The Story Behind the Community Farming Alliance: An Interview with Zachari Curtis

IMG_2188Zachari Curtis is an entrepreneur, social justice activist, farmer, and a beekeeper. During weekdays, you can find Curtis at Bread for the City, serving as the organization’s Sustainable Agriculture & Community Engagement Manager. On the weekends, or any other time really, Curtis is likely operating as founder and CEO of Good Sense Farm, a D.C. urban farm that produces gourmet mushrooms, honey, and other beehive products. Or, you might find Curtis out supporting other small, but growing farms, as co-founder of the Community Farming Alliance.

Lastly, you can find Curtis, the Good Sense Farm team, and their array of wonderful products every Saturday (9am-1pm) at Petworth Community Market.

Below is part of my conversation with Zachari Curtis:

What is the Community Farming Alliance and what are its origins?

Community Farming Alliance started as a group of DC-area black gardeners and farmers. The farmers among us, myself and Gail Taylor of Three Part Harmony Farm, knew we wanted to develop a cooperative infrastructure. We were both in the process of starting farms and knew that we needed support from peers and more experienced farmers. We both had worked primarily among white farmers or for white-run farms, and spoke often that something was missing. So we did a tour. We traveled to black farmer gatherings mostly in the South, shaking hands and sharing baked beans in church fellowship halls. For me, it was one of the most eye-opening times of my life. I was being reintroduced to the South, its farms, and the history of black resilience there. 

 In 2013, Tracy McCurty from the Black Belt Justice Center invited us to one of the oldest agricultural conferences in the rural south and let us stay in her hotel room. We should have known she had a plan for us. She basically lit a fire under us to figure out what our vision was for the cooperative. 

 We took that vision to the moon and back and began applying for grants and fellowships, but we did not get anywhere. We finally came to the realization that the process of building would be slow and resource light. We went back to our pragmatic roots and just started experimenting–selling plants together, growing on rented land together, ordering equipment together. We learned many lessons along the way, but mostly we learned that whatever we do together IS the cooperative. 

How is the cooperative doing today?

Last year, we added Little Red Bird Botanicals, a DC-based Western Herbalist owned by Holly Poole-Kavana. This year, some of our dear friends started Black Dirt Farm and inched closer to being a fully fledged member. We’ve also had the pleasure of working with Radix Farm, run by Kristin Carbone, a Petworth Community Market vendor/board member. We’re getting closer to our vision of building a collective of farmers with diverse skillsets and shared values. 

What have been the major successes to date?

DSC_0672I would say our major success has been getting the message out that we’re here. The scale at which we do things is intentional. We try to balance setting ambitious goals and making our presence known with making it clear that major changes in our food system are still necessary for our model to scale. This year, we are celebrating a successful Spring CSA pilot and the second year of a summer CSA. Knock on wood, but we expect to cross the finish line in November having made a few dozen customers happy, strengthened our businesses, and brought along a few new farmers to the table. 

 We’re also celebrating a major win on the policy front. DC has a new Farm Bill largely due to the lobbying savvy of Gail Taylor and the backing of our members and community. There are lots of people who took time out of their day growing food to convince our legislators to make it possible for local food production to flourish. The bill will eventually make some public land available for other enterprising DC residents to farm.

What’s next for the Alliance?

I mentioned earlier that our work is threefold: For the consumer, we’re modeling a different relationship with their local food producer; for fellow producers, we’re figuring out ways for busy farmers to collaborate; and, for local policy makers, we’re trying to help steer policy changes that will support local agriculture in a way that enhances equity and sustainability for local residents. 

 For a cooperative like ours (comprised of local farmers of color and women farmers) to succeed, I think we have to radically change to ensure our communities reap the rewards of all the work we’re doing now. For communities of color to enjoy the future we have to also ensure affordable housing, living wages, and abolishing racist and sexist violence. Otherwise, the successes we’re celebrating now will still primarily benefit the privileged (see Katrina recovery, see Detroit). For that to happen, we’ve got to keep ourselves healthy and hopeful; but many other folks have to help with the work of pushing against the status quo in all of these areas. Our future here intersects with all other futures. That is the challenge.

Where did you get the idea and inspiration to first start Good Sense Farm & Apiary?

I’ve been working on farms for the last 6 years, and from the beginning, I was intrigued by mushrooms. The process seemed so magical and mysterious. I inoculated some oak logs and got one huge shiitake about 9 months later and I was hooked. I researched on the internet, harnessed some intuition, and then it just started to click for me. I love being an amateur, or at least the process of trying to do something you know nothing about. There’s an adrenaline rush from knowing that you’re always teetering on the edge of complete failure. The moment something works, there’s so much joy. There’s always something to learn and that’s why I keep doing it. I try to conjure those feelings every time I step into the greenhouse. 

 Likewise, beekeeping has maintained a similar mystique for me. I was working on a farm where a Haitian family kept two hives. I was very curious, so each day I’d inch closer and closer just to watch what the bees were doing. The family let me get comfortable around the bees and to build confidence handling such a delicate and volatile organism. After that year, I got my first hives and the cycle of amazingly character-building failures began. Some of them continue to this day, and I feel like a new beekeeper every time I open a hive.  Even though I am a much better beekeeper than I was that first year, I never want that feeling to go away.

 Of late, I am much more intrigued by the wild cousins of what we bring to market. I’ve begun learning about the myriad kinds of wild fungi and feeding my interest in native pollinators. This may mean that Good Sense Farm will to make room for new products soon!  

 People who eat what we grow, myself included, say the mushrooms and honey are delicious. We’re producing more mushrooms than we have in previous years and of much better quality. Depending on their background, we’re either introducing people to new tastes and textures or providing a familiar food that’s not at your average farmer’s market. Thanks to Curt and Abraxas, my market team, our table is also a non-stop party. 

How does your work at Bread for the City impact your work at CFA and Good Sense? How does all of that embody your own vision for local food and farming?

zacharistrawberryWell, I would say there have been a few tradeoffs. When I started at Bread for the City as a food justice organizer, the cooperative and Good Sense Farm were ideas I was working on little by little. Having a 9-5 related to food put me in touch with a lot of the people who are supporters of the farm today. It also helped me save a little money for startup cash and was a great way to test some of the theories about how and with whom we should build a cooperative. 

That said, it has also been really challenging, especially now that I farm by day and by dawn. As the Sustainable Ag Manager, I manage a few projects related to sustainable agriculture, community outreach and popular education, including an orchard where I grow fruit for Bread for the City’s food pantry. If you can imagine 5am hive inspections leading to 10am berry picking, then 3pm staff meetings then 6pm greenhouse cleaning, that’s a pretty busy day. 

This lifestyle isn’t at all atypical of most farming professionals. Folks making their living in agriculture often have another job. We call it “off farm income,” except mine happens to be “on-farm, off-farm.” I would caution anyone with any romantic notions of what it’s like to do the work to consider the enormous physical, mental, and financial challenges of doing this full-time. 

This post was written by guest blogger Wes Melville, who also writes for his own blog Thyme Fries.

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