Agriculture

Kitchen Table Advisors: Becoming Comfortable Asking Uncomfortable Questions

April 23, 2021

Our team spoke with Paige Phinney, director of the Marin-Sonoma-Napa region at Kitchen Table Advisors, to learn more about her work with small-scale agricultural businesses, and her experience helping lead the organization through a period of transformative growth and discovery.

When Paige Phinney arrived at Kitchen Table Advisors (KTA) nearly eight years ago, the organization was asking big questions: What’s wrong with our food system? Is it possible to have a profitable farm business that can provide a good livelihood for a beginning farmer? How do we reach and support new agricultural producers? How can we best center our work with communities that have historically been excluded from resources and recognition within our food system — namely the BIPOC, womxn, low-income, immigrant and LGBTQ communities? Paige, along with other organization leaders, set out to answer these challenging questions. 

Founded in 2013, KTA envisions a vibrant food system based in community, justice and ecological responsibility, where all farmers and ranchers can thrive. To realize this vision, the KTA team works in collaboration with values-aligned partners to fuel the long-term economic viability of small sustainable farms and ranches across Northern California, while changing the ecosystem around them, focusing on land, markets and capital, which the organization views as key levers of change. 

In her first years with KTA, Paige dove into the profit and loss statements of small agricultural businesses across Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties, analyzing the impact of market channels on farm sales and studying small farm and ranch business enterprise analysis and financial projections. She also worked with one of KTA’s founding leaders, Anthony Chang, to set KTA’s first strategic goal: to support 10 client farmers and ranchers through a unique business advising program over the course of three years. The program would provide monthly, one-on-one personalized business advising sessions — spreadsheet tutorials, information on lending options, analyzing sales profitability — to client farmers and ranchers at the clients’ home, frequently around the kitchen table. 

Paige Phinney and Koy Saichow of Stony Point Strawberry Farm (Photo: Nicola Parisi)

Listening to farmers & ranchers

Of the first ten client farmers and ranchers in KTA’s business advising program, two were Latinx, both native Spanish speakers. KTA’s programming was bilingual, yet as sessions began, it became clear that there were barriers in communication and gaps in understanding between staff and clients.

“Among our three core staff members at the time, Anthony Chang was the only one who spoke Spanish fluently, but communication was still challenging,” Paige recalled. “He did not grow up in the Latinx community. Neither did I. I am white bodied, I do not speak Spanish fluently, as much as I try to empathize and seek to understand, I do not share the lived experiences of our client farmers of color.” 

There were, as Paige described it, “cultural misses” in conversations with client farmers and ranchers. These misses created barriers — barriers that prevented KTA staff from cultivating the kind of trust and transparency needed for the program to be successful. 

Paige remembered conversations with the team in which they had to ask themselves tough questions: “How can we ask clients to be vulnerable with us, share their lives and the details of their business operations, when we don’t understand their lived experiences and how those experiences shape their identities and perspectives, their cultural norms and expectations?” 

The team needed to learn more about the needs of those they served. And so they committed to listening. They solicited feedback, asking clients what actions KTA staff needed to take to ensure comfort, especially in sensitive conversations about finances. The clients were clear: speaking Spanish is not enough. Staff needed a shared understanding of clients’ unique experiences as Latinx farmers and ranchers.

So KTA got to work expanding their staff. The first addition to the team was David Mancera, a Monterey County native who worked on farms as a boy to help contribute to his family’s income, eventually pursuing graduate work in agriculture which shaped his extensive leadership and experience in the agricultural industry. David was able to build trust and community with Latinx client farmers and ranchers in ways staff had not been able to previously, and, in doing, so he confirmed the critical importance and impact of staff lived experiences. Moreover, by focusing his work on the Salinas-Watsonville region where he grew up, David was able to showcase how a regionally-centered program model would allow the staff to form deeper relationships and respond more effectively to the unique needs of clients.

Continuing to Ask Questions

With David and other regionally-centered business advisors on board, the team was ready to set a second, more ambitious strategic goal: support 50 client farmers and ranchers in KTA’s business advising program over five years. 

They were also eager to keep learning. Paige remembers hearing Nikki Silvestri, founder and chief executive officer of Soil and Shadow, a coaching and consulting firm bringing social and environmental entrepreneurs more impact in their work, pose: “What are the questions that we are avoiding asking because they are too hard or too big?” That, the team decided, is where they needed to spend more energy. 

“We’re now grappling with new questions, which are really interesting,” Paige said. “How do we reach and support Black and Indigenous farmers and ranchers? How do we better serve immigrant farmers? How can we make organic farming more accessible? How do we approach systemic barriers like access to land and market volatility? How do we continue to push ourselves outside our comfort zone to provide better service?”

For Paige and her colleagues at KTA, pushing past comfort zones is a daily practice. “This is a life-long journey,” she said. “I had a lot of blind spots coming into this work, I still do. I keep learning, and I want to continue to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, to find comfort in asking uncomfortable questions. It is critical to move this work forward, to bridge sustainable agriculture with social and racial justice.”


Find Marin-Sonoma region producers who have participated in Kitchen Table Advisors’ Business Advising Program below and explore the full list of all participating farms and ranches here!