Skywoman Stories: Catskills Agrarian Alliance
Updated: Dec 5, 2022
Christina Couch | December 4, 2022
In September, the Skywoman community hosted the Catskills Agrarian Alliance (CAA) in our series known as "Skywoman Stories" - monthly sessions highlighting projects dedicated to food sovereignty and collective economics. Tianna Kennedy and her team openly shared their challenges, successes and future plans for their newly launched food sovereignty nonprofit in Catskills, NY. Far more than just a learning opportunity, this session felt like a therapy session for all of us that feel overworked or burnt out in food systems work. It showed the value of this community and the support we can provide each other, especially when we're doing the work but still need technical assistance, funding advice, or just a space to talk through bottlenecks. I haven't stopped thinking about it since.
The CAA was born amidst Tianna Kennedy’s (Executive Director) circling thoughts of how can we make farming a viable project for the next generation and how can we run these production farms while still having the capacity to care for others and ourselves? For a decade, a community of farmers in Delaware, Otsego, and Schoharie counties have been working on an alternative production and distribution project in New York. First known as the Lucky Dog Food Hub and then The 607 CSA, Tianna and her team have been busy ensuring food-security for their foodshed by creating a collaborative, resilient local food system. Catskills Agrarian Alliance is the culmination of that work.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Tianna received $500k in funding from local investors looking to support the service of aggregating farmers to feed the community. $250k was used to purchase and distribute food to members of the community, and the other half to pay living wages to the team. The team had a ton of momentum and partners in place but after scaling to an irresponsible level too quickly, they soon lacked the funds needed to meet this new scale of work. As a result, Tianna and co-owners, Amanda Wong and Walter Reisen, launched the CAA nonprofit to reshape the narrative and better support their work.
Star Route Farm owners Amanda Wong, Tianna Kennedy, and Walter Riesen.
Today, The CAA’s programs surround four focus areas: community organizing and mutual aid; stewardship of land; production of food; and aggregation and distribution of food. The aggregation and distribution of food occurs through five major avenues: Community Supported Agriculture, Wholesale, Farm-to-Institution, Mutual Aid Distributions and Farm Stands.
Star Route Farm
Let’s take a quick step back to learn about Star Route Farm. How are the two related? The Catskills Agrarian Alliance is the nonprofit arm of Star Route Farm, and supports the integration of Star Route’s production farming with land access, farm to institution, and alternative food distribution work.
Star Route Farm’s Flower Field
Star Route is a vegetable, herb and flower farm located in the upper Catskill region of the Charlotte Creek Valley in Otsego County. Here the team runs 6 acres of production fields using no synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, nor herbicides. As a farm with a social justice mission, Star Route seeks to begin addressing systemic food inequities by farming with integrity and responsibility to both land and people in order to:
grow nutritious food
distribute free produce to those who are food insecure
collaborate with the communities they grow for
In 2020, Amanda Wong worked to transition the farm to a mutual aid model, inspired by the need to reprioritize who they were as farmers. Since then, Star Route Farm has donated 34,000 pounds of food through crowdsourcing, fundraiser events, & grants. Over this past 2022 growing season alone, they donated 17,583 pounds of nutrient-dense food from four-acre fields; farmed alongside a majority BIPOC crew for the first time; grew black beans, garlic, and potatoes, on their new fields; and held a beautiful mutual-aid retreat for 30 of their downstate partners.
Mutual aid retreat during the 2022 growing season.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Star Route to adapt to the cracks in the food supply chain and as a result, they committed to a more integrated model for the future of the farm business. For Star Route, an integrated food supply chain is “one that is designed to actually nourish people - where consumers, growers, and distributors work together to set its conditions.”
In the upcoming 2023 season, the team plans to
Create culturally appropriate crop plans with the mutual aid groups they serve (East Brooklyn Mutual Aid, Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram, Comida Pal Pueblo, Bushwick Emergency Relief Fund, Nuestra Mesa BK).
Grow 11 acres of black beans, soy beans, faro, sunflowers, millet, potatoes and garlic on their new field for distributions.
Grow soil, not profits.
Fairly compensate the labor of their mutual aid team who have been farming with them.
Donate 20-30,000 pounds of their produce.
The 607 CSA
To tie everything together, Tianna Kennedy launched The 607 CSA to support the distribution of Star Route Farm products, in addition to those of 40 other farms in her region. The 607 is a multi-farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program based in the Northern Catskills of NY State. They offer veggie shares sourced from 4 collaborating vegetable farms, plus season-long add-ons of pastured meat, eggs, dairy, fruit, flowers, mushrooms, microgreens and some value-added products - making The 607 a whole-diet CSA.
The 607 also offers a weekly wholesale CSA to grocers, markets, restaurants and other groups looking to save by buying in bulk. Check out the wholesale product and price list here. With the support of 3 logistics companies, CAA also provides the distribution infrastructure on which their regional mutual aid and farm-to-institution work relies.
In the first year, the CSA had about 10 farm partners and since then has continued to scale by about 30-50% each year. Initial gross income was around $500,000 but with consistent growth The 607 reached about $1M in sales last year. Initially, 17 farms felt like a really comfortable place for the team but after everything blew up over the pandemic, The 607 CSA reached unstable numbers of 49 supporting farms and 800 members. All of the community support made scaling seem like a really lucrative food business on top of their normal CSA customer sales, but the realities of burnout and a lack of funding suggested otherwise. The CSA has scaled back a bit since then, leveling at about 330 shares each week, or about 700 members total over the past 3 years. This is a more comfortable capacity for the team to efficiently manage things like trucking and storage.
Today, the team is trying to focus on being better at their existing model of one day per week pickups, but suggest the future could look like a brick and mortar location with multiple pick up days each week. Rather than taking on new projects, Tianna desires a bit of scaling back right now to improve efficiencies in packing and marketing the food they currently sell.
Building a Collective of Farmers
While the CAA is still developing a formalized vetting process for trust and compliance around food safety and sourcing farm partners, most of their relationships are initiated by local farmers who reach out in need of market support.
The location of pick-ups, logistics and any other aspects of the CSA’s distribution model are all based on the team’s existing relationships with the community. For example, an NYC benefactor is allowing the CSA to use their space as a pick up location, of which they would never be able to afford if not for a personal relationship.
The truth is, the relationships Tianna has with her community are not replicable nor scalable, making the project difficult for other regional folks to model. Because of this, the goal is to transition everything from being a “Tianna project” to being a food system project that can operate successfully on its own.
The first step in moving towards this autonomy lies in establishing a strong team of advisors. Before the CAA nonprofit arm was established, the work and decision making across Star Route Farm and The 607 CSA was always led by the farmers and guided by the community participants. As the CAA takes off, the team is now trying to formalize this governance structure but it is all very new - their first board meeting was held only a few months ago. The governance structure operates across three boards:
Mutual Aid Advisory Board consisting of current mutual aid partners
Farmer Advisory Board consisting of current and ex member farms
Board of Directors consisting of regional stakeholders, legal and financial advisors, and food justice partners
Check out the “Team” tab on their website to learn about the individuals and expertise that CAA is tapping into to inform the future of the organization.
Mutual Aid and Fundraising
Star Route Farm is “shifting how the farm survives from participating in a supremacist culture to, instead, supporting communities of color with mutual aid work.” To support these communities, the CAA fundraises so they can use the donated capital to buy food from their partner farms and then distribute it to collaborating mutual aid groups in their foodshed.
So how does it work? The CAA accepts monetary donations and then partners with each mutual aid group to establish a budget, enabling the partner organizations to then order as they please based on the needs of the community in which they serve. Weekly orders are placed from the wholesale list that the CAA provides which is reflective of the available products from their farm partners.
As of June 22, the 607 CSA raised just shy of $45,000. While majority of this goes towards donating food, it also funds the CAA’s ongoing work with upstate pantries, land access endeavors, and their new sliding scale pricing structure. You can check out where the funds were sourced from and how CAA is spending the donations in this excel sheet. This level of transparency builds trust and increases the likelihood of future donations.
You too can support their work through donations and merchandise orders!
Despite these donations fundraising is still a huge bottleneck for the CAA team. Although the demand for their work is strong, the capital to fairly pay their team and craft the necessary supply chain infrastructure to support the work is difficult to come by. The graphic below is an awesome example of how they are expressing the direct impact of funding on the organization and the communities they serve. Graphics like this create a level of personalization in discussions with potential investors by attaching the dollar amounts to a success story that funders can resonate with.
Farm to Institution Work
Hannah Leighton is leading efforts to build connectivity between farms in the CSA and local institutions. Thankfully, a recent statewide policy is incentivizing institutions to purchase NY-grown food, sparking more discussions around building procurement systems in schools. Today, The 607 CSA offers pick up sites at multiple institutions to allow busy staff, faculty and students/parents to have access without having to make an extra stop at the grocery store or farmers market.
To start the work, the CAA approached a school district that already had a dedicated farm to school (FTS) coordinator in place who Tianna had worked with in the past. She started by asking if they would be interested in being a CSA pick up site and that grew into a wholesale conversation. Because that one school is part of a larger group of districts that purchase under one FTS, the CSA was able to easily plug into a larger network of schools.
The CAA determines which items to wholesale to institutions by reading through their existing lunch menus and identifying any items that can be sourced through the wholesale network. If a specific match for a food doesn’t exist, CAA also provides recommendations on alternative products based on what is seasonally appropriate for their region. Tianna is currently coordinating which farm items will go towards which school needs based on the farm’s products, scale and ability to meet demand. We can expect a more formal process to be developed for matching institutional needs with farmer offerings in the near future.
With funding from the NY State Farm to School Grant, The CAA is partnering with 11 school districts, a nonprofit, and a local culinary school over 24 months to purchase 11,000 lbs. of tomatoes and 7-8,000 lbs. of produce. These ingredients will be funneled into nearby culinary schools for independent studies to develop a local tomato sauce recipe that aligns with school requirements. This program provides exposure to students on what being part of their local food system could look like, in this case processing and cold storage provided by a university and ingredient sourcing and final product distribution by a CSA. This first venture is also teaching the CAA about the true cost of a 100% locally-produced value-added product.
CAA is exploring USDA Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP) grants as an option for the next phase of the project.
Summary of CAA's Impact to Date
Collaborating across 40+ small-scale, sustainable family farmers to provide direct-to-consumer products to more than 700 households in the Catskills regions and NYC.
Collaboration with 27 K-12 schools to distribute over 30k lbs. of local food during the 2022-2023 school year.
Deep connection and community building with 22 mutual aid organizations, each serving hundreds of families weekly.
Partnerships with local school districts to distribute local food from The 607 CSA partners to 42,000 students. Replacing all oats in the districts with locally grown oats and encouraging NY-produced items like lettuce, potatoes, squash, onions, carrots, honey, and maple syrup.
4 tons of dairy, eggs, meat, baked goods, grains, legumes and value-added goods distributed weekly via CSA.
Partnership with Business & Hospitality Mgmt at SUNY Delhi to develop local tomato sauce sourced from the Amish community, replacing all non-local tomato sauce in 12 school districts in 2023.
Further land access opportunities for Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Color.
Empowerment and Inclusion
You may be wondering how to offer uplifting opportunities to marginalized groups in your own communities. Here are some examples you can look to for inspiration:
CAA works closely with their farmer and mutual aid advisory board to ensure the farms are growing and distributing culturally preferred foods for community members
They also create opportunities for marginalized people to hold roles as decision makers, farmers, advocates, value-chain facilitators, and technical assistance consultants
Self-identifying QTBIPOC members are also leaders at every level of the CAA organization
Summary of Challenges and Lessons Learned
SNAP benefits have exposed many roadblocks for an organization of the CAA’s size to accept without a centralized location.
It’s difficult to ask local farmers to scale up their product supply to meet consumer demands, all of which are dependent on the CAA CSA. It feels impossible to make these promises and establish long-term contracts when everything is so up in the air and government funding is nonexistent.
Grant funding is really delayed and even though applications get accepted it can be months or years before the money is received. For their FTS work, the school districts were kind enough to front the funds for purchasing the tomatoes to get them out of the field and into processing in time. The schools will be reimbursed once the grant money is distributed but not all partners are willing to spot the funds.
Tianna finds it challenging to find funding support for operational needs because paying people more isn’t as “sexy” as building infrastructure or getting access to things like machinery and land.
Decision-making, agency, autonomy, and a healthy flow of communication are all still in the works.
Historically, the CSA team had a pretty inclusive policy to meet all customer needs which sometimes means accommodating a diverse set of preferences. While it’s wonderful to provide full customization, it fosters craziness around communication and consistent operating procedures. There is work to be done on setting boundaries.
Burnout is REAL so the team is still trying to figure out how to balance everything while not underpaying and exploiting labor, themselves included!
Despite receiving additional funding, the CAA scaled in proportion to the money received, meaning the team became even more overextended and exhausted. Lesson learned to use future funding to improve existing projects before expanding.
People on the receiving end of mutual aid could have greater transparency into all of the players and efforts that go into making food accessible, should they be interested.
A lack of boundaries between the main production and farm incubation programs can cause both to suffer. Establishing a clear separation of the two is necessary in the future.
Understanding that not everyone needs to be a production partner and folks can still hold other valuable roles in the food system even if they are not a match for a grower partnership.
Skywoman Community members who are not production farmers often wonder what role they can play in food sovereignty work. Here is a list of non-farming skills the CAA needs to better sustain their work and/or push it to the next level:
Giving a voice and seat on the board to folks working on the ground with local food organizations is critical to the scalability of their projects. This line of communication would provide a platform for expressing community needs directly to farmers and suppliers.
Designers to support with social media and marketing
More financial management experts on the board
Skills for building pitch decks and writing grant proposals for funding
Skywoman and Catskills Agrarian Alliance
So how can we move Skywoman Stories beyond a virtual discussion to collectively organize support on the ground for community projects like these? Today, the CAA team is working with the Skywoman community to navigate funding opportunities and prepare for upcoming discussions with investors. More specifically, Jamie Gaehring is working with Tianna through Technical Interviews and Open Design Sessions that support the Multifarm Aggregation & Information Architecture (MAIA) Project he is leading. The MAIA Project is a collaborative effort by members of Skywoman's Design & Tech Incubator to map out and assess the methods, needs and pain-points of food aggregation services, with a focus on distribution models that promote regional food sovereignty. This project was born out of discussions on our Skywoman discord, feel free to join the conversation!
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