- Maggie Cheney
Farmer & Collective Care at Rock Steady
By Maggie Cheney
This is a good point in the season to talk about farmer care. In the Spring, there’s always such a palpable joy and energy, everyone is fresh and full of possibility. And here we are in October - still in the hustle of fruiting crops, staring down weeks of the growing season ahead, bodies tired, energy strained. Covid is still here. Climate chaos is a reality. And there’s a lot to be deeply disturbed by in our country and world. It’s a time when it’s easy to forget about joy, and hard to feel cared for.
For those of us with more marginalized identities, self-care can be especially hard. Combating self-shaming narratives, internalized racism, and the heavier burden of the day-to-day reality of showing up in bodies that may not feel like our own, or as a person of color in a majority white community in a society latent with white supremacy, just getting through, let alone thriving, is a daily challenge.
So how do we remind ourselves about the importance of care? How do we reconnect to the wonder of growing life and to the generosity of the soil? How do we deeply connect to the people we work with, especially across racial, socio-economic, gender, and cultural differences? Equally important - how do we truly prioritize care in the first place? How do we justify the investment?
In our experience, we don’t have time not to prioritize care and build stronger relationships. When we speed past our humanity, everyone loses.
At our farm, we are always trying to balance the fast pace in the fields with the slower pace of building relationships and trust with each other. We find that if we prioritize interpersonal and team communication in a structured way daily, weekly, monthly and seasonally we are able to avoid larger conflicts, miscommunication mishaps in the field, and overall harm.
We invest time, money and effort into care at Rock Steady.
For the last three years, we have hired facilitators Cedar and Lucien, from Relational Uprising, as well as Kristie Cabrera, a Disability Justice consultant, to help us define and promote a culture of care within our team. Though we have worked with some of these brilliant guides since our beginning, we have expanded our work to in-season sessions with all staff. We pay our farmers for their time at these sessions, and for the time required for feedback exchange and trust building with each other.
I know, I know - a farm, paying for this?! Some years it has added up to $5,000, other years closer to $10,000. Note that we are a team of 12, running a large and complex $600,000 operation, so it takes a lot to keep the humans in harmony with each other. For some farms, this cost may seem unattainable, or out of the realm of possibility; for us, this work is critical to the overall health of our business, just as important as paying for a new tractor implement, or a tax accountant. After all, people are some of the most important assets of all.
Taking time out for these practices to define and promote a culture of care within our team might feel like a slowdown in the moment, but it actually saves loads of time, money and stress in the long run. When people are communicating well, tasks get done more efficiently, and people are working together and hopefully leaning on each other more so that people’s physical bodies are not getting pushed too hard, which might in turn lead to farmers needing more time off or quitting due to injury.
Interpersonal conflict and injury are some of the most common causes of staff turnover on farms. And staff turnover causes huge stressors for small farms, sinking hours into the hiring process and retraining for highly skilled work — there are huge costs to this, along with increased stress that can overwhelm the precarious survival of the business. Creating a workspace infused with care and deeper understanding has proven to be cost-effective for us, it is one of the ways we are actually living the values we want to uphold in our everyday lives.
Individual v. Collective Harm/Care
Of course it is important to think about what you can do to care for yourself and your community as an individual, but it is just as important to address it as a whole organization, in a structured and clear way. Just as tackling racism has to happen on the individual and collective level, it’s the same thing with care practices. And for us, it is all interconnected.
For example — structural racism is systemic and collective. The system infuses and trickles into our personal individual relationships, causing conflict, shaming and harm. This is especially true when working in a multi-racial team from different class backgrounds. It sometimes takes skillful care to disentangle the harm of systems of oppression from that of individual actions. It takes a lot of time to see people for their full nuanced selves, including and beyond our identities. In addition, there can be a lot of care within individual relationships, but if there’s not an organizational culture that supports and prioritizes relationships, things break down quickly.
We take valued lessons from nature - the interconnections between root systems in the forest via mycelia, the symbiosis, we see that the mutuality of plant families are essential for a forest’s survival. We want to replicate this way of being in relationship with each other on our farm. But given our current individualistic society, and agricultural system, this takes careful work. There is much learning and unlearning that we have to do. We cannot all just “try our best” as individuals, or think that because we have a powerful common mission and vision that that means we will all be in community together easily. This might all sound obvious, but it is surprising how rarely farms can really put the time, money and effort into constructively building better work culture, communication and relationships.
Here are some of the ways we’re showing up at Rock Steady to all this:
We created and consistently revisit our Community Agreements (sharing below)
We spend 45 minutes on Monday as a team before jumping into the harvest hustle — how are you arriving, physically and emotionally? What do we need to know about you to show you care? What support do you need?
Each team member has the option for at least 3 in-depth check-in sessions with managers or owners - beginning, middle and end of the season. This is a time to exchange feedback, voice concerns and ask for support and opportunities to grow as a human and farmer.
We’re currently trialing channels for empowering peer feedback sessions — spaces to give and receive feedback from co-workers.
Off-season visioning and planning sessions, so that everyone is heard and included in decision-making.
We hire outside professional facilitators to support interpersonal conflicts and commit to training our staff in communication skills and specific inter-dependent and relationship-centered culture building.
As a farm, we also continue to raise wages and support finding affordable housing by giving housing subsidies, which is a huge issue in our area. Striving to meet our farmers’ financial needs is obviously one of the most essential ways we can show care, and it’s a real challenge inside our food system.
When times are particularly tough for farmers we have also given mental health bonuses to be used at the farmer's discretion.
We create time outside of the farm for shared joyful experiences. Going bowling, going to a local cider house, corn maze, hosting a drag or dance party. We also pay for the team to have meals together. A few years ago we made it an item on our online store - “buy farmer's lunch” and annually we get about $1,200 to be used this way.
Let it be known, we are not perfect. There is no perfect. But we have learned and grown from past mistakes, which have led us to prioritize all the above in the ways that we do. 2022 was a tough year for us - numerous people were out with Lyme, injuries, mental health struggles, family members who needed a lot of support, a three-month-long drought, and the stresses of navigating the third season of COVID. We did not have time to prioritize the mid-season facilitated sessions in the ways we had in the past. And we experienced first hand the risks in that. Interpersonally, this was a harder season for us. But this is not new to us. Over the past seven seasons, we have felt our farm get rocked, we have seen people hurt, and we have experienced pains and mishaps that we do not want to see in our present-day or future. And over the years, the more we prioritize this care model, the smoother our seasons go, the more efficient, the more profitable, and the more staff retention. We are watching, learning, and continuing on this path because we truly believe that it works.
Our Community Agreements
Our Community Agreements have been created by Rock Steady farmers and staff to ensure that we are upholding our commitment to center the safety and inclusion of Queer, Trans and BIPOC people in agriculture and do our best to create a safe space for all folks to be in relationship with the land. We invite all Rock Steady Farm visitors to honor these principles with us.
We are open to receiving feedback and questions about these commitments at any time.
Honor the land and sacred waters: We are part of the Housatonic Watershed, Housatonic comes from a Mohican term meaning “river beyond the mountain” that encompasses 8 major tributaries and 24 sub-watersheds that begin in the Berkshires and flow out to the Long Island Sound home of the Canarsee Lenape. We are not only connected to the area of what we now call NYC through the food we share, but through the water that flows through us as well. In total we are connected to 2,000 square miles of the Housatonic Watershed, home to the Munsee Lenape, Mohican and Schagticoke nations, stewards of the watersheds, tidal floodplains, seeds, minerals and so much more that make up life on these lands.
As we sow seeds, prepare beds and share food, we continue to reflect on our impact as settlers on stolen land and offer gratitude to all the beings who have come before us, first nations who continue to fight for sovereignty, and those who we may not meet generations ahead of us.
Be in a practice of self-awareness: We all enter this space carrying various types of privileges related to race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, etc which influence our beliefs, actions and behaviors. We practice awareness of how our words and behaviors can have a harmful impact despite our best intentions.
Address conflict and harm: We visibilize conflict as an opportunity to unlearn harmful interpersonal dynamics and collaborate on strategies to build healthier relationships. We practice resonance as a way to connect and attune to each other while we address harm, acknowledge the impact of our actions, and challenge common responses of defensiveness and dismissiveness in the face of conflict. We are aware that a compassionate response after experiencing harm can be difficult especially if there is a lack of trust in the relationship. We respond to harm and violent behavior according to the depth of the relationship and trust.
We interrupt violent behavior that promotes homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic and/or racist beliefs in order to preserve a safer space built on trust, respect and self-awareness. This is not the space to shame or bully anyone based on appearance, gender identity, abilities or any other factors.
Find ways to repair harm: We collaborate to create repair where harm has been done by upholding our empowering feedback agreements and asking for external support from the community when necessary. We seek to include our diverse experiences and meet our unique needs in our accountability process. Collectively, we can find solutions to reduce the potential for harm to happen.
Communicate with inquiry and clarity: We practice clear, active and direct communication with consent (see below) to nurture trust, safety and accountability. We communicate with inquiry as a way to stay curious and hold complexity instead of leading from assumption. We hold grace and compassion for each other, and stay open to learning new ways to collaborate.
Practice giving and asking for consent: Consent is crucial to maintaining a safer space for everyone working and visiting the farm. We practice asking for and giving consent that centers the agency to decide for ourselves what is best and right for us at any given time. This is applied to asking consent about
Emotional labor: “Hey is it ok if I vent about my weekend during lunch?”
Physical touch: “Can I give you a hug?”
Information Sharing: “Can I post this photo of you harvesting carrots on our social media?”
Feedback: “Can we check in about our miscommunication earlier?”
Cultivate relationships: Our relationships with each other, our extended community and the land are sacred spaces where we can build trust, safety, resilience and interdependence. We prioritize practices that help us attune to each other (grounding exercises, storytelling, resonance, playfulness, etc) and deepen our connection. We move at the speed of trust, acknowledging that vulnerability and intimacy is nurtured consensually over time.
Challenge the binary: Our farm team, community and landscape are composed of diverse functionalities, identities, backgrounds, learning styles and needs. We create a culture of belonging by actively disrupting binary thinking that limits the possibilities of coexistence. We don't assume anyone’s gender identity, sexual preference, survivor status, economic status, immigration or documentation status, background, health, etc. Please use people’s correct pronouns. If you are unsure, just ask, don't assume. We invite various learning styles and workflows because there is no one right way to do things.
Learn from mistakes: We challenge white supremacist values of perfectionism by acknowledging that mistakes are ok. Sometimes mistakes can lead to unexpected positive results and opportunities for learning. We are not going to do well all the time and that is ok as long as we stay committed to accountability and being in a learning process together. We encourage each other (throw glitter not shade) and offer support to build new skills when necessary. Our collaboration is based on mutual learning, and the belief that “No one knows everything. But together, we know a whole lot.”
Practice communal care: We thrive on communal care, a practice of giving and receiving care in ways that are consensual to our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. We value breaks, rest, patience and slowness to be gentle with ourselves, others and the land. We see these practices as antidotes to the dominant “grind culture” that celebrates overwork and burnout as markers of success, especially within agriculture. We agree to also care for each other and our extended community by practicing our COVID-19 policy.
In addition to our agreements, we also commit to respecting Rock Steady’s rules and safety protocols on the farm.
For Further Reading:
Rock Steady Farm Emergent Strategy,
Saying Goodbye to Grind Culture
Maggie Cheney is a founder and worker-owner of Rock Steady Farm in Millerton, NY and can be reached by email at Veggies@rocksteadyfarm.com