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May
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2024
Land & Environmental

As of Thursday, Feb. 16, all operations and programs at Agraria Center for Regenerative Practice have been suspended. In addition, 30 staff members at the educational farm have been placed on a three-month furlough. These decisions, made by Agraria’s board of trustees, stemmed from ongoing financial issues at the local nonprofit. (Photo by Reilly Dixon)

Yellow Springs nonprofit Agraria announces furloughs, hiatus

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By Jessica Thomas and Reilly Dixon

Yellow Springs nonprofit and educational farm Agraria Center for Regenerative Practice has announced a hiatus of its operations and programs effective Thursday, Feb. 16., and all employees — about 30 — have been put on a three-month furlough.

According to a statement from Agraria’s board of trustees, the decisions were made based on the organization’s financial precarity. Agraria’s projected budget for 2023 was around $2.5 million, Assistant Director Megan Bachman told the News.

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“Members of the board became aware earlier this month that the financial condition of the organization required immediate action,” the press release read. “The board met, reviewed the finances and made a decision to suspend operations pending an in-depth review of the organization in conjunction with legal and financial counsel.”

The press release also said that Executive Director Susan Jennings had been placed on administrative leave. Attempts to contact Jennings by email for comment were met with an “out of office” response.

Formerly known as Community Solutions, Agraria has operated a 138-acre farm on Dayton-Yellow Springs Road, just two miles west of downtown, since 2017. Since its establishment, the farm has held workshops, community events, conferences, markets and a variety of agricultural and land-based activities.

Earlier this week, the News spoke with Rebecca Potter, who was appointed the vice president of Agraria’s Board of Trustees in January. In addition to chairing the Yellow Springs Environmental Commission, Potter serves alongside eight other board members, with Jessica D’Ambrosio — the Ohio agriculture director of The Nature Conservancy, a close partner of Agraria — serving as board president.

Potter told the News that the board was notified of Agraria’s financial issues on Feb. 3, when they received a communication that a number of staffers hadn’t gotten their regular paycheck that week. According to her, the board acted swiftly.

“We did not wait [for the next regular board meeting] to communicate with the board and take collective action,” Potter said.

The board called an emergency meeting and met with staff on Feb. 8, at which time the board announced that some employees might not receive their usual paychecks until an undetermined time. Several furloughed staffers later told the News that two employees chose to terminate their employment immediately.

The board met again with employees on Feb. 15, and announced that most furloughs were set to begin at midnight. In an email communication to staff following the meeting, the board stated that eight of the trustees voted in favor of the furloughs with one trustee abstaining.

“We tried to be candid about the financial situation,” Potter said. “We had to announce that furloughs would begin over the next five days, based on individual work obligations.”

Potter said that since the furlough announcement, the board has undergone some reorganization. In addition to placing Jennings on administrative leave, Alisa Issac has stepped in as the board’s treasurer, replacing Rich Sidwell, who is still listed as a board member on Agraria’s website.

In response to a question about ongoing projects and programs, Potter said the first priority of the board of trustees was to ensure the employees were compensated for work they’d performed prior to the furlough announcement.

“We want to make sure any financial obligations to our people are met,” Potter said.

According to Potter, the board has taken steps to ensure the one employee housed on Agraria’s property will not be displaced. In addition, the board worked with the Yellow Springs Community Foundation to set up $2,500 low-interest microloans for employees through the Yellow Springs Federal Credit Union.

“It’s just one example of how the community is really pulling together to try to support Agraria,” Potter said.

Potter added that while most programming has been suspended, there are plans in place to care for the land itself throughout the hiatus.

“We don’t have any livestock,” Potter said, “but we are very aware of the need to make sure the property is taken care of. We will also continue our composting program until further notice.” 

Potter said the board wants to be transparent with the public as they envision a future for Agraria. She said the board is currently working with a certified public accountant to do a complete audit of the organization’s finances. Meanwhile, other members of the board are working to find alternative placements for people employed through the AmeriCorps VISTA program.

The News also spoke with several furloughed staffers; some preferred not to be quoted, but all those interviewed outlined the uncertainty felt by furloughed staffers when considering the future of the nonprofit.

Farm Coordinator and village resident Amanda Hernandez said she doesn’t believe she’ll return to Agraria even if the nonprofit’s financial situation improves by the end of her three-month furlough.

Hernandez began her tenure at Agraria in July 2021 as a VISTA worker, and a year later, she was hired full time to help the organization’s land team further one of its missions to address local food insecurity and sovereignty.

“I loved it right away,” she said. “These past years I put a lot of work into that place. There’s literally my blood, sweat and tears in that land. Some of those tears were happy.”

But as time went on, Hernandez said, she grew increasingly dismayed by what she characterized as the ever-widening scope of Agraria’s mission and how that affected the day-to-day labor of her five-person land management crew.

“In the last two years, I think Agraria hired too many people too quickly,” Hernandez said. “We started trying to do too much outside of the community, rather than focusing on just one or two projects that applied directly to Yellow Springs. We became spread too thin.”

The eventual precarious financial state of Agraria coupled with the organization’s inability to pay its employees, Hernandez said, hastened her departure from the farm. She said she’s still owed three week’s worth of pay.

“I’m not resentful,” she said, “but I do have this sense of betrayal and distrust.”

That distrust, she said, stems from what she perceives to be untruths that came from Agraria administration leading up to her furlough. Chief among those untruths, Hernandez said, was Jennings’ alleged claim that a “banking snafu” had prevented Agraria from paying its employees.

“It sounds more like a mismanagement of funds to me,” she said.

As for villager Matthew Salazar, Agraria’s now-furloughed facilities manager and Hernandez’s partner, he said he’d be tempted to return to work if presented with the opportunity. Salazar has worked for the organization since 2021, heading the community composting programs, tending the land and keeping up with the buildings on the farm.

“I’m still hopeful [for Agraria],” Salazar told the News. “Despite it all, I think there’s still support for the mission and the farm’s ability to keep functioning — just maybe not in the same capacity it was just a few weeks ago.”

Like his partner, Salazar also believes that Agraria’s current financial problems came from growing too big too quickly.

“One of the things that I think attracted a lot of people to Agraria was the scope of ‘the good,’” he said. “But we wound up spreading out too much. Our scope was too big. All of Agraria’s projects and its ideas were great, but one entity can’t do them all — at least not at our [small] size.”

Salazar added: “I want to see Agraria restabilize in a sustainable way — in a way that everyone thought it was going.”

Both he and Hernandez said they’re pursuing alternative means for income in the months ahead. Hernandez, who needs to pay rent for her downtown apartment and keep up with schooling costs, said she’s started applying for local restaurant jobs. She plans to take advantage of the short-term loan through the YS Federal Credit Union. Salazar, who has more of a nest egg, said he’s still keeping his eyes open for a good opportunity.

In the end, the pair lament the loss of their jobs — but hope the board can  find solutions to restore Agraria to a place of stability.

That’s the goal, Potter said.

“We believe in the mission, as I think many people do. So, we will be working on a plan and really leaning into local support,” she said.

For more information about the closure and to inquire about any payments for canceled programming, email info@agrariacenter.org or visit http://www.agrariacenter.org.

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2 Responses to “Yellow Springs nonprofit Agraria announces furloughs, hiatus”

  1. Don Emessing says:

    I will say they did NOTHING to look after the welfare of the employees. It’s my understanding that there is a hold up at the unemployment offices with claims as odjfs sent Agraria information to verify regarding if the filing was valid and Agraria did NOT respond to this request – only delaying or stalling the process.. I know they say their main concern was making their employees “whole” – the only thing I have noticed is them trying to cover their own legal tails… They also have back overtime due to employees as they were not paying employees overtime, which I believe is illegal.

  2. Sam fixler says:

    Are those furloughed at Agraria not receiving unemployment benefits? You make it sound they would be all destitute if it were not for the micro loan!

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