In Berkeley, California, young Jews create urban farms for $8.48 per bed and grow vegetables even on polluted soil. As part of Urban Adamah, they combine organic farming with social justice.
At the Ekar Jewish Urban Farm and Garden in Denver, the mission is “learn, grow, sustain, repeat.” In 2010, over 1,200 volunteer groups got involved in growing thousands of pounds of food.
Short History of Jewish Farming in America
These young people are latecomers among Jewish farmers in America. Thousands fled anti-semitism in the decades following Tsar Alexander IIIís enactment of the May laws of 1882.†Many of them settled on farm colonies and became part of the communal Am Olam (Eternal People) movement.†Most of the communities failed because of “disease, unfavorable weather, inexperience, poor land and other obstacles.”
The colonies were part of what the Jewish Farmers of America (JFA)†call the first period of Jewish farming in America. After 1900, “settlement and collective ownership gave way to settling individual families on farms.” The Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Assistance Society, founded by philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch, helped families establish themselves on farms abandoned near metropolitan areas. They provided technical assistance and loans. JFA describes farming communities that sprang up in New Jersey, California, New York, Connecticut, Florida, Ohio and Michigan. By the end of World War II, nearly 100,000 Jewish farmers were raising crops.
Pressure from the expanding industrial farming operations wiped out most of those family farms. Pressure became policy with the “Get big or get out” mantra of President Richard Nixon’s appointee to the post of Secretary of Agriculture. Earl Butz had a dream of revolutionizing agriculture. Instead of small, mixed farms, he saw huge fields of commodity crops “from fencerow to fencerow.” Agribusinesses grew. Biodiversity shrank. Small farms disappeared.
Back to the Future of Farming
Then came the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s. Urban and suburban Jews joined the growing ranks of organic farmers. Some grew large and successful, such as Cascade Farms and Earthbound Farm. Most remained small, family-owned operations.
One of those is still run by the family of an Orthodox rabbi. On a small farm in the Catskills, Rabbi Rafoel Franklin milks 30 dairy cows and runs a kosher chicken company that handles 4,000 chickens a month.†For her article for Tablet Magazine, Leah Koenig spoke with Franklin, who told her, “I never expected I would farm full-time, I just wanted to live as far away from cities as possible. But baruch Hashem (Blessed be the Name), if you do it properly, farming is the most fulfilling life I could imagine.”
Small farms struggle in a global food system focused on profit rather than food quality or environmental stewardship. Farmers like Rabbi Franklin work hard to preserve a way of life threatened by industrial agriculture.
A hopeful sign is the increasing interest in local, sustainably grown food. Organizations such as Ekar and Urban Adamah keep hopes alive by educating and inspiring young people. So does the Jewish Farm School, whose tag line, “Sustainable Agriculture Rooted in Jewish Traditions,” represents a vision of reconnecting people with land, food, the environment and each other.
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Photo of Ekar garden beds constructed by volunteers
Photo of Urban Adamah from video