Our Tent Talk guest this week is community activist and farmer Karen Washington. She has spent decades promoting urban farming as a way for all New Yorkers to access fresh, locally grown food. In our interview we chat with Karen about how community activism got her interested in farming, how Rise & Root found their product niche for the farmers’ market, and her hopes for the next generation of farmers.
Listen all the way to the end for Karen’s insightful advice on getting young people interested in agriculture!
Growing food and building community
Karen has been a community activist for over 30 years, striving to make New York City a better place to live. While working as a physical therapist, Karen began growing food in her backyard in the Bronx. And a few years later she started a community garden in an empty lot across the street. What was initially a hobby quickly turned into a passion. “Once I was able to grow food and taste it, it just changed my world,” said Karen.
As a member of the La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition, Karen helped launch a community-based farmers’ market in her neighborhood. Despite the fact that she had been growing food in the Bronx for over 10 years at that point, many people were skeptical about the viability of a farmers’ market in that community. “But here we are 16 years later!” says Karen. Luckily, she didn’t pay too much attention to the nay-sayers.
Karen attributes much of the success of the Bronx market to the fact that most of the people that work at the farmers market live in the neighborhood and can see the money being spent funneling back into the community. Also, the market works because the community wants it there. Before launching the market, La Familia Verde conducted a survey to make sure it was something the neighborhood would buy into.
While La Familia Verde’s farmers’ market in the Bronx has proven successful, there is still a perception that low-income communities don’t want or can’t support farmers markets. But Karen isn’t buying it. “I think we need to change the lens in which we view low income neighborhoods and marginalized communities and people of color.”
Dig narrow and deep
In 2014 Karen started Rise & Root Farm, a cooperatively-run farm in Orange County, New York. Since her and her fellow growers had a background in community gardens, where they grow a little bit of everything, it took a while for Rise & Root to find their niche.
Rise & Root’s first couple seasons included a lot of trial and error. It took time for Karen and her team to get to know the challenges of managing pest control and growing in different soil in upstate New York. “We can grow the best vegetables and we can also grow the best weeds!”
Now that they’ve got a few seasons under their belt, Rise & Root has honed in on three main enterprises: heirloom tomatoes, herbs, and flowers. “Now we understand the black dirt. Now we understand what our niche is. Now we understand what people come to our market for and what we’re sort of ‘famous’ for. Now we’re making money,” explains Karen.
In addition to all her hard work on the farm and managing a farmers’ market, Karen is also an active advocate for diversity and equal representation in agriculture. “It’s rare for someone to see a black woman farmer. It’s rare,” says Karen. In order to provide a platform for people who’s voices have historically been shut out of the conversation around agriculture, she co-founded Black Urban Growers (BUGs).
In 2010 BUGs hosted the first annual Black Farmers & Urban Growers Conference and it was an immediate hit, with over 500 attendees. “To have a conference which was all people of color where by the speakers were, the educators were, the panelists were, the workshops were, was an eyeopener!”
“When people look at the food system they look at the Michael Pollands and Mark Bitmans. They don’t look at the Fanny Lou Hamer’s and George Washington Carver’s,” explains Karen. But through her community work and efforts with BUGs, she’s hoping to change that.
Where can I listen to Karen’s full episode of Tent Talk?
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Do you have a farmers’ market question you’d like us to answer on air? Got an idea for a future episode topic? Is there someone you think we should interview? Please let us know!