on that comment that you just said because, you know, for years people have said that the food system is broken and I used to drink the Kool-Aid, but I no longer believe that. Because I believe the food system is doing exactly what it's supposed to be. It's a caste system based on race, geography, and economics. And so if you look at the food system, I mean, why is it that in America, a country is so rich, we have 4 million people in poverty. We grow enough food, we waste enough food. But how come that food is not getting to the people that need it the most? 

So I question when people talk about the food system, you know, it's broken and it needs to be fixed. But like you had just stated and LaDonna has said, it has been built on the backs of the marginalized people from stolen land. I always had this sort of premise that food is a right for all and not a privilege for some. So I'm coming across now, since all of a sudden the doors have opened in terms of urban agriculture. And so I've come across, this new phenomenon of biotechnology. And so as a person that is doing in urban agriculture, I'm hearing from some groups that urban agriculture is the way of the future, that high technology and biotechnology is going to be the way of the future, that we'll no longer be really growing food in soil, but it'll be soil-less-based. And so I'm hearing all these things and I just am appalled by the one size fits all and that technology is going to be the cure-all when it comes to growing our food. And so, I just want to know how you feel about that because I have a very, very strong feeling that there is a place for everyone in agriculture and that one group can't say that they're the dominant group.

Molly Rockamann: I am a huge believer in soil. I mean, the reason I started EarthDance where I did is because of the beautiful soil that we're on. We're on what's considered to be the oldest organic farm west of the Mississippi, you know, and it's 14 acres. And it felt really important to me to keep that particular land in organic agriculture. So yeah, I mean the fact that now non-soil-based farming can even be certified organic, it really makes me worry about where we're going with agriculture. So I guess I'm a very firm believer in actually keeping soil in agriculture. Not that, not that things like aquaponics aren't, you know, great uses of resources and places that don't have much soil. But I think thinking that we can technologify--or whatever the word--our way out of the problem, I think is as a falsehood.

Karen Washington: Well, I guess we both concur and agree on that, which is really, really good. It's good to hear you say that. For me in terms of soil, I think that's where I really found my roots, so to speak. It was a very, very humble beginning for me to sort of look at farming as an occupation, but looking at farming in terms of something positive, being an African American. And I remember in 2008 when I went to California and for the first time I was able to look at farming from a broad lens and was asked to participate in this farming program and one of the requirements was to work on a large-scale farm. And so coming from community gardens and small plots, I'm faced with this huge acreage of land. And again, people don't understand that in some parts of the African American experience trauma is still there. Trauma is still there from slavery, from being taken away from our, our homeland. And so when I was confronted with this huge area of land, that trauma started to surface. And so for me, it was either to flee or really go after it. And so what I did literally is that I went to the farm and I went and put my hands into the land and I felt that instant connection, that sort of DNA, that sort of ribosome connection that I belonged and I never looked back. And so as an African American, what I try to do, especially with our young Black and Latino young men and women, is to make them understand that, you know, you'll hear the narrative around slavery and that's part of our history. But for them to understand that they come from a rich agrarian group of people and that agriculture is in our DNA. And so think about land in a positive way. Think about the power of owning land and having land. Think about the power of growing food and use that as an instrument, as an instrument of salvation, an instrument in owning your power and understanding your rightful place in agriculture. Because I want to see more diversity in agriculture. I don't see that. I still see the majority of agriculture being white male dominant.

Molly Rockamann: Spot on. Thank you.

Karen Washington: Do you get involved in community in your work that you do on the farm?

Molly Rockamann: Yeah. Well, and it's interesting you're talking about wanting to see more diversity in agriculture. So, as you know, you may have heard of the town Ferguson. Yes. It's that Ferguson, Missouri where there's a whole lot of racialized history now and my dad grew up in Ferguson and I grew up going there all the time because our family business was there and that was how I was initially connected to that farm was as a 15-year-old. And now living there in Ferguson and having the farm there, I see it every day. You know this separation between people of color and, and the land and the real, just the real toughness of actually--the folks who do come to our apprenticeship program, who are African American and do want to learn how to farm, you know, they get teased and not just teased I'm sure, just like chastise almost by their family members sometimes saying, "Why would you do that? You know, we've come so far. We're away from, we don't have to do that anymore." And it's really painful to hear and very real, you know, and thankfully the folks who have come through the apprenticeship program see it as liberation, you know, see it as liberation through connection, you know? And so I really do see more and more and part of it is, us as an organization, EarthDance, who is predominantly white, you know, we're constantly striving to actually get more racial diversity in our team. How do we reach people who might benefit from this or who might enjoy this or want to do it but just don't even know it exists yet? There's so much to be said about just not, not thinking of it as like, oh gosh, how do we do this? And let's tokenize, you know, people of color and just make sure we have the seats filled. It's about like building real relationships with people, you know? So it's a much slower going process for us than I would like it to be in terms of having a more diverse class of apprentices each year. But this year I'm really excited that we actually have the most racially diverse, age diverse, gender diverse, background diverse group that we've ever had yet. This is our 10th year, you know, so it's taken us awhile to get here.

Karen Washington: Well that sounds really, really good. I'm excited about that. And I'm excited about the fact that you did take the time to reach out. I think for so many organizations, especially that are white-led, it's difficult for them to go outside of their comfort zone. So I tell people, time and time, again, if you want to see diversity, you have to sometimes make yourself feel uncomfortable to be comfortable. And a lot of it is so simplistic. By breaking bread, having a meal and inviting people to come to the table so that you can talk about issues that affect their community, that affect their lives. But also, use it as a tool to make sure that you're grooming the next generation, too. I don't want to use the word "replace you", but if you're in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color and you're developing leadership--I tell people, time and time, again, if your mission is to do that and you've been doing that for 10 to 20 years, then you're doing something wrong because they should have your jobs. And so we have to find a way when we talk about inclusion and we talk about diversity and we talk about leadership, is that those people in a community should have a pathway towards leadership so that people in their community look at the faces that reflect them. And so I'm glad you brought that point up because I tend to bring it up all the time. So tell me a little bit about how your farm got started.

Molly Rockamann: Karen, actually, I feel like you're so generous to ask me all the questions. I'll ask you to tell me about Rise and Root Farm and how your farm got started.

Karen Washington: So Rise and Root Farm. We have this sort of slogan--we traded in our metro cards for tractors. So all of us come from community gardening and have been friends for years. And in 2008, we went on a woman's summit up at the Grail. I think it was 30 of us. And so we spent the weekend just coming together as women to look at the full system and wanted to talk about change, wanted to talk about issues, but also wanted to talk about our dreams. And so all around, as we talked about, our dream is finding some way that we could one day farm together. So we took the first year going up and down the Hudson Valley looking for land. And as so many of you know, the cost of land is really, really high. But we did make visits and we did speak to farmers and fortunately were able to secure land up in Chester, New York, which is only an hour and 15 minutes from New York, which is really, really close. 

And so our first year was really good but crazy because we're on this extraordinary black dirt and the muck has so much organic matter. And we found out quickly that we can grow the best vegetables, but also the best weeds. And so we had to find out about that, the soil. And then also we are a for-profit business. So it was really essential to find out what we could grow so that we could pay ourselves. So the first year we wanted to grow everything and found out that we only made like around $12,000, which was really ridiculous for four. But then so the second year we sort of cut down and really sort of honed in on what particular vegetables, flowers or herbs would bring in the amount of money that would sustain us, but also provide food for everyone. And so we're going into our third year and now I think we got it. 

We got the fact that we're going to grow vegetables, but more tomatoes, we're going to grow herbs, edible flowers and flowers. And so it's a learning curve. And so any farmer that says that they're an expert, they're lying because the only expert is Mother Nature and time and time again, Mother Nature will tell you, you know, when you can grow and when you can't grow. And here we are in April and we still have snow in New York. So that just goes to show you. So one last thing I just want to say about our farm, which I'm really, really proud, is that we're rooted in justice. We're rooted in justice. And what that means is that we're growing food for everyone, no matter of their economic status, no matter of their ethnicity. We are doing that and our farm is a healing farm. And so we encourage people who are, you know, exhibiting trauma, who feel a need to be close to the land. Our farm is open for those people that just want to have that sort of a healing response.

Molly Rockamann: That's beautiful. Thanks for doing that. So what's really powerful to me about that is it's for women farming, too, not only just that it's women, but that it's for, you know, you don't hear that very often. I feel like where there's like four co-owners and it's basically a small community. So it's funny, I did the Santa Cruz CASFS program that you did, also. And for me, one of the big takeaways from that apprenticeship was actually the power of farming and community. And I see every single season of EarthDance, you know, of our apprenticeship season that that is as much or more so a takeaway for our apprentices as the technical skills of agriculture that they're learning is how they're getting to know people, you know, on a much deeper level than they would even with people then that they would spend, you know, eight hours a day working alongside because there is some other connection that happens when you're working in the soil together across from people who you never otherwise would've met. So it's easy enough--not that it's easy at all--but I mean, you can create that kind of set-up when it's a non-profit and you know, this is a training program, but the fact that you're doing it as a business to me is really compelling. Because I often wonder, I mean, I'm a single woman and I sometimes feel like I put my longterm, you know, land-based living dreams on hold because it feels like, okay, I'm waiting to find that partner, you know? And it's like, maybe I don't need to wait that long to live in community and to live on more land than I'm currently on. And I just wonder about, was that a mental shift for you or for all of you? Like to be like, okay, we just, we all want to farm together?

Karen Washington: I think one of the advantage of community gardening is the fact that you have that sense of community. And so all of us come from, we come from a community garden background. So we're used to growing in community, which I find so refreshing. And so when we decided that all of us wanted to be farmers and to grow food, it was sort of a natural sort of migration to not even think about growing food alone. And so the fact that, you know, we had this sort of bond in this friendship just made it a natural progression. And I would advise, you know, any sort of single person that thinks about, you know, they want to a farm. Don't farm on your own because I think farming in community, it also brings in people's different viewpoints about farming. And it also strengthens their ability, you know, adds their expertise or their resources and there's responsibility with that so that you're not doing farming alone. There is accountability, there's responsibility. And then at the end of the day, when a person is low, you got people that they got your back. So can we just talk also, because the way we sound is like we're making it such, like, a dream, which it is a dream--

Molly Rockamann: Oh, the real world of farming?

Karen Washington: I think we should also talk about some of the challenges.

Molly Rockamann: Yeah, I'm glad that you brought this up. And in fact, sometimes I feel like even within what I consider kind of the sustainable agriculture world, we don't acknowledge what big picture challenges are happening. One thing that has really personally struck me, not literally struck our farm, but that's happening on over 9 million acres across the country in this last growing season is the drift of Dicamba. Are you, are you aware of this?

Karen Washington: No, I'm not.

Molly Rockamann: So it is a very strong weed killer that was designed because Roundup is not working anymore because we know that there are super weeds. We know that there's super strong pigweed and sun hemp and all these weeds that have taken over for some and are ruining combines. And it's a very understandable, real issue that a lot of conventional farmers are facing that I don't want to sound, you know, like it doesn't matter because, but it's kind of like just fighting the same problem with a bigger hammer. And so what's happening though is because it's such a volatile chemical, it's drifted on literally millions of other acres. And I'm not even just talking about other commodity crops. This is affecting peach orchards. The largest peach orchard in Missouri may close after multiple generations of operation because they've lost thousands and thousands of peach trees. It's affecting oak forest. Even if you're not a farmer, if you're somebody who cares about, you know, forests, it has no lane that it stays in, so this is something that really affected me because of the social implications as much as the ecological ones because on the front page of the St Louis Post Dispatch last fall it said, "Farmers Divide Over Dicamba". And it was talking about rural farming communities that are being ripped apart because some are seeing the benefits and some are seeing the negative effects. And there was literally a murder in Arkansas of one farmer because of a disagreement about this Dicamba drift. So it's very real. It's hitting Missouri, Arkansas. Arkansas has actually been the worst hit. And you know, there's very few states in the Midwest that have not been affected. And this is something we're not talking about.

Karen Washington: So what do you think the remedy should be? What do you think farmers, consumers, what should be done?

Molly Rockamann: How do we take action? We need to have the precautionary principle at play here and we need to actually say, you know what, this has already shown that it's dangerous enough that it shouldn't be applied on this scale. So the state of Arkansas banned it. Monsanto appealed that, of course, as they would. And I don't know the exact current up-to-date right now, what's happening in it, but I know the state of Missouri has not yet banned it, so I believe we need to.

Karen Washington: See this is why I love working in cities because, and also around young people, because of the energy they have behind community organizing. And I think the farming community has lagged behind in terms of really, especially the older farmers in terms of organizing and really making sure that the political arena is accountable. I mean for so long we have given up our power to the political people and people have to understand that the power comes from within the people. We elect these people to sort of do what we want them to do. But in essence, what we do is sit back and allow the government and lobbyists to control our food system. And so what we have to sort of understand is where is the power dynamic in a food system and a power dynamic lies within the consumer or the farmer. And so if we can sort of understand where our power is and make sure that the legislative branch of government is held accountable, if you're not going to work for us, then we're going to make sure you will not be elected. And these are strong words that sometimes you don't hear because we live in an era of silence and complacency. And we sit back and we allow others to do our work, whereby the farmers and consumers need to come together and rally behind and make sure that the political people are held accountable because that's how things are going to be done. To sit back and just go after Monsanto and these lawsuits--get the political power behind growers. And also I feel about the farm workers that are out there being exposed to that. And we didn't even talk about labor issues because it's affecting them, too. 

And so it's time for all of us to really, really hold government accountable, especially what is happening in Washington seems to be at an all time disarray. And it can start really at a local level. You know, sometimes people think that, oh, you know, you just have to go out and just get the federal government, but you know what, if we can start at a local level and then go from a local level to a state level, from a state level to a federal level, this is where our power is and what has given me so much encouragement is the students, the students from Florida that have marched. To watch this young group of people who don't have voting power yet, but they're exercising their power with their voice and they're exercising their power with information, with education and their holding the political process to the fire. And they said, you know what, we may not be able to vote now, but next year we'll be able to vote. And if you don't vote the way we want, then you're out. And so the same community organization, the same activism that we're seeing that our young people are having, we need to have as well. Excellent point. And I hope the listeners heard what you are saying and really, really get behind to make sure that we're talking about sustainable agriculture because that's where we are at the SARE conference. Then we need to take steps to make sure that we are truly the stewards of the land.

Molly Rockamann: Yeah. Amen. Well, and I love that you brought up focusing local because sometimes it feels like federal, it's so far from being able to do much about, even though it is important. We do need to pay attention to this federal Farm Bill because we can't count on every community doing what's in the best interest of its own local residents. But starting where you live, you know, running for school board, running for city council. That's honestly part of the reason I felt compelled to actually do the work of EarthDance in St Louis is because I spent a lot of time going to protests in college and while they actually can be fun and they can be a great channeling of energy and raise awareness of issues. For me, it wasn't what I wanted to do in the long haul. You know, I wanted to do something that felt like creating an alternative solution. And so getting back to the very, very basic foundation of human life, which is the soil, I decided was much, was going to be much more life-giving for me. And I think I've noticed that a lot in this new generation of farmers is that there's, you know, a lot of folks who come to it from a very activist, a very environmentalist, a very social justice angle, but are like, I want to do something real. I want to do something with my hands. I want to actually grow something that is going to be life-giving. And that's food,

Karen Washington: Right. And I think this new movement now, like you said, is really integrating community organizing, activism like never before. And I think that's really, really important, but also want to mention Flint, Michigan in the conversation because I think the importance of water. And when you were talking about farming and food, because I think food and water goes hand-in-hand. And so we need to understand, again, this movement of people stepping up to the plate, not only talking about food, but talking about the impact that water has and how water has now become contaminated and that it's now not only in our homes but it's in our schools and the affect that lead can have on the growing of young brains. Again, the activism, like you were saying, the activism needs to start at a local level because this is a national problem that's not being handled. But again, it just boils down to where you're now seeing this really insurgence of young people going into the community and demanding, demanding changes around food and water policy and also our immigration and housing. And those sort of factors that I see within the farming movement, that intersection with food and economics and housing and water and public health are all tying together. And so, when there is one thing that we have to fight for, it seems that it piggybacks on another issue and like you said, it all boils down to quality of life and health issues that affect each and every one of us.

Mallory Daily: That’s a wrap for this week. You were listening to Molly Rockamann, founder of EarthDance farm in Ferguson, MO, in conversation with Karen Washington of Rise & Root farm in Chester, NY . If you’d like to learn more about their projects, take a look at our show notes. We’ll also post the link to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article Molly mentioned about how Dicamba use is affecting rural communities. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE. Thanks for listening!