A week with Rock Steady Farm and Flowers, NY

Rock Steady Farm and Flowers is an 12 acre farm operating in Millerton, a 2hr drive north of Manhattan, in upstate New York, nestled in by the borders with Connecticut and Massachusetts. Set up in 2016 and just coming to the end of their 3rd growing season, this is another young and establishing organisation. They’re running a veg CSA (Community Supported Agriculture box scheme) (topping up with veg from others and offering dairy and other non-veg items too), selling wholesale to restaurants in NYC, and selling flowers to florists. RSF is a queer and women run workers coop. There’s a second site a short drive away which they’ve mostly pulled back on in 2018 (and left with a cover crop) after winter reflection on capacity for the season. Last season they lost a coop member who was also the flower farmer, so this year with a new flower grower in they’ve stripped back on flower production for a year to let him get settled in.

The site’s a beautiful one, sat in an open valley with woodland opposite that the morning light draws down. The week I’m there sees the first turns in colour for which upstate New York is famed. Most of the farm is in field-scale production with tractor ground prep. There are a couple of polytunnels, with another going up imminently and plans for more (polytunnels will massively extend the flower growing season, a key income stream).

2018 hasn’t been an easy season for RSF. Snow was on the ground throughout April pushing the season start back, they’ve suffered staff ill health throughout, and have the new staff member taking on flower production. For a young enterprise these pressures can easily tip the balance, whilst knowledge is built up amongst staff members, customer/client bases are built, and partnerships are created, as systems haven’t quite hit an equilibrium. But it feels like through this hardship Rock Steady is finding it’s way. CSA customers have built to 250 shares from 115 this time last year, partnerships are expanding and solidifying, systems of staff support are being created. It feels like there’s growth through some of these challenges, the true definition of resilience.

Two things have drawn me to RSF, firstly, their social justice mission being enacted on whilst growing field scale veg, and secondly, the centrality of queerness to what they do. As a vegetable grower having operated on roughly the same scale in London for the last 6 yrs, I often ask myself the question of who eats the vegetables that I grow, and the answer isn’t easy to digest. Our vegetables are not expensive, we try to keep it that way, but we are organic, and we are trying to keep our staff on the London-living wage, and the result is that our veg comes at a cost compared to a budget supermarket shop. And I definitely hear the argument that all of our food should be more expensive, that the food system as it stands externalises so many of the costs of industrialised non-organic farming (of nitrate run off, of obesity, through farm subsidies and working tax credit), so we’re never paying the real cost of food, and we need a re-aligning of the system (to favour small-scale agro-ecological farmers). But a simple fact is that our food isn’t reaching those who most need access to healthy fresh veg. For that reason, for me, it’s hugely inspiring to come to a project growing on scale and working with partners to get veg to those who need it most.

As a queer vegetable grower, who has tended to leave their queerness at the farm gate, in the way that so many of us leave so many parts of ourselves checked when we come to work, I have felt the impact of not bringing my whole self (queer and otherwise) to work. To me my queerness is so interwoven with my politics as to be inseparable. To me that’s a politics of questioning the norms around me, of questioning binaries and asking who has voice, of seeing how societal norms privilege some and oppress others and of acting to untangle that. To see a project in which queerness is not just held, but centralised, that feels radical and hugely inspiring to me, and inherently linked to the social justice politics which are central at RSF – laying true to the strong need for us queers to take up more space and be loud about who we are.

There are a number of other key points of interest and lessons I take with me. Firstly, they seem to have a really clear mission and a clear sense of where the monies flowing and how they’re doing things. They know, for example, that the sale of a high value product like flowers will sub the social justice work they’re doing and the slightly less lucrative game of growing veg. Their vision is clear and the goals are measurable under the following areas: ecological stewardship, increased equity in food systems, being a worker owner coop, providing living wages and high quality of life for workers and worker owners, to be a thriving for profit social justice focused farm, and to nurture healthy partnerships. [For more details on this see their website]

A nod here to people/projects in London with/seeking a similar clarity. Audacious Veg and their clear agenda of high end flower selling to support youth traineeships. Julie Brown at Growing Communities and her obsessive viability chasing for urban and peri-urban farms in the UK. Two people/projects back in London who have really drummed home to me a sense that we have to know what we’re doing and where our money’s coming from and going to, and a sense that that is an enacting of our politics. In RSFs case my sense is that this came from a lot of early hard work planning, a lot of inviting community/movement wisdom into early stages, and also the fact that it’s a for profit business that hasn’t been bank-rolled by grant funding or private wealth. This last fact means the ship has to be in order, there has to be a clarity around the model. [More info on business start-up loans in the interview with Maggie below]

The decision to start a for-profit business is another key point of interest for me. Similarly to Truelove Seeds, there’s a desire to not be a non-profit organisation, a world that’s been experienced by owners previously and wants to be avoided to keep autonomy over the RSF mission. The interesting thing in the set up at RSF is all the partnerships with non-profits that enable them to access many of the privileges of the non-profit world (access to funding, and a giftaid equivalent additional income from small private donors) whilst keeping the mission and their finances separate. [More on the workings of that in the interview below]

Another hugely inspiring thing for me, is the sense I got from RSF that they really value transparency and the greater good for the movement that that can bring. They’re tapping in to a lot of support that’s out there now as they establish (on financial things and so forth), and have desires once they themselves are established to share a lot of this information with other co-ops, other social justice focused projects as they set up. My time here is shaped by this desire for transparency, such generosity and openness in sharing about what they’re up to in a real and genuine way. In my experience, this is one of the things that we always desire to do, but never quite get round to, it falls off as an unessential. Back when I started at Forty Hall Farm, I came across the Moss Brook Growers farm manual. I remember feeling so grateful that someone had taken the time to share all of that information to support others in their start up. [Check out a couple of links in the resources page that RSF gave me]

Another thing I really respect at RSF is an overt desire to centre their staff in their work (and themselves, the co-owners as staff). They’re trying to pay fair wages and give paid holiday, not the norm in the farming world here. They’re also establishing feedback systems so that staff can input into on the ground systems. This is a strong personal interest of mine, and something I feel many of our organisations need to get more conscious on. RSF, as with many of our organisations, is on a journey with this. They’re an establishing enterprise and in my experience, when a system is stretched, one of the first places this hits is the staff, who mop up overspills. At Forty Hall Farm this is definitely something we’re journeying with too.

RSF crew packing CSA boxes

My time at RSF has been really special. It’s been great to get back in to field-scale veg (folks at Forty Hall Farm, I miss you!). So many special and inspiring conversations which I thank everyone for. I decided to come and work with projects for a week on this trip in part motivated by knowing how hard farmers work and wanting to give something back in return for the time that people have spent talking with me. But also motivated by a sense that you can never fully know an organisation by only speaking with the folks at the top. My time with the crew at RSF has reaffirmed that decision for me, lots of interesting conversations and insights that I carry with me to inform future practice. They also taught me about the French tuck, vital knowledge which I’ll definitely be bringing back to the UK to disseminate.

To hear more about the social justice work that they do, the partnerships they have formed, how they’re farming and some financial specifics listen to this interview with Maggie Cheney, one of the worker-owners, and someone who can explain these things far better than I.

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