Farming for Racial Justice
Watered by the adjacent Taunton River, the 17.4 square miles of flat bottomland making up the Massachusetts town of Berkley between Boston and Providence was considered excellent agricultural soil by the original Wampanoag, Narragansett and Massachusett inhabitants. Artifacts going back 8000 years have been unearthed at local sites, indicating how they lived in inland longhouses and planted in these fields for much of the year, venturing to exposed coastal areas in the summer to harvest seafood. Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder now displayed in a Berkley state park, was once submerged in the Taunton River but visible at low tide. It is covered with ‘petroglyph’ markings many believe were created by these ancient Native Americans over years of habitation.
Although the town’s population is now overwhelmingly suburban and white (96%) some agriculture still exists on undeveloped parcels. On one leased 16 acre site, fringed by million dollar homes set off by a high fence, 3 acres are in vegetables, chickens, ducks, emus, quail and goats. Those products are marketed on-site and at 6 CSA drop-off sites in Boston and Providence, 35 and 25 minutes away respectively. The farmer behind this endeavor is Kohei Ishihara, a Japanese-American committed to providing food for urban residents, particularly Asians and other non-white people who are themselves involved in racial or economic justice work.
“I grew up in Maryland in a predominantly white neighborhood in Rockville,” he relates. “I felt generally white. But being biracial, I felt some prejudice. The other thing that really got me thinking about social change was coming out as a gay man as a teenager. I savor that experience growing up. Being able to feel, as a biracial, a part of the community but later when I was struggling with issues of sexuality to give me a framework for understanding other folks who are facing different kinds of oppression, whether it is anti-black racism or something else.
“I went off to college,” he continues, “with this commitment to dedicate my life to making change. So at Brown I majored in ethnic studies, or studying ethnicity from a multidisciplinary perspective. At the time in Providence there were a lot of gang killings of young Cambodians. Over 50% of the young men drop out of high school. On top of that, after 2011 there was a diplomatic agreement made between Cambodia and the US providing that all these Cambodians that came here as refugees could face deportation. So there was a lot of fear in the community. That was the impetus to start the Providence Youth Student Movement. We started it as a youth activist group and the first campaign was against deportation.”
Kohei feels that farming has an important role to play in community organizing.
“In Providence,” he recalls, “we would often say ‘food brings people together’. But often our community would be coming together around Dunkin Donuts! Or around food gotten from Stop and Shop! So if food does bring people together, what does it mean if that food is grown ecologically, is restorative, and is raised by the people eating it? In that context food has an even more powerful dimension.”
Growing up, Ishihara did not connect to local or fresh food. It was only later, following his love of plants and ethnic foods, that he got into farming. Before starting his ‘Movement Ground’ farm he worked for three years on farms in Raynham, Massachusetts, where he learned the practices he uses.
The vision of the farm. Kohei says, is to connect people and empower them through a connection to land.
“For 15 years,” he explains, “I was doing community organizing in Providence. I kind of turned to farming because I felt really grounded by it. You are in sync with the weather cycles, you can work outside; that you can feed people really restored and empowered me. When I was trying to contemplate whether I wanted to get into farming it didn’t make complete sense to me because I wanted to stay connected to the work that I used to do. Which was around equity and process. I started to think: ‘How can I stay connected with people who are on the ground doing social justice work?’
“I thought,” he continues, “that maybe I should make a profit and split some of the profit with them. But once I did the budget I saw that was not going to work! Then I thought: ‘Well, what resources do you have as a farmer?’ If you worked as a farmer you know there is so much excess produce. So that is a huge resource. But also what is a big resource to people in cities who are poor is just access to land – having a place to go to on land. So land and food are what I can offer people. Then it started to make sense to me that maybe I could run a farm operation that serves the same purpose to other people as it does to me. I can help people build community, have a deeper connection to their food, and a lot of members could have a chance to work and be on land. So the idea was helping to build community among social justice communities in Rhode Island and Massachusetts by uniting them through their food.”
Most of Kohei’s members had never belonged to a CSA before. They are often people who have been involved in racial or social justice work and not really focused on food or nutrition. The CSA delivers to sites in Providence and Boston that are connected to the social justice-minded organizations in those cities. In Dorchester it is coordinated through the Asian American Resource Workshop, for example, which shares a building with the Vietnamese Aid Center — an organization in Fields Corner of young Asian professionals who are interested in supporting community organizing and social justice issues within the Asian American community. In Providence his site with the most members is at the Providence Youth Student Movement, which does Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong youth organizing.
“A lot of my CSA members,” he beams, “are members of those groups. I grow a lot of Asian food for them. I have chickens, ducks, emus, quails, and goats. Ducks are really central to Asian cuisine, and you don’t see many of them at farmers markets. Nobody will slaughter them, because their feathers are hard to pluck. So we do it here. We got the mobile processing unit and some detergent for the hot water to cut the oils. It made a big difference.
“Ducks are not as popular as chicken,” he continues, “and people are afraid to cook them. They think it is hard to cook one. But about 15% of the population loves duck. So I have a very enthusiastic set of buyers. And I only did 100 ducks. So I’m the only place you can buy a Massachusetts duck! Emus were kind of a mistake. I already do chicken, duck and quail eggs, so I wanted to do emu eggs. But they kept escaping.”
Ishihara gets $8 a dozen for his chicken eggs. He feeds them organic grain, which is expensive. He also wanted to try raising turkeys. Of course turkey isn’t Asian, but he said he just wanted to try it. He raised 40 in 2017.
Every week his CSA members receive five vegetable items as well as a half-dozen eggs, if they have chosen the option of receiving eggs. For example, on one summer week they may get something equivalent to a pound of tomatoes, a bunch of carrots, a pound of green beans, a head of lettuce, a whole watermelon, and a half dozen eggs. Meat is delivered on ice in coolers on a specific pick-up day twice during the summer. In the fall, the turkey pick-up is at the farm.
Members can choose their own vegetables if they pick up from Kohei’s stand at a farmer’s market. There, you can just walk up to the farm stand and choose what you wish within the limit of 5 items/week. For everyone picking up a prepackaged boxed share, however, they cannot choose which vegetables they are going to get each week. (There is an exception for those not wishing to consume any of his spicy peppers!)
The price for a share depends on the season and the contents. Full summer shares go for 17 weeks at $30 per week if they include eggs and meat. It is about $6 a week less without them. Full fall shares go for 12 weeks at about $35, and full winter ones for 8 weeks at $18.50.
Movement Ground Farm has several mechanisms to be more affordable. For starters, they offer a 10% discount to those who sign up for all three seasons. They also let members opt to schedule automatic payments throughout the season rather than pay everything upfront, as traditional CSAs do. Also, Kohei has a limited number of ‘Food Justice Discounts’ to give out to those who qualify. He also asks members to donate a day of work at the farm.
“Including all the work of starting up a new business and farm,” he explains, “we are running a pretty daring operation offering diversified produce with little farm infrastructure and equipment. Plus, we do extra stuff to make sure we fulfill our vision. This project of building a farm with a social justice vision from scratch will only be sustainable if I get some help, especially with weeding. We also want our CSA membership base to be deeply connected to the land (and the food they eat) and invested in the vision of what this farm can offer. For those who really do not have time, an alternative is to find someone else to volunteer for them.”
Although Ishihara is not certified organic, everything he does uses organic methods, including organic feed for the animals and using only organic fertilizers — OMRI listed ones. He has been buying in compost but now is thinking of making it. The birds have generated a lot of manure he can use!
But he admits he is still learning, after 3 years in farming. For example by the time I visited in early November, 2017, Kohei still hadn’t sown cover crops for the winter.
Gladys Gould, who lives in South Providence, is a good example of one of the Movement Ground CSA members. She met Kohei when he was doing community organizing in her area. Originally from the Dominican Republic and now in her mid-fifties, she had also been a community organizer and worked a stint as a labor organizer for AFSCME Council 94. Now she is active in PrSYM, the Providence Youth Student Movement, which just concluded a successful 7-year struggle to pass a municipal racial profiling law to ensure community oversight over police misconduct — Kohei calls it ‘the most comprehensive racial profiling law in the nation’. She has her own garden at home, but joined the CSA and loves it.
“It has been amazing,” she exclaims, “being able to make connection with the food. It makes your perspective of the whole food chain different. We have all these young people involved — people who never visited a farm before. Their whole experience with food was just getting it at a supermarket. I’ve seen many young people change their attitude about organic food. They thought organic was bad, something they didn’t want. But now, seeing all these people involved with the land it has been amazing. Watching plants grow changes people. I remember one time my neighbor asked why I was collecting all the trash people left behind in my garden. I said ‘this is my home’. I started gardening at a time of day when a slew of people walked by on the sidewalk. They asked about what I was doing, and then they started respecting my space and not throwing trash there. They even thanked me for gardening! I felt that was my contribution.”
I caught up with Kohei and about 100 members and their guests at the annual farm Harvest Celebration. Rescheduled from September because the farm work was just too intense then, this early November date worked for all and delivered a beautiful Sunday fall day.
“This event is a barbeque I organize every year,” says Kohei, turning pieces of quail, duck and sweet potato (‘Asian favorites’, he grins) on a large grill which he converted from an oil tank. “It is our time to celebrate the CSA and our members. I should have done it earlier, in September, but I was too busy and pushed it back.”
The celebration, with tours, games, and a massive feast of farm meat and vegetables plus plenty of beer and lovingly made spicy Asian wraps and egg noodle soups, is free to CSA members. They get two free tickets for each CSA they join, qualifying a family joining for the summer, fall and winter to receive six tickets. Others can come if they pay at the street before entering the farm.
“This morning we had a number of other farmers here,” Kohei reports, “and started with a barter event. It was nice not to use money but to build community. One family that came was of fishermen. They bartered their stripers and bass and cod. Several farmers came with various products, cranberries, chicken, pork. It is our third year doing it. Most people here now who have stayed into the afternoon are members of the CSA. Everyone here has connections to community organizations or other people and has brought their friends and families.
“That is part of why we have this Harvest celebration,” he continues, “to connect the community. We also do separate workshops of smaller groups. We have done a chicken processing workshop and we are going to do a turkey processing one soon. That is when people really connect to their food. Some people say prayers, some really bond over the slaughter. Some come, take part, and leave saying ‘I’m not going to eat meat anymore!’ That is awesome that they made that decision. Other people come and say ‘This is great. I’m going to continue eating meat.’ “
One of the treats Kohei arranged for the celebration was for people to meet his parents. His father, Michio, came to the US in 1968 when he was 23.
“In the mid 60s in Japan,” he recalls, “we had major student demonstrations against the US/Japan peace treaty. It meant that we were under the protection of the US’s nuclear power. So in our constitution we declared that we would not have an army. At the time Marxism was very strong in the colleges. I was in my junior and senior years at college. We would throw rocks at police and we barricaded the graduation ceremony. My father said: ‘why don’t you go to the United States and see what is happening there. You are not going to school anyway, you are not studying.’ So I said ‘okay’.
“I came to the United States as a graduate student,” he continues. “In those days you had to have a sponsor to come to the US who would sign for you and take care of any financial problems. My father had a connection in Missouri who would sign for me, so I went to the University there. I was not very much aware of the problems here, but I certainly learned about the Vietnam War and race problems that year!”
Michio ended up with an advanced degree in economics and a job at the World Bank, hence Kohei’s childhood home in Rockville. His mother, Melody, is a musician who sings and plays the piano. She and Michio met during his days at the University of Missouri. These days she visits nursing homes and offers music and art therapy to help needy people who don’t even have family members left visiting them.
One of the realities that Kohei mentions often is that farming takes more time than he anticipated – which makes it difficult for him to achieve the larger goals he originally intended.
“I would like to do more workshops and educational events,” he says, “but I’m learning farming consumes all your time! I don’t have time to do other stuff like a newsletter, or workshops. I feel education is crucial for a CSA. But how do you have time to educate people about what vegetables they are getting and how to use them? I did a weekly blog for a while, but I couldn’t keep it up. That stuff is really important to giving people the full experience. The economics of the farm are not important to me so long as they are sustainable.
“I realize I need money,” he continues, “to get other people to help doing all this stuff! I have good people who can help. I have summer help on the farm, and one person who is still working with me now. But it is too much! The interest is there among members, but I haven’t yet figured out my sustainable model to make it all work.
“I love the idea of a CSA,” he concludes. “I think it is great. But I also love being at a farmers market. Running a CSA is not sustainable, unless you are a crazy workaholic. The main difficulty is trying to grow 80 different vegetables. They all have different harvest dates, storage requirements. So I’d eventually like to learn about partnering with other farms. Then instead of growing 80 things, maybe I could grow 30. And make it a little bit more sustainable. Focus on 30 things I’m good at and have the machinery for.”
Kohei wonders if perhaps starting a non-profit may be the best way to avoid burnout or bankruptcy. In a way it is a false economy, he feels, but if that is what he has to do, he’ll do it. His long term goal has evolved to having a strong non-profit which can do social justice work – ideally a retreat center which could have programs and enable people to stay on site and participate in the growing too – and eventually finding a good partner who can run the farm operation.
Of course such a goal would require purchasing the land, which means a significant capital investment and also land which is suitable for these purposes but also not as close to urban areas and their housing-driven land prices as he is now.
He is now setting up an exploratory committee to help figure this all out. His parents are onboard with the idea and have sold their Mendocino, California home to raise capital. They hope to live at the new location. His sister, who is currently doing a residency in California, is mostly on board too, which would enable them to tap into a doctor’s line of credit!
Kohei would like to buy the land privately, run the farm on it, and raise money for the retreat center and non-profit work.
“But we need to find the land first, of course,” he says. “I want access to the Providence and Boston markets, even if I have to be an hour and a half away. I figure once a week we could drive an hour and a half not too much harder than a half hour. If I find the perfect land and it is 2 hours from Providence, I’ll go that far if I have to.”