A fairer, more just food system

Catskill Mountainkeeper aims to make it happen

Posted 7/29/20

REGION — Who remembers walking into the grocery store—say, in late March—and seeing empty shelves?

Of course you remember. That’s an image we associate with developing …

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A fairer, more just food system

Catskill Mountainkeeper aims to make it happen


REGION — Who remembers walking into the grocery store—say, in late March—and seeing empty shelves?

Of course you remember. That’s an image we associate with developing countries, maybe, or the bread aisles just before a blizzard. Seeing it here for months on end was a shock.

Iris Fen Gillingham and her panelists on Catskill Mountainkeeper’s recent webinar “Regional Solutions: A Conversation on Transforming the Food System in New York State” are out to do something about it.

It’s not a matter of sourcing food-service packages instead of buying the usual goods; they aim to change the supply chain itself.

They aim to be innovative.

“It is the beginning of some important conversations... around how we can transition our food system to make it more equitable,” for all involved, she said.

Gillingham grew up on Wild Roots Farm in Youngsville, NY with a 150-person community-supported agriculture program. “I saw my family work really hard to help feed the community.”

Then she got involved in the climate change movement. “Agriculture is a very big piece of that,” she said. Think chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and that’s just the beginning. Those chemicals, she explained, don’t just affect the food we eat. They harm the workers who are exposed to them, day in and day out.

A corporate-driven food supply chain “falls through when you have a pandemic. So [people] turned to their local farms,” Gillingham said.

Agriculture also offers a way to fix the supply chain. “We can improve our soil, this is not new science,” she said. And at the same time, “we can improve farms’ bottom line.”

The panelists reflected all those concerns: Alice Diehl, of the Diehl Homestead Farm, who has been active in fighting corruption in Big Agriculture and for fair milk pricing; Gabriela Quintanilla from Rural & Migrant Ministry, who spoke about the exploitation of farm workers; Liz Henderson from Agricultural Justice talked about the need to get involved; and Wes Gillingham from Wild Roots and Eugene Thalmann from Sprouting Dreams Farm in Liberty, NY discussed what the pandemic showed us and what farms can do.

Now we have “a real opportunity for people to pay more attention to agriculture than in the past,” Wes Gillingham said. “How people farm is how people interact with the land here.”

Dairy farmer Alice Diehl has deep local roots: Her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all worked the farm, said that farm life is demanding and the corporations behind modern agriculture don’t make things easier for small farmers. Unfair milk pricing left them dumping milk and taking an unsustainable financial hit, so they pivoted. “We took our hobbies that we did for fun and did something productive with it,” which helped compensate for the losses on the milk. “That’s how we survive... we transition to other things that help us stay alive during this period.”

Gabriela Quintanilla emigrated from El Salvador as a child, a path that led many into farm work here, where exploitation is common. Now Quintanilla works with migrant farmworkers as the Western NY coordinator for the Rural & Migrant Ministry. “They love to work the land because that’s what they did in their home country,” she said. But they also want to learn about their rights and how to get better working conditions.

During the coronavirus, Rural & Migrant Ministry has worked to get masks for workers, Quintanilla said, and provide information so people would stay safe. “A lot of the time, farm workers live in very crowded spaces,” she said. “There’s this culture of not valuing farmwork,” which leads to people not being compensated for what is, really, risking their lives to feed us all.

She called on farmers to come together, to remember that the workers are part of the farm too. Contribute financially to organizations that support workers. “Have the hard conversations with family and friends.”

Elizabeth Henderson talked about agriculture and its effect on climate change, “Those of us who care about farms, and local farms, and local food production really need to pay attention to” those committees and organizations making change. Investments need to be targeted to communities impacted by the pollution that modern agriculture can generate. People need to get involved with local government. “Establish a relationship with your local representative,” she said. “Join the Farmland Protection Bureau. Join your planning board.”

“This year I received more thank-yous for being there than ever before,” said Eugene Thalmann from Sprouting Dreams Farm in Liberty. He emphasized the importance of a healthy diet and that anybody, everybody, can grow their own food. Which is good. “We’re going to need more farms locally to support more people.”

“The system has put us in a place with extra injustices,” said Gillingham. “It’s a human rights issue. How can that food get to our tables in a just way?”

See the webinar for yourself at

For more information on Catskill Mountainkeeper, call 845/439-1230 or email; for Rural & Migrant Ministry, visit; and for Agricultural Justice, visit


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