The Prying Mantis

No Justice, No Peace – reflections on organic farming, CSA and domestic fair trade.

Don’t Just Tweak – Transform NYS Agriculture!

Farmers and CSA members together harvesting garlic greens in early May for the first Peacework shares of the season.

Agriculture and Forestry Roundtable: Hosted by Environmental Advocates NY, along with Catskill Mountain Keeper, Earthjustice, Northeast Organic Farming Association, and NY Renews, April 21, 2022

My comments on the Agriculture and Forestry Recommendations for the Draft Scoping Plan

Together we face a climate emergency.

The members of NOFA-NY passed a resolution in February calling upon the state and federal governments to declare a national Climate Emergency to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis.

The CLCPA process gives us the opportunity to take strong actions in the hope that it is not too late.

I hope that as many of you as possible will join NOFA-NY and our allies in commenting on the Ag and Forestry recommendations in the Scoping plan. The Ag and Forestry panel recommendations are very cautious and emphasize making small tweaks to existing systems of industrial-scale farming, with the rationalization is that you can do more to reduce GHG emissions through small improvements to big field crop and processing vegetable farms and the largest livestock farms than by making longer term changes.

Instead, we can take this opportunity to initiate the transformation of NYS agriculture to strengthen the economic, social and environmental viability of family-scale farming and increase social justice and racial equity.

Farmer Laura Colligan putting up a new hoop house (funded by the NRCS) at Dirt Rich Farm, Springville, NY. 20,000 farms like Laura’s could ring NY cities and supply most of the vegetables people need.

The plan should call for legislation for investments in certified organic and agroecological farms with the goal to convert 25% of NY farmland to organic by 2030 through massively scaled-up technical assistance programs, tax subsidies, and grant funding. The Climate Justice Working Group recommends funding and programs for farms to transition to organic systems and also recommends a tax on fertilizers that could fund this transition.[1] Please note that synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are derived from natural gas and the Scoping Plan does not count the emissions from out of state production of these fertilizers or the nitrous oxide that results from spreading them.

Research shows that organic farming reduces energy use by at least 30% through avoidance of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers,[2] and also increases soil carbon levels, soil stability and fertility, on-farm biodiversity, and crop resilience. By design, organic agriculture builds resilience into the system of food production.

The CLCPA includes a strong mandate for permanence.  However, in biological systems the only permanent thing is change.

When farms are going out of business, practices like adding covers and flares to manure pits are no more or less permanent than increasing the use of cover crops and composting. In 2009, there were 5,475 dairy farms in NYS; in 2019, that number had dropped to 3,893 dairy farms. (New York State Dairy Statistics). Not poor farming, but the failing economics of milk pricing are driving smaller dairies out of business and pressuring larger dairies to get even larger.

At a Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York field day, farmer Polly Armour at Four Winds Farm in Gardiner, NY, shows the quality of the soil after many years of organic no-till vegetable production.

To ensure that improvements to soil health endure for the foreseeable future and that public investments will be worthwhile, the farmers of this state need to join with all land managers in a culture of soil care with public recognition and support for the many ecosystem services soil health provides: increased soil carbon, reduced net greenhouse gas emissions, improved water quality and water use conservation, improved crop yields, nutrient density and shelf-life, and greater farm resilience in the face of the accelerating climate emergency. A culture of soil care means that farmers, their customers, and our policy makers value soil as a paramount resource.

Along with a goal for converting to organic farming, the plan should set statewide soil health goals to track progress, increase accountability, and ensure the permanence of soil-sequestered carbon.

All agriculture and forestry projects that receive public funding must be required to qualify by using soil health practices as defined in Article 11-B, Agriculture & Markets (AGM) Chapter 69.

The plan must address the many inequities and barriers to success in farming that result from the systemic racism that pervades our society. Just as biodiversity is essential to soil health, social diversity is essential to a healthy and thriving food system.

In Commissioner Richard Ball’s letter introducing the 2021 Diversity and Racial Equity Working Group Report, he underscored the NYS Department of Agriculture’s commitment to building a “stronger, more resilient, and more equitable agricultural community in New York State.” This plan must do more to enable NYSDAM to actualize this commitment. At least 40% of all funds expended by the state under this plan must be invested in underserved communities. Members of all underserved communities must be represented and able to participate in the design and implementation of all new initiatives.

Climate justice and racial justice are mutually reinforcing – to reduce GHG emissions in ag NYS must turn more of the land over to native American, Black and other farmers of color. Agroecological systems originated in indigenous cultures. Current NYS organic and agroecological farmers combine these systems with the latest social and technological innovations to bring greater health to both the farmers and workers who produce food and the eaters who benefit from fresh, local, nutrient-dense food grown in healthy soils.

To make it economically feasible for organic and agroecological farms to survive in the highly concentrated marketplace where farmers are usually price takers, NYS must implement a Payment for Ecosystems Service program that provides income to farmers who regenerate soil while producing food, fiber, building materials, and medicine. A payments program would compensate farmers for the many interrelated and essential ecosystem services that their farms provide and that result in positive outcomes for the climate. There is no agreement yet on how to measure, monitor and verify increases in soil carbon. To ensure more than minimal performance of incentivized practices, we recommend payments to farmers based on outcomes: lower temperatures that result from soil that is covered instead of bare, minimizing leaching of minerals into waterways, reducing odors, cleaner air, the agritourism value of the beauty of a diverse working landscape. Cleaner water, air and increased tourism are all verifiable. The degree of soil coverage can be measured from satellite images. Diversifying a farm’s landscape makes a big difference in ecosystem services. Trees/windbreaks/ponds etc. reduce temperatures, slow winds, filter/infiltrate water, and mitigate climate extremes. Increasing cover cropping and double cropping has a big impact on soil carbon but also on crop yields and quality.

And finally, it is time to end public funding for the liquid manure handling systems that make really large CAFOs possible. In 2017 out of over 4600 dairy farms in New York, only 561 farms had herd sizes over 200 milk cows and only 142 farms had herd sizes over 1000 milk cows. Just 12% of New York dairies account for nearly 70% of New York’s dairy cow population and are responsible for the vast majority of associated methane emissions from both enteric fermentation and manure management. (United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Census of Agriculture New York, 2017).

A rotating milking parlor for 75 cows at a time on a farm in Wayne County, New York.
Manure pit on a large dairy farm in NYS.
Manure “lagoons” with caps made of plastic.

As defined by EPA, a CAFO has more than 1000 animal units – over 700 cows. More than half of the methane from cows in CAFOs is generated in the anaerobic manure systems that the Draft Scoping Plan promotes as a climate solution. A disproportionate share of the money for soil conservation in NYS has been used in building liquid manure systems. Even small dairy farms are encouraged to build anaerobic pits.

As the Climate Justice Working Group identifies in their 2021 response to the draft scoping plan, there are much better alternatives to this type of manure storage and handling. We join their call to “Fund transformative practices upstream of manure storage and towards practices that smaller producers can adopt.”[3]

Manure from pastured cows generates less than 2% of the methane from anaerobic liquid manure and ‘dry’ aerobically managed manure only generates about 7% as much methane as anaerobic liquid manure.[4]

The investments that result from the CLCPA scoping plan should accelerate the conversion of NYS to a localized food production/distribution system grounded in family-scale farms.[5]

Organic vegetable farm with bed of flowering plants designed to ensure something is flowering all season to support pollinators and beneficial insects.

The wins pile upon one another when we improve food security, reduce GHG emissions, increase climate resilience, improve food quality, strengthen the state’s rural economy, increase farming opportunities by enabling new farmers and particularly farmers of color, to gain access to the resources needed to farm, and protect farmland all in one set of policies. Let us learn from the food chain disasters of the Covid-19 crisis and not simply add good practices to the bad existing system. That will not result in long term solutions that meet the ambitious and socially just goals of the CLCPA.

One of many workshops in uprooting racism and training BIPOC farmers in agroecological systems of farming at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton NY,

CSA members and farmers celebrate together the harvesting of winter squash.

[1] “Impose a fee on fertilizers that funds a transition to organic farming. This would meaningfully reduce GHGs and protect precious public waterways and private water wells from runoff “ B- 15

[2] Peter H. Lehner & Nathan A. Rosenberg, Farming for Our Future: The Science, Law and Policy of Climate-Neutral Agriculture. Environmental Law Institute, 2021, pp. 73 – 7.

[3] See here, p. 16, for full suggestions from CJWG

[4] In Farming for Our Future, Lehner and Rosenberg point out that “[C]AFO manure management systems produce much more methane than pasture-based livestock operations. When manure is left as a solid (as naturally happens on grazing lands and pasturelands), it typically decomposes aerobically and produces little to no methane. However, when it is stored or handled in a system that creates an anaerobic environment, such as a lagoon, it releases large amounts of methane. Storage in uncovered lagoons can result in methane conversion rates over 100 times as high as those in pasture and range.” They go on to write that, “Digesters reduce methane emissions when compared to unregulated liquid manure management systems, but liquid manure management systems have the highest per-head methane emission rates among all methods of manure management […] It is not only the most expensive method for reducing manure emissions, but it is also among the least effective” (p. 99, emphasis added, with research citations provided in-text).

[5] by Tiffanie F. Stone, Janette R. Thompson, and  A.J. Nair, A Life Cycle Assessment Approach for Vegetables in Large-, Mid-, and Small-Scale Food Systems in the Midwest US

Decolonize Your Mind, Amazonize the World! The 2021 Urgenci International Symposium on Community Supported Agriculture and Solidarity Economies, Oct 25 – Nov 3, 2021

The invitation to the Urgenci 8th International CSA Symposium, planned for Manaus, Brazil, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, held on-line with live participation by people from half the world’s timelines, Asia, Europe, Africa, and North and South America.

By Elizabeth Henderson

Flying into Manaus, capital of Amazonia, looking down at lush forests gouged by scars of recent fires.  From the airport, straight to a tour of indigenous settlements where we are greeted by forest dwellers gathering herbs, harvesting and processing cassava, arrowroot and mushrooms. That is what I imagined in Thessaloniki, Greece in 2017, when the members of Urgenci decided to hold our next gathering in Brazil. Enter Covid-19. Instead, Urgenci did the best it could to bring people together on-line. With 3 million members, Urgenci is an international network that welcomes all forms of regional and Local Solidarity-based Partnerships for Agroecology (LSPAs), of which Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is the best-known model, with Community Supported Fisheries close behind. The practical efforts of Urgenci’s talented staff and many members make real contributions to supporting and spreading agroecology and family-scale farms, and its advocacy at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) has helped keep food sovereignty on the agenda as an antidote to the corporate capture of the global food system.  At the symposium, voices from forty seven countries shared the message that agroecology is the way to survive climate change and provided some of the know-how that is enabling us to transform our farms and communities.

Through the technological wizardry of zoom, 107 speakers shared plenaries, workshops, poster reports and discussions with 600 registered participants for seven days from October 25 through November 3. A huge effort went into simultaneous translation into five languages – English, French, Portuguese Spanish, and Chinese –  by a large team of volunteer interpreters. On top of that, indigenous intepreters made the conference accessible to local people. There were surprisingly few technological hitches. If you missed the live broadcast, you can view many of the sessions on Urgenci TV on youtube ( though, be warned, the multi-language interpretation is missing.

The General Assembly on November 3, elected a new International Committee of eight, balancing gender, geography and vocation. The governing team includes both farmers and CSA organizers, five women from China, Thailand, Japan, the US and Spain, three men from Togo, Brazil and France and special envoys for education, training and solidarity economy.  As honorary president, I am one of the emeritus members along with retiring president Judith Hitchman from Ireland, and Denis Carel, a French goat farmer who guides the Mediterranean network. Creative fundraising has grown the staff from one to five, including a team of two devoted to developing e-learning resources which you can subscribe to on the website.

Urgenci in full zoom at the General Assembly meeting, November 2, 2021. The speaker, highlighted in yellow, is Jocelyn Parot, General Coordinator of Urgenic. Directly above him is long-serving, outgoing president, Judith Hitchman of Ireland. In the left hand column, second down is Isa Alvarez, Spain, who will be sharing the role of President with Shi Yan Sina, China, bottom left.
Continue reading “Decolonize Your Mind, Amazonize the World! The 2021 Urgenci International Symposium on Community Supported Agriculture and Solidarity Economies, Oct 25 – Nov 3, 2021”

Unto Thyself Be True – A Whole Life Approach to Resilience at Rock Steady Farm

Photos from the farmers at Rock Steady Farm.

By Elizabeth Henderson

Rural areas in this country are not always welcoming of newcomers, especially if they are LGBTQIA or people of color. Salespeople at farm supply stores may greet feminine presenting shoppers with demeaning questions like “what did he send you to buy?”  Defying deeply ingrained prejudices as well as the economic assumption that to pay the bills organic farms have to sell to high end markets, Rock Steady has been able to create a successful farm and welcoming community space with over half of its sales going to low-income households. By responding to the pandemic quickly and skillfully, the Rock Steady farmers have even been able to increase community support. Let’s take a look at this remarkable farm to see what lessons about adaptation and resilience[1] we can learn from the Rock Steady story.

Late in 2015, Maggie Cheney and D Rooney established Rock Steady Farm on twelve acres of leased open valley land next to the Watershed Center, “a retreat center for changemakers,” in Millerton, NY, a two hour drive north of NYC. From the start, Maggie and D and Angela DeFelice (a third partner who has since shifted roles to be a financial advisor to the farm) set out a complex social mission for Rock Steady as “an  LGBTQIA-run cooperative, rooted in social justice, growing sustainable vegetables and flowers.” People care is at the top of the Rock Steady priority list right next to soil health.  Rather than hiding who they are, the partners proudly declare that they are “endlessly grateful to be who we are, and engaging in farming with both care for each other and the earth as best we can.” Creating a space where they themselves are comfortable and providing that sense of openness and acceptance to others is central to their effort. As D puts it, “Rock Steady is at a point where we are catching a groove of who we are that we never had before. There is a lot of knowledge that we believe we have that we can share about how to make it work.”

Farmer Maggie Cheney enjoying pea flowers in the Rock Steady Farm greenhouse.

Attending Farm School NYC turned D onto farming. Experienced in carpentry and restaurant work, D speaks humbly about lacking a farming background, though by now, they have had a decade of experience working with youth at the Bushwick Campus Farm, with community gardeners, and a season as an apprentice at Sister’s Hill Farm, where Dave Hambleton provides some of the most solid training in organic CSA farming available anywhere on the planet.  Maggie has spent their whole life in food and farming. They grew up on the Food Project Farm run by their dad, ran school gardens in Oakland, CA, and attended the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Farming Systems. Maggie’s dad is still farming full time and is a wonderful thought partner when talking about avoiding burn out or trouble shooting daily tractor work.

D Rooney leads a tour of Rock Steady Farm.

Before branching off to start Rock Steady, D and Maggie were among the founders of Rise and Root Farm with Lorrie Clevenger, Jane Hodge, Michaela Hayes and Karen Washington, and ties remain close. I made the acquaintance of this incredible group of movers and shakers when I slept on the bottom bunk of a doubledecker bed with Karen and Jane on top at the first Growing Power conference in Milwaukee in 2012. At that time, I wrote “The Color of Organic – Is Changing,” for the NOFA-NY newsletter –opening with these reflections – “If the “National and International Urban and Small Farm Conference – Growing the Good Food Movement” had been the first sustainable agriculture conference I ever attended, I would have a very different impression of the movement. At least half of the 1500 participants at the Wisconsin State Fair Park, September 7 – 9, 2012, were under 30 and more than half were people of color – African Americans, Central and South Americans, Asians, Native Americans.” I look forward to the day when everyone will take that diversity for granted.

To get back to Rock Steady, their approach to creating a farm is the very opposite of the John Wayne go-it-aloners.  D and Maggie are methodical planners who take advantage of their own years of experience, the wisdom of farming elders, and the counseling and advice available through their connections with the cooperative and social service communities.  D and Maggie’s initial marketing plan was to develop a CSA with share payments on a sliding scale so that lower-income people could afford them, and to offset the lower prices of vegetables with sales of flowers that generate higher revenues.  Rock Steady grew flowers for the first two years, but has put them on pause due to the rapid growth of the CSA propelled by the pandemic.  Their Facebook page for April 7, 2021, declared, “CSA, we have actually SOLD Out! 500 members strong, it’s our largest CSA to date! Woah!”

To access the capital to start up Rock Steady, the partners were able to take out a loan of over a hundred thousand dollars from The Working World, which continues to provide them with a line of credit for working capital. The Working World ( practices “non-extractive finance,” distinguishing its operating principles from conventional lenders: “we never take a single dime from the people we work with that doesn’t come from income we’ve helped generate. No community will ever be made poorer by working with us.” Their website clarifies: “a business loan should be a tool to help you grow, not to rob you blind.” In its list of projects, The Working World gives a vote of confidence to Rock Steady, “Projections are lean but appear feasible, especially as the changes instituted during conversion take hold in the coming years.” Rock Steady has also received funding and business advice from Seed Commons, the Cooperative Development Initiative, Community Food Funders and the 2020 Food Movement Support Fund, with the Watershed Center acting as their fiscal sponsor along with a dozen other grant making organizations and private foundations.

Each year, Rock Steady has been able to increase the percentage of their food that goes to low-income people from an initial 40% to 57% of the CSA shares in 2020. “We want to be able to feed people who don’t usually have the access to local, organic and nutritious food.  That’s at the heart of what we do,” in D’s words. Funding for the lowest payments and free shares does not come out of the farmers’ pockets. The farm has a Food Access Fund and appeals repeatedly for contributions. In addition, the CSA uses a sliding scale modeled after Soul Fire Farm’s, but very similar to the scale my farm adopted as early as 1990.  About 30% of their CSA members pay the baseline or market price point for shares. Another 18% pay at the top end of the sliding scale, thus subsidizing those who pay less. Many members pay with SNAP/EBT. “CSAs are so often the white mom thing and we want to tap into more diverse groups of people who are located within the local food movement,” Cheney says. “Queer folks are often facing health problems like diabetes, obesity and other diet related illnesses which means their health is compromised. We want to see how we can bring healthy food into the queer-identified community in New York City.”

Community partnerships and energetic fundraising are key to share distribution. Maggie devotes a lot of time and energy to figuring out the mission alignment and share size and content or bulk order that best fit each partner program. An important connection for relations with Millerton locals has been providing shares for the North East Community Center that services low-income people in several towns near the farm. The farm has working relationships with programs that cater to the needs of low-income families and especially LGBTQIA people with health problems including Callen-Lorde, which serves 10,000 patients, Community Access, a NYC housing non-profit, and The Free People’s Market in Mt. Vernon, serving low-income Latinx and people from the African diaspora.  Callen-Lorde provides free shares to their most at-risk patients with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Each arrangement is individualized. In 2020, the farm raised enough to donate 90 free shares.  Maggie gives generously of her time to collaborating with and building networks that provide support – the Queer Money Project, the Queer Farmer Network, the NE Queer Farmer Alliance, and the Sexual and Gender Diversity cohort of Via Campesina.

Both Maggie and D present on their work at conferences around the country and abroad.

Rock Steady also provides incubation space for another remarkable project – Jalal Sabur’s Sweet Freedom Farm which grows food for incarcerated people, their families and other food insecure people in the Hudson Valley. Sabur, a prison abolitionist, racial justice leader and member of the Soul Fire Farm Board, takes aim at the shamefully inadequate food in NY prisons, and raises funds to rent buses to bring families on prison visits.

To counter what Rock Steady calls “the intensity of capitalism, colonialism and the dehumanization of farm workers,” the farm classifies everyone who works there as farmers and potential members of their farmer-owned cooperative. Within a month, four more of the farmers will join Maggie and D as owners.  A farm goal is to pay everyone a living wage – each year they get closer, sharing improved revenues among the whole crew. Everyone is on payroll, including Maggie and D, so that they get Workers Comp and paid family leave, and if the farm makes a profit, owners will get to take a portion of it. They also get a CSA share and the farm provides a minimum of five days of paid vacation and five days of paid sick leave. The farm is applying for Food Justice Certification as a way to verify publicly that they are meeting their commitment to farmworker justice.

As the child of a farmer, Maggie is sensitive to the many ways that growing healthy vegetables can damage the health, both physical and mental, of those doing the growing. While intensely involved in the farm, she says she can walk away from it to get some work-life balance. The farm is scaled to allow for diversified work each day. Workers are trained in food safety and farm safety and urged to learn new skills.  The employee handbook stresses building “efficiency, speed and quality” in the work, but limits the work day to eight hours since the budget only covers a 40 hour work week. An hour lunchbreak and two 15minute rest breaks are mandatory. There are morning check-ins, three employee evaluations a season, and the whole crew makes the time to dedicate regular sessions to peer review and work with skilled outside facilitators from Relational Uprising, which focus on building trusting relationships and honest communication. The farm also has a detailed grievance process with retaliation for bringing up a complaint prohibited.

An extra benefit for Rock Steady farmers comes in the form of healthcare advice and treatments from some of the many healers who are supporters of the farm.  This turned out to be especially important in 2017 when a surprise storm whipped through the farm injuring Maggie severely. She has spoken and written eloquently about how her community showed up for her with care and support that have allowed her to recover from the brain injury she suffered.

Less unusual than the time Rock Steady devotes to social practices, but just as central to their goals, is their approach to soil care. Year by year, they are finding ways to disturb the soil less and cover crop more, with 90% of their land cover cropped in 2020. The website explains: “While not “Certified Organic”, we use only organic, holistic practices. These practices include Integrated Pest Management (IPM), using row-cover instead of spraying, organic low-spray techniques (a last resort), cover cropping, organic compost, organic greenhouse soil, organic granular fertilizer, increasing pollinators through planting natives and diverse plants and much more!” In 2021, they will start a planting of flowering perennials to support pollination. Facebook photos of fields after an innundative rain show no standing water or signs of erosion.


In her book Resilient Agriculture and her keynote for the 2021 NOFA-NY Winter Conference, Laura Lengnick helps us understand the complexities of resilience and how to design farms that have the capacity to recover from setbacks, to respond quickly and bounce forward while contributing to the transformation of agriculture. She writes that “Diverse networks of equitable relationships build the foundation of resilience including all possible relationships – in soil, between soil, plants, animals and people, between people in community, and between communities within a region and beyond.” Rock Steady Farm and Flowers is an outstanding example of a resilient farm, a farm with a vision for creating “a new paradigm in a deeply unjust food system.”

Rock Steady leases twelve acres of a fertile valley next to the Watershed Center, “a retreat center for changemakers,” in Millerton, NY.


Ecological Stewardship — To continue to develop improved stewardship practices, to lower our tillage, increase cover crop production, improve our IPM practices, find creative ways to increase soil fertility and attract more natural pollinators.

To increase equity in the food system — for farmers, for workers, for women, for the LGBTQIA+ community, for marginalized communities and youth. To advocate for both land access and food access for diverse communities. To share knowledge and create educational programs for beginning farmers and the public as a way to support marginalized farmers.

Worker owner coop — To develop a coop model that is approachable and manageable. To be a resource to other farms and small businesses. Agriculture is hard, engaging people at the ownership level will allow them to intellectually, financially, and relationally interact with farming differently — hopefully from a place of empowerment.

To provide living wages & high quality of life for all workers and worker owners — We want to create a unique work experience for our employees that uplifts the hard-work of farming while employing practices that humanizes and enriches their experience. We want to provide work that enriches ourselves, our employees and the communities that we work with while maintaining a healthy life/work balance.

To be a thriving for-profit farm with a social justice mission — Our vision is to earn an income from the products and services that we provide. To generate, from our bodies and minds and earth, the goods and services that provide us a living. We want the freedom to be nimble and adjust to the community and market needs, to be creative as new worker owners bring different skills and strengths, and not to be bound to the needs of funders for our core operations. We also want more efficient farm systems, improved infrastructure, and secure outlets so that we can be more profitable.

Healthy Partnerships — We believe that we can’t reach our vision alone. It will be a collective process, a movement that we are part of, and that includes partnering with people and organizations that can help us move the vision/movement forward while each partner contributes what they do best for a mutually beneficial relationship.

Organizational Culture

Our internal work culture is very important to us at Rock Steady. We strive to create a work culture that centers relationships and trust building, honest conversations, and healthy boundaries. It is a strong value to create a safe workspace that honors direct communication and facilitated support (when necessary) to navigate complex issues and conflicts.

[1] Threshold Globalworks defines resilience as  “The timely capacity of individuals and groups – family, community, country and enterprise-to be more generative during times of stability and to adapt, reorganise, and grow in response to disruption.”c

Learning from Nelson

Nelson with the rest of the AJP board and staff at a meeting in Gainesville, Florida. From left to right – Rachel Winograd, Nelson Carrasquillo, Chelsie Papiez, the author, Marty Mesh, Leah Cohen, Michael Sligh, Sue Mikhalyi.

By Elizabeth Henderson

I came to know Nelson through my work on the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP).  The injustice of exposure to toxic materials was so vivid to Nelson that he invested CATA resources and time in this project which is dedicated to keeping (or maybe bringing) fairness to organic food and agriculture. Nelson sought work free of toxics and also access to food free of toxic residues for CATA members by providing gardens where they could grow their own.  He hired Richard Mandelbaum, a young organic farmer and herbalist, to write a guide to organic growing for CATA members and to represent CATA in the early meetings of AJP, but Nelson was always there behind Richard, guiding his work and influencing our group decisions. The CATA board members reviewed the Food Justice Standards as we developed them. Nelson’s firm insistence on human rights and on including those who do the work when standards are written and decisions are made shaped AJP.

Despite all the pressing deadlines of raising money and organizing projects, Nelson took time to develop deep relationships and placed a high value on direct face to face communication.  Two memories stand out. 

In 2012, Nelson invited me to visit CATA so that I could gain a better understanding of their work and help train the whole staff about AJP. I spent three full days with CATA. From the CATA Glassboro office, Nelson drove me to visit the Bridgeton office, to get my advice about their new garden plot. It was basically a deep lot that had been a garden but had been used as a parking area, more or less flat with compacted soil and little organic matter.  I suggested planting buckwheat right away as a cover crop, then oats over the winter, or doing lasagna gardens where you transform the existing grass into fertilizer by smothering it with layers of wet paper, cardboard and compost, and then plant through all of that.

From Bridgeton, we drove to Kennett, PA., to visit to the Kaolin Workers Union HQ where I met Jesus, staff person for the union. Later, reading the mushroom workers’ contract, I learned that this union had improved conditions by making clear work hours, seniority, dispute settlement, and union representation for workers when they discuss grievances with the company, but wages were still just barely above minimum – $7.36 an hour.

In the evening, I observed Manuel Guzman do a pesticide training for six workers at a produce farm. Although the men had worked all day in 100 degree heat, Manuel kept their attention using a combination of posters, pictures and props and asking a lot of questions to bring home to them the dangers of the pesticides in use and the symptoms of heat stress. I was shocked at the contrast between the farmer’s neat country home with flower beds and the worker housing where piles of stinking veggie wastes covered with flies tormented us during the training. An hour with a loader could have turned those wastes into a compost pile.

The next day, Jessica Culley and I led the AJP training.  First Nelson spoke at some length about why AJP was necessary, and the approach of Popular Education. (a set of tools for empowerment and liberation: story, analysis and judgement, what we want to achieve and how – next steps.)  We did a thorough review of the Food Justice Certification standards with special attention to freedom of association, labor contractors, H2A, and at will law.

That evening, despite a sagging muffler that made me wonder if we would make it, Nelson drove us to Cape May to visit the beach, a peaceful scene of dolphins and nesting birds. Nelson scanned the waves with a fisherman’s eye and I learned about his time working with fisherpeople in Puerto Rico. 

I wish I had a recording of our third day.  Back at the office, Nelson gave a long talk about the history of CATA. There were many details that were new to me. From 93 – 95 CATA had a women’s organizing project in Puerto Rico – organic gardens for the wives of migrant workers to grow food while the men were away working. From 1995 – 98, Nelson was a member of the Small Farm Commission where he stressed worker exposure to pesticides as a critical issue.  He led CATA in creating the Farmworker Health and Safety institute and providing Worker Protection Standards (WPS) and HIV trainings – using Popular Education methods. Nelson represented CATA at meetings of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, but left when the campaign refused his request to take a stand in opposition to H2A. The day ended with a long and fascinating discussion of relations among farmworker organizations and whether they should focus on mitigating the injustices of H2A or push for open borders and much better working conditions for farm workers. Nelson advocated an immigration system based on human rights. I went home with a pesticide training card valid for five years and a much better understanding of the enormous obstacles to justice for farmworkers.

My other memory is about a one day 20-hour round trip to Burlington, VT, that we made together to confront Ben & Jerry’s and meet with Migrant Justice over a serious misunderstanding that was underway.  Nelson insisted that the only way to clear it up was to talk face to face. So he and Kathia Ramirez drove five hours from NJ to pick me up in Rochester for another five hour dash to northern Vermont. 

As background, it was in 2015 that Migrant Justice was ramping up its pressure campaign to get Ben & Jerry’s to sign on to the Milk with Dignity program. AJP had our own fish to fry with B & J. We had been talking to Rob Michalak, the B & J “social mission” director, for at least 4 years through our common attendance at meetings of the Domestic Fair Trade Association. I was on the DFTA membership committee that evaluated whether B and J could become an associate member of DFTA.  Rob told me a lot about the B & J Caring Dairy Program that paid dairy farms that supplied the cream to make improvements in their environmental conditions. I made some suggestions about improving worker conditions.  So when B & J asked AJP to comment on revisions to Caring Dairy, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do.  AJP signed a confidentiality agreement with them. However, when things heated up with MJ, B & J made a public statement to the effect that they did not need Milk with Dignity since they were already getting advice from AJP, thus breaking our confidentiality agreement and making it look like we were speaking for Vermont farmworkers.

Brendan O’Neal, a founder of MJ, got the impression that AJP was trying to muscle in on MJ’s territory.  He sent appeals to all their allies asking them to write appeals to AJP not to meet with B & J. Rather than dither around with flurries of messages back and forth, Nelson took the bull by the horns and off we went. And at the B & J meeting, we urged that they make the labor section of Caring Dairy a requirement for farms that participated so that the results would not be like what happened with Food Alliance certification where a farm can get high grades for environmental conditions and never do anything for workers.  We also discussed the need for outside verification of farm worker conditions since there was quite a discrepancy between MJ’s survey and the voluntary Caring Dairy reports from farms.  Nelson informed Rob that we had no intention of speaking for the MJ farmworkers and that the best path for B&J was to meet directly with MJ, listen to their demands and also meet with the farmers to hear their side of the story. After meeting with B&J, we drove across town to the MJ office to tell them what had been said. That trip amounted to a lot of miles, but cut short what could have been an endless string of accusations and complaints from well-meaning but misinformed MJ allies.

Since Nelson retired and moved back to the home he and his wife had built in Puerto Rico, I have kept in touch, asking for Nelson’s advice on AJP and doing my best to take it. Convening the AJP Advisory Council of stakeholders was a step he urged us to prioritize. He always responded to me emails within a day or two.  My May 3 email went unanswered. We dedicated the May 11 gathering of the Advisory Council to his memory. He will live on in my heart.

From the Greenhorns’ 2020 Almanac: Root Solutions to Crisis for Family Farms

Agricultural choices must be made by these inescapable standards: the ecological health of the farm and the economic health of the farmer.” Wendell Berry, Right Kind of Farming

By Elizabeth Henderson

For as long as I can remember (and I started farming in 1980), most of the farmers I know have supported their farms by someone’s off-farm job. Either the farmer or someone in the family has an off farm job as a teacher or health worker that provides health insurance and other benefits. Under relentless and steadily increasing financial pressures, dairy farmers sell their cows and turn to field crops, raising cattle for beef, or selling hay. Anything to keep the farm alive. Talented young farmers give it their all for five, even ten years—and then quit. Experienced farmers, including organic farmers, go out of business. They give up the struggle, sell what they can, and find “real” jobs. Development gobbles up farmland which has grown too expensive for a farmer to buy with farm earnings. The price farmers receive for crops does not cover the costs of keeping farms viable, much less the extra costs of developing and sustaining ecological or regenerative farming systems. As has become very clear during the Covid-19 pandemic, the farm crisis is not over.

Just as in the 1980’s, a brief period of high commodity prices and cheap credit in the 2010’s resulted in a debt and asset bubble. Then prices collapsed. Meanwhile, ever larger corporations have consolidated their dominance in the food sector resulting in shoppers paying more, and a shrinking portion of what they pay going to farmers. At first this mainly hit conventional farms, but in 2017, processors started limiting the amount of milk they purchased from organic dairies and cut the price paid below the cost of production. With the Covid-19 Crisis, organic dairies have not had to dump milk since their milk goes to retail sales, nevertheless due to five years of low prices, family-scale farms of all kinds are going out of business. Despite the shortage of farm workers, their wages remain below the poverty line.  People of color and women are often trapped in the lowest paying food system jobs and many are forced to survive on SNAP payments. Being recognized as “essential” has not yet resulted in higher pay or better working conditions. The tariff game of #45 has only made things worse: the billions paid out to compensate for trade losses made the big farms even bigger. The farm consolidation that has taken place has grave consequences for the environment and for climate change as well. The 2018 Farm Bill barely touches the structural and fairness issues that led to this on-going disaster for family-scale farms and the food security of this country.

Can we find solutions?

Let’s turn back to Wendell Berry, who offers a possible path: “The problem that has impoverished and destroyed farmers nearly always is that of low prices resulting from surplus production. That is also, obviously, a land-destroying problem. The only solution to that problem that can sustain the small farmers is the combination of production control and price supports as exemplified by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association as it was reorganized in my region under the New Deal in 1941.” [i]

Production control plus price supports = parity plus supply management.

What does production control and price supports mean and how did it work under the New Deal?

In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, so many family farms were going bankrupt that the federal government stepped in to help them avoid eviction and to increase prices for their crops. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) declared an economic emergency “being in part the consequence of a severe and increasing disparity between the prices of agricultural and other commodities,” justifying action as being in “the national public interest”.[ii]  To resolve that disparity, the AAA established the parity system of pricing and supply management to reestablish farmers’ purchasing power, taking the years just before WWI as the base period when the proper balance existed between farm earnings and the prices that farmers had to pay for inputs and equipment. Retail prices to consumers were also pegged at the same proportion of consumer  income as during those pre-war years. To raise prices for farm products, the AAA reduced the oversupply by setting limits in the form of marketing quotas on the acreage farmers could use for basic commodities: wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, rye, flax, barley, grain sorghums, cattle, peanuts, sugarbeets, sugarcane, and potatoes. Conservation practices were required on the land that was taken out of production. The Secretary of Agriculture was also enjoined to let the president know if imports threatened to reduce prices to US farmers. That first year, some crops were even plowed under. There were also marketing agreements that controlled the quantity, quality, and rate of shipment to market, effectively limiting production of some fruit and vegetable crops. Farm income in 1935 was more than 50 percent higher than farm income during 1932, due in part to these farm programs.[iii] Although agribusiness successfully brought suit against the first version of this parity system, the revised approach set up by The Soil Conservation and Domestic Allotment Act of February 29, 1936 proved more durable and lasted through the 1960s.

Farmers were free to participate or not, and could disapprove marketing quotas. County committees were established to provide a forum for local referendums by commodity. These county committees still exist and hold elections every year among farmers who are participating in government programs. In some parts of the country, these committees work well; in others, they have been the source of racist decisions such as providing operating loans to white farmers in the spring when farms need start up money, but not paying black farmers till August, or policies that discriminate against farmers who use organic methods, refusing disaster payments because the organic farmers did not use chemical protectants for crops.

In “Crisis by Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy,” Mark Ritchie and Kevin Ristau summarize the way the parity system worked.[v]

“The parity program had three central features:

(1) It established the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which made loans to farmers whenever prices offered by the food processors or grain corporations fell below the cost of production. This allowed farmers to hold their crops off the market, eventually forcing prices back up. Once prices returned to fair levels, farmers sold their crops and repaid the CCC with interest. By allowing farmers to control their marketing, the CCC loan program made it possible for them to receive a fair price from the marketplace without relying on subsidies.

 (2) It regulated farm production in order to balance supply with demand, thereby preventing surpluses. 

(3) It created a national grain reserve to prevent consumer prices from skyrocketing in times of drought or other natural disasters. When prices rose above a predetermined level, grain was released from government reserves onto the market, driving prices back down to normal levels. 

From 1933 to 1953 this parity legislation remained in effect and was extremely successful. Farmers received fair prices for their crops, production was controlled to prevent costly surpluses, and consumer prices remained low and stable. At the same time, the number of new farmers increased, soil and water conservation practices expanded dramatically eliminating the dust bowl, and overall farm debt declined. What is even more important is that this parity program was not a burden to the taxpayers. The CCC, by charging interest on its storable commodity loans, made nearly $13 million between 1933 and 1952.”[vi]

 Parity Was Legal and It Worked

“A Short History of Agricultural Adjustment, 1933 – 1975,” summarizes the benefits of parity:  “For over 40 years, price support and adjustment programs have had an important impact upon the farm and national economy. Consumers have consistently had a reliable supply of farm products for a smaller proportion of their income than anywhere else in the world. Farmers have been assured of at least specified minimum prices for their products. The legislation and resulting programs have been modified to meet varying conditions of depression, war, and prosperity, and have sought to give farmers, in general, the opportunity to attain economic equality with other segments of the economy.” [vii]

According to Mark Ritchie in “The Loss of Our Family Farms: Inevitable Results or Conscious Policies?” from 1945 through 1974, a consortium of agribusiness, banking, and university leaders deliberately set out to eliminate parity with policies that cut farm prices to drive excess “resources” (that is farmers and their families) out of the countryside.[viii] By the mid-1970s, farm prices were dropping and farm numbers decreased rapidly. The loss of farms and farmland continues today.

With its combination of subsidy and emergency payments to commodity farmers along with crop insurance, the 2018 Farm Bill enshrines cheap food policy with low farm prices that mainly benefit the biggest ag corporations.[ix]  Until the early 70’s, those corporations had to pay farmers decent prices in the marketplace. Farm earnings today would be very different if parity pricing levels were still in place. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the parity price for 100 pounds of milk in May 2019 would be $52.80, and a bushel of corn would be $13.20. Instead, conventional farmers were getting $18 for a hundredweight of milk and $3.63 for a bushel of corn.[x] Since the 1970s, it is the taxpayer who covers the costs of cheap food while the corporate buyers who purchase most of these crops make out like bandits.  This adds up to a major transfer of wealth from the farmers and the public to the likes of Amazon, Walmart, Tyson and Archer Daniels Midland.

What Could a Green New Deal (GND) Do for Agriculture?

A few farming organizations, in particular the National Family Farm Coalition and the National Farmers Union, have continued to demand a return to parity and supply management. But for twenty years or more this set of policies has been deemed too unlikely to gain any traction in D.C. Then, in a flash of light, the Green New Deal resolution by Senator Ed Markey and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, made it “realistic” once again to consider this set of root solutions to the food and farm crisis.[xi]

Iowa farmer George Naylor explains the inherent logic of parity plus supply management: “When a farmer is given a quota that sets the limit of whichever storable commodity can be marketed or fed to livestock on the farm along with a parity price, the incentive to produce as much as possible with whatever technological inputs and neglect of the land disappears. The new logic would be to produce only the quota, and spend as little as possible on inputs, and engage in as much conservation as possible.”[xii] The higher price on a set amount of production stops farmers from over producing and provides an economic incentive to use the most ecological and efficient practices.

While we can learn a lot from the old New Deal, both its strengths and also its failures (especially in regard to farmers of color), we will have to design a new version. The 21st-century Farmers’ New Deal must include racial justice and equity in the safety net it provides for farms. I can imagine an exciting public process where groups of stakeholders all over the country hammer out the details. On a much smaller scale, that is what we did in the 1990s to launch the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. I helped Alison Clark, founder of the NY Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, organize five regional hearings around NYS where a few hundred farmers and activists brainstormed and formulated recommendations that were then combined with similar reports from meetings in other states.

Here is a rough first draft:  family-scale farms need a system of fair pricing, that is, prices that cover the real costs of living and farming, including conservation practices that regenerate natural resources. Twenty-first century parity should cover the basic commodities – “wheat, cotton, field corn, hogs, rice, tobacco, and milk and its products”[iv] – as described by Ritchie and Ristau, and reestablish farmer held reserves for grains as buffer stocks in case of poor harvests or climate disasters that also protect farmers against price volatility.

For our rural Green New Deal, farmers’ and all food workers’ incomes need to increase. Growing food justly and sustainably is expensive. Instead of driving down the costs of farming to make food cheap enough for urban workers to buy on stagnating wages, all workers must make enough to afford food that’s produced sustainably. Consumers must be able to pay for the knowledge embedded in, and carbon sequestered through, low-input, sophisticated agroecological farming using renewable energy, and farms run by all those who want to work the land. And of course, farmers and farm workers must be paid fairly and appreciated for their work.

Parity pricing and supply management should also be extended to fruit and vegetables, “speciality crops” in Farm Bill language. Since fruit and vegetables are perishable, the GND should invest in value-added enterprises that could be farmer or worker-owned coops in every county where these crops are grown.  If excess supply of fresh produce threatens to lower prices, the fruit and vegetables would be frozen, canned or dried, or made into products that can be stored for use year round.  Investing in local and regional processing would stimulate local economies and provide many jobs. The GND would return livestock onto family farms, in place of large-scale Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) that have eliminated the need for diverse crop rotations. Family farm livestock production integrates crops and livestock for a much more flexible and resilient system that reduces the pressure for routine antibiotic use. This system also increases the biodiversity on these farms thus strengthening their economic viability adding opportunities for new farmers while improving the quality of the meat, milk, and eggs.

Next, farmers need contract reform.  Farmers that sell to bigger entities need legislation to protect their rights to freedom of association so that they can form groups or cooperatives to strengthen their bargaining position in negotiating fair contracts without threat of retaliation.  In addition, a limit must be set on the middlemen’s share of the final shopper dollar: if prices go up, middlemen must pay farmers more; if the prices processors pay to farmers go down, the final point of purchase price for shoppers should also go down.  With control by mega-corporations an ever greater threat to family-scale farming, the GND must be linked with anti-trust measures like the Booker bill that calls for a moratorium on mergers (S.3404, The Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018).

All farmers should be eligible for GND programs whether they own land, rent it with cash payments or through sharecropping.

The GND should include measures that are essential to establishing farm work as a respected and fairly remunerated profession. Ocasio-Cortez wants to guarantee living wages and green jobs – that must include the jobs on farms. Since farm worker advocates and department of labor staff agree that over 50% of farm workers on US crop farms are undocumented, immigration reform based on human rights needs to accompany the GND. Human rights based immigration reform would prevent the separation of families and include a path to legal status.  Farm workers should have the option of a path to citizenship if they want to remain in the US or freedom to come and go across the border to visit their families back home.

Like farmers, farmworkers need freedom of association so that they can form groups or unions to negotiate fair pay and working conditions. If farms are guaranteed prices that cover their costs of production, farm earnings will be high enough to pay farm workers time-and-a-half for overtime over 40 hours a week like workers in almost every other sector.

Just as during the New Deal, we live in a time of incipient fascism, racism, and class divide. The Green New Deal can learn from its antecedent’s successes and failures. Although the dramatic economic shift in rural America that the New Deal created was not as just and egalitarian as it should have been, it did make the case that environmental protection and paying people fairly for their work might go a long way towards limiting the power of corporations and creating a fair society for everyone.

The challenge we face now is to pull together a big enough movement of farmers, farmworkers, labor unions, environmentalists, faith communities, youth, and rural and urban activists of all kinds to transform this climate emergency to which the coronavirus pandemic is linked into an all-out campaign to save human life on this planet.


[i] “Right Kind of Farming,” Gracy Olmstead – NY Times Opinion Section, Oct. 1, 2018

[ii] [PUBLIC—No. 10—73D CONGRESS] [H.R. 3835] 

[iii] A SHORT HISTORY OF AGRICULTURAL ADJUSTMENT, 1933-75 Wayne D. Rasmussen, Gladys L. Baker, and James S. Ward of Economic Research Service USDA AGRICULTURE INFORMATION BULLETIN NO. 391 p. 5

[iv] Ibid., pp. 4 – 6.

[v] CRISIS BY DESIGN: A BRIEF REVIEW OF U.S. FARM POLICY Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau League of Rural Voters Education Project 1987, pp. 2 – 3. 

Also see “Parity and Profits” by Charles Walters. Posted on July 30, 2001 on Weston C. Price website. Remarks of Charles Walters, Executive Editor, Acres USA Given at the Acres USA Conference December 1999, Minneapolis, MN, and “Parity and Farm Justice: Recipe for a Resilient Food System,” by Patti Edwardson Naylor, George Naylor and Ahna Kruzic, Food First Backgrounder, Vol. 24, #2, Summer 2018.

[vi] The US parity system resembled existing dairy supply management which came under attack by Trump during the 2018 – 19 NAFTA negotiations.  For a description of the Canadian system see: “Inside U.S. Trade U.S. singles out supply management in Canada’s WTO trade review,” By Hannah Monicken.’s-wto-trade-review. 06/12/2019. 


[viii] “The Loss of Our Family Farms: Inevitable Results or Conscious Policies?” Mark Ritchie, League of Rural Voters, 1979.

[ix] From Iowa farmer Brad Wilson email to Comfood of June 26, 2019: “…farm programs ‘PIT CHEAP PRICES TO BENEFIT AGRIBUSINESS AGAINST CONSERVATION.’ …The major thing the farm programs do today… is that they allow chronic free market failure. And secondarily, they cover it up with inadequate subsidies that would otherwise not be needed at al…”

[x] Agricultural Prices ISSN: 1937-4216 Released June 27, 2019, by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), Agricultural Statistics Board, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)

[xi] Policy Bridge Securing the Future of US Agriculture: The Case for Investing in New Entry Sustainable Farmers, Liz Carlisle, et al. Elem Sci Anth, 7: 17. DOI:

and A Green New Deal for Agriculture, Raj Patel and Jim Goodman.

[xii] In email to author, July 26, 2019.  Naylor writes about parity at greater length in “Without Clarity on Parity All you Get is Charity,” Food Movements Unite! Ed. Eric Holt-Gimenez, 2011.

Celebrating the Organic Movement – Standing on the Shoulders of our Ancestors and Linking Hands around the World

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Organic Foods Production Act, the Cornucopia Institute asked me, as an “early champion” of the modern-day organic movement to reflect on what the label means to me.

By Elizabeth Henderson

While the National Organic Program came into existence with the Organic Foods Production Act (1990 Farm Bill), a longer milestone to celebrate in 2021 is the 50th anniversary of organic as a movement of farmers and conscious eaters to create an alternative to industrialized, chemical agriculture.  Small groups of organic activists started NOFA and MOFGA in 1971.  The next year, a few US citizens were among the founders of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) in Europe.  Organic farming and gardening are the modern adaptation of indigenous knowledge evolving in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas since the beginning of agriculture, a vital part of a globalized social movement of small-holder farmers and peasants that is dedicated to food sovereignty, social justice, gender equity and mitigating climate change.

To understand the role of the organic movement, I think it is important to situate it in the broader history of farming in the US. Foodopoly: The Battle over the Future of Food and Farming in America, by Wenonah Hauter, gives a vivid account of the transformation that took place over the past decades: “After World War II, farmers became the target of subtle but ruthless policies aimed at reducing their numbers…” (p. 12) From a country where over half the people lived on farms, in the US today there remains a tiny farm population with family-scale farms struggling to make a living in an economy dominated by increasingly consolidated corporations. Since the mid 1950’s, corporate power has forced the federal government to abandon the policies that saved family-scale farms from the Depression and ended the Dust Bowl: the parity system based on price supports, supply management and mandatory conservation. With ever fewer markets and input suppliers, farmers are caught in an overproduction treadmill that leaves them dependent on government handouts for survival. The financialization of land markets has put the price of farmland way above what a farmer can afford from farm earnings. The wealth farmers produce is being transferred to Tyson, Cargill, ADM, Bayer/Monsanto, Amazon, Walmart. In 2020, a third of all farm revenues will come from taxpayer money, not from market payments.  Cheap food has become the bedrock of US food policy and as a result, the farm crisis that ignited in the 1970’s has yet to end.

The organic movement is one of the most effective ways farmers have found to respond to this crisis, saving some generational farms and allowing new ones, like mine, to come into existence. By adopting and codifying organic systems, farmers won the loyalty of environmentally conscious shoppers who were willing to pay a premium to support the farmers. Organic certification ensured the shoppers they were getting what they paid for. The NOP label added legitimacy, but not surprising in a capitalist food system, as soon as the big boys saw a profit center, they moved in, buying up many of the small companies that manufacture organic products. Since the NOP label appeared, the movement has been locked in arm wrestling with the industry over the integrity of the federal program. For the movement, organic must be true to the Principles of Organic Agriculture: grown in healthy soils, minimally processed, an entire supply chain where all participants – farmers, farm and other food workers as well as livestock – are treated with humanity and fairness. Add-ons to the NOP label – Food Justice Certified, the Real Organic Project, Regenerative Organic Certification – identify farms and brands that respect the Organic Principles of Ecology, Health, Care and Fairness. If the movement wins the arm wrestle, all of these values will infuse the NOP program cancelling profit-driven compromises and loop holes.

But what of the future?  IFOAM predicts a 100% organic food system within 30 or 40 years. (See Cultivated, IFOAM NA newsletter.) I like this prediction, but I do not think it will mean 100% “certified” organic.  The organic movement today is recognizing that our white dominated agriculture is an expression of colonial settler culture. The time has come to revise the organic cannon –Sir Albert Howard, Lady Balfour, Rudolf Steiner, Robert Rodale – to honor the contributions of our great African-American agronomists – Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Booker T. Whatley – and to reconnect with the indigenous peasant origins of the integrated agroecological systems that make up organic farming. The white farmers of the organic movement in the US have been damagingly separated from these origins and great scientists/teachers. To reach 100%, organic farmers need to offer conventional farmers a message of hope – stop listening to Sonny Perdue’s whining that you have to “get bigger, or get out.”  Just the reverse, get smaller, diversify, get more resilient, join our movement and stay in! Our organic social movement will gain strength from the world wide peasant movement for agroecology and food sovereignty and farmers will join with other working people to make fair food central to a Green New Deal.

Towards a Culture of Soil Care

From the Policy Committee of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY)

To ensure that improvements to soil health endure for the foreseeable future and that public investments will be worthwhile, the farmers of this state need to join together in a culture of soil care with public recognition and support for the many ecosystem services soil health provides: increased soil carbon, reduced net greenhouse gas emissions, improved water quality and water use conservation, improved crop yields, nutrient density and shelf-life, and greater farm resilience in the face of the accelerating climate emergency. A culture of soil care means that farmers, their customers, and our policy makers value soil as a paramount resource to be nurtured, protected and improved on farms, in communities and throughout our state in order to provide healthy food, clean water, and fertile land, and to ensure the ecosystem services that contribute to reducing the damaging effects of climate change. A culture of soil care is a foundational value of all agriculture and land care planning. A culture of soil care means that in the farming community, farmers gain personal satisfaction and earn the respect of their neighbors by using good practices and that customers’ loyalty to farms is enhanced by their reputation as good soil stewards. With a culture of soil care, farmers share what they learn with one another knowing that the whole farming community benefits from public awareness of their commitment to constant improvement.

While there are many public and private organizations in NYS striving to improve soil health along with farmers, what is lacking is an adequate level of resources and a way to tie all the active players together to set priorities, avoid overlap and maximize progress.  Thus, there is an important role for public policy in helping to bring to life a Culture of Soil Care with the long-term commitment to healthy soils, practices, and systems that it entails.


In NYS, we are fortunate that we already have the framework for a soil health program within existing agencies. Through the Agricultural Environmental Management and the Non-Point Source Pollution Abatement Programs, both written into NY law, and the Climate Resilient Farming Program, an annually renewed initiative of Governor Cuomo’s, the Soil and Water Conservation Districts in every county provide technical assistance and competitive grants to farmers to improve soil health and other environmental practices on their farms. The Department of Environmental Conservation has a Climate Smart Communities Program that supports local governments in taking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate that includes points for municipalities that support farmers’ markets and “buy local” campaigns.

On the federal level, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a branch of the US Department of Agriculture, provides technical assistance and administers several federal grant programs in New York State that fund conservation on farms, and has completed a Soil Health Strategy with the vision of making “soil health management systems commonplace on New York State’s working lands” and the mission to provide “the best available soil health science, training, guidance, and technical resources to the agency’s internal and external customers to improve soil health and functioning of New York State’s working lands.”

There is also an environment among the state’s universities, non-profits and from federal programs as well that would make state action productive at this time. The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell and the state universities conduct research and extension on many topics related to soils and water conservation. Cornell’s soil scientists host a NY Soil Health Working Group that brings scientists and farmers together to increase knowledge in this area. There is a large and active coalition of not-for profits concerned with NYS agriculture and climate headed up by American Farmland Trust that includes the Nature Conservancy, the Farm Bureau, Scenic Hudson, a long list of land trusts, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, and many others.

Current models/research

A model of how a culture of soil care can function can be found in the work of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA), a federation of seven state chapters (NY, NJ, NH, CT, MA, VT, RI). The NOFAs have been engaged in a regional campaign for several years aimed at increasing adoption of healthy soils practices among organic farmers who are already committed to soil health as a foundational value in organic agriculture. The chapters have held round tables where farmers share stories about soil health practices and discuss the best incentives and ways to encourage more farmers, and the research needed to fill knowledge gaps, and the chapters have provided workshops on the science of soil health. Many of the conferences take soils, climate and resilience as their central themes. For two years, each chapter has held at least one field day on exemplary farms with demonstrations of cover cropping, soil testing, composting methods and integrating livestock. The campaign has also surveyed farmers on their practices and on what kinds of soil testing they have done. A report on this campaign is being completed, and will be made public soon.

This is a period of intense experimentation and innovation impelled in part by the heightened awareness due to climate change. The soil is the last frontier and both farmers and scientists are excited about exploring it.  More research is needed into measuring soil carbon, and also the many other elements of healthy soils and the effects of healthier soils on the watersheds around the farms.  Better understanding of microbiology is critical. Do microbial inoculants help? What about biochar? While carbon markets may provide temporary financial boosts to farms, do they result in actual reductions in carbon emissions since they allow polluters to continue to pollute? There is so much we do not yet know.

But there are some things we do know.

Soils with higher organic matter (which is over 50% carbon) are more resilient to the wild weather swings we are experiencing – heavy rains and severe droughts. In the long run, healthy soils will also save the state money on water quality, while providing greater food security based on more prosperous, resilient farms as anchors of rural development and also of urban well-being.

Carbon in the form of glucose serves as the currency for trading between photosynthesizing plants and the mind-boggling numbers of microorganisms that help feed the plants.  These are incredibly complex systems that have developed over millions of years. And when they function well, the benefits are impressive – greater resilience to climate extremes of excess water, drought or heat, increased nutrient density of the crops produced, reduced erosion and run-off of fertilizers.

Current research suggests that there is no agreement yet among scientists on how or what carbon to measure – the more ephemeral carbon that cycles through the growing season, or the more permanent carbon that accumulates at greater depths; or even how deep or how often to measure.  However, a narrow focus on measuring carbon is like evaluating a restaurant just based on the amount of protein in the steaks served.  Thus simply rewarding farmers for increasing the carbon in their soils, while it may seem like an attractive short cut to building soil health, isn’t the most efficient way to encourage good soil practices.

What the research makes abundantly clear is that healthier soils store carbon, absorb many times their weight in water, reduce erosion and run off, and thus reduce the costs of stormwater control for nearby communities. Investing in soil health will save money for the people of New York!

A New York State soil health paradigm

A NY soil health program could include the following components:

1. Payments to farmers (possibly through tax breaks):

-to adopt and continue using systems based in soil health practices with direct payments for adding cover crops,

-for testing their soils and collecting appropriate data,

-for equipment loans or purchases.

2. Excellent technical assistance through the existing agencies and networks that are already doing this work – SWCDs, DEC, CCE, organizations like NOFA, and the land trusts.

3. Link a soil health program with pathways to land access for young farmers and farmers of color.

While helpful, it is not enough to pay farmers to initiate new practices. Support is needed so that farmers can establish a system of practices and continue to improve those practices into the future since some of the full benefits take as much as a decade to appear, especially when starting with degraded soils. Experience has shown that the most effective way to get farmers to try new things is by encouraging farmer-to-farmer sharing of practices and innovations. NY might want to adopt a program that is working well in New Mexico that identifies farmers who are doing good work on soil health, names them Soil Health Champions and rewards them for mentoring other farmers.

Specifically, incentives should be provided to adopt systems that adhere to the five broad principles from NRCS:

1. Keep the soil covered

2. Minimize soil disturbance and external inputs, both physical and chemical

3. Maximize biodiversity – above ground biodiversity is reflected by diversity of microorganisms below ground

4. Maximize the presence of living roots – through their roots, plants have complex relationships with the enormous underground population and a large portion of the carbon that accumulates in the soil comes from the bodies of the mycorrhizae and other creatures, and

5. Integrate animals into land management, including grazing animals, birds, beneficial insects, and keystone species like earthworms.

Above all, farmers should be rewarded for the essential eco-system services that they provide through excellent systems of practices in managing their land.

In conclusion, we hope that a comprehensive soil health program for NYS will be based on increasing carbon as part of a whole system that encompasses the biological vibrancy of the field and the farm as a living organism. Investments in Healthy Soils will more than pay for themselves in increased yields and reduced need for purchased fertilizers as several AFT studies are showing

So let us engage in a new and ancient culture of soil care and farm health that includes farms of all kinds, from one acre to many hundreds; field crops, dairies, mixed vegetables, fruit, hops hemp and pasture-based livestock; whether owned by a single family, a groups of partners, a cooperative, or on rented land.

Public Comments on the Agriculture and Forestry Panel Discussions

By Klaas Martens and Elizabeth Henderson

Under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act CLCPA), NY State Government’s Goal: To accelerate the transition to a low-GHG-emitting, more climate-resilient, carbon-sequestering agricultural sector in NYS over the coming decades in order to achieve the requirements in the CLCPA.

As organic farmers and active members of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY), we would like to offer these comments:

First of all, we commend you for taking on the important responsibility of participating in this panel. Your recommendations will contribute to shaping the future of food and farming in NYS.

We urge the panel to stick to your repeated statements on full Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) of any solutions that you recommend so as not to embrace false solutions that neither contribute to reducing greenhouse gases nor improve the resilience of farming and forestry in NYS. We urge you further to adopt as a principle that solutions you recommend will strengthen the economic, social and environmental viability of farming and increase social justice and racial equity. Adding good practices to a bad system does not result in long term solutions.

In regard to soil health and the capacity of soils to sequester carbon:

The CLCPA includes a strong mandate for permanence.  Those of us in farming who work in nature with biological systems know that the only permanent thing is change. Practices like adding covers and flares to manure pits are no more or less permanent than increasing the use of cover crops and composting. To ensure that improvements to soil health endure for the foreseeable future and that public investments will be worthwhile, the farmers of this state need to join with all land managers in a culture of soil care with public recognition and support for the many ecosystem services soil health provides: increased soil carbon, reduced net greenhouse gas emissions, improved water quality and water use conservation, improved crop yields, nutrient density and shelf-life, and greater farm resilience in the face of the accelerating climate emergency. A culture of soil care means that farmers, their customers, and our policy makers value soil as a paramount resource to be nurtured, protected and improved on farms, in communities and throughout our state in order to provide healthy food, clean water, and fertile land, and to ensure the ecosystem services that contribute to reducing the damaging effects of climate change.

Payment for practices that result in ecosystem services outcomes is an immediate step that can be taken while we improve our understanding/ability to measure, monitor and verify increases in soil carbon. But to ensure more than minimal performance of incentivized practices, we recommend payments to farmers based on outcomes: the ecosystem services their farms provide and their impact on the surrounding community – lower temperatures that result from soil that is covered instead of bare, minimizing leaching of minerals into waterways, reducing odors, cleaner air, the agritourism value of the beauty of a diverse working landscape. Cleaner water, air and increased tourism are all verifiable. The degree of soil coverage can be measured from satellite images. Diversifying a farm’s landscape makes a big difference in ecosystem services. Trees/windbreaks/ponds etc. reduce temperatures, slow winds, filter/infiltrate water, and mitigate climate extremes.

Increasing cover cropping and double cropping has a big impact. Cropping systems that focus on C4 crops like corn, soy and vegetables should be combined with cool season crops and cover crops that photosynthesize as soon as the temperature reaches 33 degrees. While a full field of corn generates a lot of oxygen for a few months, for ten months of the year corn does not make any contribution. Annual and biennial crops can be used in systems that keep the soil covered and cropped year round. There is an advantage in systems that incorporate species that grow at low temperatures over the fall/winter months and shift toward C4 species over the hotter months. There is an enormous potential for using cool season species as winter covers that double as very high value forages for feeding cattle.

Because farms that engage in organic certification must create an organic farm plan that includes soil carbon building practices, we recommend setting state goals to increase conversion to organic systems since this will result in significant climate change mitigation as well. Certified organic farms agree to not use synthetic nitrogen fertilizers with all their GHG emission costs: shunning these fertilizers alone reduces by a third the energy used by organic farms.

Finally, we hope that the investments that result from the CLCPA scoping plan will accelerate the conversion of NYS to a more localized food production/distribution system grounded in family-scale farms. The wins pile upon one another when we improve food security, reduce GHG emissions, increase climate resilience, improve food quality, strengthen the state’s rural economy, increase farming opportunities by enabling new farmers, and particularly farmers of color, to gain access to the resources needed to farm, and protect farmland all at once.  Let us learn from the food chain disasters of the Covid-19 crisis and not simply add good practices to the bad existing system. That will not result in long term solutions that meet the ambitious and socially just goals of the CLCPA.

In regard to livestock and dairy farms:

We urge you to take a step back and consider how we make milk in NYS: how cows are raised, fed, and the impact on rural communities and the economic viability of smaller dairy farms of the consolidation of dairy farming on increasingly large CAFOs. Dairies that ‘need’ more land to dispose of manure have major unaddressed systemic problems that contribute to GHG emissions. Not poor farming, but the failing economics of milk pricing are driving smaller dairies out of business and pressuring larger dairies to get even larger. There are small and medium-sized Mennonite dairy farms in Yates County that are feeding their herds with much less land per cow than used by large CAFO dairy farms.  The most efficient Mennonite farmers are feeding their cows and young stock with less than 2 acres per milking cow plus replacement.

Half the methane from cows is enteric, and the other half comes from manure.  How cows are fed and how their manure is managed are thus critical in assessing their contributions to greenhouse gases. We need to study whole farms’ carbon balances/budgets rather than just look at single GHGs.  (Please see study by Charles Benbrook

Nutrient management is heavily impacted by the importation of feed onto farms and high grain diets have a large carbon footprint in the production of the feedstock. 

Farms that purchase feed do not have a closed nutrient loop so it is essential to include the CO2/methane/NOx generated by producing the imported feed. NOx (Nitrous oxide) is 300 times more potent as a GHG than CO2.  Corn and soybeans produced with synthetic N fertilizer dump NOx into the atmosphere that must be charged to the cows that eat this feed whether the feed is produced in NYS or elsewhere.  Synthetic N also burns the stored Carbon out of the soil. (,

Raising cows on pasture does not generate as much methane, especially if the pasture is fertilized with compost instead of synthetic N and other synthetic fertilizers. There is a lot of land in semi-permanent hay that tends to be under-fertilized and underproductive.  Better management of those haylands would increase carbon sequestration. (See the study – Characterization of Soil Health in NYS for importance of pasture in storing organic matter in the soil.

Manure management has a large impact on methane production – not enteric methane but the huge methane release that is caused by using anaerobic manure storage systems. Alternative manure management systems reduce methane.  We recommend systems that separate the liquid from the solids with composting for the solids. 

Another factor to consider is the longevity of the cows and the impact that the short life/productivity spans of conventional dairy cows has on the carbon footprint of each cow.  If a cow lives and produces for more years, the GHG cost of the initial unproductive years is offset.

In conclusion, it would be important for the Agriculture and Forestry Panel to send a strong message to the Climate Action Council that there are better ways to create “negative emissions” than to invest in geoengineering and expensive, untested direct air capture technologies.

Unlike the massive geoengineering schemes attempting to mitigate climate-related disasters through applying technology at an unprecedented scale to do things such as put mirrors into space to alter the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, place micro-glass upon the surface of Arctic oceans to recreate the Albedo Effect, or suck carbon out of the air and pump it miles below the surface—regenerative land and forest
management offer positive and practical solutions to the climate crisis that have a proven track record.

Thank you for listening!

What is a Just Agriculture System and Why Does it matter?

Panel discussion at the Annual Meeting of the Domestic Fair Trade Association with Nelson Carrasquillo, Michael Sligh, and Elizabeth Henderson, November 13. 2012

My presentation:
The current cheap food system coupled with Free Trade makes it difficult to keep family-scale farms afloat. Over the years since WWII, family scale farms have been going out of business at a steady and alarming pace until very recently. In 1943, the year I was born, there were over 6 million farms. There are only 2.2 million today. The local foods movement has reversed the trend and the number of small farms is actually growing. Nevertheless, something like 84% of the existing farms are in debt. Prices do not cover farmers’ costs of production. Many of the farms that do not have labor do have a family member who works off the farm so that the farmer can have health insurance or the farmer works a regular job and spends evenings and weekends doing farm work. While there are some outstanding examples of farms that do not have labor and are doing well financially, most of the family scale farms I know about are struggling to make ends meet, or are run by people who have chosen to live “simply.” Often, farmers are so discouraged about the money aspects of their farms that they do not even try to calculate costs accurately. They farm for the love of it, and either eek out a living that would qualify as below the poverty line or make money doing something else to support their farming habit. Family-scale farmers are a marginal population in the US and all of North America. These are fragile small businesses.

Taking a market-based approach, domestic fair trade seeks to pay farmers enough to allow them to use sustainable farming practices, to earn a living wage for themselves and their families and to pay living wages for the people who work on their farms. The Agricultural Justice Project has
assembled farmers, farm workers and other stakeholders to compose high bar standards for fair pricing, and decent working conditions for people who work throughout the food system. The goal is to change relationships so that everyone benefits. The reality is that family-scale farmers as well as farm workers in this country are in desperate need of fair trade.

Our society as a whole looks down on jobs that get people dirty. Vocational studies are for youngsters who do poorly at academic courses. We call picking vegetables “stoop labor,” and the majority of the people who do this work are undocumented migrant farm workers whose average annual wages amount to less than $13,000 a year, according to the United Farm Workers. NYS law requires farmers to pay hired helpers minimum wage, soon to rise to $7.65 an hour, and federal law requires paying legal H2A “guest workers” $9.60 an hour, but there is no requirement for time and a half for work over 40 hours a week, and even if you work 60 hours a
week year round, minimum wage is poverty pay.

And there is no protection for farm workers who want to organize. The National Labor Relations Act excludes two groups of workers – farm workers and domestics. Farm workers are not covered by the limited protections afforded to other workers by the National Labor Relations
Act, particularly the right to form unions that is so much under attack these days. And protections for farmers in negotiating contracts with buyers are lacking too.

Since 911, the Department of Homeland Security has increased its operatives along the NY northern border from 341 to 2000, and farms complain bitterly about raids and arrests. There is a critical need for immigration reform and passage of the AgJobs bill.

A major squeeze or speed up has been underway that has been especially hard on dairy farms and farms that produce commodity crops. Rising costs, global warming (droughts, floods) and low prices due to concentration in markets that reduces the number of possible buyers. Contracts, including those given by organic processors, are poor. Most farms are not profitable, and many are in debt.

A fair food system would pay high enough prices for farm products that farmers could pay themselves and everyone working on the farm true living wages – that cover shelter, high quality, culturally appropriate food, health care, education, transportation, savings, retirement,
self-improvement and recreation.

We need to redistribute the land to break up the big holdings and recognize that smaller scale highly diversified farms are more productive and also offer higher quality work. On a farm like mine, work is varied and interesting, you rarely speed 8 hours in a row doing the same task.
Organic methods buffer the effects of climate change – rotations, cover crops, soils building through compost, reduced tillage, biodiversity with less exposure to toxics for farmers and farm workers, and for the soil, environment and customers.

A fair food system cannot be founded on stolen land and enslaved labor. We must make reparations for the theft of land from the indigenous people who have lived on Turtle Island for centuries before Europeans arrived. We must honor the promise made to the liberated African-Americans of 40 acres and a mule, and make up for the interest and value that would have
accrued on that land had it not been violently snatched away again before the ink had even dried on the promises.

For farming to become worth sustaining, farm work must become a respected career path, properly remunerated with a good benefits package. The farm is a center not only of production, but of training and cooperation with the community. A high bar domestic fair trade certification like the Agriculture Justice Project Food Justice Certified changes the relations on the farm.

We need to provide access to the resources the new generation of would be farmers requires so that they will be successful. That means higher farm gate prices, access to land and credit. There needs to be a diversity of farm-related jobs – not everyone wants to be a farm manager.

There are two aspects to food justice: access to high quality food and fair livelihood for food workers. 17% of the population of the US is engaged in food related work. We need to change pricing and shift subsidies from the largest industrial farms to low income families. If the 17% made living wages – it would make a good beginning to a just food system.

If we are to have a local food system that reliably provides most of the food needs for the population of our region, we must shift our spending priorities. The people who grow our food, farmers and farm workers, must get a fair share so that they can go on producing and lead decent lives. They do not need or even want to live like corporate CEOs. Many of the organic farmers and homesteaders I know would be happy to serve as models for a living economy based on the principle of ENOUGH. The Nearings, Helen and Scott, projected an ideal of four hours a day for bread labor, four hours for creative and artistic activities and four hours for conviviality.
Because of economic pressures, these days, people trying to make a living farming are so far from that ideal it is not funny. But if we at least begin demanding that farmers and farm workers should make a living wage with full benefits, (health care, compensation for injuries and unemployment, and retirement) from a 40 hour week, we may start moving towards an
agriculture that will sustain us into a future worth living

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