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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Gabriel

Interview with Anita Ashok Adalja, Not Our Farm & Ashokra Farm

by Elizabeth Gabriel


TNF: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got into the work you do now


Anita: I’ve been farming for 12 years, mostly on other people’s farms in NY, DC, VA, NM, PA. My formal training is in social work and when I was working in Brooklyn with unhoused people, we started a rooftop garden. I witnessed the garden really remove a power dynamic that exists for social workers - I was a 25-year-old social worker for people all older and wiser than me. Social work is incredibly problematic and this garden really broke down the power boundaries that develop in the social work field (and would probably do something similar for other fields of work, too).


My interest in farming led me to receive a scholarship to UC Santa Cruz Agroecology Program. I then moved to DC and was the Farm Manager at Common Good City Farm for two years and then moved on to work on production and nonprofit farms throughout the country.


As a queer person of color, farming has saved my life, every season and I would say daily.


That said, I have experienced racism and sexism on farms I’ve worked, but I’ve also been struck by the power dynamics and knowledge hoarding that happens on farms all the time. I was expected, as farm workers are often expected, to work crazy hours - sometimes without access to bathrooms – to prove yourself by how hard you work and how much you work. But so often, in the end, the people who get respected are the farm owners, mostly white cis-gendered men. The communities where I lived and worked would rally around these men, supporting them, buying their food, lobbying for their desires, etc, but the reality was, and is, that farm workers are the heart of the operation. Some of those farm owners rarely even stepped on the farm or did the work that we did day in and day out. I knew it needed to be different for me and I figured I wasn’t the only one who wanted this.

TNF: What do you love about farming?


Anita: So much! I love working with other people, and I love doing physical labor alongside other people - it’s such a great way to get to know other people. We physically rely on other people when we farm. The bonds made through this kind of work are unbreakable. Farming has taught me how to mother. I have issues with the female matriarchs in my life and farming has taught me to be mothered and to mother - be it plant, soil, farm crews.


Not Our Farm grew from this joy and love but it also really came from feeling resentful of the existing farming system and landscape. I knew and all of the farm crews I’ve worked with knew we needed to stick together.


TNF: Tell us more about Not Our Farm


Anita: Not Our Farm started as a way to let other people know WHO the people behind the


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(Not Our Farm - from A-13))


scenes are, who is actually doing the work, and to celebrate them. This is an often invisible workforce. It’s not the people who are at the farmers’ market. Or showcased in photos at Whole Foods or your local coops. So Not Our Farm started as a storytelling project of farm workers, to hear from these people what keeps them coming back to farming, who they are, and what their challenges and joys are and now Not Our Farm intertwines with my farm story and where I am at today.


Not Our Farm has led to camaraderie among farm workers. It’s also a place/platform for information sharing and highlighting abuses so they get uplifted and known. When we think of farm worker labor, the immigrant labor force is often what comes to mind, but Not Our Farm is a majority BIPOC, queer, college-educated group of folks who are farming by choice on small-scale farms. There is certainly privilege here and we do not equate our challenges with immigrant farm workers, but there is also struggle and inequity and some overlap.


We provide resources to farmers and farm owners through a Farm Worker Zine we’ve created and mailed out more than 600 copies. We were able to translate the Zine into Spanish with funds from the Northeast Farmers of Color. This zine helps new farmers explore what kind of farm job might be best for them, and what are red flags and good signs to look for when trying to find a farm job. And through a collaboration with Maine Organic Farming and Gardening Association (MOFGA) and FairShare based in Wisconsin, we’ve been exploring a series of training sessions for farm owners and managers on centering workers on farms. Our funding comes from donations, various small sources and from Zine donations, although it’s also available for free.


TNF: You’ve interviewed over 80 people, How do you connect with the people you interview?


Anita: Through Instagram, we have 3-4000 followers and word of mouth. Not Our Farm started with me interviewing folks I’ve worked with and they then passed the word along to others. On our social media, we do “community questions” such as, “I work in the cold, what are good gloves I can use and still have dexterity?” We get the question and then offer it to our community and they really boost engagement. People have lots of opinions to share! Some questions are practical like that one, but some also get really at labor issues, such as pay or bathroom access. Visit @NotOurFarm


TNF: Speak more to the types of abuses you’ve heard stories about.


Anita: It’s often assumed farm worker abuses are limited to large-scale farms - not your neighborhood family or farmers market farm, but the big ones are actually subject to inspection by FDA, USDA, GAP certifiers, etc. It’s the small farms that aren’t often subject to this regulation and this is where we’ve experienced treatments like not giving proper breaks, or access to bathrooms when needed. I’m certainly not minimizing the large-scale operations and their unfair treatment of farmworkers but the small-scale farms are doing it too, just in other ways.


TNF: Is there a message you’d like to share with farm owners?


Anita: Farm owners tend to either hate-follow us or really get engaged. We’re really not saying farm owners want to abuse their workers. We don’t think that at all. It’s about having mutual respect between the two. We all know the system isn’t working for a lot of people. To begin to change this, we need to come together and have conversations, centering on caring for our community. You might care for the land, which is great, but you also need to support farm workers who are laboring on your farm, which is part of sustainable agriculture, too. We know farm owners are working hard and it’s difficult to keep your business afloat - we are not trying to shame them or make them feel bad - we really want to make this message clear in our work and workshops. That said, farm owners also have a certain level of privilege and power - they are building equity, and they probably have land and resources.

The farm workers are building their businesses with their bodies. Farm owners have an obligation to not perpetuate exploitation and enslavement practices.


We hold training for farm owners and try to address the solutions for both farm workers and owners. It’s not just about money or paying more - there are other things farm owners can do to raise morale, to retain more employees, to show appreciation and kindness, etc. Don’t hoard knowledge - we’re usually working to learn! - and don’t speak down to employees or make us feel bad if we need a break or to go to the bathroom.


TNF: You’ve mentioned knowledge hoarding a couple of times. That’s one that surprises me because the organic farmer network seems so open and willing to share. It’s one of the most common reasons people say they love NOFA. Can you tell us more, please?


Anita: Yes. Sure, some farmers share, and farmers share with other farmers it seems when they feel like equals. Often a farm owner doesn’t see a farm worker as an equal - “they are there to work for me”. So I think it really comes from the sense of urgency that farming cultivates -, success is measured by efficiency and yield and profit. They are driven by rugged individualism. Farm workers rarely get the “why” about a task, they are just expected to do it. And oftentimes farm workers only know one stage of a plant, for example, if they’re hired as harvest help. It’s nearly impossible to transition from worker to owner because you’re not building capital but on top of that, you’re working within a “need to know” system, so you also don’t learn the business or the marketing side of the farm, the plants’ other stages, or how to build soil health, for example. This hoarding ends up being a significant part of the oppression that workers experience. After a decade on a farm, you think the farmworker would be able to run a biz, but it’s oftentimes just not true.


TNF: Do you think your network is queer BIPOC because of your identity or something else?


Anita: I really wanted to be behind the scenes with Not Our Farm and I didn’t tell people who were behind it at first, but after a while, my friend told me I needed to share myself and my face. Once I did, BIPOC and queer folks who felt comfortable sharing increased. I do think my identity and lived experience contributed to that. We experience more discrimination on farms than other people, so it’s also not surprising that this happened. We aren’t exclusive to queer and BIPOC people at all but we also need a space to share our stories and be heard - both good stories and bad stories.


TNF: The virtual space is obviously important and extends your reach. Does Not Our Farm also support people connecting in person in any way as well?


Anita: We hope to have a worker conference/meet-up one day. Where I work now, at Ashokra Farm, I’m trying to cultivate more personal connections here and in my community. And I hope we can expand and offer that elsewhere too. If somebody wants to connect with this network in person there’s a few main places to connect with as a starting point of allies; Rock Steady Farm in New York, MOFGA and Bo Dennis in Maine, La Semilla Food Center in southern New Mexico, and NEFOC throughout the Northeast.


TNF: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?


Anita: I don’t know exactly. I hope this cooperative farm where I now continue to grow and thrive and embody the values of Not Our Farm. We also are operating under capitalism and making money, but as a part of this coop, part of the intention is to heal with each other, from our traumas and abuses. Healing also means not perpetuating those traumas in others. We have written our values and we revisit them. They are posted in the composting toilet! So we see them daily and hold each other to unlearning the behaviors and we all strive to keep learning and keep growing.


Anita has been farming for over a decade. She has worked on both non-profit and production farms in Pennsylvania, Virginia, California, Washington, D.C., and New Mexico. Before farming, she trained as a social worker in New York City. She is deeply committed to increasing food access for all people, as well as community building, financial security and safety for farmworkers, and empowerment through food production and food sovereignty. She is the founder of the Not Our Farm Project and works at Ashokra Farm, a queer POC farming collective in Albuquerque.


Resources & Links:


notourfarm.org

Worker zine: notourfarm.org/worker-zine/

Instagram: @notourfarm and @ashokrafarm


Rock Steady Farm, rocksteadyfarm.com

NEFOC, northeastfarmersofcolor.org


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