Alé is located in Philadelphia and was recently laid off from their farming job along with their entire farm crew for attempting to unionize. They have been farming for income for a year and a half.
I have a bit of an interesting current story.
I am working on a farm in Kensington in north Philadelphia.
This is my first season with them as the assistant farmer. It’s about an ⅛ of an acre- very small urban farm setting.
I just got laid off.
My last day is actually this Friday.
It feels like an interesting time to have this interview…I signed up for this interview prior to trying to unionize my workplace, seasonal workers (myself included), and we all got laid off because of it.
There were about 15 of us in total.
They told us that they don’t have the funds to continue out the rest of the season, but prior to our unionizing, they assured us that the farm was safe despite running low on funds, our jobs were safe and that we would carry out the entire season.
I’m honestly not sure what I’m going to do.
I’m currently in a pre-apprenticeship program with PASA (Pennsylvania Sustainable Agriculture) that I was doing with a mentor on the farm and now Owen from True Love Seeds has graciously offered me a space to finish out the rest of my hours so I can move onto the 18 month apprenticeship starting next season. I’ll finish this program out slowly and just wait and then hopefully get on unemployment.
We had already brought our letter to the Executive Director and the Board and we had already started a public process around our unionizing and want to make sure this ends with us. We had been in contact with local media and are just currently trying to make sure all of this ends here because it has been going on for quite a while, for years now.
This is just my first season with the farm, but immediately there was this huge disconnect between the Board and the workers.
The Executive Director and Board members live in affluent neighborhoods, an hour outside of the communities that we are working to serve.
There aren’t any workers on the Board, no one necessarily understanding what the day to day operations look like on the farm.
There is also very little flexibility in how the workers operate everything, so it definitely caused tension there.
To go specifically, there was a period of time where we didn’t have access to running water or bathrooms or a place to take our breaks, let alone a fridge to store our food for our breaks.
There was severe anti-blackness toward the one black supervisor that they had hired who had started an investigation – like an official report against the ED who was newly hired. Their response was to have the Executive Director fire the supervisor.
Before that we were talking about unionizing and right when that happened, we decided to absolutely move forward with this.
There is blatant transphobia – no regard for workers or their pronouns, their gender identity. No one cared to learn and actively kept misgendering people despite numerous attempts to correct them.
Below are the list of demands that we were unionizing for:
- We demand an organization-wide formal pay structure which includes:
- Transparent tiers that are shared with all staff so that employees doing comparable work make comparable salaries.
- Clear timelines and steps for how raises and promotions are assessed and awarded.
- We demand that all board members and the Executive Director attend comprehensive training on a personal and organizational level. These trainings should be chosen by the workers in order to create a safe and affirming environment for all. We demand training on the following topics:
- Racism, classism, transphobia, and ableism
- We demand transparent and participatory budgeting which includes:
- Budgeting that is easily accessible to the public on the Greensgrow Farms website. This is a must for fostering accountability on an organizational level as well as creating trust for workers and potential donors.
- We demand better working conditions in the form of the following:
- We demand that the retail garden center not be open unless there are at least three trained retail staff scheduled and present. This is to ensure that we are upholding personal safety and our labor laws by ensuring workers will receive bathroom, water, and lunch breaks.
- We demand that all staff be fully trained, outside of open hours, before they are asked to work open hours. This includes full safety training as required by OSHA.
- We demand that all board members, their positions and committee appointments be listed publicly (and updated periodically) on Greensgrow’s website for full transparency.
- We demand to have a say in our management by holding two seats on the board for staff members, with full voting rights.
- We demand that overtime labor laws are followed and workers are given time-and-a-half pay for overtime hours worked.
- We demand that both the Kensington and West Philadelphia sites close in the event of dangerous weather such as lightning or temperatures above 95 degrees.
- We demand a clearly communicated weekly schedule with all staff members listed that all staff members can see, all of the time.
- We demand the right to participate in the re-visioning process of Greensgrow as decisions are made about who we wish to serve in our West and North Philadelphia Communities.
- As a staff with many marginalized identities including poor, disabled, and people of color, we have a unique wisdom about how our non-profit can truly benefit the communities we live in.
I’m pretty new to farming and I’m very excited.
I came at this from a political place.
As a child, my abuelo farmed coffee and raised animals on land in the mountains of Bogota, Colombia.
It was a mystical place that felt like home to me.
As time went on, I had lost touch with growing and the land until I went to college. I started getting into environmental and food justice and further picked apart larger systems which led me to farming, rather than necessarily a growing background.
It’s really disheartening to then come into what I thought was going to be more of an experience filled with growth and then to go through this. In the end, despite the outcome, it had certainly pushed me toward my growth edges in ways that I had not initially envisioned.
It left me with a lot of questions about what farming here is like and what non-profit farming is like.
I already have a pretty solid idea or opinion that non-profit farming is never going to save us and is not the way for me.
It’s a tool at the end of the day and I don’t feel like it serves us entirely.
With all that being said, it was still shocking to go through the unionizing process and get laid off.
For income, I’ve been farming for about a year and a half.
As a child I had some really beautiful experiences of being with the land.
When my father immigrated here, he made space for us to grow out back and it felt really special to have an area to learn from.
I would watch what my father would do and we would experience the joy together.
I have tied my art background into farming, too. I feel like at the time I didn’t know just how tethered ceramics and farming were to one another.
Now, I make sense of it as a way the land has called out to me.
I think one day I was finally ready to stop and listen.
I feel so grateful for their calls.
I had this very distant dream of one day being able to farm on my grandfather’s farm but I hadn’t really any farming experience, mostly basic plant knowledge and this recurring image of me stewarding land in a place that made my heart sing.
Once the pandemic happened, my life came to a screeching halt. I had a dog-walking business that I shut down and time.
So much time.
I knew where I was at the time wasn’t where I wanted to be. But fear kept me.
While the city was shut down, I decided to try and take as many online workshops that I could.
I started out with things that baby Alé really loved- the ocean and sea life.
I found myself learning about horseshoe crabs and oysters.
I then found some Penn State Extension courses on bee keeping and shortly after I found myself taking this 4 week long agriculture course – How to own a farm – it was not what I expected at all. It was very much big business, how to own a 100+ acre farm.
I quickly realized that was not where I wanted to end up and kept wondering where to go?
How does someone with “no experience” land their dream farm job?
As time went on, Philly had the uprisings and rent strikes and then encampments were set up as a way to protest against Philadelphia Housing Authority. I became heavily involved in supporting the houseless people in many different ways. One day they said they really wanted a garden of their own. I immediately went to planning and spearheaded this project.
Through that I realized that I was accessing this part of me that I had been really out of touch with, it felt very child-like.
I had a lot of experiences with children at the encampments and showing them how to save seeds from a tomato, having them try random vegetables and watching their faces light up, or showing them how to build a very not-sturdy 2×4 raised bed.
I then realized that I will learn one way or another, as I always have done and as I will continue to do. I needed to continue to put myself out there, get rejected by farms, learn and try again.
It happened very incrementally.
One day I woke up and decided to just start applying to every farm job that I could find.
I kept getting turned down because I wasn’t a seasoned farmer.
Eventually I had heard about this hemp farm that a mutual friend owned and needed help harvesting CBD. I decided to try it, why not? I wanted to be around plants. I started to learn about greenhouses, irrigation, and how to grow on 15-20 acres.
I knew this was my jump off point into farming.
Around that time I really wanted to get involved with herbalism and to learn more about plants that we (in a general sense) are quick to dismiss as weeds and do away with.
I was really fascinated with what humans have been doing with plants and how sacred they are, especially those that are more abundant.
I have friends who have shown me the way, who have done plant studies with me- I think learning in community is another thing that helped to further me along on this path.
There are just so many experiences that have led me to this moment.
If I’m being completely honest, I think owning a farm of my own feels complicated for many reasons. It seems really daunting to be tied to such a big responsibility and I worry that I’d sacrifice a lot of my personal time to make it work. I’m just not interested in that.
At that point something would be lost there for me.
I also really struggle with the idea of land ownership.
There are some days where I feel as though, yes there’s a way to make it “not as bad” or a little bit better and there are days where I’m like, no that’s not it.
I don’t believe that land can be owned and to buy into that would feel like I’m compromising my values.
Thinking about this has led me to the idea of renting land. That would be the closest I could ever get, renting land, specifically from someone who has deep ties to that land. Even that feels very complicated, too.
It also feels like some level of being complicit in the system of land ownership.
Is there a way to survive in this current world without being complicit in some way?
I’m not sure.
I will say that I also have thought about what it would be like to have a seed farm or some sort of larger seed library and growing the seed crop guerilla gardening style on side lots or using the yard of homes that I rent.
I have been thinking more about the idea of not needing farming to be this permanent or large thing.
It could just be for the now, on whatever land I have access to at that moment.
Right now, I’m able to harvest thousands of seeds from plants that I have growing in fabric containers, a lot of them being culturally important to myself and others.
It’s working for me, for now and I’m grateful for that.
Sometimes I feel like I hold onto seeds a little too deeply.
I apply meaning to them and I try to be the best steward that I can.
I’m learning that sometimes that means to just plant them because they deserve to return home, just like us.
Even though I might not see all of its stages, I am doing right by the seed and its future generations by allowing it to just be.
Some issues for workers on farms not their own are that it feels very common for seasonal workers to be treated as expendable, as people who can be replaced, who don’t have autonomy or value.
What it looked like for me was having to work in very hot and dangerous conditions, in temperatures over 100 degrees or in metal high tunnels in the middle of a lightning storm.
While coworkers were dealing with symptoms of heat stroke, the rest of us had to keep working.
I’m confident that this type of treatment and lack of regard travels farther than Philadelphia and that migrant workers as well as Black and brown workers often face the brunt of it.
I think farming should be seen for what it is – a very sacred act of growing and feeding people.
It is something that can literally be back breaking and is dangerous work.
Farmers have more dangerous jobs than cops do yet we’re underpaid, overworked and don’t receive as much recognition as deserved.
I would love to work on a farm with only queer and trans people.
One where spirituality is built in all aspects of the life stage, even just between each other, honoring every step of the way.
Building relationships, to the land, to the seed, to the place, to the people, to the community that we serve around us, small or large.
A farm that wants to move past the idea of permanency, one that plants seeds so to speak, for future generations despite knowing if they will be around to see it.
Doing it just to do it.
A place where people who want to investigate and break down cycles of harm and larger systems of power, who see beyond hierarchy, a place where curiosity and devotion and grief and transparency and joy can all exist at once.
I want to stress the spirituality piece.
Honoring rest, resting with the plants, moving slow, not forcing nature to do something that it’s not meant to do.
Having flexibility within the present and as climate chaos continues.
Really centering the land’s needs and taking that and putting it into practice in relationships with one another.
I feel like I owe it to myself to farm.
I feel like I owe it to all of the forces that have come before me.
I owe it to all the forces that are going to come after me, the people.
I honestly think that something keeps putting farming in my path.
Something keeps putting growing in my path.
I am just choosing to follow it.
I feel as though there is a reason that it keeps coming to me and I don’t have a reason for why, I just know. It’s where I can feel everything all at once. The hopefulness, the despair, the grief, the sadness. I can feel the happiness, the excitedness. All the emotions that are tied to this one act that I’ve never experienced before in my life.
Living in this time, especially in the effects of climate chaos, I feel as though there is no other way.
I strongly believe that in our lifetime we will be witnessing the fall of many of things as we know it, like losing certain things that might push us toward being more community oriented. I think that we will have to learn how to grow our own food in our lifetime because there might be a time where we cannot source it elsewhere, and now I have this skill that I can pass along. Some parts of that are fear-based and other parts feel realistic, most settled.
It feels kind of hard to get into farming as a career.
It feels like you have to know the right person to land a “good” job or a better suited job.
In the pre-apprenticeship program that I’m doing, I’ve noticed that they are taking from this trade style of learning and applying that to farming which is something I’ve never heard of until now.
It’s a really good support to have.
People, especially young growers, should have access to learning as much as possible. Small, large, medium scale, all at different times. Having that network of where to look and where to go, and knowing that there are people who have been doing this for a lifetime who are willing to pass along the tools and knowledge and wisdom, that feels very important to me.
For me, growing feels like a way of connecting back to past ancestry, and honestly even future ancestors too. There are more complicated pieces there, too. Sadly, my family has deeply assimilated into whiteness and there are parts of our culture that have been buried.
Uncovering these missing connections and working to prioritize tracing backwards so that I can move forward has been something that I’ve struggled with.
I long to work on a farm that holds similar values and identities and sometimes, oftentimes, it feels as though the path in that direction gets more and more narrow.
Something I’ve been thinking about constantly for quite awhile now, (I know this work is being done, it’s a matter of who is doing the work) is:
what does adapting plants being grown in the global south to northern climates look like and how do we do that?
I know the coffee plant for instance can very well be on its way out and same with Banana plants. I know Owen from True Love Seeds helped to adapt a variety of gandules or pigeon peas and has had success with that.
How can we continue that?
How can we make these plants as resilient as possible to climate chaos?
That feels very big for me.