Over the years through our work at our food banks, we’ve become acquainted with some amazing local farmers. In our Farm Partner Highlight series, we’ll be speaking with some of our recent partners at our food banks. This month, we spoke to Emma Shorr of Rising Sign Farm, who started partnering with us last year to provide fresh produce at our food banks:
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your history with farming, and how Rising Sign Farm got started?
I guess I’ve always been interested in food and food systems. From the time I was young, I’ve always liked to eat and cook and that sort of thing. So I’ve been excited about food from the time I guess I could eat anything. And then I went to college and studied global food studies and was really learning more about the global food systema nd food access and food justice. Reading a lot and taking everything in, working at restaurants and nonprofits, volunteering and doing internships around food justice in the area where I went to school. I really thought I wanted to do systems (well I guess I still am doing systems work), but I thought I wanted to do non-profit food distribution type stuff, more on the distribution end of food systems.
I moved to Seattle to do that. I got hired to work for a nonprofit, and I became a lot more politicized around that time about food sovereignty and just more radical in my politics about food. And I quickly realized that the nonprofit world was not for me. I didn’t like being behind the desk. I was pretty disenchanted with the nonprofit industrial complex and the way funding moves through the nonprofits. I had kind of farmed, like WWOOF’d (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and done different things all throughout college but didn’t think I wanted to do it full time. But I realized that’s what I wanted to be doing and I want to be working outside with my hands. And the best way to make a difference in the food system is to kind of like do it literally from the ground up.
Then I transitioned to farming full time, and I worked for a few different farms in the northwest, Present Tense Farm and Steel Wheel Farm. And I really learned so much from them. And then last year, 2020, I started Rising Sign. That was always my goal, to start my own project and have a really values driven, integrated farming practice where everything that is happening on the farm, from the way things are grown to the way things are distributed and sold, is very much aligned with how I would like the food system to work and how I want the world to be in many ways. So that’s why I do things like no-till [farming], and really limit my use of practices. Obviously I don’t use any pesticides or herbicides like that, and I don’t have any tractors on the farm. So there’s that kind of environmental aspect. And then doing things like a sliding-scale CSA and accepting EBT for my CSA, that’s been really integral from the beginning to try to figure out how to make this kind of food more accessible to folks and also working with places like you all, food banks, and mutual aid groups and figuring out how to get it to people who need it more than your typical Seattle Farmers Market customer.
I wanted to talk a little bit about farmers’ markets and food systems in general. I feel like there is a dated understanding of farmers’ markets, where people maybe conflate locally grown produce with a luxury good, or something that they don’t necessarily need if they can buy produce at the supermarket. Given that most people (myself included) are so disconnected from their food, and the fact that there is still rampant oppression and racism institutionalized in our food systems, it feels like choosing to shop at a Farmers Market or purchase a CSA for the year is a political act in itself. Does this resonate with your customers and do you find that folks feel like they are making an impact beyond their own food choices?
I think food is political. So it doesn’t matter where you get your food from, you’re participating in some sort of political act. If you go to the grocery store and get your food from whatever grocery store it is, it’s probably grown in California or Mexico and picked by a migrant worker who’s not paid enough. And that’s making a lot of assumptions, but, in general you know, we have a very messed up system of labor in this country and globally around agricultural work. And so you are participating in a political choice in doing that, even though the reality is that it’s usually the most affordable option.
But then when you’re buying from a small farmer or getting a CSA or going to the market, you’re making a very different political choice by investing in a smaller system that’s more grounded in a locality, more climate resilient. You can talk to the people who are growing your food to find out what their labor practices are. Are the people who they’re hiring paid well? Are they paying themselves? All these things that I think get really removed when you just go into the grocery store to buy a bag of carrots.
I think that’s something I feel very interested in and curious about in the long-term, is talking more to customers about the politics of our food. And I think the people who come to my farm and know me and get to know me through the produce are learning that through what we’re doing. So my hope is that we’re having some small impact on these people who are buying food about how food is grown and what the realities are. Everything from like, what is it like to be growing under climate change when conditions are rapidly changing and things are really unpredictable to “What are labor practices?” and when we hire somebody, what is that going to look like in terms of living wages?
So I think that definitely resonates with people and it’s also a really important part for me as a farmer to do that education with folks. To talk about why it’s important to be supporting such local food systems as opposed to larger, commodity crop system.
One other thing, in terms of white supremacy in food systems, I think that’s another level of thinking of the way that food is produced. Like the extractive nature of both the history of agriculture in the US and it’s current iteration. And, you know, our entire country is founded on a racist agriculture system that was exploiting both land and labor, and that continues to perpetuate today. So I think also, in knowing who is growing your food, you’re also making a political choice in that way, like are these people trying to undo the systems of exploitation and extraction of both land and labor, or are they just continuing to participate in it.
So you started your farm last year, that must have been a difficult time to start a farm to say the least. I would imagine that most small farms get most of their publicity through farmers markets, is that true? Are you having to do a lot of legwork online to tell your story?
I was planning to go to the Farmers Market last year and did not because of COVID. But honestly I think, this is a really weird situation where it was like “this is a crisis” and everybody felt that crisis, both on the consumer and producer side, but it also created this really intense interest in local food. So I don’t feel like I had to do that much advertising. We made videos and participated in things for Eat Local First, which collaborated with Tilth Alliance and they did all these promo videos for CSA farms. But by the time that video was set to come out for us, our CSA was already sold. So it was kind of like this funny thing where there was just so much interest all of a sudden, that even now we have more people that want to joint the CSA than we have room for.
Rising Sign is a one-person show, that person being you. How do you do it?
Technically, I’m the sole person who owns and operates the farm, but ironically also because of COVID last year I had a ton of unexpected help. My partner was out of work and a bunch of my housemates were out of work, so I just had all this help on the farm because they wanted something to do and it was a safe thing to do. So that was really kind of a blessing in disguise. And then this year, I have two folks who are doing a work trade. Two days a week I have people coming out to help, which is great. But again, ultimately, I would like to be able to hire someone and pay a living wage and not have it be a one-person show. Because the reality is, it’s like really long hours I work. My neighbor, friend farmer Ari at Kamayan Farm, she and I always joke that if you ask us about our work hours it’s like, “Well, what time do I wake up in the morning and what time do I go to bed?” Because we’re pretty much working the whole time in between. So, yeah, it’s a lot of work, but [my farm is] also really small. I lease an acre and I cultivate about three-quarters of an acre, so I’m trying to be somewhat reasonable in my ambitions, I guess. But there’s always an endless to-do list.
But I honestly couldn’t do it without the support of my community and the people who do come out to volunteer. It’s alone, but not alone!
What has been your biggest farming challenge lately?
As far as big picture challenge, land access is a huge challenge. I mean, I’m super fortunate to be at the place I’m in right now. I got in there through a program with Snow Valley Tilth, called the Experience Farming Project. They have leased the whole property from the owners and were subleasing it to the farmers who all shared the land collectively. And that was a really great program and system, but they actually had two properties and could only manage one, so they left the one that I’m at. So that feels kind of tenuous. I mean it’s always tenuous when you’re a tenant farmer, right? Because the landowners could decide to sell. Who knows what could happen next year. I’m on a year to year lease, so I think land access is a really big challenge. And in this area, you know, land is so expensive and valuable so trying to figure out how to do that for the long term. Our landowners are really great, they’re pretty hands off, but you just don’t know. They don’t really want to work with a bunch of farmers so that feels challenging, since I share the land with two other folks. So that feels like a big picture challenge.
And just in terms of growing things, this is my sixth season farming in the valley but it’s still only my second season running my own operation, and I think I’m just learning a lot. This spring has been really hard on the farm, honestly. There was the big heat wave in April that I wasn’t prepared and the farm has suffered because of it. You know, farming just throws challenges at you that you don’t necessarily expect. I’ve had a lot of pest pressure and trying to figure out how to manage that. And just trying to figure out how to have consistent production. Last year, the farm was super productive and I was like, “Wow this is great, I’m doing so well!” and I wasn’t really expecting that. And then this year has been a little bit more challenging and so there’s just lots to learn, always.
Is there a crop or cultivation method or anything new that you’re excited about trying this year?
I expanded my cultivation from last year, so I’m to be growing more long-season crops. So we’re growing dry beans for the first time, which is really exciting. They’re like heirloom beans, but they dry on the plant instead of like a fresh, green bean. Like a black bean, but it’s not black beans, if that makes sense. I’m growing some popping corn, which I’m excited about. And I’m growing a lot more allium this year which is very exciting. So I did over-wintered onions, and I’m growing some onions this summer, so I’m excited to be doing more things like that.
Anything you’d like to say to the FamilyWorks community? An Instagram to follow, maybe?
[laughs] Oh sure, follow me on Instagram, @risingsignfarm! But also just, yeah, keep doing what you’re doing, and it’s really heartening when places like you all who are doing emergency food distribution can support local farmers. And it’s a really helpful partnership so I am really happy to provide food to you all when I can and I really appreciate that you all are supporting small farms.
Being a small farmer is challenging, so having the support of more people and educating the people you know about the importance of supporting small farmers and shopping locally is important work!