Centering Sustainability, Justice in Farming

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Tompkins Weekly 11-10-20

By Groundswell Center Staff

At a moment in history when critical mass feels essential to make change, we are reminded of the words from the late Grace Lee Boggs, “In this exquisitely connected world, it’s never a question of ‘critical mass.’ It’s always about critical connections.”

At the heart of sustainability is connection. Sustainable communities can be defined as the action of people, animals and the environment connecting to one another and depending on that connection for survival. Many farmers, gardeners, educators and activists deeply understand this concept. Our survival depends on one another.

As an agricultural agency in the Finger Lakes supporting beginning farmers for the past 10-plus years, Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming believes it is impossible to train the next generation of farmers without addressing issues of equity and justice.

The final autumn harvest at the Groundswell Center. Photo provided.

The history of agriculture in the U.S. is rooted in discrimination and racism. Many of the current injustices that exist within our food system, such as land theft, lack of access to land, food apartheid neighborhoods, diet-related health problems and farmworker exploitation are rooted in race and class disparities. And all too often, the voices of people of color and poor or low-income people are excluded from the mainstream food movement.

Here at Groundswell Center, we’ve trained thousands of farmers in sustainable growing practices and in creating viable farm business. Our region is a vibrant local food hub, with a large land grant (aka “land grab”) university renowned for agricultural research.

There are small restaurants that source locally grown food and distributors who support small farms. However, Black and Brown farmers don’t have equal access to the many resources that exist in this community.

As outlined in our Equity Statement, “we are committed to incorporating the needs, assets and perspectives of people and communities of color into the design and implementation of inclusive programming, organizational culture and policies.”

We live in a society that is based on white supremacy and systemic racism. More and more, we are learning that it is not enough to just wish racism away or not to be a racist, but that we actively need to be anti-racist. When we work toward anti-racism, we must challenge the very systems that have supported many white people in this country and excluded Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities (BIPOC).

As the pandemic hit in early March, Groundswell gathered a group of 15 people via a video call to join the Farmer Training Advisory Committee. The goal was to create a paid advisory team that is multicultural and diverse in age, background and experience, and that would explicitly center BIPOC voices.

As Groundswell’s leadership continues to work on increasing diversity of its Board and staff, a Committee like this aims to build connections and relationships and expand representation of BIPOC people in the sustainable food movement.

As the world rapidly changed and uprisings for racial justice began, the Committee was holding in-depth conversations questioning what it means to be a farmer and how to facilitate the processes of connecting people who identify as BIPOC to the land when that can also mean reconnecting to slavery, abuse and trauma.

How do you learn to farm if you are living paycheck to paycheck and most farm jobs pay less than a living wage? How do you learn to farm if you don’t have access to transportation?

The call for Black Lives Matter was felt deeply amongst the Committee, and it became clear that supporting the BIPOC community in becoming sovereign and sustainable is essential work.

The Committee developed Groundswell’s Farmer Training Program, slated to launch in spring 2021. In the program, participants gain hands-on experience working on a diverse range of farm enterprises run and owned by BIPOC farmers in the Finger Lakes/Haudenosaunee region.

Participants will be paid above living wage for their labor and time, and Groundswell will be providing transportation. Through the Committee’s hard conversations about how to not replicate the minimal wages and lack of support that is standard in the world of agriculture, this is our first attempt at addressing these barriers.

If we are going to train new farmers to be sustainable, we must challenge our definition of sustainable. Expanding our definition of sustainability means paying people a wage that enables them and their family to thrive, cares for them with health insurance and fair cost of housing, takes care of them when a pandemic hits and helps them invest in a future.

To create sustainable systems, we must also create equitable systems. We need to continue to have complex conversations and take action to address justice and access in local food and farming systems.

To learn more about Groundswell Center and the Farmer Training Program, visit or call 607.319.5095.

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