Rewind: In April 2010, we examined the "guerrilla tactics" of black organic farmers looking to combat food deserts in urban areas.
"Usilima hua huli.'' (If you don't farm, you are not eating.)
—Bena (Tanzania) Proverb
Veronica Kyle of Chicago is not happy, but she is hopeful. Her upset stems from knowing that too many blacks and Hispanics living in urban settings must travel far to purchase fresh, nutritional, appropriately priced fruit, vegetables and meat products. During that trip, they traverse food deserts. She says those are neighborhoods that major supermarkets have effectively redlined, where shops sell 20 fried chicken wings for a dollar, where there are too many liquor and fast-food stores. Where there are far too many dialysis centers and where too many amputees, the victims of poor diets, walk the streets.
Kyle is an outreach coordinator for Faith in Place, an umbrella organization of more than 500 Illinois religious congregations united ''to promote clean energy & [SIC] sustainable farming.'' Speaking optimistically, Kyle declares, ''there are black people getting serious about changing this unhealthy paradigm.''
For more than a decade, across the country, there's been a growing network of African-American locavores, or farmers, vendors, and fans of naturally or organically cultivated vegetables and livestock grown or produced within a 150-mile radius of markets. They meet up in some of the most unlikely places, from Brooklyn, N.Y., to the southeastern part of the country to Wisconsin to Chicago to northern California. Many of the farmers, descendants of blacks who fled sharecropping and segregation during the Great Migration, now sell victuals at farmers markets that are becoming fixtures in black neighborhoods. The farmers also sell to food co-ops in the same areas. Some supply produce to black-owned (and other) restaurants, as well as well-known natural food supermarkets.
But before we go all Alice Waters, it makes sense to ask, are these farmers growing vegetables and raising cattle organically? It's hard to say, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not quantify organic farm ownership by race or ethnicity. But we do know this: According to the USDA, there were 20,000 organic farms in 2007. The same census reported that there were about 2 million farmers nationwide. Of that number, 32,000 were black. The average African-American farmer is 60 years old with a 116-acre farm.
But never mind the stats—or the lack thereof. Let's talk about what know: Black farmers have always gone organic. They had no other choice. According to Will Allen, a Wisconsin sustainable lifestyle visionary, black farmers couldn't afford to do otherwise. Today, most still use old-school methods: They use animal, not lab-produced fertilizer, rotate crops and create tools that fit their needs.
In 2008, Allen won a MacArthur ''genius award'' for ''transforming the cultivation, production, and delivery of healthy foods to underserved, urban populations'' via his nonprofit group, Growing Power. It is dedicated to creating sustainable urban food systems where everything produced is used or used up, that provides healthy food, creates jobs and unites communities. Today, Growing Power has a cooperative of 300 farmers who deliver market baskets to food deserts in Milwaukee and Merton, Wisc., Chicago, and training facilities in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Mississippi.
SAAFON certified organic members Mary and Nelson James, know what benefits organic farming can reap. They own the 20-acre Dogwood Nursery Farm, in Maple Hill, N.C., and raise free-range chickens and pigs, as well as turkey, rabbits and pesticide-free herbs and vegetables. Their customers include a local four-star restaurant and Whole Foods. In an interview with North Carolina A&T's School of Agriculture's 2008 small farmer of the year, Nelson James, says, ''That's what small farming is going to come to: a pick-a-pack here and a pick-a-pack there. You just cannot have one thing and survive.''
In northern California, the communal nature of modern black farming meshes with the vertical integration model of business: Get the food from the ground, to the food stand, to the restaurant, to the customer.
Jay Foster, 37, is the chef and his wife, Deanna, is the administrator of the neo-soul food Farmer Brown's restaurant and Farmer Brown's Little Skillet in San Francisco. The four-year-old restaurant, says Foster, makes a deliberate political statement by using African-American farmers to supply the kitchen, and a diverse staff to cook and serve the food. ''I wanted to do it in such a way that incorporates the meat and vegetables that you can get here with the recipes of southern chefs like Edna Lewis. But I couldn't find the black farmers,'' Foster says
It took a Morehouse College grad in Oakland, and the owner of restaurant to help make the connection. David Roach, 45, is the organizer of Mo' Better Food, a nonprofit group that supports urban gardens, aquaculture farming. and a founder of an April through November farmers' market in Oakland. He is also a friend of Keba Konte, a co-founder of Guerilla Café, an organic and natural food restaurant in Berkeley.
Meanwhile, back in the Midwest, the 40-acre Black Oak Center for Sustainable Renewable Living has connected a historic farming community and a prominent Chicago church in Pembroke, Ill., an overwhelmingly black town 60 miles south of Chicago. In 2009, Fred Carter and his wife, Dr. Jafunza Wright, set up a farmers' market at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (Yes. President Obama's former church.) Now between 10 and 14 farmers provide seasonable vegetables, corn, all types of greens, peas, cucumbers and lettuce. Carter's group has also been recognized recently for teaching more than 1,000 students at the Betty Shabazz International Charter School about sustainable agriculture.
Black Vermonters are no strangers to farming; they've lived in the state since Revolutionary times. Ras Oba Jacobs, a native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, arrived a couple of hundred years later. Initially, he picked apples and did other farm work. Then he and his wife, Dafina, founded the Afikan Zion Organic Roots Farm in West Wardsboro, Vt. In the mid-1980s, they began bringing produce down to New York City, first to Bushwick, Brooklyn, then Harlem and the Bronx, and finally settling in with the Hattie Carthan Community Garden farmer's market in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Jacobs says he sells a full range of vegetables grown naturally without additives or pesticides, at the market every Saturday from June through November. ''We are just guerilla farmers trying to do what we can,'' he says.
These innovative farmers, and particularly those who live in or near cities, may be perfectly situated to benefit from the small-scale, communal future of farming. Will Allen demonstrates that with the small footprint of aquaponics—cultivating plants and aquatic animals in a recirculating environment—careful recycling and the use of renewable energy, people can be fed more responsibly—and money can be made. ''It doesn't make sense to continually have to ship produce 1,500 miles to a city, when it can be grown nearby,'' he says.
Frank McCoy is a regular contributor to The Root. He covers business and technology.