Diversified Growing: Farmers Cultivating Community and the Necessity of Federal Funding for Farmer-led Education and Research Programs
August 22, 2022
This article is authored by Madeline Turner, NSAC’s 2021-2022 Grassroots Fellow.
“Our neighbors are out here as soon as the weather breaks,” says Stephanie Dunn of Star Farm Chicago. “Us being here is natural community outreach – we are literally out here, outside.”
Located across five urban sites in pockets throughout the Back of the Yards neighborhood in the South Side of Chicago, Star Farm is a stunning community hub. “We want people to be able to come to our garden and see a clean, friendly, accessible, beautiful, fragrant space that they want to hang out in,” Stephanie explains. “We take care to make sure that our visibility around the area is attractive, and inviting.”
Back of the Yards has a deep and historic presence in the United States food system. From the mid-nineteenth century until the 1950s, Chicago’s Union Stock Yards held the country’s largest livestock yards and meatpacking center. The first epicenter of industrialized and centralized animal processing and renowned for their heinous working conditions, the Union Stock Yards massive role in establishing a consolidated US food system was facilitated through the labor of the community of primarily immigrant workers living in Back of the Yards. After the collapse of Chicago’s meatpacking industry in the 1970s, the legacy of both the environmental and economic degradation caused by the stockyards lives on. That legacy is accompanied, however, by that of the working-class community in the area who organized to improve the livelihoods of their families and neighbors. Agriculture, as well as the work to improve the US food system, is alive and well in Back of the Yards. This work is exemplified by the community cultivated at Star Farm.
The Star Farm CSA (community supported agriculture) program is supported largely by their Disability Farmers program, a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) funded initiative aimed at creating disability visibility in the community. The program supports folks with disabilities to take on leadership positions in sustainable food and highlights their work as advocates.
A few hundred miles away in central Ohio, Carie Starr of Cherokee Valley Bison Ranch takes a similar approach to engaging her community in farming. “When people come to the farm and see that it is beautiful, we are able to change the narrative around agriculture and people see agriculture in a better light,” she says. “I want to make agriculture accessible to anyone who wants to have a connection to farming.”
In an area once called “the great Buffalo swamp”, Cherokee Valley Bison Ranch in Thornville, Ohio is bringing bison back to a place that they have lived for centuries. “My whole life was building up to this,” she says. Raising bison on the same land her grandmother farmed on, Carie’s indigenous heritage informs her holistic approach to land stewardship. She never envisioned being a farmer when her grandma told her that one day the land would be hers. Yet since 2008 Carie has seen “the bison advantage” play out on the ranch. As she implements regenerative practices, the local ecosystem blossoms. “People hunted bison here,” Carie says, looking towards her grazing lands and making it explicit that Indigenous people have always had a relationship with the land upon which she raises animals. “We always say that we started small with bison,” she laughs. With forty-six bison rotationally grazing across fifty acres of a holistically managed landscape, the impact of Cherokee Valley Bison Ranch is not small. Instead, it is a site of community education and Carie is involved with organizations across the country to provide a voice for small farmers and producers.
“On my birthday, someone called asking if I knew anyone who wanted to buy a herd of bison,” she tells me. In the spring of 2018, the Starrs took all of the knowledge they had and in what her husband called “Bison 2.0”, Carie doubled her herd overnight. This became part of a process that a lot of farmers deal with: finding the right size. “We are always learning how our bison behave,” she says, referencing the way that the bison have regenerated the landscape and ecosystem functioning on the ranch. “It has been amazing to see how the land has responded to these animals.”
Farms are essential sites of social and economic regeneration. Where communities are empowered with the tools to implement sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices where they are, they are best situated to co-create a local food system that addresses their particular social and environmental needs. Farm work transcends the academic, lab, or classroom setting and learning through working with the land opens new doors and space for broader community involvement in addition to more impactful solutions. More than often, methods highlighted as “innovative’,’ sustainable, or regenerative agricultural practices are practices Indigneous peoples globally have always been practicing.
“In an urban environment, you have to be bold about farming,” Stephanie Dunn says. This is something that Moses Momanyi understands deeply. After moving to the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and integrating into local growing communities, he and his wife Lonah established Dawn 2 Dusk Farm in Cambridge, Minnesota. In 2020, he took Dawn 2 Dusk a step further, establishing Kilimo Minnesota. “Growing in cities means we don’t all have access to networks. So, we decided to bring a few others to farm with us,” he says. As an incubator farm for emerging African farmers, Kilimo MN, another SARE funded initiative, took off with thirteen farmers and has doubled that number by 2022.
“We didn’t have a setup for mentorship at first and we are still gaining the infrastructure we need but we provide as much information as we can,” Moses explains. The information Kilimo MN disseminates is broad sweeping, ranging from instruction on record keeping or Zoom training to improving soil health. Currently, ten farmers sell and work with local food hubs. “These people want to live on farms and not just in urban areas and we need to subvert that idea,” he says. They continue to seek help to build their capacity in order to bring new Americans and African immigrants into mentorship relationships, with the long term goals of buying farms, building networks, and enabling these farmers to have the records necessary to qualify for United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) funding programs.
“This is about making personal connections,” he says. Carie Starr stands by this idea as well. “Building networks is one of the most important things we can do as farmers,” she shares, standing in her farm store. “We are stronger when we work as a community. If I can share what I have to support someone else’s growth, I am succeeding.”
Resilience in the agricultural system is achieved through farmers, food systems workers, and rural and urban communities having the support they need to navigate uncertain futures. Similarly, solutions should contribute to the creation of a food and agricultural system that does not rely on making tradeoffs in the short term. Resilience means that the state of the food system consistently becomes more just while directly addressing the climate crisis. The seeds for food systems resilience can be planted through substantial support for community-led and farmer driven research and education.
Education and Research in Sustainable Agriculture
There are a multiplicity of ways education and research happen within and through agriculture. Programs like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), the only federal program dedicated exclusively to providing farmers with the hands-on skills and training they need to start farming projects, or the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which provides dedicated support for research to address the challenges farmers within the rapidly growing organic agriculture industry face, have demonstrated impacts on farmers’ capacity to maintain thriving operations. Though the opportunities that research and education in sustainable agriculture provide to farmers and their communities already have well-documented impacts and profound potential, federal investment in sustainable agriculture research, education, and extension remains limited. This work promotes ecologically and locally-based production systems; without it, scientific and technical innovation across the agricultural industry is suppressed and farmers and ranchers are unable to fully benefit from emerging markets.
Perhaps one of the most essential programs in this work is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, which shines as the sole federal competitive grants research program with a clear and consistent focus on farmer-driven research.
What is SARE?
What is most remarkable about SARE research is that it deviates from the academic setting. In over 30 years of its existence, SARE projects have spanned from commodity farmers looking to utilize non-chemical weed control in their operations to small farmers trialing unconventional crops and farmer-organizers implementing highly community focused programs. Where we might imagine research looking like soil testing or measuring productivity based on a particular set of methods, SARE projects such as Star Farm’s Disability Farmers program, or Kilimo Minnesota’s work to create a vibrant community of immigrant farmers, transform traditional research to integrate the budding needs of urban and rural agriculture into national conversations about the future of farming, shifting narratives and highlighting the importance of community-centered, experiential learning.
This kind of support gives farmers the much-needed ability to trial new ideas, methods, and crops with significantly less risk. In Mansfield Center, Connecticut, Diane Dorfer runs Cobblestone Farm and CSA, a two-acre, diversified growing operation with a “pick your own” component serving a hundred community members. Though there were three CSA programs in town when she started a few years ago, Cobblestone Farm’s CSA is the only one left. “Even though my area is rural and has a proud agricultural history, the reality is that there isn’t too much agricultural production going on,” she says. Diane’s SARE project was focused on the cultivation of lychee tomatoes. “SARE was a bit of a lesson in failing,” she says. Research is necessary to the widespread implementation of agriculture because we cannot be certain of what will or will not work unless it is tested in the field by farmers, who are the most capable of enacting solutions and addressing challenges on the ground. These challenges are rapidly transforming as a result of climate change, too – many of the ways farmers have historically approached growing food and raising livestock are no longer viable in the face of severe drought or other weather events and crop failure, among a myriad of other factors.
The benefits of SARE projects for the communities they take place in are lasting. They often culminate in programs and initiatives that continue far past a given project’s timeline and lend tangible, localized solutions to pressing food systems issues. Organized and delivered regionally, SARE’s innovative structure serves to magnify its innovative outcomes; through SARE, unique local needs are met in a way that allows all regions to benefit from SARE funding as equitably as possible.
In 2016 when Star Farm incorporated, the first federal funding they received was a SARE grant to support their Disability Farmers program. Disability Farmers, the farm’s longest running program, remains core to their identity as an organization. “We worked very closely with a day program for adults with disabilities in the neighborhood here and we were the first community organization that they had ever been out to volunteer and work with,” she says. “We got really close.”
When Star Farm applied for a SARE grant, they already had the structure, excitement, and engagement necessary for a highly-impactful community program. Funding for the Disability Farmers program, however, gave Stephanie and her team the opportunity to formalize, improve, and promote their program while documenting the outcomes. “SARE really helped make a lot of our programming dreams come true,” she adds. With the support of the SARE program, Star Farm was able to invite speakers to engage Disability Farmers participants. Other farmers and apiarists visited the farm to interact with and inspire them while illustrating other parts of urban agriculture beyond Star Farm.
This farmer-led project became participant-led as well. As their work evolved based on their interests, members of the Disability Farmers team worked to run transactions, provide customer service to community members, and employ food safety skills. “We are able to do a lot of everything and have a lot of fun doing it. It’s a blast and the program continues to be a blast,” Stephanie. The support Star Farm received through the SARE Program directly enabled the farm and program to grow simultaneously. Since then, Star Farm also established an incubator farm for beginning farmers working on growing their businesses, especially for BIPOC women and people in the neighborhood who want to use gardening and farming as a platform for whatever outcomes they are trying to reach in their particular community. This means that community advocates, a mutual aid operation, and the local library have all found room to grow – both literally and figuratively – at Star Farm.
“We seek grants like SARE to bring knowledge back to our farmers, support them in leadership roles, work with other farmers in the community, and nurture each of their leadership so we all work as a team,” says Moses Momanyi. Kilimo MN was awarded a $10,000 SARE grant to develop a curriculum on planning and soil health to be used with future farm incubator programs. In its second year, their SARE grant focus has generated a collaboration that provides education and hands-on training to twenty-five emerging new American and African farmers.
Because of federal funding programs’ unique ability to help farmers acquire transformative skills and enhance their capacity, funding for farmer-led research and education programs enables any given community to have agency in how they make decisions on how to facilitate economically and socially viable local food systems in both urban and rural areas.
“I think something true for us as a non-profit and probably for many non-profits is that we are still gonna do what we do, but depending on whether or not we have funding we can make what we do so much better,” Stephanie says, explaining how funding support allows for a more structured approach to their programmatic goals and the capacity to comprehensively track the outcomes and data gained from their programs.
SARE research results are directly shared with farmers and adopted in their fields at a much faster rate than other federal research. In addition, SARE is expanding its outreach to historically underserved farmers and ranchers by providing sponsorship funds to support education and training activities.
Farmer Leadership is Transforming the Food System
Cultivating and substantiating farmer leadership is essential to generating an equitable and resilient food and farming system. At Star Farm, Fridays are a big work day for the whole team. On a Friday in late March, farmers Rocio, Guadalupe, and Ryan spent the day working out crop plans and establishing goals for the season. “It’s nice because the staff are all farmers at heart – they all want to improve the community, and that just kinda informs everything we do,” says Stephanie. “We say yes to a lot of things.”
As summer rolls around, the farm is expanding and building out a new site that will double their production. Their produce is best suited to urban growing conditions and facilitates their goals of creating a welcoming environment for their community – colorful produce, easy to pick berries, and flowers take center stage. These are supplemented through partnerships with larger farms outside of the city to bring a variety of produce to the people their CSA serves. The CSA is still staffed by Disability Farmers program participants, who spend Tuesdays in the summer harvesting and packing in addition to engaging with the CSA and community members at their farm stand. This is a process that is exciting for everyone involved.
Back in Connecticut, Austin Slesinski of Sugar Shoots grows microgreens with his community. A young grower and recent college graduate, Austin says “I started doing what I was doing when I was a child with my grandfather and he instilled a love for agriculture in me. As I expanded out and started to talk to folks in farming, I heard a lot about struggles and the problems in the industry.” This encouraged Austin to jump in. “I got really interested in blending nature with sustainable technology,” he says, an idea propelled by his desire to make nutrient-rich food widely accessible to his community in Orange, Connecticut and beyond. “My heart is why I do what I do – I know that farming is so essential. I know that many people aren’t connected to their food right now and that connection is something that I’m trying to cultivate and establish with individuals.”
A LGBTQ-owned and family-operated business, Sugar Shoots prioritizes engaging with the community. Utilizing hydroponic systems that Austin has been designing and implementing since 2016, Sugar Shoots’ mission extends beyond simply growing a high-quality product – working with dedicated systems specifically to community food distribution centers is a focal point of Austin’s work. “I want to ensure that everything I grow is equitably accessible to everyone,” he says. “This kind of technology should be widely accessible, as should education on sustainable agriculture. I’m passionate about sustainable agriculture and I grow nutrient-dense food because I know my passion creates space for others to be passionate about it too.”
In Clarinda, Iowa, Seth Watkins stewards Pinhook Farms and is the fourth generation to work the land alongside his family. In 1998, Seth transitioned his farm from a production to a conservation and animal welfare focused operation. Now a 600-head cow-calf operation, Pinhook Farms utilizes a variety of conservation practices – row crops integrated with prairie strips, no-till growing and cover cropping, and rotational grazing, among others.
“I would tell young farmers it is amazing what you can do with an acre, or five,” he says when asked what advice he has for young people interested in food and agriculture. For Seth, demonstrating and passing down knowledge is key to his philosophy and work. “We have to help people learn rather than pushing production farmers away,” he says. “The only way I know how to change the conversation is to get folks to see what happens [to the land when they implement regenerative practices] on the ground with us – even if they don’t agree, we’re getting them involved.” To Seth and so many other farmers and ranchers passionate about educating the next generation of farmers, skill sharing is necessary. “As farmers we might not know that much about soil and water – we can tell you every nut and bolt on a John Deere, about the whole of the Farm Bill or the complexities of financial management and insurance, but we couldn’t grow a vegetable garden,” he explains, warranting the need for expanded technical assistance and extension programs.
“Extension to work with farmers should be the priority of the Farm Bill,” Seth says. “With increased consolidation, the system isn’t incentivizing the passing on of knowledge or is dis-incentivizing people to start farming. I always welcome visits to our farm but want to make sure young farmers can access land – we put our land in a conservation easement so the only thing it can be is a pasture farm, lowering its value.” To this point, he adds: “We need to recognize our legacies of colonization and how our farming methods have destroyed the soil. We also need to engage with and support Indigenous farmers.” The lack of racial equity in organic farming, for example, continues to pose a threat to food systems resilience. Recent reports have highlighted how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) farmers are facing challenges in organic production at a significantly higher rate than their white counterparts. This further demonstrates the need for increased technical assistance and dedicated funding to support the work of BIPOC farmers in particular.
Communities are empowered through expanded access to education. “When you look at the creek running behind the ranch, you can tell where our land ends and the conventional farm fields begin,” says Carie Starr, recalling times where she has welcomed school field trips to the ranch. “These kinds of farms will save the world,” she says. “We need to financially incentivize us, subsidizing small farmers growing healthy and safe food. In order to mitigate climate change, it has to be financially beneficial for people to change.” Carie has applied for USDA grants and loans but has never received one, leading her to stop applying.
“Don’t underestimate the power of women who are growing food for their community,” says Stephanie Dunn. The importance of centering community in agricultural innovation is validated through stories of farmers nationally. In order to meet the challenges posed by climate change and improve the resiliency of food systems broadly, farmers must be supplied with tools that are easily accessible, relevant to their farming systems, and take farmer knowledge into account as we look towards innovative mechanisms for ensuring a sustainable food system.
“All come with knowledge that requires some tailoring in the US context with cultural perspectives, so we are working to provide material resources in a cultural way to farmers and together shape curriculum by way of their cultural inclinations, farming backgrounds, and personal environmental consciousness,” says Moses Momanyi. In this case and so many others, the incorporation of the unique and specific knowledge held by farmers into mainstream agricultural practice has the potential to strengthen and transform the food system into one that not only promotes human dignity but one that is built on stable, responsible methods and stewardship.
This cultivation of community and environmental resilience extends beyond potential, however. Farmers facilitate systemic change. The impacts of that change grow throughout the country every day.
Madeline Augusta Turner is the 2021-2022 Grassroots Fellow with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Her work is focused on land-based storytelling and utilizing narrative as a tool in policy analysis.
Beginning and Minority Farmers, Budget and Appropriations, Carousel, Conservation, Energy & Environment, Farm Bill, General Interest, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Organic, Research, Education & Extension, Rural Development, Sustainable Livestock