Hidden in the hills and valleys on the New York-Connecticut border is Rock Steady Farm, a queer-owned cooperative farm that is making waves in their community when it comes to food justice and sustainability. Their sliding-scale CSA and Food Access Fund programs are bridging the gap between low-income community members and fresh, organic produce. Founded in 2015, the farm has grown substantially in the past six years and currently reaches over 500 families through their CSA, spread all over New York State.
The motivation behind their work is simple: providing high-quality produce for everyone, celebrating BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ identities, and using sustainable farming practices to combat the climate crisis.
We spoke to co-owner Maggie Cheney about the importance of food accessibility, combating climate change through farming, and amplifying queer voices in rural environments. (Note: this interview has been edited for clarity)
We’d love to get to know you and Rock Steady. How did the farm come to life?
I’m one of the founder-owners, so I’ve been with Rock Steady for almost six years. My partner at the time D and I were looking to move out of New York City. We got the opportunity to start Rock Steady when a farmer in this area was moving to Spain and he offered up this incredible piece of land. Angela [co-founder], D, and I started the farm in 2015. We had been farming for a long time, so had a lot of experience to be able to go pretty big pretty quickly, which not a lot of other farmers are able to do necessarily.
Let’s talk about the community you’ve created with other farms, your CSA members, your Food Access Fund, etc. What is the impact of these partnerships, both on the farm and on the community?
Partnerships are really key to everything that Rock Steady does. We try to focus on creating a safe, healthy, and vibrant work culture on our farm, and we have a lot of diversity in our team. We are able to connect with so many people from a place of deep knowing and deep connection. It has made the most sense as we’ve grown our food network to work directly with our community. It’s also really important for us to work with people locally, so there’s a nice balance between who we feed in New York City and upstate. The Food Access Fund and CSA members we have upstate are really important to us because we feel like we are a bridge to a lot of communities [across the economic spectrum]. The impact is very profound. It’s been six years of doing this work, and there are some members who have been here since the very beginning and to hear from them how their health has changed, their mental health as well, with our food, is big. The connection that our CSA members have with this queer rural community has been really life-changing for some people. We have teenagers whose parents signed up for the CSA as an answer when they were coming out, and that — plus them being able to see different types of role models in the LGBTQ+ movement, other than urban-centric queers — has been amazing.
You’ve said that actions like the Food Access Fund are important, but they’re “band aid” solutions. What do you mean by that?
We definitely call the Food Access Fund a band aid, because I think the systemic structural issues that exist in our country are much bigger and a lot harder to tackle. It’s like “here are some solutions we can do on the ground, here are some ways we can work with the broken system,” but the system is completely messed up. It’s based on the historic oppression of people of color and funnelling of money to large corporations. So there’s a huge approach to policy change which I think is really important. The other piece of it is just economic inequities within communities themselves. There’s a lot about access to education, financial stability, housing stability, etc. within the communities that we’re serving. I think there are many different ways we could be tackling hunger and access to food, and we’re just one of them.
Rock Steady seems like an active example of a truly intersectional space. It’s about creating an inclusive space for sustainable farming. Do you see Rock Steady as a part of a larger solution to create a safe space for and eradicate gender binaries in agriculture?
That’s a huge focus of Rock Steady. It’s something that I have been working on my whole life as someone who is non-binary and queer and grew up in the farming world. I didn’t have role models that I could look to who were out and gender expansive, so a part of my own life path has been trying to figure out how to tackle those issues in different spaces. And at Rock Steady, we’re trying to create this example and break through some of these stereotypes and binaries and create something that’s really thriving. Through our food we work with a lot of people, but also through social media and the education we can do in our newsletter, we try to tackle all of those things. The food world is really gendered and really hetero, Farmers face that daily with how we’re perceived in the world and how we work with tractor mechanics or loan officers. If you’re trying to get capital or a loan and you’re not in a hetero couple that’s married or inheriting your family farm, it’s just different. You don’t have the same access points. About 92% of all farms are called “family farms,” which are defined by a man and a woman being married, so that’s your norm. What we’re trying to do is create a business structured cooperative which is more inclusive to the queer community, who are often more open to different types of relationships and people. To me, it feels very important to get more of those people, more people of color, etc. into farming in communities that feel safe. That’s what our world needs.
Can you tell us more about your organic farming practices and what organic means to you?
We farm organically, but are not certified. We have really strong communication with our consumers and members, so it’s never been a challenge for us to do it without the certification. If we were trying to get into Whole Foods or something like that, or an organic only farmers market, we might do it differently, but that’s not the case. So our practices are organic, but the core of it is really soil health. To us, that’s what drives our farming practices and it’s a challenging thing to do at our larger scale — 9 acres of production every year — while also trying to pay our farmers a living wage and have a stable business, I think there’s so much more that we could be doing in terms of soil health and caring for the land, but we are doing the best job we can… I think that there’s a really great community of farmers in this area, too. There’s a lot of small or medium-scale farms with people who are doing awesome practices. We’re learning all the time how to be better farmers.
Turning Green’s mission is to inspire young people to take the future of the planet into their own hands. Is there any advice you would give to young people interested in sustainable agriculture, combating food insecurity, and working in farming? And especially to LGBTQ+ folks and young people of color?
I say: do it, it’s a fantastic field of work. There’s more and more people of color, more and more queer people who are getting into agriculture and I feel like it just needs that next wave of a younger generation to tip it over the edge. There’s a real power in people just really getting into work that feels like they’re really making an impact. And farming can be incredibly fulfilling work.