Growing Food Justice Through Urban Farming

A group of youth work in a community garden

This episode about justice-centered urban farming initiatives in Dane County, Wisconsin is the sixth and final piece in the series Ground Truths: Stories from Wisconsin’s Frontlines of Environmental Action. This six-episode podcast series highlights environmental justice issues across the diverse communities and landscapes of Wisconsin, from Milwaukee to the Northwoods. The series is supported in part by a grant from Wisconsin Humanities, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Series editors: Carly Griffith (lead), Clare Sullivan (lead), Ben Iuliano, Justyn Huckleberry, Marisa Lanker, and Juniper Lewis.

Summer is the time of year when you can find people out in their gardens and farmers out in their fields. Here in Madison, Wisconsin, it’s the season when the Dane County Farmer’s Market takes over the Capitol Square every weekend and people flock downtown for the bright bouquets of flowers, vegetables, and freshly baked bread.

Wisconsin state map. Dane County is highlighted in green. Map design by Carly Griffith.

Despite these scenes of summer’s bounty, agriculture and food access have a deep-rooted history of disparity and racial injustice in Wisconsin. While places like Pleasant Ridge, a farm community and refuge for formerly enslaved people in Grant County, thrived in the late nineteenth century, by 2017 there were only 73 Black farmers left in the state. Nationally, as of 2020 only 1.4 percent of farmers in the country are Black. In response, there is renewed interest in food sovereignty initiatives that address these disparities and empower communities to feed themselves. In this episode, we talk to leaders of two community programs in Dane County that are working to expand agricultural access and food justice for Black communities and other communities of color in Wisconsin.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ben Iuliano: On a Saturday morning in July, I drove to the Farley Center, a nonprofit organization that hosts Urban Triage’s Supporting Healthy Black Agriculture (SHBA) program. I came to join their weekly Saturday morning class and talk to the program lead Ruthanna Hutton-Okpalaeke. Urban Triage was started by CEO Brandi Grayson following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. They are committed to supporting Black families through transformative justice and education.

Ruthanna Hutton-Okpalaeke: Urban Triage was started in the backyard of our CEO, with the first season being last year, and we’ve expanded drastically from her tiny backyard to the half-acre plot we have now. Urban Triage has programs like rental assistance, that supports people affected by COVID and making sure their rent is getting paid every month. They have Unhoused Neighbors, where they help individuals who are in need of housing find those resources. And I believe in this last year, they permanently housed over 200 families. Urban Triage is based in transformational education, so focused support for the Black community. So, understanding that racism and white supremacy affects all systems, including agriculture and BIPOC communities who are largely affected by things like food deserts, and lacking access to grocery stores, so that this was in response to that. Historically, at one point in history, 14% of farmers were Black, and owned a significant amount of land in the United States. And since then, today, they are less than 2% of farmers. So, they’ve drastically declined. And there are reasons for that: discrimination. 

Ben Iuliano: Disparities like this inspired the creation of the Supporting Healthy Black Agriculture program, which involves a 12-week course where Black families learn the basics of growing their own food, along with the history and context of our current food system. For Ruthanna, the education that the kids get both inside and outside of the classroom is environmental justice work.

A child holds up a freshly harvested beet. Photo by Ben Iuliano, July 2022.

Ruthanna Hutton-Okpalaeke: We talk about the flaws in the system that we have, knowing that we can’t feed the entirety of our community on this little half acre of organic farming, but showing that we can do it intensively and following practices that do put a focus on environmental balance. We’re showing them that there are ways you can improve systems that are already here and reduce their detrimental impacts on the environment. The kids are geniuses and they just blow me away every class. So they really take to it, and they really care. And I believe that in the future, they’ll also want to protect it and find better ways to live within it.

Ben Iuliano: For more advanced farmers and food entrepreneurs, Urban Triage also runs a farm business development program

Ruthanna Hutton-Okpalaeke: People can complete this program and get as intensive into this program as they like. The first step is just getting you out here comfortable in this space, with the tools and the steps to just grow something. It’s very simple at its core, and letting them expand from there. If a participant was interested in pursuing agriculture, we would help them figure out how to get licensed, how to find other resources, like the Farm Service Agency and the Small Business Development Center, so that they can pursue these things.

We also want to support the existing Black farmers that are already in Wisconsin. The statistics on the amount of money a white farmer makes compared to a Black farmer is shocking, I believe the annual income is $17,000 for like a white farmer, and about $2,000 for a Black farmer. So they’re struggling, and we want them to be profitable, to build wealth, to expand their businesses. And we know if you’re a farmer, you’re busy. When they find the grants that they can apply for, we’ll help them finish the grants, we’ll help them find a program that will give them additional training that will help them expand their business or their infrastructure.

Ben Iuliano: I also asked Ruthanna about what challenges Urban Triage has faced in running the SHBA program this year. Ultimately, Ruthanna believes that partnering with the Farley Center to host the SHBA program outside of downtown Madison has been a very worthwhile endeavor.

Ruthanna Hutton-Okpalaeke: When I started, the location was still Brandi’s backyard, and she gave me the space to see what I could do. I think she only had four garden beds in her backyard, which was great for the first group, but I really want this to expand and be more accessible. So I started looking for larger spaces, and space is a commodity in Madison. We have a lot of nice parks and stuff, but places where you can garden can be harder to find. And I wanted to let as many people who want to participate in the program be able to, so I was looking for a larger space. And so in that process, through other organizations, like Rooted, I heard about the Farley Center, and I called them and we scheduled a time and talked about the program, and they got right on board with it and have been so supportive. I really wanted the kids to have access and see other farmers farming here and be able to see themselves doing it too, and just have this vast green space where they can just be themselves and have fun.  

A child examines a frog at the Farley Center. Photo by Ben Iuliano, July 2022.

That is really the point for me, to just let them be curious. Let them scream at frogs if they want to or spit out a pea if they decide they hate it. But just letting them build those memories and this sensation of being out in nature and growing food and it being normal for them. That’s what I want, just them understanding how these ecological systems work, where their food comes from, and how they fit into this space, and knowing that they do fit into this space.

Clare Sullivan: As Ruthanna alluded, agricultural and food justice organizations in Dane County often overlap and collaborate. For example, Urban Triage hosts their programming at the Farley Center, a space that was recommended by Rooted. Rooted itself is a collaboration between two previously separate organizations, Community Groundworks and the Center for Resilient Cities. Here’s Rooted’s Education Director Sarah Karlson explaining the history of the organization and her role in it.

Sarah Karlson: Rooted is a merger of two community organizations, the Center for Resilient Cities, which operated and managed the Badger Rock Center, and also manage the number of projects in Milwaukee. And then Community Groundworks was the organization primarily based on the north side of Madison, and that’s another urban farming education organization. And we merged into one entity called Rooted. Our mission is growing community through collaborations rooted in food, land and learning. We also made a commitment as an organization to center our work in racial equity. So we’ve been doing a lot of work within our organization to move along on that lifelong journey of creating an organization that’s based in racial equity in our communities through a food justice lens.

Badger Rock Urban Farm is located in a neighborhood identified as a City of Madison food access priority area in South Madison. Photo by Carly Gittrich, July 2022.

Our main urban farming sites are also healthy food access improvement sites in Madison. Madison was one of the US cities that was redlined by the Homeowners Loan Corporation. And what that means is lenders would strategically not give loans in neighborhoods that were primarily BIPOC, or lower income neighborhoods. You can still see the repercussions of redlining today, the red lined neighborhoods from way back then, are also the most diverse neighborhoods in Madison, the north side, the south side, and parts of the east side. And those are the places where our three main urban farming sites are also located. And now those three parts of town are also designated as healthy food access improvement areas. And a huge part of our work is building relationships within the communities where we work. And it is a an ongoing process, it’s not something we’ll ever be done with, the pivoting and changing and being responsive to our community is really a lifelong journey.

The Badger Rock Farm Stand sells organic vegetables at affordable prices. Photo by Carly Gittrich, July 2022.

We have a number of different aspects of healthy food access that we address through our work. We provide produce, both for sale and at our Troy Farm and Badger Rock locations. At two of our youth education gardens, we grow produce for education, but also for the Goodman food pantry. We have also managed to raise funds to be able to distribute some of the Troy farm produce in CSA boxes at no cost through our community centers and neighborhood centers in Madison. And we really try to make our produce accessible. We accept SNAP and EBT at our farm stands in markets as well. And so, we kind of we have the charity model of food donation, we have a low-cost model at the Badger Rock Market. But really though, the charity model is hopefully something that is a short-term solution as we work towards supporting food sovereignty in general in our communities, which is community control of food systems

Carly Gittrich: Paul Huber is the farm director at Troy Farm, located on Madison’s Northside. After struggling with land access as an independent farmer, he saw an opportunity working with Rooted’s community agriculture projects.

Paul Huber: This is my fourth season and my role is managing specifically the Troy farm location, which is one program of many programs at Rooted. And so that involves overseeing and working a little bit with production and marketing and the education program. I’ve been working in organic agriculture since about 2006. My wife and I actually ran our own vegetable farm for six years in the Milwaukee area, at first in the Fox Valley area, and then the Milwaukee area. And we met some pretty serious challenges on our farm, including losing access to land we were renting. This job, this position became available right at that time, and it was perfect timing for us to be able to transition into a new phase and so we moved to Madison in 2019. And it’s been been wonderful ever since. 

Troy Farm is located in Madison’s Northside neighborhood, an area that was historically redlined. Photo from Rooted Facebook page.

Troy Farm is located on a 26 acre property on the north side of Madison. The property is owned by the Madison Area Community Land Trust, so there are actually certain rules about how it’s managed. It has to be managed organically, we cannot use any pesticides, synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. There’s a prairie area that’s designated to stay in prairie, and community gardens areas near the south side of the land. It’s really cool, the diversity of stuff going on. And there are also a lot of nice walking trails and spaces for people to be, a lot of fruit trees—we have a food forest area, and some volunteer mulberry trees all over the place. It’s a wonderful space. The Northside community is it’s an amazing community. It’s absolutely gorgeous—there’s tons of green space, wonderful businesses, a wonderful community of people. It’s one of the most diverse parts of Madison. And unfortunately, also, one of the poorest part of Madison. The city has a food access improvement map that highlights where there’s areas of food access challenges, and we’re smack dab in the middle of that.

Clare Sullivan: Much like Ruthanna and Urban Triage, the Rooted staff members also view youth education as a crucial part of their work

Troy Farm stand sells Jamaican food made with veggies grown on the farm to support youth empowerment initiatives. Photo from Rooted Facebook page.

Sarah Karlson: We have a kids garden that’s located at the Troy farm location—that is a field trip site for lots of the community centers up there, youth from those neighborhood centers take regular field trips to the kids garden to do gardening and cooking and art and culture. Badger rock is another space where we do youth education. And we here we have a strong partnership with Badger Rock Middle School, which is a public charter school that focus is on urban agriculture, sustainability, and social justice. We lead a daily garden class for the school and we also collaborate with core class teachers to get food justice and food sovereignty concepts into the classroom, and to get students out of the classrooms into the gardens and the kitchen with us as part of their learning. Whether it’s growing or preparing food, you can connect almost any kind of learning to a garden: there’s social-emotional development, any concept in science, math, social studies. There are so many connections possible.

It’s really amazing seeing the informal relationships and information sharing and story sharing that happens in these spaces, intergenerationally. Most of our growing locations are a combination of community garden, educational gardens, and production gardens. Seeing the trainees and the youth and the elders and the families and people just coming out and building community together organically in the space independently of our programs—I feel like that is the beauty of the spaces that we have, natural spaces for people to build connections and share and learn from one another.

Featured image: Participants garden at the weekly Saturday morning class hosted by Urban Triage at the Farley Center. Photo by Ben Iuliano, July 2022.

Podcast music: “Weatherman” by Wolf Man Summit. Used with permission.

Ruthanna Hutton-Okpalaeke is the Agriculture Program Lead at Urban Triage, where she handles all aspects of agricultural programming. Contact.

Sarah Karlson is the Farm & Education Program Manager at Rooted, where she manages the 2-acre Badger Rock Urban Farm and Badger Rock Community Garden and provides gardening and culinary-based education opportunities. Contact.

Paul Huber is the Farm Director at Troy Farm and has worked as a farm volunteer, laborer, manager and a farm owner since 2005. Contact.

Let us know what you think! We look forward to reading your response (50-500 words).