A Conversation with Small Farms Program Director Anu Rangarajan
Under Anu Rangarajan’s direction, the Cornell Small Farms Program builds networks and cultivates relationships among new, aspiring, and longtime farmers across the state. During the past year, when staying connected feels harder than ever, Rangarajan, also an assistant director of Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), and her team created space for human connection and personal reflection.
“We're trying to … create reflective spaces for farmers to really redefine for themselves what joyful farming looks like and what happiness means.” - Anu Rangarajan
In this episode of “Extension Out Loud,” a podcast by CCE, Rangarajan shares her approach to Extension work and her vision for the future of New York farm and food systems. The Cornell Small Farms Program offers many popular online courses that connect new and experienced farmers alike. Courses in urban agriculture, mushroom cultivation, agroforestry, and reduced tillage connect farmers to subject experts while programs like Be Well Farming, Reconnecting with Purpose, and Small Farms Summits invite farmers to develop meaningful connections and find inspiration. Newer educational projects will focus on environment agriculture and social sustainability.
As she looks to the future, Rangarajan aspires to welcome more voices to the ever-expanding network of small farmers in New York, while also supporting the goals and sharing the stories of historically underserved farmer groups including women, Latinx, BIPOC, Asian, LGBTQ+, and others.
“My hope is that over the next 10 years, the who that's in the room with us will change dramatically.” - Anu Rangarajan
The conversation with Rangarajan is the third episode of the latest “Extension Out Loud” series, “Leading Through Extension,” which features key CCE voices discussing their approaches to extension work and how history – and this past tumultuous year — are shaping the organization’s path forward.
Senior Extension Associate and Director, Cornell Small Farm Program, School of Integrative Plant Science Horticulture Section
PAUL TREADWELL: Welcome to Extension Out Loud, a podcast from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I'm Paul Treadwell.
KATIE BAILDON: And I'm Katie Baildon.
PAUL TREADWELL: And Katie, who do we talk to for this episode?
KATIE BAILDON: Today we talked to Anu Rangarajan, and she is the director of the Cornell Small Farms Program.
PAUL TREADWELL: And it was a great conversation. We covered a lot of territory, looking at equity in farming and what's happening here in New York State.
KATIE BAILDON: Anu you shared some of the ways that the Small Farms Program builds networks and finds common humanity among farmers and folks working the land in New York State.
PAUL TREADWELL: It's really exciting to see some of the innovation that's going on in a very human scale at work in the Small Farms program here at Cornell University. And so I think we were really happy to have this opportunity to talk to Anu and let her share her vision.
ANU RANGARAJAN: My name's Anu Rangarajan. I direct the Cornell Small Farms Program. I've been at Cornell since 1996, and I joined Cornell as a fresh market vegetable specialist and took up the reins of the Small Farm Program in 2004.
PAUL TREADWELL: Awesome. It's great to have you with us today, Anu. So for this series, which is called "Leading through Extension," we're asking people to share a little bit about their journey to Extension. So how did you come to be connected to Extension? You came to Cornell, and what happened? Was that position explicitly connected? Did you have to make your way into it?
ANU RANGARAJAN: My position was a research Extension split, and so I had a passion for Extension, I think, for the whole time that I've been working in agriculture. I did my undergraduate degree in horticulture and greenhouse management operations, and then I worked at a garden center for a couple of years, where I was primarily their plant expert, teaching consumers as they walked in about how to create and use the materials we were selling in their living landscapes.
And then the manager of that green greenhouse came to me one day and asked me the question, what are you doing here? I was like, well, I'm having a great time in growing and selling plants. And he said, you need to go back to school. So literally, that's how I got propelled back into thinking about how we work on a professional level to share the good work that we do with all sorts of different people.
PAUL TREADWELL: Now I have to ask you, when you came to Cornell in '94, you came into the Department of Horticulture, is that correct?
ANU RANGARAJAN: Yeah, that's correct.
PAUL TREADWELL: Were you entering into a very-- I don't want to say this-- masculine world. Was there a balance in horticulture at that point?
ANU RANGARAJAN: No, there was, I think, four women in the department at that time. And so when I got here, we were actually the fruit and vegetable science-- which fruit and vegetable sciences had just been combined, and then there was the greenhouse and ornamentals, those floriculture and ornamental horticulture program. So soon after I joined, it was all lumped together.
But when I arrived in the fruit and vegetable science department, I think there was just two or three of us at that moment-- women that were working in the department. So definitely not a split. But I have to say that I joined the department with really amazing, strong women in Extension.
In the vegetable sciences, we had women like Robin Bellinder, who had a very deep and profound impact on the vegetable industry, and Helene Dillard, who had also had a profound impact on the vegetable industry. So I feel like I really did get to coattail with them quite a bit when I first joined. Both of them, I have told people, they both walked on water with the growers. It was really lovely to be able to interact with them. And then Susan Brown in the fruit side, she was another person who was really helpful and a mentor to me at different times in my own career.
KATIE BAILDON: In addition to the people that influenced your Extension role, what were some of the ideas or principles that helped you understand your role in Extension, and how might they have changed over your time at Cornell?
ANU RANGARAJAN: I have never had a traditional old-school perception of what Extension's role was. And so by that, I mean the idea of sharing knowledge with the world, that knowledge is created here and then delivered there. And that just never had been my frame. That's never been the way I looked at my work. That's never been the way I approached farmers and food systems, change-makers, and work.
I've always believed that there's lots of different kinds of knowledge and that knowledge and experience are what make for success. So for me, I think when I first arrived at Cornell, I recognized that there were these odd and unusual tensions in our ag community, particularly with our organic farming community. And the tensions didn't make sense to me, based upon what I knew was happening at Cornell and the research and Extension programs and what I knew growers were doing with experimentation on their farm as I had gotten to know the community.
So it was a really natural place for me to sit in trying to bridge between these two groups. And so that was a big part of me, I think, expressing my approach to Extension, which is that if everyone's a learner, everyone's an expert, how do we co-create programs? Another part of it for me, my personal journey is the fact that I did farm for a while, and that really revolutionized the way I think about my work. I felt really lucky to have a partnership in running a small strawberry farm here in Ithaca. That whole experience also really grounded me in some of the realities of decision-making.
PAUL TREADWELL: So what's the landscape look like for us?
ANU RANGARAJAN: Well, if we just use the core USDA description, what a small farm is, that's farm grossing less than $350,000 a year. Using just that reporting from census data, over 90% of the farms in New York would be categorized as small. The most growth in the really small farm sector is in the very small farms-- those that are making less than $10,000 a year. And so that could be people entering agriculture brand new or folks that they have some sales, but they haven't built their entire lifestyle and income around farming as an activity. Over 90% of the farms would be considered small based on income or gross income, but a lot of people think too about the idea of small farms based on their footprint, the number of acres, but you can have a fairly low number of acres and a fairly high income, depending on the commodities you choose, and so that's not a really fair assessment.
KATIE BAILDON: And working with the small farmers in New York State, what are some of your approaches to working with them that elevate them as experts, like you said?
ANU RANGARAJAN: There's been a bunch of different things that we're working deep collaboration with folks that we aim to serve. But one of the things that we started several years ago-- maybe in 2004, 2006-- starts to summit, a small farm summit. And we started doing these summits because there wasn't places where small farmers were gathering to talk about what is really needed to support their type of farming system. And so we hosted these summits and invited people to help inform that conversation.
I think what that really did was create and enforce the types of networks that are needed for these producers to survive. It's true in all of agriculture, but especially for those who are new to farming and they're entering agriculture, they don't necessarily have those networks. So I think our summits did a lot to start connecting people and connecting dots in a way that is really important for any business to survive.
So the summits are one example of the way that we do our work, but in other places, the way that we direct ourselves and pick our projects, which we have big buckets of work that around new farmer training, and we have a lot of work that's focused on equity and trying to diversify who's farming in New York and support new farmers in that area. But we have all of these buckets of work, but we tend to take time to inform that by doing some surveys and engaging with farmers and doing a scan where we ask people, really, what's the priorities? What's your interests?
What I think we've done a really great job of staying connected to people. And I am not speaking about our approach in isolation of the way that we work with other Cornell Cooperative Extension educators, because all of our work is steeped in very deep connections with educators. But more just generally speaking about how our approach overall is to really try to hear from the people we're working with.
KATIE BAILDON: I want to pick up on something you said though about supporting equity in the farm and food systems in New York. Can you talk a little bit about your work in that space?
ANU RANGARAJAN: I have for years-- I think going back to maybe 2007, I had my first conversation with Black farmers in New York City and participated in initial early BUGs conferences-- the Black Urban Growers conferences-- that were hosted in New York City, but then they moved to other parts of the country and I didn't participate. But I've known Karen Washington, for example, for years, and she's a real leader in this community and have been thinking and trying to support the goals of this ecosystem of Black farmer organizations to really support new farmers entering the space.
And so the ways that I have seen our work is to continue to try to tell stories of successful entrepreneurs or emerging entrepreneurs that represent other communities, whether they be Latinx communities or women or Black farmers or Asian farmers-- we do have Asian farmers in New York as well. So telling their stories, elevating their visibility is one thing that we can do with the small farms program outreach. Because there's not many of them, and so how do we see them? How do we include them in our discussions? How do we make sure that we're listening and able to support their goals and work with what we can do as an education and research organization?
So in my initial conversations, it's been interesting because the work was focused on urban farms and urban farming systems initially. And that makes sense in terms of numbers of people and engagement and the multiple ways in which food shows up in urban spaces through community gardens and people starting farms. And so that initial conversation I had with this group of 17 Black farmers in New York City was really about that, how to increase the visibility of the work. What kind of resources and information were needed? What kind of actual on-the-ground fencing and materials were needed? So these were the types of conversations we were having.
Over time, we realized in our beginning farmer work that when we look at who's participating, we ask the question, how do we increase the number of opportunities and support that we do directly to Black and Brown farmers? And we wrote a few grants that at the time, I think, they weren't funded. And perhaps it was just what we proposed, but I do believe that the intention that we had was really about modeling different kinds of networks.
We were trying to think about how do we-- if you're an individual that's wanting to farm, you can do all the thinking and reading and learning and get some hands-on experience, but having mentors that understand your experience, that can support you through the multiple ways in which farming affects our minds, bodies, and souls, and help you think about how you advance in that space. We don't have many Black mentors that are farmers that have a lot of history and experience and in New York. We just don't. How do we cultivate that in upstate rural spaces?
So this is one of those questions that we were trying to address in our work in building networks. It's like, if we don't have those mentors in New York, where do we find them in the nation? How do we collaborate with Southern farmer organizations? How do we collaborate with Western farmer organizations to identify these type of mentoring networks, while we continue to build and strengthen those in New York?
So that's an example of where we've been historically and in my own work, in my own personal work in trying to develop connections, develop meaningful relationships, and imagine an agriculture that really was supportive of diversity. In that-- and I'll be the first to say it-- what we didn't do was build in accountability. And with all the events that have happened over the last year, I think this is the challenge for us is, how do we hold ourselves accountable, and how are we accountable to these organizations and individuals who want and deserve and need us to be in partnership with them and supporting them?
So that's what we as a program are thinking deeply about. What is our role? How do we learn from history? We create our messages and imagine how we use the resources we have to support them in a way that is transparent, reciprocal, and accountable.
One of the things that's really interesting to me is I think that within the community of Black farmers that I'm interacting with, there is a profound centering on cooperation. And even a challenge to the idea of family farms, the idea of individual entrepreneurship, the idea that the structure of what we reward is really based on individual achievement, and do we-- is that really the way in which small farms can survive with that model? But it's cooperation on a much deeper level, and there's a history in the south of new communities and freedom farmers-- Monica White's work and sharing their story that point to a possibility of the ways in which these types of cooperatives do more than just help us do our agriculture better. They help us build responsive communities that provide multiple services. And that's a reality in our rural places is that we've lost some of those services as our populations have declined there. So what might different kinds of corporations and collaborations do?
KATIE BAILDON: I'm on your mailing list, and I see the newsletters and email updates that come from you and your colleagues. And there's been a really strong theme of resiliency, especially in the past year, and helping to provide information and tools for farmers to increase their resiliency when we face things like climate change and this pandemic. So I'm wondering if you could talk about that a little bit more, why resiliency is such an important theme, especially in the past year.
ANU RANGARAJAN: Oh, wow. Back March 16, when the shutdowns really started to happen, I think we all knew this meant major changes to our agricultural and our farmers, major impacts to how they were going to do their work. And I really believe that building resilience, whether or not we're in a pandemic, is at the center of what we're trying to do as a program. We want people to have the tools and the skills and the assets and the networks to respond to challenges in a way that they bounce back better.
And so I keep asking the question of, what are the gifts of the pandemic? Because we certainly know what all of the losses are, but what is it that we can learn from the experience that we've had, and how do we grow from this? And I think, really, at the center of this is really about where and how have we really built our resilience through this that will allow us to deal with the future differently.
I do think that it's brought a sharp focus for me to the work that we do in helping farmers overcome the isolation that they have. I think the pandemic has just made it so much worse for so many. And I know, for example, that a farm that has had an uptick in the number of calls that they've had, it calls to all of us to consider our work in Extension differently and to actually include more than just-- and I know we don't do this. We don't just think about financial resilience, but to really think about the social side of resilience, the ways in which we're connected to each other in learning communities, in conversation with people not just like us, but different to keep inspiring ourselves with new ideas. I am hoping that at the end of this and with our diversity and equity work that we are able to host those types of conversations and communities that allow us to build that agriculture that is going to have that ability to stretch and coalesce as needed to respond to these changes. We have that, but I don't think we always remember that.
KATIE BAILDON: Are there some gifts that have come into focus, I guess, during the pandemic? What are what are some of those things that are unearthed in the past year that maybe we didn't value or recognize before?
ANU RANGARAJAN: This would probably made people scream, but I think Zoom or this idea of web conferencing is a subtle gift because it allows anyone to participate. And not everyone has the luxury or the ability to leave home and go to a meeting in a place that's distant where they have to have some way to manage their animals or take care of their children. They can't actually be there. But being online more actively with these types of events has allowed, I think, more people to participate in ways that fit their lives, and that's good for small farms.
But I know we're all sick of Zoom, and it's not going to be gone for a while. But yet, that's an example to me of one possible is that we've all had to learn the skill, and that will continue if there's opportunities for different kind of collaboration building, we now have a skill set that we can draw on of how we can do that online. I think that as a result of that, different kinds of conversations have been possible. Almost every agricultural organization that I've been tracking on and looking in following has included issues of racial justice and equity in their dialogues this year, which is profound and amazing and wonderful.
We've been given a space to reflect, and I think that's important. I think we all need to have the time to look within and examine sometimes difficult parts of this and different histories that we carry and then think about how do we step from that greater self-awareness to connect differently with communities that we've always engaged with but also new communities. And so much of this is really about finding our common humanity in all of this work is really the work. And in some ways, this pandemic, which just made us feel like crazy people, is also giving us a chance to reflect.
PAUL TREADWELL: When you look at an institution like Cornell University, it's a massive behemoth that has a number of issues that need to be addressed and dealt with, but the way we approach communities to play that out can also seem somewhat facile, exploitative. So how do you avoid that if you're going to move into a community that is traditionally underserved?
ANU RANGARAJAN: Prior to engaging and working with Black and Brown Asian and Indigenous communities, we have a lot of internal work we have to do. We have to reflect upon our own privilege, of course, and that's what we've been doing is a system. We've been doing it at the campus, we've been doing it in many places in our own-- and other places we've been asking these questions. But I think that if I was to describe what I feel is a really essential skill to have for us as an essential way of being, I would say is to have humility in these relationships, because we aren't the beginning and end of knowledge. There is so many different kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing, and it's only when you approach a relationship with that humility that you actually can hear and be open to different ways of knowing.
Good educators understand this implicitly, but I think we need to speak about it a little bit more directly at times. And in working with diverse communities, this is one of those moments where we just have to be very clear that these groups and these communities have gotten along without us. They have adapted, so what is the way in which we can imagine new collaborations that are really about lifting all of us up? And I think that the fundamental first step is in embracing your humility and entering that with a very open mind.
KATIE BAILDON: As we move forward as a system and as individuals building new relationships in our work lives and in our communities, what vision do you have for the future of the Small Farms Program and also of Extension work more generally?
ANU RANGARAJAN: I think internally, I'm really excited by the DEI work that's happening and the ways in which as an organization careers have set out goals for being an anti-racist organization, I think that's wonderful, ambitious, and I'm looking forward to the ride. But I think for the Small Farms Program, one of our core efforts has been to support new farmers through our collaborations with Extension and other nonprofit organizations both upstate and downstate. We have a really broad group of people that we work with, ag service organizations.
My vision and my hope is that over the next 10 years, the who that's in the room with us will change dramatically and that we will see new kinds of collaborations that are formed among farmers from many different backgrounds that are mutually beneficial and generative and that we ourselves are supporting them in the ways that they ask us to. I want to lift up the work that's happening already by Black farmer organizations for Black farmers and not necessarily say that we can be in that space and we can do it. We can-- that's not our role, but we have other groups to work with, other conversations that we need to have with white farmers, with others that we interact with that will create the supportive rural communities and rural environments for diverse farmers to thrive.
That's the difficult work ahead, and we're thinking about how do we do that. How do we do that in a way that-- it's not about shame and blame. It's about here's where we've been, but what is it that we can do different? How can we think about collaborations differently, and how do we step forward when we see injustice in agriculture?
So these are difficult questions. We as a program want to be working for-- so here's an example of something that we have. I want to lift up the Cornell's Farmworker program for the broad work that Mary Jo and her group does with the supporting farmworkers and their needs, reaching thousands of people. We're working with a much smaller group of individuals that have been part of our agricultural community for years. These are Latinx farm employees that have the potential to be future owners.
So how have we build pathways for them? How have we big picture considered these individuals to be our future farmers? What would that look like? What would it take to help them land if they're interested on their own operation that they design and build or one that they create collaboratively?
So we are trying to create these sorts of pathways for different communities to be-- that by the next census, in 2027, that all of those numbers have tripled for who's farming in New York, representing women and all of our various racial and ethnic minorities. That would be amazing. If we could do better than, that would be even better. But I think 10 years is not very long after being here for 24.
PAUL TREADWELL: Is there something you would like to have said that you haven't said thus far?
ANU RANGARAJAN: As a program, we've decided that we want to change the way we do our work. And what I am so excited about is seeing how each of the staff has embraced this and doing their own inner work around equity issues and racial equality, but then also as a team thinking about what is a way that we walk and step into working with these communities? Our work with the Latinx farm employees is an example of one project that's exciting, and we're hoping to expand it and involve some employees from Pennsylvania next. We're starting to see some regionalization of that approach.
But another really exciting project is a collaboration with the Steve Gabriel in the program and Yolanda Gonzalez in our Community Mushroom Educator Project. So we're working with Harvest New York, and they have this amazing project where they're engaging with community-based educators. So individuals and community-based organizations and community gardens and at schools working on mushroom production. And it's an example of changing who is the one doing the teaching.
It's not us, it's those who represent the communities we're interested in engaging, and how do we support them with materials and resources and information and mushroom kits, which is really exciting. So that they get hands-on experience, despite being in urban places or in rural places. So we can be creative in the way that we do this and we're learning what works and doesn't and working.
The other way that our program is really experimented with working with diverse communities and bringing attention is our veterans program. That's where we started, in trying to support military veterans and active duty personnel land in New York to farm. That program has tried many different approaches to engage that community and help them be connected to resources and information needed to start farms or to grow the farms that they have.
And we've learned a lot. There's people who in that community don't want to identify as a veteran. But yet, we just want to make sure they're aware of our resources. So this will be true in any communities, how do people want to identify?
PAUL TREADWELL: Anu, can you tell us about the breadth of what the Small Farms Program does, just to give us an overview?
ANU RANGARAJAN: 2001, the program was established, and since then, we've gone from one half-time person to 12 individuals working in the program. But then I can't even imagine the number of collaborators we have across the state, current and past. Our big bodies of work are informed primarily through our summits, as well as some surveys that have set priorities of what small farmers want and need to grow their businesses.
And we have a couple of big buckets of work. One is certainly new farmer development and new farmer training programs. And our online courses started with a focus on beginning farmers but has grown since then to serve all farmers, established farmers as well. There's courses there to support people who want to diversify, who they may be starting a new enterprise but they have an existing farm business. So our online courses end up-- they're a center point of some of the ways in which we provide materials.
In fact, at the beginning of COVID, we thought as a movement of solidarity, we offered our online courses for free. And we thought, well, maybe we'll get a few hundred enrollments, and we got 10,000 people who came to us, and so we were not at all ready for that. But for us, it was part of the ways in which we really wanted to be in solidarity with those who were struggling, and so it felt like it was the right thing to do.
So we have our online courses in beginning farmer training efforts, but we also do a lot of work that's focused on actual production strategies and improving and doing research on technology or strategy. For example, in vegetable production, looking at reducing tillage on farms, and on small farms, what are strategies that work that don't have to be equipment-based? Doing work with specialty mushrooms on production environments. So we have that type of work that really centers in on a research extension program.
We also have been doing more and more work in urban agriculture. It started with the publication of the promise of urban agriculture, and now we've been asked by USDA to create a set of online classes that take those lessons and create online teaching for three communities-- for farmers or nonprofit employees who manage farms or planners-- urban planners-- and for policymakers to create online courses for those three audiences based on supporting urban agriculture. But that, as well as our community educator program, are some examples of how we're interfacing with urban ag.
And we also are doing fairly deep work right now with the controlled environment agriculture industry. And what's interesting is that's a nascent industry, growing in greenhouses in a vertical farm settings. And as that industry grows, certainly we hear in the press about the really big firms, but a lot of them are very small when they start up. They're small farms. They might be in urban spaces or rural space but they're small farms, and so they're faced with some of the same challenges as small farms, but the approach to growing in those environments is different. I have a new grant that's focused on building out professional development and training for those employees. And so it's another example of how we create focus, training, and education programs for particular sectors of our farming community.
And then our new area of work that I'm really excited about, and it also nests in many ways to our work on racial justice is called our Be Well Farming Project. It emerged from an awareness that so much of what we do-- and this is the big picture we in agriculture when we talk about sustainability of systems is we focus on profitability, we focus on environmental management, but we have very little direct discussion about interventions on the social side. And what ends up happening is that I would describe it is that when we want to improve social sustainability of farms, we sprinkle some sort of fairy dust out there and say, oh yeah, we recognize it when we see it, but we don't in intentionally work to cultivate it.
What is our role in Extension? To create opportunities and ways of engaging farmers to build that social resilience before a crisis hits. So our goal with this project is to create opportunities for farmers to be interacting with us and others that we are creating safety nets that are different looking and more functional in a day-to-day way. It's really about how to rebuild the social fabric that supports farmers in doing the work. So that's another example of a way that we tuned in to something that farmers were saying to us about the isolation that they felt and the struggle, whether they be new or established in connecting, and we built a project around that.
PAUL TREADWELL: That really goes back to some of the historical beginnings of Extension and its desire to build vibrant rural communities that we're able to support farms and we're integrated. That is foundational to the work which we did, but it seems to get lost, and it's nice to hear her coming back around as a valued thing to look at and try to cultivate.
ANU RANGARAJAN: It's really great to see more and more efforts focused in on that piece. There's certainly the Farm and Ranch Assistance Network that's emerging that's trying to do this work. And all of the great work of farming and crisis management, but we're trying to imagine how do we create reflective spaces for farmers to really redefine for themselves what joyful farming looks like and what happiness means and how are we staying centered on the work and how do we balance life and work. And so all of those questions that any of us are doing and wrestling with right now, particularly with COVID.
PAUL TREADWELL: Thanks for listening to this episode. Extension Out Loud was produced and edited by Paul Treadwell, with help from Katie Baildon.
KATIE BAILDON: For more about this episode, including show notes and more, visit extensionoutloud.com. And be sure to subscribe to Extension Out Loud on your favorite podcast directory.
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