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Staff Spotlight: Stephanie Peña, Conservation Manager

Stephanie brings over a decade of varied experiences to her role as Conservation Manager, from running operations teams at high growth tech companies to owning and operating her own diversified farm in the Umpqua National Forest. Stephanie’s pivot away from the private sector and into farming was borne out of a love for our planet and a deep concern for how inequity expresses itself in agriculture. The intersection of Stephanie’s own lived experiences as a Latina, first generation American, first generation college/high school graduate, and native Spanish speaker – coupled with her exposure to our fractured farming industry – have shaped her relentless pursuit of a more equitable, resilient, and human-centered food system. Outside of work, Stephanie spends her time playing competitive soccer and volleyball, cooking from her CSA share, perfecting her focaccia recipe, and enjoying endless cuddles with her four pups, two cats, and loving partner. Here’s Stephanie…

Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in the Bay Area and was the only person in my immediate family who was born in the United States. Since my family didn’t have any ties in America, we all struggled to adapt to a new language, currency, grocery stores, cost of living, etc. I grew up feeling like I was split between two worlds – my Costa Rican and Cuban heritage and culture, and an education and influence dominated by the American Dream. My life since graduating university has been an ongoing effort to blend the unique elements of those experiences into something that feels authentically me. Sometimes it’s expressed through food, blending recipes and techniques across my cultures. And sometimes it looks like including Spanish words or traditions in my day to day life so that my husband can learn them too. Ultimately, I have found food, farming, and community to be a perfect home for these expressions of identity and culture. 

Tell us why you care about local food and farming issues.

Food has always been a through line for me throughout my life. At the same time, I’ve never felt the tension of my background more so than in the context of food. Growing up, we had home cooked meals most nights, but that was because eating out was expensive – and besides, where would we find black beans and plantains with pollo en salsa? But sometimes the American in me just wanted a burger and fries or at least some mac and cheese. As I began to explore my mother and father’s recipes and learned about the power of the Sofrito for flavor, I realized how expensive the ingredients for our cultural foods were and how cheap and accessible fast food had become. I started learning about food deserts and food swamps – who gets access to what food and why. And all of that led me to thinking about how we produce food and who labors for that effort. It’s clear to me that local food scarcity, farming and labor issues, and the health of our marginalized and BIPOC communities are all closely related and need our full attention.

What is your connection to agriculture and/or the natural world?

I grew up in an urban city environment and used public transportation a lot, so my first exposure to the outdoors – camping, forests, creeks, hikes – left me with indelible memories. I loved it! I learned about gardening, farming, and food, and found it all to be an immensely fun rabbit hole to dive down. When I decided to learn how to farm, the autonomy that came along with that was so powerful. Coming from such a scarcity mindset, it taught me that growing your own food can lead to a world of abundance. At the same time, the realities of capitalism made it so that the food I was growing was only accessible to a small set of the population who came to the farmer’s markets each week. It motivated me to think more about how we can break down barriers to ensuring that everyone has access to healthy, local, and culturally relevant food. It inspired me to learn more about cooperative and collective movements in agriculture, and led me to this role at Washington Farmland Trust.

What are you most excited to work on at the organization?

I believe that conservation work can be adapted to help ensure land access for marginalized folks, especially those who have been barred from agriculture for so long. The work being done by our community engagement team has also been very inspiring to witness. We’re trying to take a community-first approach to our programs and start by building authentic, meaningful relationships. I’m still in awe that I get to be part of this work and hope I can contribute through conversations with our farmworkers in Spanish or other language justice efforts.

What is your hope for the future of farming in Washington?

I hope we can start to create resilient local food economies, creative collective models for growing food, and figure out how to share resources as a fundamental right. All of these visions can sound so untenable, but for me, food and people feel like the right place to start. We all need food to survive, and it’s integral to our ways of being. I believe that centering our efforts around community, food, and farming can help ensure prosperity, security, and stability for everyone.