Photos by JD Urban Photography
Karen Washington has her hands in the dirt. At Rise & Root Farm, the three-acre property she runs with three other women in Chester, she keeps her pulse on the soil. She knows what it needs to grow her herbs and tomatoes, just as she knows that, if she’s not careful, it will invite a whole host of weeds to thrive within it.
A retired, African American woman from the Bronx, Washington manages an enviable for-profit farm with friends in the heart of the Hudson Valley’s Black Dirt region. More striking, perhaps, is that she didn’t hit her stride as a farmer until she ended her 30-year career as a physical therapist and pursued a passion that had long pulled on her heartstrings. With planning, perseverance, and a whole lot of guts, she made her dream into a tactile, visceral thing.
Unconventional as Washington’s path is, the arc of her narrative is far from an unusual one for women in the Hudson Valley’s food industry. With paths riddled by unforeseen challenges, hard-won successes, and more than a few “Why am I doing this?” moments, the local ladies who mold and shape the region’s food scene have forged incredible paths to get where they are today.
Up for the Challenge
Washington started farming in her backyard as early as 1985 and spent years contributing to community gardens in the Bronx and New York City. She completed a few apprenticeships as well, but nothing compared to starting Rise & Root in 2014. Needless to say, “challenging” doesn’t even begin to cover all that it took to get the farm up and running.
“We learned quickly we were in over our heads,” Washington admits. “We were four women, and we could not keep up with the weeds. The black dirt grows the best vegetables and the best weeds.”
Not only did she and her co-owners lack the real-world training, but they also struggled to find their place as minority women (of color or sexual orientation) in an industry that is overwhelmingly white and male. According to Washington, of the 58,000 farmers in New York State, only 168 are black. The statistic was one she dove deep into the census report to discover after seeing not a single person who looked like her at the national farming conferences she attended.
“[The conferences] were talking about diversity of cattle and plants, not farmers. No one mentioned the diversity of farmers,” she says. “You can’t talk about diversity and equity when you have a class of people who are being denied.”
Like Washington, Patti Jackson faced her fair share of obstacles in her past life as a pastry chef. Now the chef and partner at Saugerties catering company Kitchen at Shale Hill Farm, Jackson began her culinary story in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington D.C., where she came face-to-face with poverty, sexism, and cultural discrimination. In the kitchen, she grew accustomed to criticism from French pastry chefs for her American roots and often found herself as the only woman in restaurants with full rosters of front- and back-of-house staff.
Having entered the industry prior to the evolution of chefs into “rock stars,” as she describes them, she wrote her own narrative as a trained chef in a culinary sector that was overwhelmingly a) male and b) French.
“There was so much going on that I didn’t think that much about being a girl then,” she says. “As long as I stayed in the pastry world, more of the challenge was being American.”
Yet for Jackson, who lived on her own at the time, the dangerous dance with poverty was the greatest struggle to overcome.
“[Being a chef is] learning to live on the edge of poverty.”
“[Being a chef is] learning to live on the edge of poverty,” she observes. “That’s part of what makes you a cook, what makes you fall in love with the business.” For her, living paycheck to paycheck was a study in resilience. Not only did it force her to build an admirable work ethic, but it also taught her to appreciate the money-saving value of staff meals and cheap beer after work.
“You have to power through it,” she says. “When I was poor, I worked harder and got better jobs. You have to learn to work with what you’re given, to somehow either adapt or move forward.”
Yet even the roughest of stumbling blocks couldn’t dampen the sweetness of victory. With Jackson, for instance, establishing herself as a successful restaurant owner — with a Michelin Star, no less — made the endless hours in someone else’s kitchen worth it. The critical praise she received for Delaware and Hudson, her now-closed restaurant in Williamsburg, was a personal win, and one that reaffirmed the strength of the place and culture she had created.
Such affirmation was also critical for Phoenicia Honey Co.’s Rebecca Shim, who, like Jackson, left the Brooklyn restaurant scene in favor of the farm-to-table aura of the Hudson Valley. After a chapter as the owner of New City Café in Brooklyn, she migrated upstate to become executive chef at Menla, a mountain spa and retreat center in Phoenicia, where she worked from 2001 to 2013. She later worked as a private chef in the Hudson Valley.
In her downtime outside the kitchen, she began keeping bees, a hobby that eventually introduced her to Phoenicia Honey Co. When its founder, Elissa Jane Mastel, retired from the company and offered Shim the reins, she stepped up as an entrepreneur. Although the early days of business ownership were trying, since she had to learn branding, sales, and social media from the ground up, she found her footing. In autumn 2018, she celebrated one of her greatest successes to date when she moved Phoenicia Honey Co. into its first production space and participated in the Farm & Food Funding Accelerator through the Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corp (HVADC). As part of the program, she received assistance to create a business plan, funding, and even a grant for marketing development.
“Growing sales is of course the most important, but until production, distribution, and marketing are mastered, sales can only grow incrementally,” she says. Thanks to the support she’s received from HVADC, she and her team have been able to a new production space at the Phoenicia Arts and Antique Center, which allows them a greater retail presence.
A Guiding Force
Although Shim is on a roll with Phoenicia Honey Co. nowadays, she’s quick to admit that none of it would have happened without a great deal of hard work and a few mentors along the way. In the early days of her career as a chef, she worked under the skilled eye of Edna Lewis, the acclaimed African American chef and educator known for her championing of Southern cooking in America.
“She was 75 when I worked for her right out of culinary school and a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement,” Shim says. “She helped me to understand the importance of ingredients and simple preparations.” That understanding is integral at Phoenicia Honey Co., where each jar is a locally sourced, lovingly crafted affair that allows the pure sweetness of raw Hudson Valley honey to shine.
“[Edna Lewis] helped me to understand the importance of ingredients and simple preparations.”
Just as Shim relied upon the expertise of a leading woman in her field to guide her, so too did Kasha Bialas. Yet where Shim drew on advice from an acclaimed chef, Bialas found a mentor close to home: her grandmother.
“She ran the farm with her husband until he passed away in 1965,” she says, adding that her grandfather’s death left her grandmother as a 45-year-old widow with six children and a farm to juggle. “She was a boss bitch who had to be tough and definite and make choices. If she could do that, [then] I’ve got that in me.”
Indeed, Bialas is one tough cookie herself. She runs Bialas Farms, a third-generation farm in New Hampton, with her mother and father, and is also a full-time mother to Thomas, her teenage son who loves all 55 acres nearly as much as Bialas does herself. In the early days of her career as a farmer and working single mother, however, she struggled to find balance.
“Almost 16 years ago, I made the difficult choice to keep my son with me at the farm, instead of sending him to daycare so I could work unencumbered,” she recalls. The decision was not an easy one, and meant long days with her baby strapped to her as she tackled chores and worked the market; but it also meant she was able to breastfeed and make time for both of her passions. Her dual roles as a farmer and caregiver conflicted as her son entered his toddler years, yet Bialas knew that, in the end, she would persevere just as her grandmother had done.
“It’s really an amazing thing to watch the transfer of knowledge and passion that goes on between [my son and my father]. I’m really grateful that we have this chance.”
Today, Thomas is often side by side with his grandfather in the fields, learning about farm equipment and growing cycles and anything else his family will teach him. Although Bialas is adamant that her son’s path in life is his choice, she’s happy to witness the joy he brings to the dinner table whenever he learns something new in the field.
“It’s really an amazing thing to watch the transfer of knowledge and passion that goes on between [Thomas and my father],” she enthuses. “I’m really grateful that we have this chance.”
Food and the Future
As a family farmer, a woman farmer, and a mother to boot, Bialas has her finger on the pulse of the past, present, and future of life at Bialas Farms. She knows what it took to get the farm to where it is today, just as she understands first-hand the dedication and patience required of the next generation to get it where it needs to go. From her post in Orange County, she’s witnessed the changes that have rippled across the farming industry in recent years. Many of them have impacted her farm directly, including the push to become more educated about food and its origins.
“We teach people how to use our produce and eat like a farmer,” she says. Such a practice is easier now that she and her parents made the decision to stop selling at farmers’ markets in 2016. Although they valued their community presence at the markets — not to mention the additional income — the physical and emotional demands of schlepping produce from one corner of the Hudson Valley to another became too much to bear. Now, they keep their market right on the farm, using it as a home base for their market and CSA shares. Although their choice to leave the regional market scene was a sacrifice in some ways, it was also a victory that enabled them to rededicate their efforts to their farm, their family, and, ultimately, their legacy.
Over in Chester, Karen Washington also faces the question of legacy, albeit of a slightly different sort. As part of a team of minority women farmers, she hopes to create a legacy for those who, like her, don’t fit the stereotypical mold. To do so, she’s cultivating a presence as a helping hand, not just in the Hudson Valley, but in New York City and across the nation, as well. She’s seen for herself the sheer lack of people of color in the farming industry and she knows that, unless conversations occur and educational resources become more readily available, the demographics of farmers will remain largely unchanged. She founded the first Black Farmers and Urban Growers Conference in 2010 and continues to go out of her way to speak with government officials about challenges within the industry. In 2014, she won a James Beard Leadership Award for her drive to spark real change in an industry that’s grown too comfortable with sameness.
“Who are the future farmers going to be?” she asks. “People with power have to give it up or share it.”
While she recognizes forgoing such power is more than a little uncomfortable, since it forces those who possess it to own up to the lack of equality in their field, she cites it as a critical first step to provide more opportunities for minority farmers and underprivileged farm workers who need them most. For at the end of the day, it all comes down to forging a path that guides the present generation, just as it lights the way for those to come.
“We want to make sure there are people who can follow in our footsteps and be proud of who they are,” she says. “At the end of the day, there’s one race of people, and that’s the human race.”