Another in a series of occasional stories looking at BIPOC farmers in New England.
WOODSTOCK, Conn. — Echo Farm was exactly what Robert Chang and his partner had spent two years looking for. Situated on Route 169, a National Scenic Byway in the state’s northeast corner, the historic 1880 farmhouse was in perfect move-in condition. And unlike so many other properties they had seen, its 14 acres of fields weren’t overgrown with forest. But although its listing price had recently dropped, at $370,000, it was still way above their uppermost budget of $300,000. And so they made a bold move: a lowball offer accompanied by a letter to the sellers: “We told them we were looking for an antique home . . . a place where we could farm . . . cherish the history, the property, and the house. We said, please don’t be offended by this low offer. We see the value of what you’re selling, and we appreciate that, and we wish we could have done better.” To their surprise, the sellers responded positively, and the parties soon reached an agreement.
The experience gave Chang pause. An IT professional in his late 40s and a person of color, Chang recognized his economic advantage: “I had a middle-class lifestyle . . . a full-time job that allowed me to pay a mortgage, so when I started farming, I already owned property. I had some equity built in. I started ahead at the race compared to other young farmers of color . . . [who] aren’t going to be able to put 20 percent down on a farm property . . . and often have student loan debt.” Then there was his long-shot letter: “My life experiences have helped me overcome that fear of approaching strangers and making requests and expecting fair treatment and helpful responses. . . . How many young people of color would be so bold as to write a letter to a seller and expect that it would work out? . . . They are less likely to have the privilege to feel courageous.”
Chang’s affinity for agriculture is rooted in his early childhood memories of his grandparents’ small, diversified farm in Jamaica, where he climbed orange trees, and after he picked the fruit, “ate the oranges, feeding the peels to the cattle by hand.” Although he always grew houseplants, it wasn’t until he owned a home in Middletown, Conn., in his 30s that Chang planted his first vegetable garden, which was “really ambitious and too big!” He opened a roadside stand to sell the surplus vegetables and was hooked. As he tried to learn more about farming beginning in 2011, he started engaging with the state and regional farm community, affiliating with organizations such as the New CT Farmer Alliance, the Connecticut Farm Bureau, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut, and the New England chapter of the National Farmers Union. Doing so introduced him to a community of young farmers endeavoring to make farming their primary source of income. Chang found them “inspiring” and “wanted to figure out, as an adult, how to make that work.” He soon set a new life goal: to ultimately farm full-time. The first step toward that goal was to acquire more acreage, which allows room for livestock (an on-site source of farm manure) and sufficient land for fields to be in fallow.
While considering the purchase of Echo Farm in 2015, Chang reached out to Kip Kolesinskas for advice. Kolesinskas is a Connecticut-based conservation scientist who consults on soils and land use planning, farmland protection, climate change adaptation, and farmland access with organizations like the American Farmland Trust, the Connecticut Farmland Trust, the Connecticut State Department of Agriculture, and UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources Extension Service (”often referred to as “UConn Extension”). Kolesinskas walked Echo Farm’s fields with Chang pro bono, offering both farming and funding suggestions. At his recommendation, Chang later applied for a Farmland Restoration Grant from the Connecticut State Department of Agriculture, which allowed him to install perimeter fencing and clear brush, and a USDA grant, which funded two high tunnels, a new well, and an irrigation system.
While attending UConn Extension’s Solid Ground Farmer Trainings, Chang met Jiff Martin in her capacity as the program’s principal investigator. In 2020, Martin mentioned a figure from the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture: There are more than 300 new and beginning non-white farmers in Southern New England. Chang was staggered: “On one level, compared to the number of white farmers and the number of acres that white farmers control ... those numbers were tiny, and that’s not proportional to the population of African American people. But at the same time, I also felt, ‘Oh my God, who are these other hundreds of Black farmers who have all of this land? Who are they and where are they, and how can I meet them? How we can work together to be more successful?’’ With Martin’s help, Chang invited farmers of color and their advocates from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut to Echo Farm for the first gathering of the Southern New England Farmers of Color Collaborative (SNEFCC). In addition to Martin, in attendance were leaders Julius Kolawole, the director and cofounder of the African Alliance of Rhode Island; Karen Spiller, a professor in sustainable food systems at the University of New Hampshire, advising Food Solutions New England; Dr. Gabriela Pereyra, codirector of the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust; Anna Gilbert-Muhammad, the food access coordinator of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts; Joy Gary, executive director of the Boston Farms Community Land Trust; Jessy Gill, assistant director at World Farmers; and in Connecticut, Deborah Thomas-Sims, community champion at the East End NRZ Market & Café in Bridgeport; and Dishaun Harris, owner of New Haven’s Root Life.
Chang hopes SNEFCC will not only raise the profile of farmers of color in New England, but also help them access capital and resources. He explains, “there are a lot of experiences in the lives of people of color in the country, especially Black people, that make you feel like going and approaching a white USDA or white Department of AG or someone like Kip expecting them to help you is generally not part of the daily experience of most African-Americans. … It’s intimidating. Their expectations are low, and rightfully so. Especially in New England, unlike in the South, where there has been a history of African American farmers and landowners. That prominent history doesn’t exist here in New England, which isn’t to say that there aren’t Black farmers and Black landowners here in New England, but they’re practically invisible.” Chang wants to help facilitate those connections to people with knowledge and power.
He illustrates how closed the predominately white New England agricultural communities can be by sharing an anecdote about a speaker at a farming conference: “Towards the end of his talk, he mentioned how he and a bunch of other growers who were rock stars in the farming world would get together every year on this retreat. They would go rent cabins with their families and hang out and have these discussions about farming. . . . What they had learned from the innovations they were doing. And you could see from the crowd in the room . . . all of these people suddenly perked up and realized, ‘Oh my God, there’s this group of these rock stars who are getting together and having these discussions.’ And the speaker got a bunch of questions from people who wanted to know, how do I join that group? How do I get to go on that retreat? And he had to tell them this is just a bunch of us friends. That is so much, I think, of how farming appears to people of color in New England. It feels like there’s this group of farmers who all know each other, and they have this great community, but it’s an exclusive club, and you’re an outsider, and they don’t advertise, and they don’t do outreach, and so you’re left out of that.”
Chang’s met many young, white farmers who’ve apprenticed on farms who’ve shared “horror stories” of living conditions, including “not having a nice bathroom and a shower” and being paid almost nothing. Nonetheless, Chang says, they acquire crucial farming skills. He contrasts this experience with that of people of color, most of whom don’t have “the luxury of being able to apprentice someplace where they can accept low wages and poor housing.”
Echo Farm, Chang says, has been a “self-funded internship.” After the sale, he quickly realized its dilapidated barn structure was so unstable that he would have to raze it and rebuild it. The new barn will be vital to Echo Farm’s business, functioning as a year-round indoor farm store and providing storage space for washing and packing produce, walk-in coolers, and small farm equipment. A Connecticut State Department of Agriculture Farm Transition Grant will offset part of the cost of demolition, foundation, lumber, insulation, heating, and air conditioning. This infrastructure project highlights the onerous economics farmers face: the cost of purchasing land is only a fraction of the investment required to own and operate a farm. Building, installing, and upgrading infrastructure can match or exceed the initial investment; therefore, programs like the Farm Transition Grant or the USDA FSA loan program are critical funding sources, as most farmers don’t earn sufficient income (even with their off-farm jobs) to qualify for traditional bank loans. SNEFCC will help farmers of color learn about and access these types of funding sources.
Until the new barn is built, Chang’s stand is self-serve, and while Echo Farm grows, he continues to work full-time “off-farm,” spending mornings, evenings, and weekends doing all that the farm requires, including farmers markets in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He’s in it for the long haul and says there’s nothing he’d rather do in his old age than farm. For Chang, farming is more than an occupation; it’s a vocation: “African Americans have a tradition of making a way out of no way, because that’s what we have had to do since we’ve arrived in the Americas. That’s what [small farmers in New England] are trying to do. We’re trying to figure out how to make a living in an industry where so many things are conspiring against that success. There are a lot of farmers leaving farming in New England because it’s too hard to succeed. I’m privileged enough that I can continue trying . . . to figure out how to make a way forward. I want to do that not just for me, but in solidarity with all of these other young people who are energetic and optimistic and idealistic. I want to join them in this work. I want to help them and others find a way out of no way.”
Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at jocelyn@jocelynruggiero. Follow her on Instagram at @jocelynruggiero1 or Twitter at @jocelynruggiero.