A Place For Us: The Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference | Civil Eats

A Place For Us: The Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference

It has been said that black people are not interested in issues of sustainability, ag policy, and good food in general. But in late November, over 500 black-identified people, representing urban and rural farming networks, food justice organizations, government officials, policy makers, and good foodies traveling from Oakland, Denver, Philly, Detroit, Durham, D.C., and points elsewhere, attended the First Annual Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference in Brooklyn. People of color are in the fields, the co-packing facilities, and the commercial and restaurant kitchens of the good food movement, but they’re conspicuously and consistently absent from the dialogue that is transforming Americans’ relationship with food and farming.

We appear to be suffering from an historical amnesia about the relationship between agriculture and people of color in the U.S., when we assume that black people are not into good food and farming. Long before The Greenhorns, Farmer Jane, Alice Waters, Radical Homemakers, Joel Salatin, Agchat, Homegrown, Michael Pollan, Punk Domestics, and Brooklyn Homesteader identified and gave voice to the thousands of (mostly white and/or middle class) people across the country by reclaiming American food and farming cultures, black people were in the fields and the kitchens, growing and nourishing generations, fusing European, Native American, and African farming and culinary traditions into distinct, regional American subcultures.

Black farmers and gardeners have been growing and raising food before it was cool, when it was what one did for survival. They were organic before organic–few could afford fertilizers and modern farm equipment; biodynamic before biodynamic–the earth-cosmos-animal-human connection has always been a major tenet of pre-Christianity African-centered spirituality and farming; sustainable before sustainable–can’t misuse what you ain’t got; local before local–black farmers’ had limited local selling power because of few profitable wholesale and retail opportunities and institutionalized racism; and, they are all small family farms.

So why do black farmers and urban gardeners need their own conference? Here’s why: at every good food and sustainable ag event I attend in NYC, I am one of less than three nonwhite attendees, and chances are, I know the other two. This is the case so often that I and a good friend and colleague of mine keep tallies via text when we are unable to attend the same events. At these events, while the information is sometimes new, the food usually good, and the networking opportunities abundant, they are irrelevant when it comes to the real work involved in creating just and sustainable food systems.

These events might appeal to my middle class upbringing, but they do nothing to address the lack of sociocultural relevance to black people and their agricultural legacy in this country. I am aware of my various earned and unearned privileges, but try bringing this up in a room full of well-meaning white folk–why aren’t there any black people in your documentary, book, panel?–and you’ll quickly discover just how largely unaware white good food advocates are of how their covert and normative whiteness shapes conversations about food, privilege, race, access, and even geography–and renders the rest of us invisible.

I can name at least 10 nonwhite good food fighters and organizations in NYC without trying, but events focused on food and farming in the region only manage to secure one (usually the same one, now token) person of color, or, more often than not, none at all as speakers, panelists, and case studies.  I’m not (necessarily) asking that POCs be included in these largely white spaces, but, just sayin’.

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While the Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference is not the first event of its kind to focus on the agricultural, social, and economic issues specific to black farmers, both rural and urban, it is the first to realize the importance of the two coming together in the same space, as rural and urban communities share similar needs in terms of food access, food security, land, and economic development. The socio-historical significance of creating a North-South black agricultural alliance was itself not lost on the attendees. While many Northern blacks turned their backs on their sometimes painful Southern agricultural legacies in favor of what they thought would be a more economically viable Northern future, they kept much of their traditional foodways, maintaining kitchen garden plots and food preservation techniques in their new urban spaces. What makes this particular conference even more significant was the event’s capacity to grab the attention of social media’s most prolific good food communicators, where so much of the conversation about sustainable food is going on, that it left one to question if anyone is actually still farming, buying and eating food, or even participating in traditional media. The speakers and panelists offered an open and sometimes unapologetic look at the way racism and industrialization has prevented black farmers from acquiring resources and recognition of their role in rural America.

I had a difficult time in deciding which two of the 20 breakout sessions to attend, from one identifying resources for rural and urban farmers, to others on forging rural-urban relationships, understanding the farm bill and the role of farm cooperatives in creating sustainable food systems, and recognizing how black food culture has been co-opted by Big Food. One day is never enough to work through all of these issues.

Nearly two weeks later, I am still hyped over being part of such a momentous occasion. Maybe it was because I have never been in the same room with so many black, brown, and yellow faces talking about food and farming. Maybe it was because it validated my opinion that people (black and white) have misguided assumptions about what black people think, feel, and know about agriculture. Whatever it is, it is clear that black people have and will always be a part of the conversation, whether they are visible or not.

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Melissa Danielle is a core member of the Bed-Stuy Farm Share in Brooklyn. An aspiring Biodynamic farmer, Melissa leads skills building workshops on community wellness and food security and consults on cooperative Farmer to Eater projects.You can find her online at MelissaDanielle.com and @HoneyBHolistic . Read more >

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  1. P.S.: I forgot to say that I am African American woman and a Phd Candidate who studies critical food geographies with emphasis on black feminisms, critical race theory, and critical consumption pedagogies.
  2. Breeze Harper
    Thank you Melissa for this post.

    I experience frequently, questions from white middle class folk involved in food and farming activism, "How can we educate Black people about [x, y, or z]" or "Why aren't Black interested in nature, or farming, or healthy eating?"

    The questions have bothered me because it implies that Black people have NO collective history or experience when it comes to farming, nature, healthier eating, etc, and it's the "white man's burden" to 'educate' 'them' about the 'proper' engagement with nature, eating, environmentalism, etc. The questions themselves come off as offensive to me, from the get go, because it's rooted in white middle class ontologies and epistemologies about African Americans that are way off base. I know not all white middle class involved in alternative farming and food have this perception, but a majority do, and myself, as well as Julie Gutham, Alison Alkon, Jackie Gordon, write about this frustrating problem.
  3. Gerardo Tristan
    Thank you so much for writing this Melissa! As a person of color, I understand and agree with many of the issues you are rasing in this entry. I have to say that for me, working on food issues ( especially trying to learn about growing food) has been nearly an impossible task here in USA!

    I hope this conference gets more popular every year and many more conferences and spaces for us to discuss food issues, grow food and decide our diets will come in the future!

    Best wishes,
    Gerardo Tristan.
  4. With regard to the BFUGC not being the first of its kind: The Black Agriculture Summit was held in California this past July; The Minority Farmers Association met a few weeks ago in Kentucky; the 68th Annual Professional Agricultural Workers Conference, which evolved out of The Negro Farmers Conference that ran from 1892-1915, takes place this coming weekend at Tuskegee University; 50,000 members of the New Farmers of America focused on black farm youth until their merger with Future Farmers of America in 1965, holding regular events in their respective member-states; the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association recently held a land loss summit and black farmers rally; and there are at least three similarly themed black farmer conferences scheduled for early 2011.

    Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) (land grant universities) host regular events specific to black USAmericans in agriculture
  5. Thank you, Melissa, for putting this out there like it is.

    Earlier this year I was invited to participate in the Multnomah County Food Initiative's Food Summit in Portland, OR. The Summit addressed four areas, separately: Local Food, Healthy Eating, Social Equity, and Economic Vitality. As one of only a very small handful of people of color present in a room of hundreds, I found it absurd that Social Equity would be a separate category rather than the foundational piece of the process, especially when I was repeatedly asked how to get black people interested in their food.

    Conversely, Portland's black community is actively and collaboratively engaged in, even spearheading, wellness and sustainability programs throughout the city. Many black churches are participating in food, farming and fitness projects that encourage congregations to proactively reverse obesity and chronic disease. Others are initiating the conversations. The African American Health Coalition has spearheaded yoga classes, fitness walks and health screenings in the city for years.

    And all summer, black elementary school children shared with me what they are learning from their grandparents and parents who are farmers and/or urban gardeners. Moreso, these children are not only excited about growing their own food and eating/being healthier but have real concerns regarding the sustainability of the their schools, communities and the planet.

    Yet on my small block of seven homes (3 of those are black families), where a higher percentage of blacks garden than non-blacks, I still hear "YOU garden?" regularly.

    The questions infuriate me. There are so many inaccurate perceptions about us, still. And I appreciate you giving voice to this issue.
  6. I was thinking that it may be a good idea for those white middle class communities who want to 'reach out' to communities of color, to first do some heavy critical reflection and analysis of how being racialized and socialized into whiteness has constructed what Dr. Zuberi and Dr. Bonilla-Silva call "White Logic, White Methods" in their book with the same title.

    I also recommend this article: Welcome, H.A. 2004. "White is right": The Utilization of an Improper Ontological Perspective in Analyses of Black Experiences. Journal of African American Studies 8, 59-73.

    When food justice amongst the status quo starts looking like an engagement of "white man's burden" I feel like I need to call it out and point to sources that explicate this problem further. One doesn't just see this problem in the alternative food movements, as WEB Dubois has mentioned this problem since over 100 years ago: that is, white middle class ontological analysis of non-white and poor folk's own logic systems as 'improper' or 'needing to be educated.'

    I am wondering what alternative food movement among the status quo could look like, if as much interest in "educating non-white people about 'our' proper way of farming, eating, etc" went into "critical whiteness reflections on what it means to be a white middle class 'good' food advocate in a 'post-racial' USAmerica."
  7. @Aqiylah Collins . I guess if the status quo only sees [mis]representations of Black communities in the media, or what they read in standard books K-12 (and even in college), they will mostly be bombarded with how 'powerless', 'unhealthy', and 'sick', ALL brown and black people are. If that is your only exposure, I can see how this would inform how you think you should 'help' those 'poor black and brown people.' So, I guess that that could be part of the problem when us brown and black people are approached by good hearted white middle class food advocates who want to learn how they can teach 'us' about how to live healthier lives?
  8. Jake
    Great article and comments. I hope there can be more discussions like this in the community and on civil eats.
  9. Robert
    Thanks for this article. Unfortunately there is nothing new here in white folks attitudes. Clearly, a more sane approach would be for white folks to directly ask and adopt the attitude "what can I learn from people of color?". Hopefully we can find this humility before our arrogance destroys the soil right out from under our feet.
  10. Solita
    Melissa, beautiful article. Thank you for writing it. I understand the feeling you have about frequently being the only person of color in the room when you go to events. I experience the same and also keep a count. The conference provided the opportunity for you to realize that there are many more of us "folk of color" in NYC involved in the good food movement.

    It has been my observation that "white folk" have the incredible ability to make one drop of water appear to be a bucketful of water. Upon closer investigation the bucket is riddled with holes.
    I saw pay closer attention.

    Robert said, ask “what can I learn from people of color?” I add to that ask "what we can learn from each other? Only then can we move toward wholistic solutions.

    When "folk of color" blend our incredible ability to create, blend, adapt, and merge to ultimately create something new, with "white folk's" incredible ability to make a drop of water seem seem like a bucket of water, then incredible movement and change will occur.
  11. Linda
    If a white person is asking questions about why black people don't care about food they need to be answered to their question. There has been much and I say much brainwash in public schools and sometimes just plain old fashioned assumptions. For instance, I had a missionary who took better goat and sheep stock to African tribes in Africa. It wasn't that Africans couldn't farm. It was that through being pillaged and war torn by other African countries their animals had become too inbred. There just wasn't enough resourses. Because of media, Monsanto, and other ills white people are likely to still "not get it". There has to be a way to come together with whomever of any color to accomplish food justice for all colors. Not all white folks are rich. Maybe you don't need to form a "black organization" but just a "different organization" with your goals in mind where you get even more support and do not add to the institutional race problem.
    Why do some of us speak about euro-American, socalled "white", people as though they are the principle standard for excellance . Sister, Melissa, my, our gratitude to you, your family and others, including not front stage center with this article on BFAUGC, is to be commended by those who value the predominant Southern experience of the majority of our HBCU's continual contribution to the African decendant population, and to the vigor of the USA, world influences in the culture of Ag.
    As a 4H student since the 3rd grade in rice belt, SW Louisiana/SE Texas, i, we can attest to the numerious conferances of African cultivators, nurtured in socalled Negro social/spiritual schools, institutes, colleges, and some universities; especially, before some of us became too cute by drinking deadly " cool aid ", that producing what you consumed is no longer approciate, for some mordern people . Well, those who practice their own form of genocide, and dishonoring the African-African decendant legacy, needs our continual pressing to salvage those yet born, and some youth, who will follow these wayward Africans.
    As a son of the soil, with the soul nurturing connections, it is my privledge to note our WOMEN/Girls, in the success of this conference that adds to the upSouthern activities, of food security, as we continue to SANKOFA, ( reach back ), an fetch everything that we left behind . My, our,GGGGMothers, GrandMothers Mothers, Daughter, Sisters, and all helpers of the Brothers . May we cover and secure you in the sufficient way of men, boys being the protectors of their community, through the family, first.
    Presently, my duty station, i, we live in "Washington, D.C., and i was honored to arrive at Brooklyn College with a powerful Brother from the Blue Nile herb shop in Banneker City Anacostia . My thoughts of this weekend reminded me of The Congress of African People in Atlanta, Georgia, labor day week 1970, and the 1974 Nation of Islam's Convention of 1974; " Go To the Earth and Do Something for Ourselves, yes your Nation of Orginal people in America, and throughout the world. We felt the power of over four hundred attendees; my estimation of 70% under forty, 55% women, 25plus high school students, women with vails, Sisters and 45% Brothers in an enviornment gratitude . Yes, we were moving the move forward, as Karen Washington, stated, this is a movement .
    Finally, Brother Wallace Lawson, and the other young warriors that we were reasoning with and all the levels of volunteers, we give thanks .
    When any of you are in the Washington, D.C., area an are inclind to go to green spaces, you have my permission to contact me two weeks in advance and this gardner will do all in my, our connections to accomidate you for a minimum of 1.5 hours for Green Growth, in Banneker City . Professor, ODUNO
    p.s. My Mentor in NYC, Sheik Abu Talib, ASA :
    i agree to dialogue about the peputual "license, as i do not give Civil Eats are anyone this right, without justice. Lets communicate is the better course of action.
  13. Teach it sister! I love your post and found the conference similarly connecting, inspiring, and myth-shattering. I noticed that the title of you post matches that of the workshop I presented at the Black Farmers Conference "A Place for Us." Perhaps it is by coincidence but nonetheless, I am honored to share a title with you. I look forward to many more opportunities to network with and co-inspire with black farmers and educators like those of us who attended the conference. We are the movement!
  14. Marly
    great work melissa! thanks so much for your analysis. as a newbie to the food movement and a grad student interested in food secure urban planning specifically focused on black folks having control of their food, i am surrounded by white academics who want to "do good" without recognizing their privilege, their role in oppression, and most importantly as you stated, the long, rich and complex history that we've folks have had with agriculture. this is super helpful! xoxo
  15. Rob Nussbaumer
    I thought that this was a good article and makes a good point that there are many people involved in the organic and food sovergin movement and that all our voices need to heard. The one thing I felt the article lacked was how to bridge the gap that exists between white and people of color in this movement. We are all a part of the same movement fighting and working for similar causes. At the conferences I go to it is mostly white people, what needs to happen to foster union between whites and people of color and make both groups feel welcomed and included in the disscusion or conference?
  16. @ Rob. The answer to your question can be found in the numerous literature out there about race, whiteness, anti-racism, etc. The problem of whiteness in alternative food/farming is the same problem throughout all of mainstream America that causes epistemic gaps between white middle class mainstream and brown and black folk collectively. Normative whiteness' manifestation in the alternative food/farming movement is just a symptom of a larger problem in my opinion, so if you have access to the critical race theory, anti-racism, decolonial methodologies, etc. books/article out there, you can read it and apply it to the problems of normative whiteness within the farming/food movement in the USA that I believe are causing these 'gaps'.

    As a woman of African descent engaged in dissertation work in Critical Food Geographies and Critical Race theory, I have observed amongst good intentioned white food/farming activists that they want to 'bridge a gap' or include people of color more in the 'their' farm/food movement praxis. Interestingly, most that I have spoken too have not spent much time first critically reflecting on how normative whiteness creates this gap; or that perhaps there are communities of color that have consciously chosen that they don't want to be 'reached out to' by white middle class mainstream food/farming folk for their own political reasons based on maintaining survival and emotional sanity. Below is a reading list that I provide for students who have sent these types of questions to me. I highly recommend reading Gutham, Welcome, Charles Wright, and Yancy, as well as my two pieces (Harper, A.L. and Harper A.B.) to being to unravel why there is a 'gap' to begin with- epistemic and physical gaps. Hope this is helpful. Oh yea, I also recommend Jackie Gordon's critical whiteness thesis on Alice Waters and Ann Cooper. A great critical reflective piece by a young white middle class woman who analyzes the implications of white middle class ideologies of Waters and Cooper, and how this creates 'gaps'.

    Ashcraft, K.L. & B.J. Allen. 2003. The Racial Foundation of Organizational Communication. Communication Theory 13, 5-38.

    Bonilla-Silva, E. 2006. Racism without racists : color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

    Crenshaw, K. 1995. Critical race theory : the key writings that formed the movement. New York: New Press : Distributed by W.W. Norton & Co.

    Dwyer, O.J. & J.P.J. III. 2000. White socio-spatial epistemology. Social & Cultural Geography 1, 209-222.

    Gutham, J. 2008. 'If They Only Knew': Color blindness and universalism in California alternative food institutions. Professional Geographer 60, 387-397.

    Guthman, J. 2008. Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice. Cultural Geographies 15, 431-447.

    Harper, A.B. 2010. Whiteness and 'Post-Racial' Vegan Praxis. Journal of Critical Animal Studies VIII, 7-32.

    Harper, A.L. 2007. Cyber-territories of Whiteness: Language, 'Colorblind' Utopias, and 'Sistah Vegan' Consciousness. Masters in Educational Technologies: Harvard University.

    Mills, C.W. 1997. The racial contract. Ithaca, N.Y. ; London: Cornell University Press.

    Nagra, N. 2003. Whiteness in Seattle: Anti-Globalization Activists Examine Racism within the Movement. Alternatives Journal, 27-28.

    Simpson, J.L. 2008. The Color-Blind Double Blind: Whiteness and the (Im)Possibility of Dialogue. Communication Theory 18, 139-159.

    Slocum, R. 2006. Anti-racist Practice and the Work of Community Food Organizations. Antipode 38, 327-349.

    Sullivan, S. & ebrary Inc. 2006. Revealing whiteness the unconscious habits of racial privilege (American philosophy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Sullivan, S. & N. Tuana. 2007. Race and epistemologies of ignorance (SUNY series, philosophy and race. Albany: State University of New York Press.

    Tochluk, S. 2008. Witnessing whiteness : first steps toward an antiracist practice and culture. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

    Welcome, H.A. 2004. "White is right": The Utilization of an Improper Ontological Perspective in Analyses of Black Experiences. Journal of African American Studies 8, 59-73.

    Wyman, M. 2005. Affirming Whiteness: Visualizing California Agriculture. Steinbeck Studies 16, 32-55.

    Yancy, G. 2004. What white looks like : African-American philosophers on the whiteness question. New York: Routledge.
  17. Oh, an Vasile's article is really good to think about how nostalgia for 'how things used to be [white] in pre-industrialized farming' whitewashes the fact that there never was a 'good ole days of honest farming' in the USA, due to how structural and institutional racism and colonialism exploited the labor and land of non-white peoples... and still does in the farming and food industry. Vasile looks at Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingslover, and "Food Inc". I think he sheds light on why these texts are not the most appealing to people who are not white middle class demographic and may find these folks' perception of 'just food' and 'just farming' just a little too class and race privileged. I think it's another great article to start thinking about the gaps you want to understand. Don't let the title to the article fool you:

    Stănescu, V. 2010. 'Green' Eggs and Ham? The Myth of Sustainable Meat and the Danger of the Local. Journal for Critical Animal Studies VIII, 8-32.

  18. Stan Mattson
    I recently met a seriously engaged organic farmer, a woman of color named Tifanny, who was returning to Wisconsin last Friday from a somewhat similar conference in Albany, NY.

    My wife and I (both white academics) shared a most illuminating conversation with Tiffany about the black movement in organic farming, in flight to Minneapolis. We would like to followup with her but neglected to exchange contact information.

    Might you be able to provide us with contact information for the Albany group, in the hope that they might find a Tiffany ? from Wisconsin among their recent registrants? We would love to follow up on our most interesting conversation and also introduce her to some organic farming friends up in Gill, Massachusetts.

    Here's hoping.

    With best wishes for your well deserved success,

    Stan & Jean Mattson
    When and where is this year's annual conference?

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