Using regenerative farming techniques to cultivate the land sustainably, while also ensuring that all fresh produce and meat yielded from the farm go directly to people
Sky High Farm in Hudson Valley, New York
Ora Wise and Dan Colen are each ensconced in bucolic settings on a cold day in late January, in upstate New York. Colen dialed in from Sky High Farm, his current home base and sixteen hectares of land which have yielded over sixty-six tons of fresh produce and meat for food pantries and food banks in the Hudson Valley and in New York City.
Wise is close by, at an antique restored inn in the Catskill Mountains, on her way to meet with Colen to continue in-depth discussions about the future of the newly minted nonprofit of which she will serve as executive director. With all the ease and playfulness of old friends, Colen and Wise launch into a discussion of food equity, art and activism – even though the two only recently met and forged what Colen describes as a cosmic connection.
Colen admits that he ‘stumbled’ into food equity work and farming when he first bought the land that became Sky High Farm, and had been working with a number of food banks and food justice organizations based in New York City when he learned of the work of FIG (Food Issues Group) – a grassroots collective of food and hospitality workers in New York City who organized direct relief efforts in the wake of the crushing economic consequences of COVID-19 restrictions.
The beginning of Sky High non profit
It was then that Colen was put in touch with Wise, cofounder of FIG. «I decided to make Sky High a nonprofit. We’ve done the same thing for the last nine or ten years, but only about three or four years ago was I able to recognize the crossroads of regenerative farming and food justice», Colen says.
«That’s a point in which people can have a new understanding of the whole issue, and of the solution. In these times, where people are obsessed with where their food comes from, they are interested in nutrition and regenerative farming, and the average person knows and has read or heard about but doesn’t acknowledge this. To save the planet, we have to farm differently. If we treat our planet better, our food is going to taste better. This system is set up to farm for less than one percent of the population. Regenerative farming doesn’t matter on its own».
Regenerative farming techniques
Sky High has the ability and vision to do both: using regenerative farming techniques to cultivate the land sustainably, while also ensuring that all fresh produce and meat yielded from the farm go directly to people who are hungry and communities that are struggling with food insecurity and lack of access to fresh food. In making the farm into a nonprofit organization, Colen hopes to amplify their impact, and, with Wise at the helm, broaden and deepen their partnerships with food equity organizations in the Hudson Valley and New York City.
Wise, whose background is in media and art-based education for movement building, found a synergy in these two facets of her work. «The interdisciplinary model at Sky High for doing food system change work, along with and through culture shifting and collaborations, is the key to the kind of change we need. Although I have worked in and around the nonprofit world all my life, I’ve always been wary of placing my work in the container of a 501c3 because of some of the constraints and limitations and some of the staleness and hierarchy that Dan was referring to. There was openness and an emphasis on innovation when I talked to him and everyone on the board, and this was a group of people and a project that had the determination and the capacity to level up in the ways that we need».
Ora Wise – food equity and background
Wise grew up around food, as her father’s family – Ashkenazi immigrant Jews who came to the U.S. from Palestine in the early 1900s – had a kosher food business which later became international. Her mother was also a baker, and Wise noted that she «grew up vegetarian, at a time when that was less prevalent». The moment that she first committed to food equity work, came as she was teaching digital storytelling workshops to Palestinian youth in the West Bank. Her focus was on enabling the young people to «transform the trauma of oppres- sion, while creating media that could be used in confronting and raising consciousness about it». While there, she realized that the shop in the refugee camp was like a bodega, as corner stores are known in New York City.
Stockpiled with processed foods produced and packaged elsewhere, and sold at higher prices to the refugees, many of whom were formerly farmers who had been displaced from their land by the Israeli occupation. «Seeing the way that food was playing a role in the literal apartheid system, that was destroying and displacing people both from their lands and preventing access to cultural and necessary food traditions, and then Puerto Rico too, keeping these communities as captive markets for big food, corporate food, I made that connection», Wise says. «Then also the double-edged sword of food is, which is that it is also a tool and weapon for resistance and cultural preservation. That was the moment in which I started focusing, and spent some years as a chef running my own food businesses, trying to do it ethically, and sustainably, so that I could understand, and not stay outside of the food system saying you should compost, and you should pay your workers a dignified wage, but being able to understand what are the barriers to that, how is the system designed, so that I can change. I found that you can, it just takes effort and commitment, but you can and we’re doing it».
Lampoon review: Sky High Farm a nonprofit
Colen discovered his passion for food equity as he started to learn about farming while figuring out what to do with his own piece of land. He first bought Sky High Farm as an act of ‘self-care’, and said that in many ways personal transformation continues to be the foundation of his work in the food equity space.
«My evolution in this happened all at Sky High. I created it with little understanding of what the implications would be», Colen says, noting that in the process he learned that food insecurity and the food apartheid is as much about not having enough food as it is about not having access to nutritious food. Colen reflects on the link between the creative force inherent in farming, and his vocation as an artist. After transitioning Sky High Farm into a nonprofit, Colen says that «for many years I struggled to understand whether I was a farmer or an advocate, but now, I say I’m an artist. I’m looking to make my creative process an educational experience. As opposed to mastering things or getting better or refining things, I’ve decided to seek out new experiences and new mediums and formats to work in. Somehow, we think of artists as being different or unique, or even the career of an artist or what it means as the experience of an artist, but humans are all the same, and the further down you go into an industry, the more defined it’s going to be. The Idea that I’m supposed to use charcoal and paper and paint and brushes and that’s what it means to be a wild and creative individual in 2020, is ridiculous».
The artist continues, «Sky High creates things and shares them, hoping that there’s a transformational experience. That’s what I always meant to do as an artist». Wise relates to Colen what she finds to be a ‘deep irony’: she had originally left her work as a media and arts educator to focus on food full-time because she was tired of working as a producer, facilitator, and educator of artists who wanted their work to be engaged with in a more active way.
Colen and Wise’s future projects and internship programs
In the future, Sky High will pilot an internship program for alumni from the Bard Prison Initiative, which will connect returning citizens to internships at Sky High Farm in which they will learn about regenerative farming practices and food equity.
The program, Colen says, will serve «as a pipeline to work in the city in these industries: namely food justice and fresh food. Through this programming we’re envisioning a bigger loop of exchange between bringing in youth from the city to be a part of the same internship program, to be mentored alongside the Bard Prison Initiative alumni, and it kind of goes full circle». Wise adds that the three, interconnected impact goals for the farm going forward are to: to provide more nutritious, ethically and sustainably sourced food directly to people experiencing food insecurity.
Long-term food security in communities
To develop partnerships with community-based organizations in the communities they’re serving – along with fellow regenerative food practitioners, mission-aligned farms and local food distributors – to build the collaborative infrastructure needed to create more long-term food security in those communities.
Finally, to use resources generated by Sky High Farm to not only increase the production on their forty acres, but to also source from mission-aligned farmers and work with local food businesses. «Every dollar we raise then has a triple impact», Wise says.
In addition to grants and other forms of funding, another aspect of Sky High’s funding model will rely on purchases that people can make from different brands and products that will be sold on their platform, opening up their donor base.
«The nonprofit world is also packaged for a wealthy elite group of people in the same exact way as the art world is. It’s crazy because the work that we’re doing is about inclusivity, yet I realize as we become more impactful and grow these relationships, this world is about exclusivity», Colen says.
Dan Colen purchased a plot of land in 2011 and moved to Ancramdale, NY. Over the past nine to 10 years, Colen has built and developed that land into Sky High Farm, which uses regenerative farming methods to cultivate and donate fresh produce to food banks in New York City. In 2020, Sky High Farm became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
She is a media and art activist educator, chef, and food equity activist and organizer is the organization’s first executive director.