Youth Farm Project Pushes for Social Justice

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Tompkins Weekly.    11-23-21

By Katie Church

At the Youth Farm Project (YFP), November is all about tucking the farm into bed for the season: pulling drip tape from the fields, taking down the deer fencing, planting cover crops and mulching.

This fall has been long and warm, if wet. In the bedtime analogy, we have “stayed up a little late” for one more bit of fun. With the first dusting of snow, our minds and bodies are ready for the internal season that is winter in a four-season climate: dreaming.

YFP is a farm-based social justice education organization. The work is with people and land, and that means things are always changing. The winter months allow us to look back over the year, to process what went well, what went amazingly and what fell short, and to listen for what is being asked.

Teen participants in the 2021 Youth Farm Project harvest shiitake mushrooms and enjoy some shade. Photo provided.

This is the 12th November that YFP has been alive and growing in Danby. In the spring of 2010, a scrappy and excited group of folks from the Ithaca community gathered on the land, planned and plowed the first crops and prepared for the first group of 25 teens to spend their summer on the farm.

Standing in the tilled soil, an elder, Jemilla, said to me quietly, “There is so much healing to be done for Black folks to be on the land. … We’ll get to that.”

Jemilla moved from Ithaca, and we kept in touch for a while. Her words came when I had not thought much about that yet in my life. I breathed and nodded and did the next task. Her words have never left me. When YFP coalesced nascent ideas into a “mission statement,” that healing was hinted at, and as we grew, the mission grew to ground itself in land-based social justice.

The land we work on was stolen from the Gayogo̱hó꞉nǫʼ people (colonized name “Cayuga”). It is owned by the Ithaca Waldorf School (IWS), which shares it with YFP. It was farmed by settler colonizers for many generations before IWS and YFP came to it. We know healing is needed beyond acknowledgment of land occupation and are looking for ways forward with this.

The land is characterized by cleared fields, hedgerows, old apple trees, fairly poor soil and lots of rocks. The views are spectacular, the wind blows fiercely on the hill, and wildlife traverses regularly by land and sky. Since 2010, over 250 teens have spent their summers on this land, learning what it takes to grow food and having deep and challenging conversations with each other.

2021’s summer cohort was intentionally smaller than others in effort to keep everyone safe from COVID-19 transmission. Fourteen teens worked with us for seven weeks as their summer job.

Each morning was spent doing fieldwork. They harvested garlic and hung it to dry, trellised tomatoes, took care of the greenhouse, created permanent contour beds and weeded a lot. The vegetables and herbs were harvested for us to eat in our farm lunches and to donate to the weekly free food distribution at No Mas Lagrimas.

Our farm chef cooked lunch with us, and the afternoons were spent in the cool of the barn in workshops led by guest speakers and staff. Each Friday, we went on field trips to Black-, Asian- and Latinx-owned farms.

Local Black herbalist Amanda David taught us how to make anxiety-reducing tea blends, and we talked about how racism shows up in U.S. health care. Indigenous media artists Jason Corwin and Tahila Mintz shared on Indigeneity and media.

Sarah Gotokwa, a local Korean fiber artist, planted and harvested fresh indigo with us and taught us how to dye silk with it. We talked about the suppressed racist history of the intersection of the textile and fashion and agriculture industries in the U.S. and globally.

Each week, the teens and staff use a feedback tool called “RealTalk” to share a balance of positives and areas of potential growth.

In their final self-evaluation, a teen shared, “I learned more that being a leader isn’t about being very strict and bossy; it’s about helping people grow and learning with them. It’s giving people an extra hand and lifting them up. It’s about giving people space to feel safe and supported. It’s about calling in and calling out. During RealTalk, my crew said I had the characteristics that I look for in a leader, and I almost cried.”

The short-term goals for the Teen Summer Program are to learn various land-based skills; have conversations/critical thinking sessions regarding social and food justice; provide increased opportunities for teens from a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds; and for participants to learn to cook and eat healthy meals.

The long-term goals are to create stronger, more resilient community bonds; more food producers; increased political engagement; food sovereignty; increased sense of purpose and responsibilities and healthy families. These are the visions of the Youth Farm Project and the lens we use to evaluate our programs.

In the coming dreamtime, in the quiet, long nights and slower breathing, we are grateful. Twelve years is the blink of an eye, and it is also a vote of confidence. The support of so many makes it possible. We are honored to be a solid thread in the fabric of the community, and we seek to weave further strength and power and joy.

The responsibility feels like a blessing. We are so excited in the next months to look back on where we have been and to dream ahead about where we can go. The Youth Farm Project has so much to offer!

Before we know it, we will be meeting teens again in the greenhouse. Bright green grass will be poking through slushy ground, and we will push seeds into soil to germinate. We will talk about things light and heavy, silly and intimate, and as the sun returns, plants will grow. Humans will be there to tend them. Liberation is the most exciting and enjoyable thing we can do.

Katie Church is the co-founder and director of administration for YFP. She founded YFP in the winter of 2009 and has been with the program ever since. Church works as the development coordinator and provides administrative and jack-of-all trades support for all programming. Church grew up in the Ithaca area and is raising her own family here. For much of her life, her work has centered around food, from working on farms to managing a large CSA, to working as a chef. Her work with the Youth Farm Project ties all of these passions together.

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