Amanda Nigon-Crowley–Planting Equal Roots
Tell me a little bit about yourself–how did you become involved in your current work?
I'm a. mental health practitioner by trade and also a farmer. After starting my family, I was looking for part-time work and started working with the Diversity Council in Rochester. That's where I met Kim Sin, who is a strong advocate for the Cambodian community and also for all marginalized groups. He's also an entrepreneur, always starting new business ideas, and he has a very creative mind.
We got together and talked about how there was this need in his community–the Cambodian elders felt very removed from society, and many of them were looking for access to land to grow their own food. With my passion for community health, and mental health and a background in farming, I have a lot of resources in Rochester, so it just made sense for us to combine our energies. We founded the Village Agricultural Cooperative in 2019 and have really grown from there with a lot of great community support and partners.
How would you describe a community garden?
I would describe a community garden as accessible land and water, where people can grow what they need for themselves and for their families. In our community gardens, we grow a lot of culturally specific foods. We have over 22 countries represented within the Village, and we grow foods from all over the world. That’s what community gardens are, for recent refugee populations–they are really important in helping preserve a lot of those indigenous agricultural practices, recipes, and traditions that are so important to preserving culture.
Could you talk briefly about the process of gathering information about the needs of a community, and how you engage with them?
The biggest thing is just being present–we meet them on the ground. During the first two years, we talked to a lot of people about what they needed, what the problems were, and where the best areas for land access might be. For example, some people need it to be on the bus line, some don't want to travel very far, or they don't want to travel to neighborhoods they're not familiar with or don't feel comfortable in…really just being able to have a place where they feel safe and where they can work together.
In your opinion, what are the benefits of engaging with larger organizations or institutions like Mayo Clinic?
I do think it has strengthened our community, particularly our Latino community and Spanish-speaking communities. Mostly, that has been due to Mayo Clinic bringing Spanish-speaking leaders into the community on a routine basis and building relationships. For example, we see the same farmers coming and attending events over and over again because they've gotten to know Miguel (Valdez). They feel comfortable asking him questions because they not only trust Miguel, but can relate to him in their own language, and they also know that he represents a major medical institution.
Financially, Mayo has really supported us so that we can continue our program–that is extremely beneficial because we don't seek much in terms of fees from our farmers, but we do have a lot of expenses. Sadly, farms are not cheap to operate!
On the flip side, do you see any challenges to partnering with larger organizations?
Early in our process, United Way approached us and asked us to write a grant. But they had stipulations and wanted us to survey our farmers and obtain their demographic information, their income levels. We weren't willing to do that–we don't want to treat our farmers like they are research subjects! Many already feel like they're not part of the community, so we don't want to “study” them like some sort of specimen.
We haven't seen any of that from Mayo Clinic. It’s just something that we're conscious of while working with a larger institution–that we keep the privacy and the respectful nature of our farmers and growers in mind so that they continue to feel comfortable carrying on what they're doing.
Do you include the farmers and growers in decision-making like land development or planning and management?
Definitely! For the first two years, they just watched and didn't interact too much. But now, as we built trust, and built a really strong community, several of them have developed as leaders who are very comfortable in vocalizing their needs and getting things done.
We rent the land at all of our locations and initially, our farmers were nervous to approach the landowners. Again, that's another relationship we have really fostered and built so that they (farmers) now know, I can do this on this property, or I can go and talk to Matt (facility manager) if I can't get hold of Amanda–there's been a lot of confidence built.
What are the challenges regarding health disparities, in the communities that you work with?
Honestly, our people are healthy, physically. But what I hear over and over is the financial stress they're under and their workloads. We've been working closely with three Latina farmers, doing some research on tomatillos. It’s going super well, but two of them have taken extra jobs working in hotels. That’s very physically exhausting for them! They also have young children. I think it's the financial stress that they face, and the exhaustion of working multiple labor-filled positions, laboring on their farms, and caring for their children.
So how do community gardens and agricultural co-ops help in reducing these challenges and health disparities?
I think a community garden is a place where they really feel like they belong. We have over 200 families registered with us, and over 95% of them are people of color. We have a few from Ukraine and Russia, but they all identify as recent immigrants. It's a place where it doesn't matter what their language or background is, it doesn't matter what kind of foods they're growing–the common bond is that they're all there to grow food.
Farmers are a special breed–there's a very specific culture to people who like to play in the dirt and grow their own food. It's a common bond of knowing that they're all there for the same purpose and that they work well together. They share together, they help one another out, and they've built a strong community–in a place where they don't always feel like they fit into other parts (around Rochester). Being able to grow and share their food is so important to them. Almost every time I show up at one of our farms, I'm given something and told how to prepare it. The pride that is expressed is just awesome!
For instance, while growing up we didn't have a lot of money, but we always had fresh, delicious, healthy food. And that makes you feel rich in a way like your basic needs are being met. It's the same for our farmers because they're very focused on sustainability and they’re able to provide.
Another benefit we've seen is that even though the cost of everything has exponentially gone up with the pandemic, our farmers did not feel the financial stressors as much because they were able to grow their own food. And the farms are great spaces for children to play in–our farmers can safely bring their children and not worry about the cost of childcare.
From left to right: Chandi Katoch, Board Vice President; Kim Sin, Board Chair; Amanda Nigon-Crowley, Executive Director (Photo credit: OlmstedCounty.Gov)
What kind of future dialogue do you hope your work evokes?
Continuing to build confidence within our community, and helping our farmers gain their own farms.
In Minnesota, 99% of farmers are white, and many of those farms are inherited or passed down to people who don't even farm. Subsequently, that land goes to big agriculture. We would love to continue to empower our farmers. Many of our farmers come to us because they live in apartments or rental housing where they're not allowed to have gardens or farms. We've been working with the USDA Farm Service Agency and introducing our farmers to some of their programs because we really want to promote land ownership––there’s huge power in owning your own land!
To increase our visibility, we started a farmers’ market. We have a partnership with Renewing the Countryside, and they've been opening market hubs across the state of Minnesota. They approached us and offered their support to open our own farmers’ market (every Tuesday at the History Center from 4 pm to 7 pm). It's been so amazing to see our farmers happy to share the foods in their culture–we've been talking about putting a recipe book together.
One of the nursing homes recently approached us because they were having a really hard time accessing food. And we were like, “Hey, we've got a lot of extra food and our farmers would love to sell it to you.” This interaction with the public has extended our visibility and is opening a lot of doors for our farmers who would not have been reachable before.
Have restaurants shown any interest in getting food supplies from your farmers?
Definitely! Renewing the Countryside's design is for the hub to actually operate as an aggregate hub. We would have an online platform where the community can shop, and we want to do more wholesale–we’ve already sold some to a few of the Mexican restaurants in town.
We have 650 tomatillo plants for our tomatillo research project, and we’re producing a lot of tomatillos on a very local level. Local food trucks and a couple of restaurants have supported that; the Asian food store in town has also been buying food from some of our farmers for several years.
Any interest in selling at the big Saturday farmers’ market in Rochester?
We did enroll two of our farmers to sell at the Saturday market, but they never did––they felt a bit intimidated. That was one of the reasons we wanted to start our own farmers’ market. As we continue to build more confidence, they might be willing to do so in future years.
We have two farmers from the main market who are also selling at our markets, and they have been such a great addition. They've taken a “leadership” role, teaching our farmers how to label products, how to market products, and how to create a profile on social media platforms like Instagram–essentially creating a business model that people can see.
Amanda Nigon-Crowley is the Executive Director of The Village Agricultural Cooperative, which is a collaboration of "people from all over the world who are growing food together in a way that is more sustainable to our community." As a former mental health practitioner, Amanda believes in the intersection of community health and our connection to the land. As a co-founder of the Village, she uses her local agricultural connections and experience as an advocate to connect people who want to grow food to their local communities in a meaningful way, which includes the preservation and regeneration of our soil. Connect with Amanda: AmandaNC@RochVillage.org