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Karen Washington, The Queen of Urban Agriculture

By Jill Henderson

Karen readies raised beds in The Garden of Happiness.

It all began in 1985 in the Bronx, when a young physical therapist named Karen Washington, a single mom with two young children, bought her very first home. Right away, she decided to grow a little garden in her yard — something she had never done before. She knew nothing about gardening but decided to do it anyway. She wanted to grow collard greens because she loved them, and eggplant because it was weird, and tomatoes because she hated them. She had heard that homegrown tomatoes were nothing like the pale and tasteless ones from the corner store. And a few months later, when the first dark-red tomato was perfectly ripe, she took a big bite and was hooked.

A few years later, Karen was working in her garden when she saw a man in the empty weed-filled lot across the street digging with a pick-ax and shovel. She went over to see what he was doing and he said, “I’m going to grow a garden,” to which Karen replied, “I want to help!” And before she knew it, the Garden of Happiness sprang from the barren land where once nothing but weeds and rubble had been.

Today, the garden is filled to the brim with raised beds that house a wide array of fresh fruits, flowers and vegetables. There’s also a high-tunnel, a chicken coop and beehives, among many other things. Some of the beds are maintained by individuals, while others are collectively tended by volunteers to produce fresh food for folks in the neighborhood who couldn’t afford to buy it and for the local farmer’s market that Karen would later help establish.

The garden is also a classroom where people of all ages come to learn about healthy food and farming, the history of the black and brown people who live in the Bronx, and social justice issues surrounding racism and food inequality.

“What I try to do is to give people information that is sometimes not disseminated in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. When people start using the term food desert, I’m like, wait a second folks, they’re calling where we live a food desert?” she said. “I ask, what’s this term and why aren’t people really looking at the root cause, which is hunger and poverty and racism?”

“It doesn’t get at the heart of the problem, but sort of whitewashes what’s happening behind the scenes. I’ve been really outspoken when people talk about communities of color and don’t live in our community,” she said. “It’s important that we sit down with young people and educate them about how we got here and the contribution that blacks have made to this country. Because these things are not in our history books.”

Jane Hayes-Hodge, Lorrie Clevenger, Michaela Hayes-Hodge & Karen Washington at Rise & Root Farm

Urban Agriculture

A native New Yorker, Washington attended Hunter College and earned a master’s degree in occupational biomechanics and ergonomics at New York University in 1981. She moved to the Bronx from Harlem and by the time The Garden of Happiness was well underway, Karen saw her community’s need for an advocate. She got involved in the NY Botanical Garden’s program, Bronx Green-Up, and joined the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she cut her teeth as a public speaker, organizer, and lobbyist for the protection of empty lots being used as community gardens. She was co-founder and president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, and in 2001, co-founded La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition, which started the very first fresh, locally produced food market in the Bronx.

Over the last 30 years, Karen has been at the forefront of the urban food and social justice movement and has been involved in dozens of organizations that promote those ideals, many of which she either founded, co-founded, or sat on the board. Some of these include the NY Botanical Gardens, the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, In Our Own Back Yard (IOBY), Women, Food & Agriculture Network, NYC School of Urban Agriculture and the City Farms Market in the Bronx.

Karen’s tireless work has been featured in hundreds of articles, documentaries, interviews and television shows. In 2012, Ebony named her as one of the most influential African Americans and in 2014 she was presented with the James Beard Leadership Award. In April 2021, Washington was featured in the Weather Channel’s Faces of Change series. Her work and words have inspired millions of young people of color to get back to the ancestral farming roots that predated slavery by thousands of years.

As a result of all this, Karen has often been referred to by her peers as the Queen of Urban Ag.

“I’m humbled by that,” she said. “I’m not caught up in titles, I’m just doing the work that needs to be done. I guess I’ve stirred up some pots along the way, but I think when you come from a place of truth and justice you become fearless and unapologetic. Why should you not speak up when you see injustice?”

Her work as a physical therapist taught her that many of the chronic illnesses that her patients suffered from were caused by a lack of nutritious food options in the local grocery stores. And when Karen lost her brother to complications from diabetes in 2010, it motivated her to double down on her efforts to fight for justice and equity in the local food economy.

“You go over to the white neighborhoods and they have all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables and organic and healthy choices, and then you come to the Bronx and all we get is crappy food that’s high in sugar and fat with little or no fresh produce,” she said. “We are marginalized by the color of our skin.”

Slavery, Farming and Politics

Two of the most wonderful things about Karen Washington are her fiery passion and contagious smile, both of which you might experience while she explains the history of African American slavery, northern migration, land ownership and the loss of almost every right granted to whites, including the right to read or write, practice religion — even to marry or own land. She points to the Black Codes of 1832, which were directed primarily at free slaves prior to emancipation but would continue for many generations. She also points to Jim Crow and segregation laws that, in some southern states, weren’t ended until the mid-1970s.

“After the Emancipation Proclamation, General Sherman was going to sign the 15th Order [Special Field Orders No. 15], which would put over 400,000 acres of land into the hands of newly freed slaves. But after Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson stepped in and said, ‘Hell, no. That’s not going to happen.’ He rescinded the order and put the land back in the hands of white slave masters. Can you imagine what that would have meant to newly-freed black people to have that much land?” she said. “As a result of those decisions, we lost a lot of our legacy.”

Karen explains, “If you look at the history of how wealth was built in this country you will see that blacks were continuously denied. Even as they tried to move forward they were driven off of the land by unjust laws and into the cities for factory work. Some tried to find a better way, but by leaving the land, they left their wealth and their legacy,” she said.“I’m 67-years old and when I was growing up even the mention of farming was equated to that of a slave mentality. That thinking has trickled down throughout our history and survives to this day.”

Karen admits to feeling that way herself, even after working in Garden of Happiness for several years. It was 2008 and she had been accepted into a 6-month internship at the University of California Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, (CASFS). Out of 40 interns, Karen was the only black person. When they came to the 9-acre farm field, Karen suddenly felt fear and apprehension.

“All of the sudden, those things in my head started to surface. I thought, ‘This is slave work. What am I doing here? I don’t belong here.’ But then I said to myself, ‘Look, you have two options. Either you get back on the train, to the plane, and go back home or you gotta face your demons.’ And I remember going up to the edge of the farm field and something just overcame me and compelled me to put both of my hands in the soil,” she said. “There was a quietness. I’ll never forget that sensation; that connection of belonging.”

Farming While Black

Karen’s experience at CASFS challenged her in many other ways during those six months. As part of the program, the group toured several working farms. And everywhere they went, Karen said she kept asking, “Where are the black farmers? Where are the farmers that look like me?” So as part of her end-of-the-season presentation, Karen decided that hers would be based on the 2002 PBS documentary, Homecoming: The Story of African-American Farmers by Charlene Gilbert and Quinn Eli. She called the USDA Census Bureau to find out exactly how many black farmers were in New York and the man on the phone said, “There are 57,000 farmers in the state and 116 of them are black.” Karen said she froze and for a moment, lost her voice. Finally, she said, “Can you say that again?”

As soon as Karen returned to New York she called her friend, Lorrie Clevenger, and they decided right then and there to start a conference specifically for black farmers. When she asked a white man (who she won’t name) that she knew who had experience hosting conferences what he thought about her idea, he said, “Karen, black people don’t want to farm. All they want to do is play music and sports.” Those hurtful words only spurred her on and within a few months, the first Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference (BUGS) was underway. Karen said that everyone, including the speakers, pitched in to help. They paid $200 for the venue at Brooklyn College and worried if anyone would come. But they did – over 500 of them.

“I had been to farming conferences and workshops before and there never were more than a handful of people that looked like me. And this was the first conference where black people saw black farmers, black speakers, black authors, black statisticians, black chefs, black everything,” she said. “And they were telling us about the system, and the southern farmers were telling us stories of pig foot soup and all the things they were up against as black farmers. Those black farmers were passing the torch to us.”

Today, BUGS is going on its 10th year and at 67-years old, Washington says it’s time to pass the leadership torch onto a new generation of black farmers and growers. “It’s time for new voices and a new outlook,” she said. “I will always support BUGS but I want to step down and step back because it needs to go in a new direction and I’m excited to see what the future of BUGS looks like.”

Rise & Root Farm

The spring after Karen returned from California, she and her friends Lorrie Clevenger, and Michaela and Jane Hays-Hodge (who are now married), discussed their shared dream of owning a farm. In 2012, all four women took the Farm Beginning Program at GrowNYC, which helped them define their goals and make a plan. By 2014, they started searching up and down the Hudson Valley for land when Karen met a man on a bus tour who told her about the Chester Agricultural Center (CAC) and gave her a number to call.

“I was hesitant because I didn’t want to be rejected,” Karen said. “But I called anyway and the guy on the other end said come on up. So we did.”

CAC is comprised of 270-acres of fertile black dirt with roughly 40% organic matter. Every farm at CAC must adhere to organic methods and are encouraged to achieve their organic certification. Not only did the land suit their needs, but their principles of the organization mirrored their own and the cooperative nature of the community of small farms was a welcome bonus. Rise & Root leased their first three acres of land and not knowing how to do it any other way, built row upon row of raised beds.

“We took our skills from growing in the city and used it to grow on a large scale,” said Karen. “It was a huge learning curve and it took a lot of work to switch from growing in small spaces to growing in large spaces. But we did it.”

Karen retired from physical therapy work after that and currently spends her weekdays at Rise & Root and weekends at The Garden of Happiness.

“We are going into our sixth year on the farm and have one full-time and two part-time people working for us,” she explained. “And we just leased another three acres of land, so now we have six acres. We’re growing a ton of vegetable starts for community gardens and we sell our produce in markets in Union Square, the Bronx, and Kingston. We believe that everybody, no matter what their income, deserves to eat our food. So we make sure that happens.”

“When we first got the land we wanted to grow everything,” she continued. “And because we are a for-profit farm we have to make money. The first year we were growing three types of collards and kale and a lot of crops that were labor-intensive but brought very little money, so we had to go back to the drawing board and find out what our niches were…what we could make money on. We still grow other things, but our five specialty crops are lisianthus flowers, edible flowers, and medicinal and culinary herbs.”

And in a twist of sweet irony, Karen said that Rise & Root Farm is best known for its vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes.