This interview originally ran in the Feb. 17 Ithaca Times. I thought the story near the end about Cornell brass submarining a grant proposal was pretty fascinating. My photo – these Q&A “speakeasy” interviews appear with the subject as a cutout, so we’ve been doing our best to avoid the person-standing-against-wall shot. Green and I foraged in the Agway on a zero degree day to find a prop that worked and we ended up with a wagon. My production guy didn’t like me, because there was no brick wall background. Alas.
The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming is going through the first leadership change in its history this month, with the retirement of founding director Joanna Green. Elizabeth Gabriel, who operates Wellspring Forest Farm with her husband Steve in Mecklenburg and was the founding director of Common Good City Farm in Washington, D.C., will replace Green as executive director of Groundswell, which focuses on educating potential farmers in sustainable agriculture practices.
After Green took an early retirement from Cornell Cooperative Extension in 2008, where she worked with the farming alternatives program, she put in lots of unpaid time to help launch Groundswell. The center started offering classes in 2010 after receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) beginner rancher and farmer development program. Groundswell, which is part of Cornell’s Center for Transformative Action, now offers numerous courses on everything from pasture management to marketing, and has an incubator farm where aspiring farmers without land can get a start.
The Ithaca Times sat down with Green to talk about her work with Groundswell.
Ithaca Times: How did Groundswell come about?
Joanna Green: It grew out of EcoVillage, where I used to live. We had always done a lot of sustainability education—West Haven is a beautiful farm, a really well run organic CSA, and they did a lot of great educational work. There was more demand than they could fulfill and still farm, so we started about making a non-profit institute for sustainable agriculture. The farmers weren’t going to build a non-profit, and EcoVillage had its own education agenda. In 2008, EcoVillage held a fundraising dinner and raised a few thousand dollars, and in 2010 we started programming.
IT: In your view, what’s been the overall mission of the Groundswell Center since it began?
JG: Increasing diversity in agriculture. And one of the challenges is we are a predominantly white region. There’s a matter of expectations on both sides: people in the agriculture world aren’t used to thinking about [diversity] or might not realize there’s interest from people of color in farming. In communities of color, in some cases, there’s a stigma attached, especially with African-Americans, where their historical role in agriculture is one of being exploited.
There is a growing movement to farming. It’s an honorable occupation that has a lot to do with sovereignty today. People don’t want to be dependent on a food system that’s poisoning them. If you’re not involved in producing food, you’re subject to a system that’s just feeding you junk and contributing to massive health problems.
IT: How do you go about increasing interest in farming from a diverse group of people, then?
JG: The challenge of those of us who are white and in institutions primarily led by white people is how do you actually do the work that engages and eventually turns power and resources over to people of color. The most basic thing is building relationships. In working for 20-some years in Cornell in agriculture, almost all of my colleagues and farmers—the whole world—was white. If we take on the mission of changing the face of agriculture and don’t have personal relationships, we can’t get very far. The organization has to build credibility and trust based on personal relationships. All the setbacks are learning opportunities for us. Coming to understand power we have as white individuals, the learning curve is painful sometimes.
IT: What places in life are those taking classes at Groundswell coming from?
JG: We’ve had anyone from their late teens and early 20s from any number of places, some really impoverished and some affluent college graduates. At the other end of the spectrum there are people in their 50s or 60s wanting to do something totally different in retirement or as a second career. We have a lot of midcareer people thinking, ‘I can’t keep doing what I’m doing.’ At least one couple with adult children who have started farming in T-burg moved to the Finger Lakes from Tennessee to do this. It’s people who want to farm but need to learn.
IT: And what do the prospective farmers who come through your doors learn?
JG: One of our most intensive courses is farm business planning, which we give every winter. There are 80 or 100 people who have taken it, and a substantial portion of them go into business. A lot of them come into this endeavor with little financial management skills, so we provide a much greater chance of succeeding by giving a realistic picture of what they’re up against.
For the same reason farming is super challenging, it’s super rewarding with those for which it’s a good fit. It’s a small segment of the population who’s really cut out to succeed in farming. It’s not a failure on anybody’s part or on Groundswell’s part to expose people to farming and our programs and they decide it’s not for them. And we have people who say what I really want to do is homestead, have a big garden, a little bit of livestock, but I’m not going to try and make a business of it.
IT: How have you seen support for sustainable agriculture education change over the years?
JG: The demand’s been increasing over the past 10 or 20 years. The USDA has supported development of all these different variations in farmer education nationwide. We have to reinvent a training system that fell apart over the last 60 or 70 years. It used to be farmers grew up on farms, and there was a natural organic learning process they went through. Then the [agricultural] colleges started taking on a lot of that—but all the practical how-to-farm stuff was gutted. It became all biotech, aimed at the large industrial model of farming.
The following questions are online exclusives! (There’s no limit to space on the Internet.)
IT: Do you have any personal experience with institutions orienting themselves more toward that industrial farming model?
JG: At Cornell, we had a civic agriculture program under the direction of Thomas Lyson [a professor of sociology]. The Kellogg Foundation was pushing in the ’90s for sustainable agriculture to get a foothold in the land grant universities, and we had a grant written for three years and $750,000. Kellogg sent a team to meet with us to see if we had the support of the institution, if it was a wise investment. And a dean came into the meeting and said Kellogg shouldn’t bother putting their money here. They should invest the money into dairy manure management research. The Kellogg people were shocked. That was a low point in my career.
IT: What do you plan on doing with your increased free time in retirement?
JG: I’m going to play in my garden. Do more music. I’m going to step back from a lot of stuff and reinvent myself. I’m a good grant writer, but Elizabeth is someone who can put Groundswell on a footing where its not so dependent on the federal grants. I’m really confident in all the younger energy coming into the field and I’m going to embrace my role as an elder now. I’ve tried to model to staff and coworkers that being a human being is really important. There’s more to life than a job.