Rural areas in this country are not always welcoming of newcomers, especially if they are LGBTQIA or people of color. Salespeople at farm supply stores may greet feminine-presenting shoppers with demeaning questions like “what did he send you to buy?”
Defying deeply ingrained prejudices as well as the economic assumption that to pay the bills organic farms have to sell to high-end markets, Rock Steady has been able to create a successful farm and welcoming community space with over half of its sales going to low-income households. By responding to the pandemic quickly and skillfully, the Rock Steady farmers have even been able to increase community support. Let’s take a look at this remarkable farm to see what lessons about adaptation and resilience we can learn from the Rock Steady story.
Late in 2015, Maggie Cheney and D Rooney established Rock Steady Farm on twelve acres of leased open valley land next to the Watershed Center, “a retreat center for changemakers,” in Millerton, NY, a two hour drive north of NYC. From the start, Maggie and D and Angela DeFelice (a third partner who has since shifted roles to be a financial advisor to the farm) set out a complex social mission for Rock Steady as “an LGBTQIArun cooperative, rooted in social justice, growing sustainable vegetables and flowers.” People care is at the top of the Rock Steady priority list right next to soil health. Rather than hiding who they are, the partners proudly declare that they are “endlessly grateful to be who we are, and engaging in farming with both care for each other and the earth as best we can.” Creating a space where they themselves are comfortable and providing that sense of openness and acceptance to others is central to their effort. As D puts it, “Rock Steady is at a point where we are catching a groove of who we are that we never had before. There is a lot of knowledge that we believe we have that we can share about how to make it work.”
Attending Farm School NYC turned D onto farming. Experienced in carpentry and restaurant work, D speaks humbly about lacking a farming background, though by now, they have had a decade of experience working with youth at the Bushwick Campus Farm, with community gardeners, and a season as an apprentice at Sister’s Hill Farm, where Dave Hambleton provides some of the most solid training in organic CSA farming available anywhere on the planet. Maggie has spent their whole life in food and farming. They grew up on the Food Project Farm in Boston run by their dad, ran school gardens in Oakland, CA, and attended the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Farming Systems. Maggie’s dad is still farming full time and is a wonderful thought partner when talking about avoiding burn out or trouble shooting daily tractor work.
Before branching off to start Rock Steady, D and Maggie were among the founders of Rise and Root Farm with Lorrie Clevenger, Jane Hodge, Michaela Hayes and Karen Washington, and ties remain close. I made the acquaintance of this incredible group of movers and shakers when I slept on the bottom bunk of a double decker bed with Karen and Jane on top at the first Growing Power conference in Milwaukee in 2012. At that time, I wrote “The Color of Organic – Is Changing,” for the NOFA-NY newsletter – opening with these reflections – “If the “National and International Urban and Small Farm Conference – Growing the Good Food Movement” had been the first sustainable agriculture conference I ever attended, I would have a very different impression of the movement. At least half of the 1500 participants at the Wisconsin State Fair Park, September 7 – 9, 2012, were under 30 and more than half were people of color – African Americans, Central and South Americans, Asians, Native Americans.” I look forward to the day when everyone will take that diversity for granted.
“We want to tap into more diverse groups of people who are located within the local food movement.”
To get back to Rock Steady, their approach to creating a farm is the very opposite of the John Wayne go-it-aloners. D and Maggie are methodical planners who take advantage of their own years of experience, the wisdom of farming elders, and the counseling and advice available through their connections with the cooperative and social service communities. D and Maggie’s initial marketing plan was to develop a CSA with share payments on a sliding scale so that lower-income people could afford them, and to offset the lower prices of vegetables with sales of flowers that generate higher revenues. Rock Steady grew flowers for the first two years, but has put them on pause due to the rapid growth of the CSA propelled by the pandemic. Their Facebook page for April 7, 2021, declared, “CSA, we have actually SOLD Out! 500 members strong, it’s our largest CSA to date! Woah!”
To access the capital to start up Rock Steady, the partners were able to take out a loan of over a hundred thousand dollars from The Working World, which continues to provide them with a line of credit for working capital. The Working World practices “non-extractive finance,” distinguishing its operating principles from conventional lenders: “we never take a single dime from the people we work with that doesn’t come from income we’ve helped generate. No community will ever be made poorer by working with us.” Their website clarifies: “a business loan should be a tool to help you grow, not to rob you blind.” In its list of projects, The Working World gives a vote of confidence to Rock Steady, “Projections are lean but appear feasible, especially as the changes instituted during conversion take hold in the coming years.” Rock Steady has also received funding and business advice from Seed Commons, the Cooperative Development Initiative, Community Food Funders and the 2020 Food Movement Support Fund, with the Watershed Center acting as their fiscal sponsor along with a dozen other grants and private foundations. Each year, Rock Steady has been able to increase the percentage of their food that goes to low-income people from an initial 40% to 57% of the CSA shares in 2020. “We want to be able to feed people who don’t usually have the access to local, organic and nutritious food. That’s at the heart of what we do,” in D’s words. Funding for the lowest payments and free shares does not come out of the farmers’ pockets. The farm has a Food Access Fund and appeals repeatedly for contributions. In addition, the CSA uses a sliding scale modeled after Soul Fire Farm’s, but very similar to the scale my farm adopted as early as 1990. About 30% of their CSA members pay the baseline or market price point for shares. Another 18% pay at the top end of the sliding scale, thus subsidizing those who pay less. Many members pay with SNAP/EBT. CSAs have tended to cater to the white, middle-upper class and “we want to tap into more diverse groups of people who are located within the local food movement,” Cheney says. “Queer folks are often facing health problems like diabetes, obesity and other dietrelated illnesses which means their health is compromised. We want to see how we can bring healthy food into the queer-identified community in New York City.”
“Queer folks are often facing health problems like diabetes, obesity and other dietrelated illnesses which means their health is compromised. We want to see how we can bring healthy food into the queer-identified community.”
Community partnerships and energetic fundraising are key to share distribution. Maggie devotes a lot of time and energy to figuring out the mission alignment, share size and content or bulk order that best fit each partner program. An important connection for relations with Millerton locals has been providing shares for the North East Community Center that services low-income people in several towns near the farm. The farm has working relationships with programs that cater to the needs of low-income families and especially LGBTQIA people with health problems including Callen-Lorde, which serves 10,000 patients, Community Access, a NYC housing non-profit, and The Free People’s Market, serving low-income Latinx and people from the African diaspora. Callen-Lorde provides free shares to their most at-risk patients with HIV and other chronic illnesses. Each arrangement is individualized. In 2020, the farm raised enough to donate 90 free shares. Maggie gives generously of her time to collaborating with and building networks that provide support – the Queer Money Project, the Queer Farmer Network, the NE Queer Farmer Alliance, and the Sexual and Gender Diversity cohort of Via Campesina. Both Maggie and D present on their work at conferences around the country and abroad.
Rock Steady also provides incubation space for another remarkable project – Jalal Sabur’s Sweet Freedom Farm, which grows food for incarcerated people, their families and other food insecure people in the Hudson Valley. Sabur, a prison abolitionist, racial justice leader and member of the Soul Fire Farm Board, takes aim at the shamefully inadequate food in NY prisons, and raises funds to rent buses to bring families on prison visits.
To counter what Rock Steady calls “the intensity of capitalism, colonialism and the dehumanization of farm workers,” the farm classifies everyone who works there as farmers and potential members of their farmer-owned cooperative. Within a month, four more of the farmers will join Maggie and D as owners. A farm goal is to pay everyone a living wage – each year they get closer, sharing improved revenues among the whole crew. Everyone is on payroll, including Maggie and D, so that they get Workers Comp and Paid Family Leave, and if the farm makes a profit, owners will get to take a portion of it. They also get a CSA share and the farm provides a minimum of five days of paid vacation and five days of paid sick leave. The farm is applying for Food Justice Certification as a way to verify publicly that they are meeting their commitment to farmworker justice.
As the child of a farmer, Maggie is sensitive to the many ways that growing healthy vegetables can damage the health, both physical and mental, of those doing the growing. While intensely involved in the farm, she says she can walk away from it to get some work-life balance. The farm is scaled to allow for diversified work each day. Workers are trained in food and farm safety and urged to learn new skills. The employee handbook stresses building “efficiency, speed and quality” in the work, but limits the work day to eight hours. An hour lunch break and two mandatory 15-minute rest breaks. There are morning check-ins, three employee evaluations a season, and the whole crew makes the time to dedicate regular sessions to peer review and work with outside facilitators from Relational Uprising, which focus on building trusting relationships and honest communication. The farm also has a detailed grievance process that explicitly states that retaliation for bringing up a complaint is prohibited.
An extra benefit for Rock Steady farmers comes in the form of healthcare advice and treatments from some of the many healers who are supporters of the farm. This turned out to be especially important in 2017 when a surprise storm whipped through the farm injuring Maggie severely. They have spoken and written eloquently about how her community showed up for her with care and support that allowed her to recover from a brain injury.
Less unusual than the time Rock Steady devotes to social practices, but just as central to their goals, is their approach to soil care. Year by year, they are finding ways to disturb the soil less and cover crop more, with 90% of their land cover cropped in 2020. The website explains: “While not “Certified Organic”, we use only organic, holistic practices. These practices include IPM, using row-cover instead of spraying, organic low-spray techniques (a last resort), cover cropping, organic compost, organic greenhouse soil, organic granular fertilizer, increasing pollinators through planting natives and diverse plants and much more!” In 2021, they will plant flowering perennials to support pollination. Facebook photos of fields after an inundative rain show no standing water or signs of erosion.
In her book Resilient Agriculture, Laura Lengnick helps us understand the complexities of resilience and how to design farms that have the capacity to recover from setbacks, to respond quickly and bounce forward while contributing to the transformation of agriculture. She writes that “Diverse networks of equitable relationships build the foundation of resilience including all possible relationships – in soil, between soil, plants, animals and people, between people in community, and between communities within a region and beyond.” Rock Steady Farm is an outstanding example of a resilient farm, a farm with a vision for creating “a new paradigm in a deeply unjust food system.”