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You Can Teach a Man to Farm: Interview with Connor Vaughn, Farm School NYC

Connor Vaughn of Farm School NYC.
A group of people planting items in a garden
Farm School participants. All photos curtesy of Farm School.

Connor Vaughn is the Program Director of Farm School NYC, a farm education program founded by a collective of farmers, activists, and educators. I currently intern at Farm School, and sat down with Connor on March 29, 2018 to learn more about the organization’s philosophies behind education and food justice, as well as the potentials of urban agriculture. 

Can you tell me about Farm School’s origin story? How did it come to be, and what movement/moment did it arise out of?
Farm School began as a collective vision in the late 2000’s founded by a group of urban farmers, gardeners, educators and activists. The early organizers realized there are so many resources in New York City – many diverse community gardens and urban farms, a network of supportive greening organizations, and excellent educational opportunities. At the same time, they knew that people needed a way to gain a comprehensive farming education. A network of individuals and groups came together over the course of several years to plan the school. A number of the founders went through the CASFS program out in Santa Cruz. Farm School NYC finally opened for classes in January 2011.

Connor Vaughn of Farm School NYC.
Connor Vaughn of Farm School NYC.

Who/what communities participate in Farm School? How do you ensure that Farm School is an accessible, welcoming environment?
During the student application process, we make sure our student body reflects a robust image of all of the different people that live in NYC and comprise the field of urban agriculture. We look for students ranging in broad categories such as age, geographic location, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race. We have an explicit intention in centering people of color, as we strongly believe that addressing structural racism and racial equity is key to transforming our food system.

In terms of time and financial accessibility, we strive to make our Citywide Certificate program as access as possible by holding classes on weekday evenings and weekends, and having sliding scale tuition. One way we craft a welcoming environment is by creating an ongoing set of “community agreements” at the beginning of each program in order to build a sense of community where everyone has the opportunity to weigh in on how the community functions.

Can you describe the philosophy behind education at Farm School?
Farm School is rooted in popular education and student-centered learning. We believe that everyone’s life experiences are valid, and that everyone is an expert in their own experiences. In this sense, everyone has something to contribute to the learning experience. Furthermore, as agricultural education, we believe in placed-based learning and the value of coming to understand land and plants through sharing time together. Both the Citywide and Farm Intensive program balance extended periods at growing sites with field trips to various locations around the city.

How do you see urban agriculture playing a role in fixing the problems of our food system? In other words, why is urban ag. important? What are its potentials?
So, we will never deceive ourselves into thinking that cities can grow all of their own food through urban agriculture—that just won’t happen. In a broad sense, urban agriculture allows city dwellers opportunities to develop greater understanding of their food system, nurture community, and become less dependent on the corporate food system. It also allows communities of color that have historically been forced off of land and marginalized in cities to rekindle connections to land and plants.

A group of people working in a garden
Farm School participants.

As a farm training program, we want to strengthen ties between urban and rural growing as well. Some of our students end up moving to rural communities and farming there. Our goal is to empower students to move forward however they would like, whether that be growing in urban or rural areas.

At Farm School, we talk a lot about food justice and food sovereignty. Can you explain those concepts a bit and how they play a part in the Farm School model?
Of course! My personal understanding of food justice stems from a reaction against all of the injustices in the United States’ current food system. It encompasses justice for everything food related, from farmworker labor to structural racism, to environmental policies and the restaurant industry. Food sovereignty is the ability and right of communities to self-determine their own food system in the face of the global corporate food regime. I’ve seen food sovereignty connected to broader international peasant movements like La Via Campesina, while food justice tends to be more centered in the United States. Food First has a really great article defining and comparing food justice, food sovereignty, food security, and food enterprise as they relate to broader transnational systems.

Food justice is the backbone of Farm School’s curriculum. It’s one of our foundational courses, and is tied in throughout each of our courses. Farm School is an urban agriculture training program grounded in food justice. In some ways, I see food justice as a path in the direction of food sovereignty. In this sense, we are training people to be food leaders working towards food-sovereign communities.

Can you tell me about some cool projects that have been started by the Farm School community?
​I am so grateful to be in community with such amazing people! ​So many shout outs. Many teachers and founders have been doing inspiring things for a long time, from Farmer Yon at Hattie Carthan Community Farm in Bedford-Stuyvesant, to Lorrie, Karen, Jane, & Michaela at Rise and Root Farm. Rock Steady Farm upstate, and Owen Taylor’s seed keeping project TrueLove Seeds. Molly Culver’s involvement at numerous sites and Sheryll Durrant at New Roots and Kelly Street in the Bronx. A number of students are involved at La Finca del Sur in the south Bronx, and Ysanet is a cofounder of Woke Foods. The list goes on. I truly feel humbled daily to be part of such an inspiring community!