Photo by Hillary Graves
Amid Chatham’s rolling fields dotted with bales of hay and lush meadows where Belted Galloway cows roam, Edna Rodriguez found her calling in an unexpected place and industry. After moving from the Dominican Republic to attend college in the U.S. and working in the nonprofit sector for most of her career, she wasn’t convinced that farming and agriculture were a good fit for her when she applied to the Rural Advancement Foundation International (known as RAFI-USA) as a grant writer in 2011.
“But I realized pretty quickly that agriculture is a combination of many of the different issues I’m passionate about,” Edna says. “You can really get at some of the social justice and systemic problems with policies through this work.”
The Pittsboro-based nonprofit supports farmers and agricultural communities by providing resources and advocating for equitable federal policies. The organization has grown since 1990 and now serves communities across the Southeast and beyond.
“Agriculture is a very white- and male-dominated sector, and the way that I’ve made it work for me, where I feel like I can put my passion in the work, is by leaning into communities where I see myself and where I see my kids,” Edna says.
She has her hands on many of the various programs the foundation offers. RAFI-USA works with Congress to provide support to farmers on the federal level, and in February, Edna made two trips to Washington to advocate for a fair 2023 Farm Bill. Additionally, she focuses heavily on RAFI-USA’s Farmers of Color Network, which she helped create in 2017 to provide grants and other resources to underserved farmers.
“I want to do meaningful work. If I’m going to show up and put in so much time and effort, I want it to mean something.”Edna Rodriguez
Though the organization’s impact has grown to this level, Edna is still committed to serving the farmers right here in the community. The pandemic interrupted many of the events and programs specific to Chatham, but the team plans to ramp up their local presence in the coming months.
“Over the years, we’ve enjoyed tremendous support from Chatham County folks,” Edna says. “That support has always been vital for RAFI-USA because local people understand firsthand many of the issues [we] work to make better. We still count on Chatham County’s support and look forward to engaging more actively this year.”
With all of the growth in the area, Edna’s hope is that the small farms and businesses that have made Chatham what it is are able to continue into the future. And in her role, she’s passionate about lifting up those who haven’t yet gotten those opportunities for success.
“I want to do meaningful work,” she says. “If I’m going to show up and put in so much time and effort, I want it to mean something.”
And after a few intense years, Edna’s team has finally convinced her to take some time off. She’ll spend this summer on sabbatical, returning to a few neglected hobbies, like baking and painting, and spending time with her three children and her husband, Hameed Sanders.