How One Woman Turned a Passion for Farming Into Her Life's Work
Karen Washington was always involved in New York City's farming community. But when she retired from her first career at 60, she made her dream of operating a large-scale farm a reality.
Watch above for a conversation between Karen Washington and fellow farmer Frances Perez-Rodriguez about modern farming, healthy-food inequality, and to get a peek inside Rise & Root.
Karen Washington always knew she wanted to be a farmer.
Growing up in the projects in New York City, she remembers watching the farm report on TV, early on Saturday mornings, before the cartoons started. "As a kid, I would dream of being on a farm," she remembers. "I always felt that one day I would have a house and a backyard and the potential to grow something."
When she bought her house in the Bronx in 1985, she made her dream of growing food in her own backyard garden a reality. "Back then, it wasn't called 'urban farming.' It was just farming," says Washington.
Today, Washington, 65, is one of the co-founders of Rise & Root, a cooperatively-run, women-led, sustainable farm in Orange County, New York, a little over 60 miles North of New York City. To say that her weeks are busy would be an understatement: On Mondays, she's harvesting at the farm. On Tuesdays, she's in Brooklyn, managing the La Familia Verde farmers market. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, she's back up at the farm, harvesting and organizing, and Fridays are another market day—this time at Rise & Root. Weekends are spent working in her backyard and community gardens.
While the farming life had always been a dream, she might not have felt such urgency to make it a reality if it hadn't been for her first career as an in-home physical therapist.
"The majority of my patients were people of color: African American, Caribbean, and Latino or Latina," explains Washington. "A lot of them had type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, or they had strokes or were dealing with amputations—all related to their diet," she says. "I saw how many of my patients were people of color who were getting sick from the food they were eating, and how the medical institution was treating that with medicine instead of diet."
"The relationships between food and health, food and racism, and food and economics really got me thinking about the intersection between food and the food system," she adds.
So, at 60, Washington decided to become a full-time farmer to help address the problem at its root. Here's how she turned her dream into a reality, and what she's learned since.
How a Retreat Helped Her Turn Passion Into Purpose
"In January 2018, 40 of our friends in the food movement went on a retreat. Some of us were gardeners or farmers, some of us were heads of non-profit organizations—all change-makers. We all gathered together and said, 'What is it we can do as a group? What are our hopes? What are our dreams?' At one point, we went up to a grotto and everyone stated what their dreams were. That was incredible.
Then in April, I did the UC Santa Cruz organic farming apprenticeship. It's a six-month program from April to October where you live in a tent and learn about organic farming. When I came back in October, I was on fire. Because while I was there, I wondered, 'where are the black people? Where are the black farmers?'"
Rethinking Race and Gender In Farming
"Growing up, I always heard that farming was equivalent to slavery, that you were working for 'the man.' But that's not true. First of all, agriculture is woman-based. Women are farming throughout the globe. Agriculture is done by women and women of color. Second, I think of our journey here as enslaved people. We were brought here not because we were dumb and strong, but because of our knowledge of agriculture. We knew how to grow food. We brought seeds over in our hair. We were the ones that grew food for this nation. We were the ones that brought the knowledge of farming and irrigation. We knew how to herd cattle. We brought that knowledge here.
Our history has been stolen from us. But when you start opening people's eyes and letting them know we were brought here because of our knowledge of agriculture, it changes people's minds. What I'm noticing now is that young people of color are starting to want to come back to the land. They see that food is who we are. Food is nourishment. Growing our own food gives us our power."
It's Not As Easy As You Think
"There are three things I tell people trying to get involved in farming: Number one, you can't farm alone. You need to find a farming community. Number two, know your location. Just because you have land doesn't mean it's agricultural land. You need access to water and a barn, a washing station, and electricity. Number three, get a mentor. Someone who's willing to show you the ropes and the challenges, because farming is challenging."
Her Simple Strategy for Self-Care
"For me, self-care is mental, physical, and spiritual. The spiritual aspect is going to church on Sundays. I'm not religious, but I feel a kinship there. When I leave, my spirit feels renewed. Mentally, it's taking time to be with family, spending downtime with friends, and making time for myself. New York City is a concrete jungle, filled with cars and activity. But early in the morning, I sit in my backyard, listen to the birds, and just feel at peace and thankful for my existence."
A Farmer's Wellness Routine
"I love to cook. I'm cognizant of where my food comes from, and I make sure that I eat well, grow with intention, and compost. I'm 65, so when I'm doing farm work, it feels like a lot of work. Exercise is important. I also make sure to drink a lot of water. I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to that, so my farm partners got me a hydration backpack that I wear when I'm farming to make sure I drink enough."
Inspiring the Next Generation of Farmers
"Two years ago, I was at a food conference and I had to leave right after my speech to go to another event. I was rushing to my car, and a woman came running after me with her 7-year-old daughter. She said 'Ms. Washington, I know you've got to go, but can you take a picture with my daughter?' I said 'of course.' Then the woman told me that her daughter had said: 'Mommy, when I grow up, I want to be a farmer.' I got so emotional to hear a black child say she wants to be a farmer. Because I remember if I had ever said that as a child, I would have been laughed at. I realized that I've come full circle. I made a difference in this child's life."
(Related: Stay inspired with The Best Food Documentaries to Watch On Netflix)