TNF NOFA FARMER PROFILE: Elizabeth Henderson of Peacework CSA
Interviewed by Holli Cederholm, TNF Advisory Committee Member
People feel connected to NOFA because of our shared love of the land and farming and because we’ve gotten to know each other over the 50 years we’ve been around – from gathering at conferences to sharing best practices on farm tours to reading about each other’s farms. We at The Natural Farmer want to highlight the people who make up NOFA and hope we can feature at least one interview in every issue.
Want us to share your story? Have a farmer you’d like to interview? Contact TNF@NOFA.org if you’d like to be interviewed or interview somebody and get published in TNF.
Peacework CSA is in Newark, New York, on the unceded land of the Seneca Nation. Elizabeth is one of the founders of the farm and a long-time NOFA member, board member and policy committee member. She also is a current member of TNF's Advisory Committee.
TNF: You farmed for over 30 years. Briefly tell us about your farm.
Elizabeth Henderson: I started farming in Gill, Massachusetts in 1979-80, then moved to Rose Valley Farm in Rose, New York. My partner David Stern and I started the Genesee Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture (GVOCSA) in 1988-1989. In 1997, I left Rose Valley and the CSA came with me to Peacework Organic Farm on land in Wayne County that belonged to the Kraai family. Greg Palmer, who had been working at Rose Valley, came with me as a partner, and after a while, his wife, Ammie Chickering, joined us. Most of our customers were in the city of Rochester. We had a pickup place there, first at a church and then at the Abundance Food Co-op, and that's where the CSA pick-up still is today.
TNF: How many acres did you have in production?
Henderson: At Peacework, we initially leased 15 acres, and then when Doug Kraai passed away, his wife offered to sell us the farm. Two members of our CSA core group were also on the board of the Genesee Land Trust. They arranged for us to do a joint fundraising campaign, which we called Preserving Peacework. We raised enough money to buy the 109-acre former dairy farm — the Humbert Dairy Farm — from the Kraais for the Genesee Land Trust, which leased it back to us with a 25-year rolling lease.
TNF: You mentioned that the farm is now managed by someone else. When did that transition happen?
Henderson: I retired when I was 68 in 2013. My slightly younger partners, Greg and Ammie, continued for a while and then sold the farm business to a couple who took over the leasehold from the land trust. The CSA core group continued running the CSA but switched to getting the vegetables from Ruth Blackwell’s Mud Creek Farm in Victor. So, from being the farmer, I became a core group member. From the very beginning, the GVOCSA was a separate legal entity: an unincorporated association, like a buying club, with its own bank account and members. The core group did a lot of the administrative tasks for the CSA. They helped recruit members. They arranged for the schedule of pickup and distribution. There are lots of things that other people can do at least as well as the farmers, that takes the burden off them. In my book, Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture, a chart shows all the jobs someone has to do to make a CSA function. The unincorporated association still exists. At some point, they changed the name to Peacework Organic CSA after the farm.
TNF: How did you first get involved in agriculture?
Henderson: I taught Russian language and literature, but after my husband died in a car accident, I became more and more unhappy about being in academia as an assistant professor at Boston University. Then the university got a new president, who wanted to change it to be a training place for middle-level corporate functionaries and downplayed the liberal arts. At that time, I asked myself, “Well, what do I want to do?” With some friends, I bought a farm in Western Massachusetts, in the town of Gill, and that's where I started. For a while, I was able to continue teaching through the Beacon College prison education program. Our students were people who were either Black Panthers or SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). They were really political prisoners. When the funding for the basic education opportunity grants was cut, Beacon College could no longer continue that program, and that's when I found myself already at the farm having done a couple of years and realizing that I loved doing the farm work and that I would try to make my living that way.
TNF: Who inspired you to get involved with land-based work?
Henderson: While teaching literature, I traveled quite a bit, and I saw beautiful market gardens and farms in France that were very inspiring. Learning how to grow food first on a garden scale and then realizing that I could do it on a larger scale led me to think of that as a possible vocation. No particular individual inspired me, but once I moved to Gill, I became close friends with Wally and Juanita Nelson, an African-American couple who were tax resistors and lived at the Traprock Peace Center. I got to know them and was deeply inspired by them in so many ways.
TNF: How did you access the land you were farming and what resources did you find helpful?
Henderson: At Rose Valley, David Stern, my partner, owned the land. While I was there, I was co-owner with him, but when I left, I did not own any land. So first, I rented, and then the arrangement with Genesee Land Trust was tremendously beneficial because it meant that Greg, Ammie, and I did not have to borrow money and take on a mortgage. The land trust arranged the best possible financial arrangements that they could to make farming accessible for us on what we were earning from the farm. I highly recommend working with a land trust — and that way, the land is preserved in perpetuity. The E.F. Schumacher Society (now the Schumacher Center for New Economics) was very helpful in developing the lease language with the land trust, and so was the Institute for Community Economics.
TNF: A lot of images of small-scale organic farming depict it as idyllic. We know farming is lovely, but it’s also really hard! What was your biggest challenge as a farmer?
Henderson: I stand with Wendell Berry on the question of the hardness of farming. When people talk about hard, they're thinking about the physical labor. There are actually people who like to use their bodies. I trained as a modern dancer and rode bicycles, hiked, and things like that. Using my body has always been connected with enjoyable outdoor activities, and farming can be one of those. The hard part has not, for me, been that. The hard part is that the prices that farmers can get are so inadequate that you can never hire as much help as you would like. For me becoming a farmer was like taking vows of poverty: you sign up for a lifestyle that just won't have much cash. That's why Wally and Juanita were so inspiring – they had a very rich way of life based on community, conviviality with people, wonderful relationships, and very little cash.
TNF: If you did it all again - if you built a farm again, would you do anything differently from the start?
Henderson: One of the most important lessons I learned, painfully, is that we need to have a conflict resolution process that everybody agrees to use. I did not have that with my partners, and so resolving conflicts was difficult. I would want to have an agreement that we would have a way of resolving conflicts that would take our disagreements and make it possible to learn from one another about why we had different points of view so that we could strengthen our partnership rather than build up anger and frustration.
TNF: Farmer stress is real. How did you manage stress and what did you do to support your well-being and the well-being of the people who worked with you?
Henderson: Our farm traded shares with alternative practitioners. We had a neighbor who was a chiropractor, and he would come and give a workshop for all of us at the beginning of the season on how to use our bodies correctly. And then when we did pull something, we could go to him and he would unkink it.
Throughout my adult life, I have regularly spent half an hour to 45 minutes almost every single day doing a combination of modern dance and yoga stretches and exercises. What people forget is that our main machine is our body. People are good about changing the oil in the engine of their tractors, but they don't look after the juices that flow in their own bodies.
TNF: Our country’s history is sadly one of land theft and unjust treatment of people of color. What do you think our role is as small organic farmers, or for us as NOFA or similar farming organizations, to support people of color who are farming or who want to farm?
Henderson: This is an issue that has been dear to my heart throughout my life: the issue of social justice and civil rights. I was an anti-war and civil rights activist before I became a farmer. Since I've been farming, I have kept an eye on what was going on in communities of color. I've been encouraging the NOFAs to invite people like Rosalinda Guillen, Malik Yakini, and Will Allen to be keynote speakers at our conferences to open ourselves to hearing from the people of color who are doing really amazing things in organic agriculture. With the domestic fair trade policy subcommittee, starting 15 years ago, I got the NOFAs to provide guidance to people giving workshops at NOFA conferences to think about their language and not just assume that farmers were white entrepreneurs — to think about farmworkers and who they might be, and the issues that people who are working on farms face. I think it’s important that we do that and be aware.
TNF: A common charge against organic food is that it is too expensive for lower-income people to afford and is “yuppie food.” Do you think organic farmers have a role in making food accessible to lower-income people?
Henderson: From the beginning, our CSA had a sliding scale payment schedule. Farmers usually can't afford to give scholarships to their CSAs; they need to get the full value for their crops. With a sliding scale, you invite people who can afford it to pay more so that other people can pay less. Then you arrange to accept food stamps. We always did that. And we also participated in farmers' markets that the Politics of Food organized in the city of Rochester that sold our vegetables at a lower price than they were sold at stores.
In addition to including lower-income people in our own farms, organic farmers can play a role in pushing for policy that ensures that farmers get prices that cover the full production costs. That's why I've participated in the Disparity to Parity project. It's a campaign to ensure that farmers, once again, get parity prices paid by the markets. There were a lot of things wrong with the New Deal parity system, but I think it would be possible to redesign parity for the 21st century so that it addresses the social injustices that were built in to make sure that the markets and not the taxpayers pay for the work that farmers and farmworkers do so that we can afford to pay living wages to ourselves and to all the people who work on our farms.
TNF: What two books/blogs/podcasts/resources do you suggest people read about farming or land use?
I highly recommend exploring the Disparity to Parity website. Every organic farmer should read Soil and Health by Sir Albert Howard. Of recent books, Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming by Liz Carlisle examines Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Asian farming systems, their origins and contemporary flowering, and shows us how much we can learn!