Just Food hosted another well attended conference from April fifth to sixth. This year, it was held at Teachers College of Columbia University. I had the honor of brief interviews with one featured speaker and a farming student who attended. Suga Ray and Raphael Aponte are both attached to Just Food’s Farm School as current student and alumnus respectively. Here’s what they had to say!
Rafael Aponte (Just Food Farm School class of 2012)
Rafael Aponte (age 30) of the Bronx, founded Rocky Acres Community Farm in May 2013 where he’s raising goats, peppers, onions, carrots, potatoes, basil, Mexican herbs, and cilantro varieties perfect for making sofrito. Other offerings like mushrooms are in development for future seasons—stay tuned! The interview below was conducted on Monday, April 7, 2014 at Giovanni’s Restaurant (579 Grand Concourse, Bronx).
Morgan Powell: How did you select your farm’s name?
Rafael Aponte: “Rocky Acres” was already a sign on site. We kept it. I would rather have a more revolutionary name but the neighbors wouldn’t be able to pronounce it. It’s pretty benign but we added the “community” part.
MP: What exposure to plants and farming did you have before Farm School?
RA: My mother maintained a “jungle” of houseplants which I played G.I. Joe in as a kid. We lived together near the Brook Avenue stop of the no. 6 train. At that time, my dad gardened in the Bruckner right-of-way before his garden got bull dozed, but I was not interested in his garden at all. When I got older and got my own apartment near Yankee Stadium, my mom gave me clippings or her plants. I got bitten by the gardening bug and I maintained those plants. Eventually, I was growing chili peppers and basil plants hydroponically. [laughter]
MP: Where did you attend high school and other schools?
RA: LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts. I focused on visual arts: printmaking, illustration, graphic arts, and photography.
Illness informs my commitment to farming. My class was the last at the elementary school on the Grand Concourse at 148th Street; it was closed because of asbestos. I attended college before cancer made it impossible to sustain my academics. I’m fine now but it’s not normal to be diagnosed with cancer at eighteen year old. I’ve had asthma since elementary school. I grew up in a polluted environment with highways ringing the neighborhood, an active commercial incinerator, and other things in Mott Haven. Sometimes I have to pace myself to get through farming chores but I’ve learned to expand my lung capacity. It’s getting easier.
MP: How do you identify ethnically?
RA: Ethnically, I’m Puerto Rican. Racially, I self-identify as Black. My father is darker than me. Upstate, there are many places where people never see people of color. I think some people think I’m Pakistani. [laughter]
MP: What motivated you to attend Farm School?
RA: It happened by accident. I was working in after-school education in Washington Heights, helping the youth to prepare for and gain admission to college. I took them to schools all around the region. Somehow, I developed an interest in beekeeping as it was becoming legal within city limits. I attended a conference at Hostos Community College (probably GreenThumb GrowTogether) where many groups were tabling on gardening. There was information about beekeeping there. I subsequently met someone through the Socialism Conference who connected me with Farm School NYC. I don’t think I’d be on a farm now if it had not been for Farm School. That’s where I met Jalal Sabur [seen to the far right in a panel picture that opens this article]. We went on to farm together with my partner Nandi Cohen, a Cornell U. professor, at Wassaic Community Farm.
MP: What is your food sovereignty vision?
RA: I want people to think about producing their own food. I think once you see what goes into your food, it’s paradigm shifting. I also want low income communities to choose where their food comes from. If I can meet them at the right price point to make it sustainable for Rocky Acres Farm, and their getting value for the volume of food they need to consume, I think it’s a win-win.
MP: What’s your strategy to produce and deliver veggies, herbs, and meat to low income communities?
RA: My market is low income residents of Ithaca, NY. New York City is too far away. Ithaca’s a small town and it’s different from the Bronx. It’s more people driven rather than institutionally-oriented. I’ve been talking to my barber about distributing out of the barber shop. In Ithaca, the farmer’s market is very well attended, but not by local people of color. I think it’s not inclusive.
MP: What has been your biggest surprise in farming?
RA: I almost feel my life has separated into before and after farming. I’ve had more than one friend visit me and be scared by the quiet of rural life. Also, there’s a grading system for livestock. It’s made me imagine how enslaved people were graded at slave markets in the past. The experience has grounded me.
MP: You’re seeing things a city person would not typically see. What are some things you wish were common knowledge in the Bronxes of America?
RA: I’ve become a steward of life. Everyone should be a part of that process: seeing seeds develop to maturity. I would like to see a student-centered approach to teaching. My exposure to other learning environments tells me a participatory approach is better than rote learning.
Suga Ray (Just Food Farm School class of 2015)
Suga Ray is passionate about community gardening as a vehicle to grow the best seeds of his beloved Queensbridge Houses on New York City’s East River. Originally from south Jamaica, Queens, his family moved to the iconic Long Island City public housing development when he was two years old. It’s been tradition there, like many neighborhoods throughout the city, to memorialize those who pass away before their natural time with bottles of alcohol and candles. But things are about to change in this corner of New York if Suga Ray has anything to do with it. In concert with a vocal local senior citizen, a more enduring ritual of remembrance is coming into view in the form of new community gardens at one of the largest public housing developments in all five boroughs. What became shabby with time will renew itself with constant love and care in the best traditions of community horticulture—that’s the power of living green that all the money spent on ghetto liquor can’t buy.
These new spaces will serve many needs of a wider cross-section of local residents in all the color and joy of nature. Suga Ray sees these new spaces as therapy for the mentally ill, perpetual job training for an emerging workforce, seasonal work for the formerly enprisoned who need low barriers to career entry and a welcome environment, respite for the bereaved, and enhanced beauty for all to see! He’s dedicated to a multi-generational and multi-ethnic approach that’s already got precedent at Queensbridge Houses. A few modest green patches tended by residents exist. Now it is time to turn up the volume and expand the scale.
Suga Ray’s getting ready to lead this new era in local greening and he’s putting his time and other resources to work. He’s in his first year of training at Farm School with his eyes on the graduation prize for 2015. He’s also looking to share the message of health through life-affirming diet. Food related health and illness are foremost in his mind. A bell went off when an uncle and other cherished elders passed away from diet-related illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure. That bell had rung even earlier when he endured may months not able to walk from a pinched nerve that only improved when vegetables replaced meats in his own diet. Nearly four years later, he’s feeling his young age without back pain! Success in such an ambitious venture must mean collaboration so he’s linking up with others.
He’s been appointed International Director to Sacrit Kingz by Nyeesha Williams who earlier founded a national network dedicated to young girls called Sacrit Devahood, Inc. Kingz will be a hub of culinary arts, etiquette, arts and crafts based in New York City. These groups will assemble the resources to raise a greenhouse at Queensbridge and pay the locals who do the work. They’re not looking to re-invent the wheel. Colleagues in Newark (New Jersey), Atlanta (Georgia), Los Angeles (California), and Uganda will be providing technical support where applicable. Stay tuned as this man builds his dream through his entertainment company and his blog.