By Aidan Zola and Tamika Whitenack
We arrived at Rise & Root Farm, located in Chester, New York, on a sunny Friday afternoon. Rise & Root Farm was founded in 2014 by four women–Karen Washington, Lorrie Clevenger, Jane Hodge, and Michaela Hayes–who all had a vision. On their three acres of leased land, they grow a huge range of flowers, fruits, and vegetables, most of which go to farmer’s markets in lower-income parts of New York City as part of their food justice and sustainability mission. They farm side-by-side with three other farms, all of them pledged to grow organically, in the rich black soil that Chester is known for.
When we first stepped out of the van, we were greeted at the farm by Michaela. She gave us a very brief introduction to the farm before Karen Washington emerged from the storage barn, welcoming us to the farm and inviting us inside. Ms. Washington served as our guide for the farm, and throughout our visit we gained an insight into her vision and mission through her charismatic personality and conversation.
We began our visit in the storage barn, where Ms. Washington explained that this space and land is actually shared between Rise & Root and three other farms. The land is actually owned by investors, which was helpful in Rise & Root’s initial establishment on the land. As Ms. Washington explained, getting land is one of the most difficult aspects of starting to farm, and being able to lease land from the investors assists in this challenge. Rise & Root and the three other farms on the land cooperatively share the storage space, farm fields, and greenhouses on the land. Although they are each independent farms, Ms. Washington highlighted that they share many of the same values and have an understanding about acceptable farming practices and land use.
After showing us some seedlings in the storage barn, we ventured out into one of the high tunnels. Ms. Washington explained the way in which high tunnels allow farmers to extend the growing season by allowing plants to grow protected from the outside elements and weather conditions. The abundance of growth in the high tunnel showcased the fertile properties of Chester’s black soil, and we even got to taste some of the edible flowers flourishing in the corner. Most of us were pleasantly surprised, the taste was similar to raw broccoli.
Ms. Washington then brought us into a second high tunnel where she talked about her experience as a food justice advocate and social justice activist. A resident of the Bronx for more than 25 years, Ms. Washington discussed her first-hand experience with low-income communities and disparities with access to affordable, healthy foods. She lamented the lack of whole produce that is made available to these types of communities, and shared her vision for the future. Ms. Washington also runs an urban farm in New York City–Garden of Happiness–and has kickstarted a local farmer’s market that is located in the Bronx. She concluded our tour with some words of encouragement and wisdom: always chase after your dreams and don’t let anyone stop you.