July 21, 2020

An Interview with Emily Hanson of Whetstone Farm

The sustained and worldwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 have given hope that our society might actually listen and act meaningfully in response to the voices of BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) communities.

And “our society” includes you and me. We all swim in a racist society. And that racism weaves through everything, including the food system, and impacts who has access to healthy food, land, and agricultural credit. A recent Mother Jones article cites the following: “In 1920, nearly a million Black farmers worked on 41.4 million acres of land, making up a seventh of farm owners. Today, only about 49,000 of them remain, making up just 1.4 percent of the nation’s farm owners, and tending a scant 4.7 million acres—a nearly 90 percent loss…This didn’t happen by accident. Since Emancipation, Black farmers have had to fight for a share of this country’s fertile ground, due to a history of racist policies and land theft.”[i]

The following interview with Emily Hanson of Whetstone Farm describes Emily’s journey toward anti-racism work and the actions Emily and her partner Klaus took, in collaboration with organizations like Divine Natural Ancestry and the Black Visions Collective, to address the need for food during the protests in Minneapolis. Emily and Klaus and their friends butchered hogs and delivered pork in response. (Farm Table played a small role in providing certified kitchen space in which Emily and her colleagues could break down those hogs before delivering the pork to Minneapolis.)

In the below, Emily highlights how Whetstone Farm and other members of the Shared Ground Farmers’ Co-op are, in addition to the hogs, donating 60 Community Supported Agriculture local food shares/boxes to communities of color in the Twin Cities. Please consider contributing to support them in that effort. You can do so via this GoFundMe link: https://gf.me/u/x7buc9

Whetstone Farm is located just outside of Amery; Farm Table purchases lamb and vegetables from the farm.

Farming: Working Toward a Better World Now

Mike Schut: What drew you into farming?

Emily: I got interested in farming during college. I was an environmental studies major; I went into college thinking that I wanted to work in overseas sustainable development work.

My parents were Habitat for Humanity volunteers and lived in Haiti for two years. I grew up in the Methodist and Episcopal churches with a progressive and justice-oriented theology. I think as a young adult both my church and family background drew me to work toward solving world hunger and development issues. But that always felt far away. And in college I got more involved with environmental movements and environmental justice work and started seeing farming as a way to live out those values and dig into doing work in my own community; I didn’t have to wait until I had a graduate degree and had traveled and trained to get this dream job. Rather, I realized I could start engaging and working toward a better world now. So that’s what drew me to farming.

After I graduated, I started an urban farm with a group of other young people. I ran that for three years, farming in the working-class neighborhoods of South Minneapolis and Frogtown in St. Paul. Doing so led to wakeup call after wakeup call for me as a white girl from a small, very white town in New Hampshire. I just had no education around race.

For me, my journey of farming and self-discovery has always been very linked to anti-racism and learning what justice could really look like. I worked on an organic farm in New Hampshire for one year, but right after that I started running those urban farms and was very engaged with other organizations in the Twin Cities who were linking urban farming to justice work.

So, I have been trying to figure out what it means to be a white person working toward a more just food system. It’s a constant, constant, learning process. Farming fulfills my desire to work for myself and be outside, and I just love food and the tangible nature of growing it for people. So that is all true. But for me, a big part of why I keep farming is that it fits into this bigger vision of a more equitable world where people have sovereignty and live in resilient communities.

Klaus at Whetstone Farm.

My partner Klaus grew up in the Philipps neighborhood in Minneapolis; his parents were involved in the co-op movement and active in AIM (American Indian Movement, founded in Minneapolis). He grew up fixing houses and doing home repair. But when we met, he was ready to do something with his life that felt more like working towards some of those bigger ideals that he holds. He’s very good at working with his hands and problem solving. But he was tired of doing other people’s projects all the time.

And I was like, well, I’m going to farm!

We Have Space, We Have Resources, We Have Food

Laura Phoenix: Idealism is not quite the right word, but how have you kept your momentum going? A lot of people come fresh out of college with the ideals you are talking about. And then life gets in the way. But you’re still on that trajectory. How does that come to be?

Emily: My idealism as an eighteen-year-old looked different than it does now. I have a lot more cynicism about the world, and larger criticisms of global capitalism and racism and patriarchy. But those critiques make it all the more important to not get sucked under by negativity.

During college, I had a brief stint as an activist geared toward actions around “no new coal.” And that is really important. But I realized that in order to be able to sustain myself in this work I needed to choose a line of work that felt like it was moving towards a positive vision.

So being connected to the land, having some degree of sovereignty, and the ability to be resilient in the face of change feels really important.

It’s almost a joke amongst people of my generation: what are you going to do when the apocalypse comes? And Klaus and I have always been a bit more real about that. Where do we want to be? So we made the decision that we wanted to be in a position where we had land and the ability to share that with other people—not just to go hole ourselves up somewhere and try to stay alive, but to stay connected to our city and our community so that when things got really difficult we could say: we have space, we have resources, we have food.

It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. And then to feel it actually happening in real time has been pretty weird. While right now is not a full-on apocalypse, some big, big societal shifts have happened in the last few months and it’s felt really good to be able to say, to feel, like we’re on the right path a bit—where we are in a position to leverage the resources and privilege we do have to further the movements that we believe in.

The memorial at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis, the site of George Floyd’s murder.

Mike: It really strikes me that you are connected enough with a network of organizations and people in the Twin Cities so you could take action at such a critical time.

Emily: I want to make sure to say that we have been intentional about having a group of young people working with us who are also connected to organizing networks in the Twin Cities. There is no way, in the last week of May or the first week of June (following Floyd’s murder on May 25), that I would have been able to organize the harvesting of food, and the butchering of pigs, and the distribution of that food to those who most needed it without that network of people, all of whom were playing their unique role in all of this.

It is so important to remember that all of this work is not going to fall on any one person’s shoulders; we really have to pull together to make change.

Hogs and CSA Shares: Food for the People

Mike: Emily, can you just fill out our understanding, our picture, of what that collaboration looked like? How did it work out?

Emily: A phrase we’ve been throwing around a lot, thinking about a lot, is that a community is an ecosystem. You know, the state is not going to save us. They haven’t during this pandemic. They haven’t during this popular uprising. And the police aren’t necessarily there to keep us safe, especially if you are a person of color. So how do we as a community, as many communities, create an ecosystem of mutual aid, of support, of safety. There are just so many pieces. And they all have to kind of mesh together in beautiful ways. But, for us, as we heard and processed the news, saw how quickly tensions escalated, realized with alarm that our old neighborhood was burning…well, we saw people in need.

For me, it was definitely a recognition that my role at that moment—as someone living rurally, running a business, and raising two young children—was not to rush out onto the street and put myself in bodily danger. But I did immediately start to ask: how can we help, where can we fit in?

Then we began to hear calls on social media for food, from, for example, the Democratic Socialists who’ve been very active organizing on the street level, and a group we’ve been partnering with for a while now called Divine Natural Ancestry. That’s a group of three black folks doing urban food production and distribution for BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color) communities in the cities.

So, hearing that there was a need for food, knowing that we had access to food, having heard that we could get some pigs pretty inexpensively, knowing we had livestock trailers–a place to put the pigs…we just pieced all that together and tried to discern the needs and where we could fit in, We wanted to make sure the food got to those we knew who could distribute it.

It all felt so frantic that first ten days or so. But then we took a breath and remembered that this work is for the long haul. And it felt important to reconnect to a program we’ve started called Food for the People, which is connected to Shared Ground Farmer’s Co-op.

Food for the People is partnering with Divine Natural Ancestry to raise money to cover the cost of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares that will be donated to people of color. We’ve had that idea brewing for years.

So, currently, Food for the People is donating sixty CSA shares every week to people of color in the Twin Cities. For example, there’s an indigenous breastfeeding group and some transient homeless people who are receiving food. Our partners (like the Black Visions Collective and Divine Natural Ancestry) are doing all the distribution. We’re doing all the food procurement through Shared Ground and securing the funds to make all of that happen.

The food system is very broken. Good food is so excessively priced. There’s no perfect way to fix it. But we are working directly to raise resources from those who have enough to be able to get food to people who need it.

That’s our idea, our goal. And we are being really intentional about partnering with people of color, who are leaders and organizers doing amazing work, and trusting them to carry out the distribution of the food. We feel strongly that we, the white folks running Shared Ground, shouldn’t be determining who exactly needs this food. So that’s why we’ve chosen to partner with community groups.

We really trust those who are on the ground. And now we’re in week three of those CSA shares going out—hoping that that program can grow and shift and change to accommodate whatever the future holds.

It’s all social capital: having a network of people with many different skills; it all builds resilience, and everybody has a role to play…whether that’s butchering pigs, or making calls, or driving food to the city. I think it’s really important to recognize that everybody has a role to play in anti-racist work.

Swimming Upstream against Racism’s Walkway

Mike: How do you see your work in life? In a way it sounds like a calling, connecting farming to anti-racism and the vast inequities in our world.

Emily: I read a great book with our book club a couple of years ago called Raising White Kids by Jennifer Harvey. She’s a white woman; a professor in Iowa. She has two kids and writes very clearly, powerfully, and intelligently about anti-racist theory, about racism.

She not only writes well about the theoretical realm; she addresses these really practical scenarios related to things that have happened with her children. Like what do you do when your child points out a woman in the grocery store and asks, “Mom, why is she black?” She talks a lot about how we as white people cannot be silent. When we are silent, especially with our children, they automatically just fill in the blanks. They see difference. They see racism around them. And if we don’t interpret that for them, then they’re just going to fill that in with whatever the mainstream is telling them.

And I can identify with that as how I was brought up. Race was only talked about in the context of how we loved diversity, but diversity is a really vague thing for children to understand. And I noticed differences, yet no one would talk about it. The only time I really ever remember hearing about race was in my high school textbook. But then it was just presented as a biological fact—that there were these four races. That’s now proven to not be true. It wasn’t until college that I really learned that race is a social construction.

One of the metaphors Jennifer Harvey uses is this idea that racism is like a moving walkway, one of those airport people movers. That walkway moves us all in one direction; we’re all on it whether we want to be or not, doesn’t matter who we are.

We live in a racist society. We are on and in this structure. And we can’t get off. It is where we are. But we have a choice whether we want to just ride that walkway and let it take us wherever it’s going, whether we want to actually walk with it and be actively racist or not. We can choose to turn around, to face the other way. And then we can we can walk upstream; we can work with the people around us. We can start to question who built the walkway. Why are we all on here? How can we take this thing down? For me, that’s been a really powerful metaphor. It’s not about you and whether you’re a good person or a bad person and whether you are racist or not. We’re all on this thing.

I want to constantly be thinking about how I can walk upstream. I can move against the current of racism and also think about how to dismantle the walkway. Is there an off button; can we take it apart and use it to build something else?

I think that some of the important parts of that work are raising the next generation to think about racism that way. That it’s not just about personal decisions or personal biases; I think white people need to do a lot of inner work to recognize where we’re at and to work with other white people to understand how we got here. I think that’s a really big thing missing in our education.

For me personally I have been aware of injustice and racism for quite a while. Yet I noticed in myself that this particular murder and uprising feels different. I’ve been trying to figure out why. Partly it’s because it’s so close to home: turning on the news and recognizing all the street corners and knowing all the burned businesses. But the other thing is that I have also done a lot more reading and listening in order to intentionally learn about racism; I’ve been reading perspectives from people of color. I realize that has made an impact on my heart space and psyche and impacted my ability to absorb this event and actually feel it and put it in context. The more we can educate ourselves on an emotional and intellectual level the more we are able to engage with the news. 

Mike: Do you see connections between our response to the pandemic and the intensity of the protests and uprising?

Emily: Absolutely. Murders and brutality have been happening for a long time, but the fact that the protests have been so widespread and so sustained I think has to do with the fact that the “tinder” is really dry, when people have been unemployed in the extreme. This pandemic has laid clear just how flawed global capitalism is, supply chains are disrupted, and the government is not there for you in any meaningful way, particularly if you are working class, or a person of color, or oppressed in some way; then the tinder is really dry.

There are so many big, systemic issues and police brutality is one of those. I see this as part of a bigger popular uprising around the systems of power that are in place where the rich and powerful just have so much. People aren’t content with the crumbs.

I also want to highlight the hope that I see. Even though the mass media portrayals of the uprising and riots have focused on the violence, and sort of condemned the protests, I see a lot of hope in the ways communities in Minneapolis and across the country have sprung to action with mutual aid and conversations about mutual safety.

So much of that has been led by people of color who I see doing such amazing work. There’s a lot of hope there.

[i] “White People Own 98 Percent of Rural Land. Young Black Farmers Want to Reclaim Their Share.” Mother Jones. June 27, 2020, by Tom Philpott.

Resources for Further Education:

Thank you to Emily Hanson and Klaus Zimmermann Mayo of Whetstone Farm! Laura Phoenix is Farm Table’s Executive Director. Mike Schut is their Director for Programs and Community Partnerships.