Women in Food: Karen Washington Forges Path for Black Farmers
April 11, 2016 | Laura Hurst
Faced with an empty lot in the Bronx, NY, Karen Washington decided to start growing.
“I had no knowledge. I took some seeds and put them in the ground. I knew that they needed water and sun – I just did it.”
That was in the 1980s. Since then, Washington has become a practiced urban and rural farmer and community activist. However, she warns, “When someone says they’re an expert in farming and gardening, they’re not. Because it’s mother nature… and you’re always learning.”
Washington points to elders as an important source of learning. By picking the brains of those who had farmed and gardened before her, she was able to make her first forays in the soil.
Then in 2008, Washington attended a six-month program with The Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“When I told people, ‘I’m going to California to become a farmer,’ they looked at me like, ‘What? You’re a black person, and you’re going to farm?’” Washington says the people around her were incredibly supportive and made the remarks only as jokes, but she says she heard all the stereotypes: from picking cotton, to working for the man to doing slave labor.
“So I was on a mission to dispel that myth and to come back with a positive attitude – but also come back and shake up the agricultural world,” particularly regarding farmers of color. “Out in California, looking around the landscape, I didn’t see farmers that looked like me.”
Upon her return to New York, she and some friends founded the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference.
“We can’t talk about sustainability; we can’t talk about food systems, when there’s a whole group of people, who first and foremost, were the ones that were growing during the development of America… Farming is part of our DNA and its something that we should be proud of and something we should continue to immerse ourselves in.”
As an activist and community organizer, Washington has been part of numerous initiatives. She’s served as a community gardener and board member of The New York Botanical Gardens, a member of La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition, a board member and trainer with Just Food, a co-founder of Black Urban Growers (BUGS) and many others.
Washington has an activist’s charm, with an engaging personality and the ability to talk about the complexities of injustice in a digestible way. She also understands how to reach communities.
“Don’t assume you can write an email and people are going to come. Outreach is about engagement. It’s about meeting people and not being afraid to go in a community that isn’t like your own,” she says. It is about approaching with a message of sharing and asking the questions, “What can I learn and how can I help?”
Washington stresses understanding the food system in its complex totality. “I used to just talk about farms and farmers, but now I can’t… Along the chain there are workers that need rights. There are people along the food chain who are having problems: from the person who puts the seed in the ground to the person who serves the food to you on a restaurant plate.”
She also emphasizes seeing the bigger picture.
“When you put food in the middle, it intersects health, it intersects the environment, it intersects labor, education – it intersects so many things! It’s food! And to just put the emphasis on growing food, you can’t do that.”
Washington notes that she sees too many people stuck a cycle of relying on what should be “temporary and emergency programs” such as soup kitchens and SNAP and advocates reevaluating these programs to mobilize people with jobs and resources instead of fostering dependency.
Washington is well aware of the difficulties that people of color, as well as young people, face as they try to break into farming and challenge old stereotypes of who represents the “American farmer.” And with the average age of the farmers in the U.S. resting at 57, developing more young farmers is imperative.
“Young people want to farm, because they understand the importance of growing our own food and they know that they can have some control of their food system.”
She says the biggest obstacle is the cost of land. Additionally, “a lot of people who want to farm have student loan debt and credit card debt.” She advocates reevaluating incentives and the farming system. “If you work on the land for five years, the debt should be diminished or erased.”
Washington remarks that, as a woman of color, buying land was one of her greatest challenges. However, she and a small group of women were able to secure land in 2014. They founded Rise and Root Farm in Orange County, NY, where she now lives part time.
At Rise and Root, the tagline is that the farmers “traded in metro cards for tractors.” Arriving from the city, Washington and her fellow farmers initially faced skepticism from local farmers. They implemented urban techniques in a rural setting, such as building beds on the land and installing drip tape. The neighbors laughed, she recalls.
“But at the end of the season, when they saw how much we grew, we earned their respect and compliments. Yes, we farmed differently, but in the end, it was spectacular.”