Partner Profile: Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming

This month’s Partner Profile piece on the Groundswell Center for Local Food and Farming was recommended to us by an FSLN member and Peer Learning Circle facilitator, Cheyenna Weber, after they had recently received the 2019 Community Food Funders Champions Award in “recognition of their efforts to train the next generation of sustainable farmers, targeting these programs to marginalized communities, providing business and technical assistance to help them flourish, and doing so with a social justice and equity framework.” Congrats to Groundswell Center and thank you to their Executive Director, Elizabeth Gabriel, and Fundraising & Development Manager, Natalie Hughes, for taking the time to share the story of Groundswell with the rest of the FSLN.
First question, who are we speaking with?
I’m Elizabeth Gabriel and I came to Groundswell after years working in and around DC in urban agriculture, food access and on an organic farm. I am so fortunate to have a job that enables me to integrate so many things I am passionate about and the ethics I believe in.
Let’s get grounded (pun intended) – can you tell us a bit about Groundswell’s mission and what you’re all about?
Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming is training the next generation of sustainable farmers in the Finger Lakes region of Central New York. We support individuals to develop agricultural skills and grow profitable, equitable and ecologically sound farm businesses. We work to dismantle racism in the food system by addressing inequalities in access to land and resources and prioritizing support for underrepresented producers including people of color, refugees, women and individuals with limited resources.
Our mission is to empower people from diverse backgrounds with skills, knowledge, and access to resources, so we can work together to build a more just, sustainable food system.
Why was Groundswell Center formed?  
Groundswell Center was formed ten years ago by a group of farmers, extension educators and community members to address an increasing interest in learning to farm and leverage the incredible expertise of existing sustainable farmers in the Finger Lakes. We’ve always had a commitment to creating an equitable food system with our work, but have really centralized and defined that commitment for our organization only in the last few years.

Who do you serve? 
Guided by our core values (, we believe that our food system cannot be truly sustainable without racial and economic justice including equitable access to healthy food, land sovereignty, and dignified, fairly-compensated food system jobs. Our constituency is majority aspiring farmers - people who have an interest in farming, but haven’t started yet often because they lack the resources to do so; beginning small farmers - people in their first ten years of running a business that gross from $1,000 - 250,000; and food justice activists.  We prioritize support for people of color, Indigenous, refugees, immigrants and people from historically and presently marginalized groups.
What specific needs are you addressing?  
As an agricultural non-profit organization, we are training the next generation of sustainable farmers. As a food justice organization, we have a goal to dismantle racism in the food system. Our intention is that our programs and services exist at the intersection of both of these and create pathways for beginning farmers and farmers of color to access land, resources, mentorship, and education.
What is one thing that makes your organization stand out?
We’re small enough to be nimble and redefine what success looks like for our audiences and adapt.  For example, while our current Incubator Program was originally designed to support farmers launching new commercial businesses, in 2019, 20 of the 28 participants in Groundswell’s Incubator Program are refugees from Burma. Most have been at the Incubator for more than 3 years, growing crops for their families and selling on a small-scale. Yet, none are interested in “graduating” to run an independent business, as was the plan when the Program was created. As such, we’re supporting the transition of the Incubator Farm site to a Community Farm, so these farmers can remain at the site and develop their skill and gain more autonomy.  It’s been critical to recognize key differences in culture, goals, and business aspirations for farmers from a variety of backgrounds, without discounting the impact of their activities.
Are there any organizations or individuals you look to as a role model in your work? Why? (Name just two please!)
I’m only allowed to choose two!? It’s impossible to answer this then J. Without my mentors and people who inspire me locally and globally, it would be impossible to work so hard to change a system that was designed to be unfair.  On a daily basis, my three co-workers are my biggest inspiration though.
Systems Leadership Approach
How does Groundswell Center partner with others to catalyze systems change?
We build multiracial relationships across sectors, identifying needs, dreams, visions and hopes to bring about food system change. Our efforts of centering equity and justice in our structure, approach and services require direction and guidance of many. We are thoughtful and respectful in our use of language internally and publicly so to heighten community voices and stories and avoid oppressive terms.  We strategize how to leverage our power and implement methods for redistributing resources we have access to. We prioritize hiring instructors that are rooted in justice-based values and represent immigrant and POC communities. Finally, as we’re one of very few rural-based farmer training organizations in the Country that center justice in our work; and we aspire to be a leader for other agricultural service providers, and an ally to people of color led organizations with similar missions.
Groundswell Center Learnings:
Given what you know now, what is one thing you wish you’d done differently as the organization developed?
Hmm, good question. I always want more time and resources for evaluation and strategic planning.  You know, as a farmer in the northeast, I rely heavily on the winter to reflect and plan for the next season, but as a nonprofit director, there’s never an off-season.  Just last year we were able to do some deep evaluation and reflection of our last 10 years. With that information, one of my goals for 2020 is to design in time and secure funding to support a two-year strategic planning process for us. Among other things, we really want to dive into the issues that make land access such a challenge and identify solutions, especially for farmers of color, and also strategize approaches to expanding the Incubator Program I mentioned already on other land. 
What is one of Groundswell Center’s proudest achievements?
Making it through the transition of our small organization from its founding Director to new Leadership and staff in 2016 felt like a big deal. And I’m thrilled that we’ve also achieved independent nonprofit status after ten years of fiscal sponsorship!  But at the heart of my pride is that our work is based in trust and authentic relationships. I’m grateful I have been able to build relationships at the community level, across sectors, Counties and even regionally, and also that our staff and Leadership teams take an active role in building these relationships too.  It’s all of us that move our equity and sustainability agenda forward with respect, integrity and accountability. It’s this collective dedication that makes Groundswell “work” and have positive and lasting impact.  
What is one challenge you’re facing right now? Anything your fellow FSLN members might be able to help with?
With the important shift of the Incubator Farm to a Community Farm I mentioned already, the biggest challenge we face actually is land access for ourselves – for the continuation and expansion of our Incubator Program as it was designed originally, to support farm business development. We’ve been researching models for land acquisition for farmers and ourselves and are considering a social impact investment model, a large capital campaign to purchase a large farm or securing a donation of land, but there are important considerations with all these options.  We welcome guidance on land acquisition (and anything!) from fellow FSLN members, and of course, we certainly welcome funding to support the purchase of an appropriate farm for the Incubator Program! Thanks for asking!
Have you created any useful processes/resources that you’re particularly excited about? If so, please share!
I’m really excited and proud of our Equity Statement ( and our efforts to truly implement the goals we’ve stated.  Two things that I’m particularly proud of are that for 2 years we have redistributed 10% of annual donations made to Groundswell to groups led by people of color. And the other is that we piloted an Agricultural Individual Development Account program in which refugee and farmers of color save overtime up to $1,000 which is matched 3:1, resulting in $4,000 growers must apply to support farm business goals.
Wow, I’ve loved learning about all the work that’s going on in central New York and am excited to follow along as you continue supporting your community. Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us!
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