Shani has been working on farms not her own for 9 years. Currently she works part time at a veggie operation in New York and is also the Founder and Executive Director of the Jewish Farmer Network.
I work on a no-till mixed vegetable farm.
We do a lot of perennial work in berries and fruit trees, too. We also host a lot of arts events – there are artist residencies here and there are sculptural pieces out on the farm and integrated into the farm landscape. We also have an events barn and have done art shows there.
The Jewish Farmer Network works to mobilize Jewish wisdom to build a more just and regenerative food system for all.
The way that we do that is by empowering modern Jewish agrarians with the resources and the community to connect with Jewish agricultural wisdom.
We help share the story of the Jewish people as a people of the land and connect people with their own ancestral wisdom around how to do agriculture in a way that is just and regenerative, that takes care of self, soil, community and others.
I didn’t have a moment where there was a values-driven move (to begin farming).
I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, this aligns with my values’ or ‘This is the idealized life I want for myself’.
It feels like it just happened. I remember at the end of college when I was writing my resume, I looked at what I had written down and I called my mom and said, ‘I think I’m a farmer’ and she said, ‘You didn’t know that?’
For the prior 4 years all of my experience had been in either organic agriculture or farm based education. I said to my mom ‘This is what I do’, and her response was, ‘Duh. I knew that.’
I had my first actual on-a-farm job when I was 18.
I had taken a class in college called Environmental Ethics and my professor who was also my advisor said to me, ‘I noticed you were really interested in the food and ag ethics part of the course. I get a CSA from a farm down the road, maybe you could see if you could get an internship.”
So I called the farm, and the owner told me:
‘I don’t do internships, I pay people for their time.’
I came out to the farm, and I got a job.
For the rest of my college career, I scheduled all my classes in the afternoons so I could work on the farm. I would work from 6 or 6:30 until noon or 1pm then I would eat, take a shower and go to class.
I came out of college with a degree in philosophy and almost four years of practical agricultural experience.
I would love to have my own farm at some point.
In my mind every farm worker (thinking mostly about people who are white, citizens, people of my socio-economic status, a lot of my peers) comes to a point
they are either going to stop farming and pursue other things
they are going to want to have their own land.
I would like to do the latter at some point, but I have dedicated a lot of my life to education, as well. I’ve been a farm based educator – even when I was farming full time, I was still doing other educational work because so much of what my purpose/what I do in the world is to help Jewish people find connection to pieces of Judaism that are relevant to their lives.
I say I accidentally started this nonprofit, the Jewish Farmer Network…
I didn’t know it was going to be my job one day when we started this project.
How long am I going to be the ED of this organization?
How does my dream of having my own land fit into that?
Working for other people has enabled me to keep my connection with the land and with pieces of myself that just want to be outside doing dynamic and embodied work to feed people good food, while still doing my other work, which is great.
I don’t come from money. I can’t just buy a farm tomorrow.
It’s going to take a whole lot of strategizing and saving and careful planning in order to do it in a way that doesn’t ruin me financially for the rest of my life. That is also something that I need to take the time for and I guess I haven’t had the time to make that happen.
A part of me is also still searching for home. Buying a farm is a huge rooting down and I don’t know that I’ve figured out where I want to do that yet.
For now, I work for other farmers and try out different farming communities.
Where I’ve farmed over 9 years:
- I worked on a small biodynamic farm on an ashram in Upstate New York. Ananda Ashram, Monroe, NY
- I worked on a farm in Maryland, which is where I worked all through college. Even’ Star Organic Farm, Lexington Park, MD
- I lived and worked on a permaculture farm in Israel. Have V’Adam Eco-Educational Farm, Modi’in, Israel
- I worked on an educational farm in the Hudson Valley. Eden Village Camp, Putnam Valley, NY
- I was also on a farm in Connecticut. Adamah Farm, Falls Village, CT
- I was the field manager and livestock manager at a farm in Maryland for two years. Pearlstone Center, Reisterstown, MD
- I helped start a farm in North Carolina. Yesod Farm+Kitchen, Fairview, NC
…And I’ve been where I am on this farm for a year.
*Some of those were short stints. For example, while I was working for the farm where I started at, in the summer I was in Israel at the permaculture farm.
Something that is challenging is feeling really connected to the land and knowing that there is a time that you’re leaving.
It is really challenging.
I’ve worked for a lot of institutional farms, farms that are attached to non-profit organizations, so the dynamics there are very different than the ones that exist on farms with a for profit boss:
You can be mad at your boss for how he behaves, but that is not the entity (on a non-profit farm). The boss, the manager, the owner, they are IT on a for-profit farm. But when it’s your supervisor couched within a larger organization that has its own systems and policies, you have to separate those things from each other.
It’s a nuanced question.
I’ve had issues being a crew manager managing a team of men who didn’t respect my authority.
I could talk about that until I’m blue in the face.
Managing men who would “complete a task” and then move on to the next thing, but it would take me twice as long to do whatever my job was because I would be cleaning up after them, and I’d hear “The boys are going so much faster than you”.
There is endless stuff like that.
The interesting thing at this point is having managed farm operations and then going to being a farm hand – there are ways that I would do something, and now I’m like, ‘Alright, we are going to do it your way’. I don’t have a degree of authority, but sometimes I watch things go wrong.
I’ve had trouble getting off of work for the Jewish holidays.
I’ve been challenged on it.
I have had my dedication to the farm questioned because I wanted to observe the High Holy days of my religion which aren’t called the High Holy days for nothing.
It’s like borderline, maybe not even borderline, religious discrimination.
Being a non-Christian in a Christian hegemonic society, any one who is not Christian, it’s challenging having people understand your tradition, especially in rural areas. There isn’t a lot of exposure or even the desire for people to understand.
That, I find wildly challenging.
What’s great is that I run a non-profit that is going to do something about it – look out for resources next year on how to talk to your managers and training for managers for how to welcome people of diverse backgrounds.
I’m trying to come out with resources to support farm workers in religious observance and that is something we are going to reach out to folks from other faiths to contribute to put on a master calendar or something like that. An index of holidays that people might want to take off for (Jewish High Holidays, Muslim holidays, Chinese New Year) – resources for managers and proprietors.
I grew up in an orthodox community where most people didn’t flip a light switch on Saturday for the Sabbath. My relationship with Shabbat has changed through my life and there were certain times when I really didn’t want to work on the Sabbath, but it was really hard to say no:
We are a team, we take a rotation of farm stand duty on the weekends, and because I can’t work on Saturday because it goes against my faith, I’m not really a team member.
It puts my ‘commitment’ to the farm into question because I’m observing my faith.
Members in our community that are halachically observant often can’t do apprenticeships or work on most farms because there isn’t room for their religious observance or room for their dietary restrictions, so they are super limited, if or where they can get early farm experience.
The Jewish thing is crazy, if it isn’t Christmas or it isn’t Easter, it’s not a “real holiday”.
A huge percentage of Jews may not observe the way I observe because I grew up Orthodox.
I’m not driving or using any electricity on a High Holiday.
I really can’t work. I’m spending my entire day in synagogue.
It’s not like a holiday where I’m having a party with my family, or we’re just having brunch – that is not it. I’m in synagogue all day.
Ritualized meals, really intentional space.
There are different categories of holidays and those that are considered Yom Tovim, you are not allowed to do work, like on Shabbat you’re not allowed to do work. They are designated in that way for a reason.
Every Jew observes differently, but if someone needs to observe in a way that feels right for them, they should be allowed to do that.
If it means taking a half-day and spending it in the woods that is one thing, or going home to spend time with their family, or taking the day and reflecting, or having a harvest celebration with their farm peers, it shouldn’t be questioned.
It messes me up.
Even Star Organic farm in Lexington Park, Maryland was the first farm I worked on and I would go back there any time.
If I had community down there, I would be there now.
Brett Grohsgal is the owner/manager there and he and I are still very close. I feel so spoiled that my first farm experience got to be working for someone who was so fair and such a good communicator.
Fair is my biggest word for him in that space.
When I first started working there I don’t remember what minimum wage was (2012) – he was like “I’m starting you at this rate, and when I see you’re starting to get the hang of things, I’m going to raise your hourly rate”.
I was always getting little raises, 50 cent an hour raises.
I never once had to ask for one.
He would see what I was doing and give me a raise…with a degree of regularity that I never even thought about it.
It was just fair.
It helped me feel seen and valued in my growth and want to do better, not because I’m money motivated, but because I’m a praise motivated person.
I like to be useful. I just wanted to be more and more useful – it was a great incentive.
I don’t mind high expectations.
What I can’t handle are high expectations without good communication with what those expectations are.
Brett had really high expectations, I’ve never worked for a farm with cleaner produce. I’ve worked for farms sending shitty looking tomatoes, holey kale — but Brett’s standards were so high, and he was so clear about it. He would say, ‘Okay, this is the first time you’re doing this. This person is going to check your bucket every 10 feet”. What that set up is that instead of feeling micromanaged by my coworkers, he was clear: this person is going to help you figure it out. She’s going to monitor you so you learn to monitor yourself. And then you get good, and you meet those expectations. Expectations of cleanliness, quality, showing up on time…expectations that you’re never standing around doing nothing – there is always something to be done.
I’ve gone to work for other farmers where people sit around doing nothing and shooting the shit and I feel like they are literally wasting my time.
That’s because Brett made me this way. He made me into the productivity monster that I am.
If ever I was sick, he would check on me.
He took care of us.
He cooked us lunch every day – eggs, beans and rice was the foundation, plus other stuff.
He used to cook the eggs in pig lard and he would make me eggs separately in chicken fat because he knows I’m Jewish and I don’t eat pork. Every day he would make me separate eggs without me ever saying a word. Amazing.
And it was the most productive farm.
People think if you want to have a productive farm you have to be skimping on your care for your crew, but the way you have high standards and good quality produce and all of this is by caring about your people.
Caring, clear communication.
Cultivating a safe culture of question asking.
I’m not dumb, I’m a smart woman, but with little details, sometimes I’ll forget them or I’ll know them and second guess myself.
When I worked for Brett, I would ask him over and over again the same questions: “Is it this bed of kale or that bed of kale?”
He would always be like “Thank you for asking” and answer my questions.
Then I went to work on other farms and I would ask questions and supervisors would get mad at me.
If it’s not a safe space for question asking then you get mistakes.
When I supervised apprentices, I made sure they knew they could ask me a million questions and I over-explain everything.
Questions show that you are thinking critically and you care about doing it right.
Brett didn’t bat an eye and now I think about the dirty looks I would get for asking questions at other farms.
After work, I also got to learn all this stuff.- mushroom cultivation, slaughtering chickens (we would cull our laying flock for personal consumption).
He was just really fair about teaching.
He’s a soil scientist and he runs a winter CSA. I spent my first bunch of seasons working for him and I didn’t realize most farms weren’t four season farms. When we were working in the freezing cold, he would bring us ginger tea to warm us up. Just like the little things.
He does 70% of his own genetics. Everything there is special. He supported me when I was trying to do a perennial project at campus, he let me dig up stuff after hours.
At Even Star, there weren’t apprentices – it was just people who were working for their job and it was a wildly diverse crew of people. There was this woman who had two kids when she was a teenager and face tattoos and went home and bought her kids Burger King even though she worked on an organic farm, and then college students like me, and this couple in their 40s who both worked there and were music teachers on the side.
I was 18 at a liberal arts college, the farm wasn’t associated with the college at all.
Instead of having this isolating liberal arts education, I was thrust into this other situation where I had a lot more diverse interactions, which I haven’t seen at a lot of farms, so it’s interesting.
I love farming. I feel connected to my body. I feel a sense of presence that I don’t really feel anywhere else. I like doing dynamic embodied work. I like working hard and I like to sweat and I like good food, and I get all of that together.
It connects me with my agrarian ancestors and the wisdom of my people.
The Jewish calendar is agrarian – it’s a map of the harvest cycle. I have never felt more connected with the 3 harvest festivals than when I’m a farmer. They aren’t often talked about as harvest festivals, but if you read anything about them, they are that. I get to experience at a depth that I couldn’t if I wasn’t intimately involved in the process of producing food.