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Arian Rivera. Photo provided by Arian.

ARIAN RIVERA

December 2017

Arian and I met at "The Future of Farming Event" at Patagonia's store in SoHo. Arian left his job in the city to become a farmer. Today, he is a sheep and cattle farmer for Lowland Farm. We connected via email and then met up at the Union Square Market, where Arian sells Lowland Farm's products, to conduct the interview. Arian very kindly answered my questions while attending his customers.

CZ: Can you talk to me about your career path? What were you doing before you started farming? And, what led you to it?

AR: I don’t know that I had a really defined career path, in fact I know I didn’t. I was working in office administration, with a background in technology (IT), but I had also worked as a paralegal and around law offices.

 

CZ: So then, what inspired you to look into farming?

AR: It was really just coincidental that I was introduced to a food justice program around urban agriculture, right at the time I was looking to make a career change, and possibly a life change. And so farming provided me with something to do. It was a wonderful hobby. At first, I just went with the intention of being involved in urban agriculture. At some point along the way, I figured out that I really like being outside, in a rural setting – so I decide to pursue farming in a rural setting.

 

CZ: Then what happened from there?

 

AR: So, during Farm School – the urban agriculture program I mentioned before, it was a two-year certificate in urban agriculture – I decided that I wanted to work with animals. It just felt right. During that time, I met two guys who were working in in the Stone Barns Center. They came in to do an animal husbandry class in the South Bronx and I really liked their perspective on life and farming. They told me that they had an apprenticeship, a year-long apprenticeship at the Stone Barns Center, and that I was welcomed to apply to be an apprentice for the next season. I thought it was a long shot, but I applied, and I was accepted. I left my job in the city to go up and apprentice in Westchester. I was there for a year and then started applying to jobs. I worked as the livestock manager at the Queens County Farm Museum. Did that for a year – left that farm , went back to work for a butcher in Hunts Point, and also as a paralegal, but then I found the farm where I’m at now: Lowland. I was hired in a managerial role in 2015, and next month it will be two years that I’ve been there. I manage a flock of sheep, and I also help manage a large herd of pigs and cows.

 

CZ: Wow. So you mostly work with sheep?

 

AR: I live where the sheep are. I work with all of them, but the majority of my time is spent with the sheep. But I also work a fair amount with cows and pigs too.

 

CZ: Can you share some of the obstacles that you faced in your transition to becoming a farmer and some obstacles that you experience as a farmer today?

 

AR: In the transition period, I think being taken seriously was a real issue – the consideration of farming and agriculture as a real profession. I think that people believe or want to  believe that this isn’t a real job. There’s a stigma around farming that pushes people away. I definitely encountered that attitude in my personal and professional relationships; people tried to talk me out of it. It’s hard to be taken seriously until you’ve got some experience under your belt. So even acquiring experience on a farm, gaining the skills one needs for a real farming job was difficult. I think there’s a gap where one has to learn the skills and get the experience to be taken seriously. With a lack of elders and mentors available it’s not so easy to find those connections and learn. It wasn’t impossible, but it was challenging.

 

It actually worked out really great because I was living uptown, so I was able to commute to Westchester and get a formal farm education and still come back to the city every night, which is a luxury I know most people don’t have. So in that case, it was really nice to be that close to New York City. Now that I’m here, in the profession, I think a lot of it is still perception but now it’s more around “hey, you’re not my expectation of what a farmer is, what a farmer looks like, what a farmer talks like or dresses like.” And it might also be “you have four kids and are divorced, you can’t farm.” A farmer can be defined in so many different ways. I’m happy to be part of telling that story, that this profession can be accessible to real people with real lives. I also think about being a black man in a rural setting, often in isolation from other black folks – the social/culture component of being in a strange place can be challenging at times.

 

CZ: Who are you mostly surrounded by?

 

AR: My rural neighbors, who for the most part have been great. But we don’t have, at this point, a lot of reasons to interact. I think I’m pretty well received, but I don’t have many meaningful connections out there yet. The people I know are still out here in New York. I’m surrounded by a suburb and some other farms. It’s interesting because some of the roadside along the farms has been developed, leading to housing developments. Right behind those houses are the farms with sheep grazing, though. It’s pretty cool seeing my sheep grazing behind someone’s in-ground pool.

 

CZ: I think it takes certain skills and attitudes to overcome challenges. Can you speak a little as to what enabled you to overcome challenges and obstacles?

 

AR: I want to revisit challenges in a second, but first I can answer that question very easily. I’m stubborn. To a fault sometimes. And I think in this profession you will encounter that in a lot of people because it takes a certain level of stubbornness and/or independence/stick-with-it-ness to be any kind of decent at this. And I have a lot of room to improve. I’m a stubborn person who doesn’t want to be wrong, and it’s easy for me to put my head down and go hard. I don’t think that’s the way anyone else should go about it, but it works for me. I also really enjoy labor. I enjoy being outside. I enjoy work. So that keeps me coming back to it because I feel it recharges my soul and my physicality in a way that I really benefit from.

 

CZ: What did you want to revisit about challenges?

 

AR: Ah. Access to land and capital. And also my cultural-historical perspective. You know, farming has not been a welcoming profession to Black people in America. The US government has actively engaged in discrimination against black farmers. These things haven’t come into play in my direct experience yet, but they’re always there as I consider the acquisition of land. How is it going to be possible? I see it as a challenge that we have to rise to meet. I believe that community will be a part of that, a very central part of that. It’s hard to feel confident in the way that this system views land and ownership and possession and also the value of farming. It’s hard to feel secure in your work when you know that there’s a very extracting form of capitalism that wants to boil your labor down to a profit. And I think we’re at odds with that. I think as Black and Brown folks are considering working on farms they don’t want to work for that oppressive system. How do you create a system that’s better than what’s in place right now? How do you look at food and farming and those connections and a cultural context that maybe is different than the dominant Western Northern European context that we’ve gotten used to as it applies to our food and the work around producing it. There are so many bigger issues that frame that conversation that are not specific to Black and Brown people, everybody should be having those conversations. Trying to find my place in a food system that is already really screwed up in a lot of ways is an obstacle, but I also see it as a challenge that I want to take on because we can come to some creative answers. At times, it seems a little daunting, though.

 

CZ: Given the obstacles and challenges to farming, what advice would you give to someone who wants to get into farming?

 

AR: Go farm. Go find a piece of ground and grow something. Get outside. Be active. Meet other people who share your passion, connect with them. Find ways to acquire land and a farm. But I think the first thing: be there. You showing up and being seen as a person who is interested in sustainable agriculture and who is working towards justice in the food system and equity in the food system and economic justice for food workers is a big deal. There are so many ways you can chip away at it. If you want to farm, go farm. If you want to make an impact as a person who respects farmers but doesn’t farm: spend your money with a farmer. Not the marketing, the green washing of corporations or big box stores, but individual families, and farmers, and cooperatives. Real farms. If you put a little work into it, you can find them. There are farmers markets everywhere. I think it’s important that we spend our food dollars in ways that represent what we want for the world and also to support the people on the forefront of that change. I really appreciate all the people that show up here in Union Square; this makes change possible.

 

CZ: What does a day in the life of Arian look like?

 

AR: Each day is different and that’s part of what I love about farming – that there’s so much variety. I’ll tell you what my week has been like because I think that will give you a better idea. On Monday… actually Monday was pretty quiet, but there are always chores. I’ll wake up in the morning and go out and check on the sheep. This time of year we are transitioning to hay so I’ll make sure everybody has feed, that their water is not frozen, and that everybody made it through the night okay. And then there’s usually some type of project to be done. This week, we sorted out some steers because we were sending some animals to slaughter. We ran all roughly 60 of our market steers and weighed them to see if they’d be put on the trailer. Some of them went on the trailer, and we moved the rest of the cows to another part of the farm. Tuesday I drove to the slaughter house which is a roughly five hour round trip into Pennsylvania to take the animals. I brought back meat in a refrigerated van, with a twenty-foot livestock trailer in the back hauling four live cows on the way down, and a couple thousand pounds of meat on the way back. Wednesday I went to a conference at the Stone Barns Center, a young farmers conference. It’s a wonderful chance to connect with other people who do what I do. I actually got to talk about my perspective as a Black man in farming. Some interesting conversations came out of that. I don’t really get to go to conferences often, so I’m really glad I went to that one. Yesterday, Thursday, I stayed home and did chores because I knew I had a lot to do before coming to Union Square. Lots of chores: moved around a couple bales of hay, set up a feeder area for my lambs to come in and get hay. Then I walked roughly 120 ewes and their lambs from the back part of the farm about a half a mile onto the front part of the farm. I have lambs being born right now. There were two sets of twins born recently and two singles. A ewe was having trouble with her labor, so I had to get my hands in and pull some lambs out. I also hung up fence. That’s about it.

 

CZ: So that’s a week!

 

AR: It was a great week. I am really grateful for it. I got to do a little bit of everything.

 

CZ: What do you hope to transmit through farming? Why did you choose farming?

 

AR: I chose the farm selfishly, because it made me feel good. I think there’s some value in that: not the selfish part, but more about doing things that make us feel good and acknowledging that what makes us feel good might actually be good. Not just for ourselves, but for the planet, and how we fit into it all together.

 

I want to be expressive and happy and fulfilled in a way that inspires other people to maybe think about doing this same work and that it might make them happy. A Black man can farm and be happy doing it. But then any person can. The message transcends all of those boundaries. Somebody has to do this. Somebody has to care. I care. I want to find other people who care so we can raise some good food, grow some good vegetables, have healthy food and no longer deal with this food system that alienates and oppresses people. The only way we get to change it is being out there and being a part of it. I want to be an action person. Each day trying to get better at my craft so hopefully one day maybe I’ll be in the position of an elder for some youth, who might come to me twenty years down the road, and I can share knowledge to start to reconnect with the land and to my people.

CZ: What is it that you don’t like about farming?

 

AR: This isn’t really about farming, just the way that I’m doing it now: I want to farm as part of a community and not feel isolated in the profession that I’ve chosen. I think that means having the right people around me.  Having people who share my values and my ideals and reasons for wanting to farm. That’s something I aspire to have that would make my work better. It can be an isolating profession. 

CZ: What are some of the things you cherish about farming?

 

AR: I like being on the ground with my animals. It’s really simple, but that’s it. We coexist together very well. I like sunsets and sunrises and knowing that my sheep are safe for the night.

 

CZ: What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that we face today, as humans?

 

AR: Disconnection. We need to be grounded and connected to something. As we become more digital, more aloof in our interpersonal interactions, I think we start to lose something. The earth is covered with concrete and glass and steel, how can you ever be grounded if your feet never touch dirt? Our physiology and psychology is engineered to have certain interaction in the system, but we’ve intermediated and changed that system and now people are disconnected. I think farming does provide an opportunity for one to really get their hands in dirt or feet on dirt and to literally take part in the act of getting grounded.  Which also entails some act of environmental stewardship which is good for the earth too. Farming can be really healthy for people. Being outside in the sun, breathing fresh air, contributing to our equitable food system.

 

CZ: I have one last question: if you could change one thing about the world, what would it be and why?

 

AR: I’d like to elevate the value and perception of love. The love movement. Love needs to be at the forefront of our interactions. Doing things from a place of sincerity and willingness to build trust and to be in this together. I’ve generally referred to that as the love movement – we need to build that. Love of ourselves, love of our communities, love of this earth. This home that we have to steward, this one earth. If love could be the central motivation for what we go out and do every day then I think we would all benefit.

 

I know that sounds super idealistic, but as we evolve in our humanity and elevate our consciousness, that’s attainable isn’t it? To maybe move at a different motivation?

Man, I could go on and on actually. Hey, while we’re at it, let’s take a look at our ancestral knowledge, and what our elders did, and the indigenous folks who are still alive on this earth are doing to make sure we live a life that’s inline with our value system.

 

CZ: Going on this theme, how do you respond to people who are vegetarian or vegan?

 

AR: I’ve got so many thoughts on that.

 

CZ: How do you express your love for animals that you raise and then take to slaughter? How do you understand that relationship?

 

AR: My first response is, I respect your decision and I will hope that regardless if you agree with me or not, you can respect mine on some level. We’ve consumed meat for a long time. Our domesticated animals have co-evolved with us for thousands of years. We have influenced each other’s development in profound ways and there is a place for humans to continue to interact with animals. I’m willing to discuss what that interaction looks like but we need those animals and those animals need us. These ecosystems that those animals are a part of need large ruminants and they need birds, and all of the different parts that make the food change. What’s going to happen to these animals and the ecosystems when the farms go away? What purpose will cows serve in a vegan world? I mean, I want to have this conversation. I am not asking this question cynically or close-mindedly because I want to know and I am open to the idea of finding creative solutions to keep animals and humans interacting in meaningful ways in agriculture. I would ask, what is your proposed solution, and how do you reconcile your solution with the reality that people do eat meat and will probably continue to eat meat?

 

If people have meaningful relationships with those animals, the abuse goes away. I really do care about my animals. Even if you can’t understand, I understand the love and compassion I feel for them. I try to give them the best life possible while they’re here. So let’s have the conversation. We should all be eating a plant-based diet the way I see it. I consume meat thoughtfully, through conscious consumption. I don’t think anything should be consumed in excess. In attempting to have this conversation, I think every person who consumes meat at one point in their life ought to witness, if not participate in, the slaughter of an animal. It gives you the perspective to appreciate the value of a life. Who bears the burden of our collective meat consumption? Let’s be real about that too – the workers who work in these slaughterhouses and processing facilities who then have the burden of having blood on their hands for all the animals. Nobody else is killing animals, but they do it all day every day as a profession. What could that do to your psyche?