By Sue Henninger
FREEVILLE – Growing up in the South Bronx, Rafael Aponte recalls that most of the green in his surroundings came from his mother’s houseplants.
However, when his experiences in education and community activism revealed that many of the students he encountered were negatively impacted by the types, quality, and cost of foods available to them, Aponte decided to enroll in a two-year urban agriculture and food justice program. After completing this, he worked with downstate farmer/mentors who were committed to encouraging people of color to consider farming as a fulfilling and meaningful way to make a living.
When Aponte’s wife, Nandi Cohen Aponte, accepted a position at Cornell University, the couple decided the time was right to make a transition to the agrarian life. They purchased a 19th-century farmhouse and barn with 10 acres of land on Sheldon Road in Freeville and have been increasing their skills and knowledge base through organizations like Groundswell and hands-on experience.
A career in agriculture means more than growing crops and raising animals to the young farmer. Aponte’s guiding principle is food justice.
“It’s meeting the other goals of equity through food,” he explained.
These can include making sure humans and animals are treated well on the farm, paying a living wage, and being good land stewards. Though food security has received an increasing amount of attention, Aponte contends that food justice offers a broader approach.
“If you ate breakfast, you’re food secure for that morning,” he said. “Food justice looks beyond that. It’s more systemic.”
Three things are of utmost importance to him.
“That I know how the food is produced, that the buck stops here, and that food from my farm gets to communities that need it,” Aponte said.
With this in mind, he has focused on growing and raising “culturally appropriate foods” that local residents might not find at more traditional farmer’s markets or Community Supported Agriculture farms. For example, green vegetables like kale and kohlrabi are less popular with many of his regular customers than cayenne peppers, collard greens, tomatillos or fresh herbs like culantro (high-test cilantro).
Rocky Acres sells fresh eggs, too. The farm is home to a large mixed flock of free range chickens and three ducks, the lucky survivors of a larger group. Aponte readily admitted that he hadn’t realized what a constant, ongoing struggle it would be to keep the birds safe from native predators like weasels, skunks and foxes. Several types of goats, raised to breed and for meat, also reside on the farm.
“I initially planned on just growing vegetables, but the animals kind of took over,” Aponte said. “They’re easier to sell too.”
Though he has become part of a farming circle that helps each other out by purchasing, bartering or exchanging products and labor, there are definitely challenges specific to farmers of color in Tompkins County. Aponte frequently finds the initial reaction to Rocky Acres to be what he calls a combination of “curiosity and hostility.”
For example, when he tells people he’s a farmer, “They ask if I grow drugs,” he said, shaking his head.
“They see a person of color from an urban environment and they believe that’s the only way I’d farm,” Aponte added.
In response, he designed a workshop called “Farming While Brown,” a purposeful play on words.
“It’s like driving while black,” he explained. “Some people think blacks shouldn’t drive (in certain parts of town) and brown people shouldn’t be in agriculture.”
Being the only person of color in a room of farmers, even when they all share the same concerns such as how to meet consumer needs by providing healthy foods while finding a price point that will keep their business viable, can be tough. Aponte noted that often the people who buy his meats, eggs, and produce, at the Congo Square Market or in other locations, feel the same way.
“We serve people who don’t feel comfortable going to farmer’s markets because there is no representation of their culture, the foods they prefer to eat, or people who look like them,” he explained.
He added that people of color are frequently lumped together under an “ethnic market” category when, in reality, various ethnicities and cultures may eat the same product in a variety of ways. Some want to buy a whole goat to roast, while others prefer specific cuts of the animal for soups or stews. Additionally, receiving pre-selected foods from others, no matter how well-intentioned the giver is, can result in a loss of dignity for the recipient. Giving people a choice about what they eat is tremendously empowering, he noted.
Aponte recently began a pilot program, Harvest Box, where Rocky Acres partners with the Youth Farm Project in Danby to bring their foods to various sites around Tompkins County. Titus Towers is one of their regular stops since some of the older residents with mobility issues find it too difficult to navigate the local farmer’s markets. Along with giving people easy access to farm fresh foods, Harvest Box also allows customers to pay for a weekly share, as opposed to the seasonal share many CSAs require. Aponte explained that this still-growing program is ideal for low-income and rural consumers whose financial situation may vary from week to week or who don’t have regular transportation to get to local markets.
Several hundred visitors come to Rocky Acres annually (by appointment) for an authentic experience in small-scale food growing and production. Transparency is the name of the game for Aponte.
“We don’t hide anything,” he said. “We have people visit so we can learn what foods they want to eat, so they know where they can get good quality food from, and so they will see farming as a viable occupation.”
His advice to others considering a career in farming is simple.
“Get some experience working with other farmers first,” Aponte said. “Start small so you only make small mistakes. Give it a shot!”
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This is the latest installment in our Eye on Agriculture series that offers stories about local farmers and food producers.
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