Persistence encapsulates how Black farmers continue to contribute significantly to generations of local economies by creating a rich and robust food landscape we still enjoy.
The holidays are upon us, which makes this an opportune time to explore how you can incorporate food from Black farmers into your holiday menu. Testing out seasonal ingredients is one of the most enjoyable aspects of holiday cooking. Don’t know where to begin? Go to the digital directory, Blackfarmersindex.com, it can give you a head start.
The largest, free public directory listing U.S. Black growers, it assists consumers in locating and making connections with local, Black-owned farms, gardens, apiaries and growing spaces. Through the simple database, you can peruse over 1,200 vegetable and fruit producers, fishermen, foragers, beekeepers and ranchers. To amplify their work, the organization challenges the public to add a traditional or non-traditional Black grower to one of their holiday meals this season.
“[You] can find [your] local farmer to see what they’re growing and selling[for the holiday],” Head of Community Engagement at Black Farmers Index (The Index), Amara Brown, explained to Ark Republic about how to search for a food producer.
“Some things are seasonal…[and] some farmers make prepared meals or value-added products like jams, sauces and dried goods with their crops,” she continued.
Integrating food from Black rural and urban communities that held onto thriving agricultural and culinary legacies, offer a fascinating variation for your palate. From flavorful tomatoes to bright collard greens and sweet potatoes, the selections are expansive. To sweeten the pot, farmers maintain a wealth of tradition in fruit cultivation such as muscadine grapes, sugar cane, blueberries, strawberries and watermelon. But please, never box Black farmers into monolithic people. Their growing lists are as expansive as the cultural traditions they represent. Brown pointed out. “Louisiana okra, turnips, mustard greens and rice are time-honored traditions harvested by farmers in the state, but you’ll have Driftwood Farm, owned by Hillery Gobert in the rural town of Iowa (pronounced eye-way), who specializes in bok choy.”
Gobert taught agriculture for decades between Georgia and Louisiana before he retired during the pandemic. Now he practices his pedagogy by selling an array of produce and holding workshops at his farm and at local schools. While he manages to ensure that his prices accommodate the local working-class consumer, “farming is a business” he said at a recent holiday market by The Index featuring Black farmers and growers across Louisiana. Brown mentioned, “Mr. Gobert stressed that farms must be profitable like any other enterprise, and especially because of the labor involved.”
Adding to this notion, fourth generation farmer, Nicholas Victorian of 4 Vics Farm in Baton Rouge, Louisiana told Ark Republic “It’s important to support Black farmers due to the fact it’s their job, their livelihood. A lot of them cherish and take a lot of pride in what they do. [It’s] how they feed their family.”
Eat to live
A far cry from the status quo, there is a stark difference between produce bought from a farm as opposed to a commercial market where everything looks the same and tastes the same. “What you purchase at a grocery store for a lot of money and of questionable quality, and from a place you’ve never been, you can find a farmer in your area to get far better produce that is good for the environment,” explained Brown. The only thing that’s different is the packaging as maintained by Brown.
At the core of good food is freshness and taste. What Black farmers also emphasize are the health benefits. “The things that [Black growers] use are medicinally sound and good for you” pointed out co-founder, Chief Executive Officer of Dr. Nettles Natural Beauty, Dr. Dana Nettles.
More so, many farmers on the Index proudly cultivate food that is sustainable and from healthy soil. “What we discovered is that many farmers grow naturally and organically, meaning they don’t use pesticides, fertilizers or other harmful chemicals,” explained Brown. “This is critical when there are reports every week citing the longstanding issues with commercial crops using all types of toxic sprays right.”
For many farmers, the philosophy of eating to live is right in their family. “My great-grandmother lived to be 105 years old…and I say she lived to be 105 only because she [only ate things] straight off the farm,” asserted Victorian the young farmer who propagates a large variety of greens such as mustards, kale, and collards. He even added hibiscus as his latest crop in a partnership with Vegan Trap Chicken to sell it in a pink lemonade sea moss elixir.
While it’s equally important to know we wouldn’t have an abundance of food without farmers, it is becoming more critical by the day to know who grows your food. “We’ve gotten so used to buying bananas and spinach from somewhere else that we could be purchasing it from a farmer down the street or up the road from us,” said Brown.
With the way food systems are changing in a post-pandemic world, that might be the norm sooner than later.
Black Farmers Matter
Black farmers have a resilient past. Domesticating crops is knowledge traveled through the lineages of many— from ancient civilizations to the budding Gen Z farmers. As history has it, many times in between, the treatment and respect of growing culture has been disrupted to the detriment of many.
In the latest wave of the New World, the plantation system of chattel slavery throughout the Americas and the Caribbean brought a social order built on forced agricultural, artisan and craftsman labor. Roughly from the 1400s to the 1800s, a breakdown of global economies resulted in a hierarchy where those who are classified as Black people, were relegated as slaves. One critical part of enslavement was stripping folk of land, titles and rights.
“[There] has been such a disparity for so long. I mean it’s unbelievable how many people have lost their land, their livelihood, and their ancestry,” lamented Dr. Nettles, a fifth-generation farmer and pharmacist. Her husband, a retired surgeon, also comes from an agrarian background.
“It’s just so sad,” she continued.
Since, there has been an uphill battle to regain power, status, and rights to live as fully free people. Even after slavery, Black people throughout the diaspora center their efforts in maintaining their ownership of real estate such as farms, homes and even municipalities and nations that have been ripped from their hands.
With obstacles including racism within the agricultural sector and restricted access to resources as well as land, they were forced to make do with what they had. The legacy of their predecessors has been carried over into the growing methods they use today.
“We don’t waste food,” stated Brown about farmers. “Whatever is unsold they utilize it and that’s all about learning those methods from [our] ancestors,” she continued.
Today, it’s important to recognize that Black farmers still deal with several difficulties. One of which is that consumers who shop at grocery stores, especially large chains, rely on commercial items. Because of this, non-commercial items sold by Black farmers often go overlooked according to Brown.
“You have to think, how are they surviving?” The head of community engagement inquired.
In response to the absence of assistance, Black farmers have devised creative solutions such as doing away with pesticides and crop rotation. “All of the pesticides that we use for the bugs [are] natural. It’s cayenne pepper and water. You can’t beat that,” underlined Victorian. Plus, “cayenne pepper is great for blood pressure,” he informed Ark Republic.
Doing their best with the hand they were dealt, these are ecologically beneficial strategies they prefer. Now, in line with their forefathers, the Black farmers’ approach is currently regarded as organic. “You’re getting something that is actually organic, just not certified by the USDA,” clarified Brown.
Just think of all of the rich fruits, vegetables, and grains that will take your taste buds to the next level, as they are produced by individuals, who place a high priority on organic and sustainable agricultural practices. “You can taste the [difference],” she highlighted. “It’s all done with love.”
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Aside from supporting a great cause, there is also always a story connected to what you purchase from these rare gems in your community. “Every farmer that I’ve met thus far [told] me a story and you will be so connected to [it] that it makes you want to come back and learn more,” said Brown.
Indeed, Dr. Nettles Natural Beauty Farm has a fascinating backstory. Beginning with her great-grandparents, her family consisted of farmers and sharecroppers. “They were soap makers and they started farming and doing things medicinally to help their community,” Dr. Nettles told Ark Republic.
Moreover, her great-great uncles were both pharmacists who went to Florida A&M University. Consistent with the Co-Founder and CEO’s experience, “it’s in our DNA to try to heal ourselves.”
As a semi-retired pharmacist, the mother, wife and entrepreneur who lives in Mobile, but sells her herbal teas and fruits at the Palofax Market on weekends, is not far from her familial roots. “[My family] had a garden down in Pensacola where they would harvest all of their medicinal goods for their patients on their farm.”
“They healed themselves with their own medicinal herbs. So it’s just been a passion of mine my whole life to grow, harvest, and heal ourselves and others naturally,” she continued. Her husband’s family lived on the Gulf Coast of Alabama and were farmers as well as storekeepers.
Black farms are monumental to the determination and fortitude of the Americas. It was Black farmers whose knowledge established the agricultural industry during the American colonial period, and into the United States when the country gained its freedom. Ironically, as those classified as white enjoyed independence, the enslavement of Blacks continued. All the while, a bustling agriculture industry via slavery, bolstered the U.S. to a global superpower that continued into the Civil War’s volatile aftermath. In fact, it was agriculture that remains a steady part of the economy to this day.
The enormous obstacles they surmounted “makes you want to come back and learn more and really want to mimic what they’re doing…Maybe not to their extent,” chuckled Brown.
Victorian can certainly attest to this. He grew up helping his great-grandmother in her garden. “She kept calling me down the street to help her with the garden, pick the mustard greens, pick the okra, [and] water the roses,” said Victorian.“Now I understand what she was trying to do because every time I’m in her garden, I feel her,” he continued.
As we celebrate this holiday season, let us recognize the importance of supporting and uplifting Black farms, ensuring that their story endures and is told for generations to come. Soulful delicacies are a staple in many kitchens across the U.S. For this holiday, incorporating a more equitable and resilient food future can benefit us all. When you ladle-up a savory gumbo or southern-style succotash, remember to use ingredients grown with hands as rich in hue as the soil it sprung from. It will be as enriching as the comforting feeling you get when you bite into fried fish caught in nearby waters, succulent pigeon peas and rice, smothered cabbage and piece of hot water cornbread, all the while, drinking a homemade wine or peach tea with healing properties. Incorporating food from Black farmers this holiday season helps to support local economies, contributes to sustainable agricultural methods, and honors the cultural legacy that Black farmers bring to our world.
Note to reader: Black Farmers Index started as an Ark Republic media project directing consumers to food suppliers during the global pandemic. Today it is a 501 (c)(3) that focuses on bringing resources and business to Black farmers while addressing food security and equity. You can recognize their incredible contributions by making monetary donations to Black Farmers Index.