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with Willow Blish of Slow Food East Bay
photos by Keng Vang

 “Our work aims to reflect the diversity and breadth of the East Bay, a truly vibrant multi-colored community. By highlighting farmers of color and bringing to the forefront the challenges they faced, we hope that even casual Slow Food observers will ask more questions and be more curious about the inequities in our farming communities.

What is the Sister Farms project? Who are you and what is/was your role in the project?

Sister Farms was a nonprofit emergency distribution channel meant to create direct connections between rural farmers left with excess produce and urban CSAs and meal distribution organizations experiencing high demand.

Specifically, Sister Farms aimed to support immigrant and small-scale farmers of color—those most likely to fall through the safety net of USDA grants and other emergency funding—and we worked to find markets for their crops. By teaming up with local urban CSAs flooded with requests for produce boxes, we were able to supply them with produce so they could expand their capacity, feed more people and earn more money.  We were also able to do our part to help alleviate hunger in our communities by subsidizing donated boxes for families in need through these CSAs and our partnership with the NorCal Resilience Network.

Slow Food East Bay acted as administrator, order taker, bookkeeper and distributor—lending our hands and time wherever it was needed to help farmers move crops that might otherwise go to waste and ensure that they received cash on the spot for their goods and labor. We connected organizations and people, acting as a conduit through which others could do their great work! 

How and why did you conceive of the project?

Sister Farms was created by Slow Food East Bay in March 2020 as a response to Covid-19 business shutdowns. We observed urban farm CSAs running out of available produce for local consumer delivery and rural farmers suddenly being left with excess crops after large scale distribution slowed.

We had just wrapped up our year-long Cultural Food Traditions Project, a series of dinners celebrating the ways in which immigration has shaped the global food system and the roles that immigrants play in making our local food system delicious and sustainable. Given our ties with various immigrant communities, we immediately started making calls to see how they were faring and what we might able to do to help when the shutdowns began.

Who does the Sister Farms project benefit? What farmers in particular were you hoping to support?

We aimed to support immigrant communities in particular and farmers of color in general. Language barriers, cultural isolation and lack of technological skills keep many small-scale farmers locked out of grants and loans and unable to nimbly change sales channels at times of crises. By helping create direct sales lines to possible buyers and consumers, our hope was to help these farmers find more buyers for their produce and create stronger ties between our urban and rural farms.

What did the logistics of the project look like this year?

We were a pretty straight-forward distribution company – getting fresh lists from farmers, compiling them into an order form that was sent out to prospective buyers, taking orders and forwarding to the farmers, accepting deliveries and helping with last mile distribution and then invoicing the accounts.

We raised money through Go Fund Me and grant writing in order to fund the delivery costs (nearly $600/week) as well as donated boxes of produce to families in need ($300/week). 

In 30 weeks, we worked with 48 farmers and did nearly $50,000 in sales, $8300 in donated produce boxes and covered $12,000 in delivery costs.

Did you partner with any other local organizations to bring this project to life? How did that collaboration ensure that you could meet the goals of the project and best serve your community?

Yes! We found farming organizations with connections to local farmers in need and connected with urban CSAs and aid organization to make sure donated food was distributed effectively. Our role was to create the pathways and try to make them as smooth as possible in the middle of a very rough period. We partnered with:

Community Alliance with Family Farms
Asian Business Institute and Resource Center
Acta Non Verba
O2aa
SF New Deal|
NorCal Resilience Network

How is the Sister Farms project a response to the goals and mission of Slow Food East Bay?

Our work aims to reflect the diversity and breadth of the East Bay, a truly vibrant multi-cultural community. By highlighting farmers of color and bringing to the forefront the challenges they faced, we hope that even casual Slow Food observers will ask more questions and be more curious about the inequities in our farming communities.

What were some of the challenges of the Sister Farms project?

Oh Boy. Language translation and cultural behavior from the Hmong farmers was a dance and a tremendous learning experience! Figuring out the ins & outs of distribution, as completely naïve outsiders, establishing ordering processes and protocols with no money to purchase a software or system. Every week’s order had something go wrong – an item missing, the wrong one sent, packaging that was not appropriate. We wrote a lot of “I’m so sorry, but…” emails. And in the end, finding sales accounts. As the pandemic and the shutdowns wore on and more and more businesses closed, it was hard to be out there ‘selling.’ And we were selling good quality, true-cost-of-food priced items, which put them out of reach of many places skimming by on small margins.

How did the National Resilience Fund Grant help the project?

We were able to fund a month of delivery costs with the $2000 grant, hurray!

What kind of feedback have you gotten from farmers and/or vegetable buyers/recipients?

Everyone was very proud to be a part of this project. Farmers were grateful for cash in hand and urban buyers loved the quality of the produce!

Will you continue the Sister Farms project in 2021?

This was set up to be a temporary project, in response to an emergency. Originally planned for six months, we continued into eight months and have turned ownership of the relationships and processes over to Cecilia Lara of Yeyi Organics to continue. Our plan is to stay as a supporter for her and hopefully use some of our relationships to stage events (virtual or in person) that highlight some of what we learned.

What has given you hope or brought you joy in working on the Sister Farms projects? Is there a moment that really captured they ‘why’ of your efforts?

Videos of Hmong farmers getting checks from our program, their first income in two months.

Seeing articles written about the farming communities left behind in funding, knowing that our work helped bring them to people’s attention.

Getting fresh, raw peanuts from SouthEast Asian farmers and introducing people in North Berkeley to the glory of southern boiled peanuts. Muticulturalism!

Knowing that a business, Yeyi Organics, was launched after the founder, Cecilia, a Mexican immigrant daughter of farmworkers, volunteered with us and saw the ways in which small scale LatinX farmers (especially women) were being treated by large scale aggregators.