Braiding a Holistic, Healing Model for Agriculture

Bari ZeigerEnvironmental Resilience, Farmer Voices on Parity, Food Sovereignty

Galvanized by an ethical and ecological imperative, agriculture is my life’s work and a potent form of activism. After working on and managing farms, as well as engaging in agricultural and food system education, grassroots community organizing, policy, and grantmaking, I began the development of a small business, Healing Poem Farm, in 2019. The Farm’s name hails from the life’s work of my ancestor, Grandma Lila. As Creative and Social Director at the AIDS Day Treatment Program on West Twentieth Street in New York City for 18 years from the early 1980s until 2000, Grandma Lila wielded her mind, heart, and pen to provide therapy in the form of poetry. These were some of the most harrowing, acute years of the AIDS epidemic. It was also a time marked by pernicious homophobia, transphobia, and racism suffered by the afflicted. In this zeitgeist during which so little was understood about the disease, Grandma Lila supported the confrontation and expression of intense grief, judgement and physical pain. More so, her writing program emphasized living, fulfillment and joy. The program celebrated the unconventional and the unexpected to create a space, as Grandma Lila explained, “where people are stopped in their tracks, where we appreciate the irony that for many the diagnosis signaled a poignant desire to break out of self-destructive patterns and live fully.”

Grandma Lila and young Bari

​Inspired by Grandma Lila's legacy of healing via poetry, the intention of my farm is to likewise heal. Just as nimble fingers weave stands together to compose a braid, the farm acts as an expression of how agriculture can be a hand that poetically weaves the human relationship with Mother Earth, Self and each other together to engender holistic health. This expression of agriculture is an alternative to the destructive, extractive, exploitative, and reductionist paradigm of conventional, industrial American food production of the Green Revolution. Essentially, my farm-osophy is to harmonize with Mother Earth and the community to grow high-quality food on a human-scale. In doing so, I aspire to feed my passion for learning about Mother Earth, be empowered by the strength of my hands and body, as well as be nourished by and nourish others with abundant yields of nutrient-dense, flavorful produce. Relatedly, in implementing agroecological production, I aim to propagate a myriad of cross-sectional “ecosystem services,” including carbon sequestration, climate resilience, biodiversity, pollination, as well as improved water and air quality, that will make my farm regeneratively self-reliant, as opposed to dependent on commercial inputs, while enhancing environmental health beyond the boundaries of the farmscape. When the Farm shares the bounty and wisdom of Mother Earth with the community, as well as pays farm workers a living wage, I hope to sow grassroots connectivity, contribute to the vitality of the local economy, and proliferate the knowledge to regenerate the land and provide for one’s community with dignified sovereignty. 

As such, a crucial aspect of the farm’s management is to exercise economies of collaboration, as a community-centric alternative to economies of scale, and to grow in solidarity as an ally to uprooting structural inequities, especially racism, in the regional agricultural and food system. In alignment with this collaborative approach, the farm will exercise resourcefulness in building relationships with municipalities, residents, and other business owners to support the diversion of regional waste streams by capturing inputs such as wood chips, food scraps, or lumber before they reach the landfill. It will also weave equity into the fabric of its business structure by offering a sliding scale model for BIPOC or low-income community members for produce and on-farm educational events. As I expand the farm, I will explore opportunities to generate reciprocal relationships with other regional agricultural enterprises to further strengthen the farm community. For example, in alignment with the farm-osophy’s value placed on craft, artisanship, and uplifting others via collaboration, I have worked with a woman small business owner who is an illustrative artist and graphic designer to curate logos and branding for the farm. In a multitude of quantifiable and immeasurable ways, the farm and I will be providing a diversity of public services related to human and environmental health while bolstering the local economy.

White Privileges Enabled Choice to Farm

In addition to the inspiration offered by Grandma Lila, to execute this farm-osophy is a source of great privilege via inter-generational inheritance. Being a Jewish woman and passionate knowledge-seeker who lived through the Great Depression, Grandma Lila was determined to live frugally and save meticulously so her children and grandchildren could have economic access to higher education. This pursuit enabled me, in turn, to attain a Bachelor's Degree, apprentice on a commercial farm for nine months, and purchase the 12 acres as a “first-generation” farmer under the age of 30. The forces of academic training in ethical theory, especially environmental ethics, and acknowledgement of this privilege converged to produce within me a determination to utilize my intelligence, physical ability, and privilege to do what I deem is the work that can create the most good: farm in a holistic, healing way. Being able to do this essential, life-giving work of tending to Mother Earth and nourishing the community, however, should not be a privilege (nor is it sustainable to be such).

I am laying bare my privileges, so the extent of the ludicrous obstacles, challenges, and risks new-entry, particularly first-generation, farmers face can be gleaned. It is also to illustrate how new-entry farmers can be supported via common-sense policy such as parity. Relatedly, it is to share my personal journey to supplement the research, insights, and anecdotes eloquently provided by others with the perspective of a young, “first-generation” farmer.  In doing such, I acknowledge that there are additional privileges which go unstated or I am likely not cognisant of.

Foremost, I have gratitude for being nourished with an abundance of fresh, organic produce throughout my childhood, including from a CSA, that generated a deep love of healthy food that is surely a contributor to the decision to pursue farming. Next, rather than having to work while studying at college, I was able to spend time outside of class volunteering on an organic farm off campus (that I had a car to drive to) that evolved into an internship for academic credit. This credit allowed me to explore a new passion for organic, small-scale farming, as well as gain experience from two incredibly kind, supportive mentors who were generous with their knowledge. In part, it also enabled me to graduate a semester early (alongside conducting a Directed Study on the structural violence of the US im/migrant farm labor system). In effect, I was able to secure an apprenticeship on a commercial, permaculture farm in North Carolina. Having no student debt and further financial support from my parents, as well as health insurance under my father’s plan, I was allowed to undergo the rigorous, formative agricultural training in exchange for a minuscule “living” stipend from early spring to late fall that, even for me, made car insurance and cell phone payments nearly bank-breaking. While the apprenticeship was characterized by intense physical and intellectual exertion, had it not been for my privilege, this vital, hands-on learning and workforce development experience would have been impossible.

Thereafter, the velocity and momentum of my privilege continued in stark contrast to the farm workers I had personally interacted with or read accounts of as part of the research for my Directed Study and community organizing efforts as co-founder of the Student Coalition for Migrant Workers. Quickly, I rose to a year-round managerial position on a farm that is part of a world-leading YMCA at Frost Valley by conducting a site analysis and drafting a plan to optimize and expand production that was approved by the CEO and Senior Team. As an employee of the non-profit, I had a salary (albeit modest), housing, paid time off, access to health insurance, retirement fund, and resources to further hone my skills.

Bari managing that farm at Frost Valley YMCA in Claryville, NY

Managing this farm also allowed me the time to build relationships in the community and plug into advocacy, policy, and grassroots organizing work that has bloomed into a deep passion. Unlike many commercial farmers, I had the time to occupy leadership positions within a few organizations, including National Young Farmers Coalition and Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, which have broadened and deepened my network, as well as provided me with well-rounded skills. In parallel, unlike many seasonally hired farmers, I was able to utilize the slower bits of the season to delve into self-education and work part-time in grantmaking, as a prep cook, and in catering while maintaining stable pay. Further, I was able to leverage my salaried position, “side hustle” savings, and inheritance from Grandma Lila in order to purchase 12 acres of farmland in December 2019. Due to my connections and experiences in grassroots organizing and advocacy, including serving on Congressman Antonio Delgado’s Agricultural Advisory Committee and organizing a policy discussion centering racial equity in farm and food systems with numerous NY senators and assembly members, I was able to move near the farm by gaining employment on a 2020 US congressional campaign in NY-27, the district my farm is situated in. Just two weeks after the election, I joined the team at Providence Farm Collective (PFC), a non-profit dedicated to uplifting immigrant, refugee and BIPOC farmers residing in the City of Buffalo with access to rural farmland, agricultural education and technical assistance, and markets to generate sales. As the full-time, year-round Director of Development, I support PFC farmers by securing funds and building social capital needed for the farmers to take up leadership in the organization in the coming years while my farm is developed. With this position comes health insurance, salary and paid time off.

Long List of Structural Barriers to Starting a Farm

Still, with all this incredible privilege of whiteness, inheritance, education, and health care, starting an agricultural small business is immensely difficult to an irrational, frustrating extent. To be clear, the challenge is not with regard to the physical labor in varying weather conditions; I cherish this aspect of farming. Instead, it lies in the illogical and unethical structural barriers sewn into the fabric of the American agricultural paradigm. These conditions systemically reward a form of agriculture that devalues and diminishes Mother Earth, farmers, farm workers, and consumers while pitting each against each other for the supposed benefit of a few in the supply chain. These corporate benefactors perpetuate a perniciously myopic, counter-intuitive, self-defeating model of agriculture which condemns us to a disastrous fate of pernicious ecological and human illness as environmental externalities degrade farmland, threaten future food sovereignty, and impose disproportionate harm associated with climate change, pollution, dehumanization of farmworkers, and food apartheid imposed on BIPOC folks. 

My peers, the new-entry farmers and I, who are toiling to cultivate a model of agriculture and contribute to a food system of reciprocity and collaboration that is ecologically regenerative, economically viable, and socially just, consistently cite access to secure land tenure, capital, health care, infrastructure, markets, technical training, business/financial management education, climate change, and affordable housing, as well as the burden of student loan debt, as primary obstacles to farming. Furthermore, there is plentiful empirical data and anecdotal evidence proving that the barriers and obstacles faced by farmers of color are even steeper despite their endless, brilliant contributions to agriculture. 

Starting a commercial farm is acutely capital intensive, especially as farmland becomes degraded, fragmented or developed for residential or commercial use, and, inevitably, more expensive. With increasing seriousness over time as I accrued savings, I browsed online for land most evenings before bed. After befriending many peer farmers in the remote, small towns of the Catskills, I came to know the importance of farming near a developed market. I similarly discovered that it is highly incompatible with my disposition to drive down to NYC every week to conduct sales. Plus, I could simply not afford land in the region. Having grown fond of Western NY from my time spent there learning and farming, in addition to my romantic partner having grown up and currently living in the Buffalo region, I narrowed my search to this area where farmland was more affordable and more robust markets were proximal. After walking the properties I could afford, the outlook felt grim. One was pictured as slightly shruby, able to be tamed by a pass of a weedeater; however, on arrival, I was overtaken by an overgrowth of maturing trees as my feet sunk into waterlogged soil. Another was flat and clear with decent soils, although in a corn monoculture, but shrouded in a canopy of domineering, industrial electric utility lines. Plus, it turned out, the sellers were not actually prepared or motivated to sell. There were only so many properties I could examine directly in Western NY while managing the growing season a five hour drive away. 

About a week after returning disappointed, I came across the property that is now the home of my farm. It was fragmented into two discrete parcels after being previously divided from a larger parcel with a house and pond that had been sold months beforehand. I surmise this was done, despite its agricultural zoning, to create two more highly priced plots for building future residences. By completing paperwork with the town, I was later able to reunite the two parcels. My partner and his family offered to walk the land, take pictures, and collect soil samples for me. It checked off the important boxes: road access, developed market proximity, gentle topography, sun exposure, good parent soil physics and low taxes. Yet, the affordability came with compromises: no water for irrigation or washing, no infrastructure, no deer fence, no electric utilities hooked up, no on-farm road. Still, it felt right in my mind and soul. Without having experienced the land in person, I made an offer. Essentially, the farm is a 12-acre “vacant” hayfield (a tabula rasa with incredible potential) for which I paid $55,000 in cash. Through a $1,500 Putting Down Roots grant supplied by American Farmland Trust, I was able to cover most of the legal fees of the real estate attorney.

A blank slate- the future market garden site of Healing Poem Farm in summer of 2020

As a young farmer and with the high cost of farmland, I had to make a compromise to secure a land base to get the farm started by investing in relatively less expensive land upfront and having to make major capital investments for infrastructure down the line. Still, my savings and inheritance allowed me to make the purchase without initiating a debt sheet. My mind is driven by a thirst for painstaking rationality, and I was raised in a household driven by financial prudence. As such, the holistic plan for the farm was founded on the continual honing of knowledge and skills, as well as gaining of social and financial capital. By managing the farm in the Catskills where I had a stable salary, I rationalized that I would be able to invest incrementally in the farm to get it production-ready in the most respectful, healing way in relation to the soil that I am aware of. For example, rather than moldboard plowing and greatly disturbing the soil to establish the beds, silage tarps and compost were used to smother the sod and perennial weeds in a way that simultaneously augments soil health without tillage.

Steps and Related Costs to Establish Healing Poem Farm

Farm road gets installed in October of 2020

Future costs include perennials I intend to plant in shelterbelts between the bed blocks, which can cost up to $25.00/plant. Among numerous other ecological benefits, having flowering hedgerows with native, perennial nitrogen fixing shrubs and mineral-mining ground covers will support soil life by sheltering soil from erosive winds, creating microclimates that will stabilize soil temperatures, and send dense roots into the depths of the soil to increase the abundance of soil organism habitat and food that will, in turn, increase the bioavailability of nutrients for crops.

Overall, this incremental, iterative approach means that I will not be able to generate cash flow or return on investment from the farm for a few years. I am employing these practices out of intrinsic regard for Mother Earth and soil, as well as calculating that this investment will show a marked economic return by reducing weed, pest and disease pressure while increasing long-term crop vigor, resilience, and yields, thus significantly contributing to the eventual profitability of the farm business. This slow approach also allows time for thorough observation so that I can situate elements of the farm efficiently and advantageously. Had I been reliant upon a loan to purchase the land, I would be in the position of many fellow farmers of sub-optimally rushing to get the farm started to generate revenue with attendant costly future regrets.

In addition to these investments are the more unpredictable or even larger costs associated installing deer fencing (approx. $25,000), building season extension infrastructure (approx. $40,000), and creating a space for washing, packing, and cold storage (approx. $55,000). Due to the cost of this vital infrastructure, it will be several years before I can begin full-time commercial production, and I will likely have to take on debt.

Special Demands of Agroecological Community-Based Farming

At this time, there is tremendous uncertainty regarding how I will access health care or save for retirement in the lead up to and in the midst of running the farm. Even once I am conducting sales and implementing efficiencies as years progress, the present incompatibility of the costs of producing food in alignment with my values and farm-osophy in relation to the value our system has trained consumers to place on food is terrifying. Though I will be augmenting public health directly via providing fresh food to the marketplace and improving environmental quality in the community at statistically great risk to my health as a farmer, accessing health insurance will be a quandary. Like my farmer friends, I will be systemically pigeonholed between two outcomes. On one end, I will be discouraged from improving and scaling up my businesses if I want to meet working poor income qualifications. On the other end, if I am successful at nourishing more people and stewarding the environment, I will be penalized by having to pay for egregiously expensive private health care options.

In addition to capital demands and stressors, farming in an agroecological, community-supported way described above demands a particularly diverse and specialized skill set. Specifically, it requires relationship building within the region’s agricultural community and food system to better comprehend needs, niches, and opportunities to promote long-term solidarity and economic sustainability. It is also a way of farming that can precipitate mental health hardships. Namely, feelings of burnout, being overwhelmed, and depression can percolate as the intense physical labor in the field and emotional labor in building new and maintaining new community relationships compound. This is further exacerbated by managing cash flow as I am structurally prevented from earning return on investment to pay myself a fair wage, nonetheless hiring employees, while growing my business. My holistic, community-centered vision of farming can be perceived as idyllic and idealistic. However, for a small farm, it is a pragmatic business structure that incorporates best management practices such as soil health regeneration to diversified, direct-marketing revenue streams. Unlike big, commercial, commodity agriculture that is subsidized by corporate, government-supported welfare, small farms like mine cannot afford to go about cultivation and production in a vacuum that has nominal connection or accountability to the surrounding community.

Parity and Supply Management with Equity Lens Key to Ethical Farming

Alongside my farming peers, I feel an incredible weight on my shoulders to act boldly to heal the climate, the social injustices related to food access, and the structural barriers that confront new-entry farmers. However, the whole responsibility of nurturing a holistic, healing model of agriculture should not fall on the individual farmers who have sowed its seeds. Rather, this work must be approached structurally through state and federal policy and appropriations. For instance, enacting parity as a tool to support this vision of agriculture is essential. Because the American farm and food system is built upon land stolen from Indigenous peoples and exploitative unpaid or underpaid labor predominantly conducted by African American and Brown workers, the country has never known the true cost of production. This legacy has contributed to the devaluation and dehumanization of farm labor with a related deflated valuation of “natural resources.” Thereby, this legacy dictates an artificial cost of food that has become normalized by consumers yet contributes to cyclical economic deficits among farmers and deterioration of Mother Earth.

Parity with supply management, on the other hand, forms a system that can empower and stimulate farms and agricultural communities by accounting for the true and full cost of production, especially when parity is implemented with an equity lens that meaningfully considers the contributions made and obstacles faced by BIPOC farmers. Through a parity vision, accurate accounting of production costs that includes living wages, healthcare, and retirement for farmers and workers, as well as payments for stewarding soil and watershed health through the implementation of agroecological, climate resilient practices, can be achieved to perpetuate a logical and ethical model for a holistic, healing American agriculture. If a dynamic, transparent, and accountable parity system that serves farmers who are caring for Mother Earth and nourishing their communities is implemented, it would be positively life-altering for me and my farm peers. Additionally, by providing a pathway to a bright future for agriculture, a parity system has the power to attract the future generations to agricultural careers to meet ongoing food needs in the face of climate change.

As the fingers of my farm become more dexterous at weaving the delicate braid of holistic healing, I imagine them persistently working to overcome the aches that structural, undue burdens of the American agricultural and food system impose upon me. More literally, I envision the distress these burdens will manifest in my physical and mental well being as I toil to act on my ethical and ecological imperative with perennial insecurity surrounding quality of life, access to health care, and ability to save for retirement. Still, I maintain optimism about the promise of a logical, ethical parity system with a racial equity lens that will acknowledge and reward farmers like myself directly involved in the life-sustaining work of nourishing others and regenerating ecosystems through food production.