Lorrie Clevenger understood the challenges to farming on a small scale, but she chose to leave her job and pick up the trade nonetheless. She wanted to see more people of color growing food, wanted to shape a farm that was designed to heal broken relationships with the land, and most of all, she knew that growing her own food made her feel free in a way she’d never experienced.
Today, Clevenger is a full-time farmer at Rise & Root Farm, a three-acre farm in rural Chester, New York, that she founded with three other women urban growers. Before farming, she held multiple roles in community organizing and food and farm education at WhyHunger and Just Food. Clevenger is a founding member of Farm School NYC and Black Urban Growers (BUGs) and she recently spent two years farming in Santa Cruz at the University of California Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS).
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Missouri, the “show-me” state. I identify as a Missourian: hard-working, stoic, skeptical of outsiders, stubborn. I feel nostalgic sometimes for the small rural towns, the corn fields, the looming unused grain silos, old farmhouses with their hidden rooms and dirt roads that frame my childhood memories. But mostly when I think about Missouri, I feel an endless sadness. From a very early age, I knew I would leave and not look back.
I was born in Kansas City in 1974. My mom moved my brother and me to Green Ridge, Missouri, when I was five. The area is mostly agricultural, and most of my classmates’ parents were farmers. I was the only Black child or person of color, both in my school and in the larger community.
My childhood memories from that time are a patchwork of racially charged events, from name-calling to being ostracized in the lunchroom or on the playground. I learned to spend a lot of time alone, entertaining myself with books and an active imagination. I learned to ignore the staring that happened when I was in town with my family. And I focused on doing well in school.
I knew that I would go to college, and I wanted to be a child psychologist, then a fashion designer, then a writer, then a ninja, and eventually a college professor. But after all of that, 25 years later on the streets of New York City, I found myself wanting to be a farmer.
What was your relationship to farming when you were young?
Being a farmer had never made my dream career list. It was probably the last thing I wanted to be. I knew the act of farming itself was important—it was how we got our food. But in rural Missouri, I was surrounded by farmland owned by one family; the farmers were all white men and the work was mostly done by giant tractors. I don’t remember any women farmers and I definitely never saw a Black, Latinx, Native American, or any other person of color farming. All that I ever saw connecting Black people and land was Black people enslaved and forced to work a white master’s land. At that age, processing that limited narrative of African-American history, I equated farming with slavery for Black people and it was not anything I ever wanted to do.
Fortunately, I was one of those kids that succeeded in our education system, despite everything. I went to the University of Missouri in Colombia, and then spent two years in the Peace Corps teaching English in China.
What brought you to food justice?
I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to understand the world from another culture’s perspective and then I moved to NYC and shifted from a career path addressing China’s environmental issues to realizing that the U.S. uses more of the world’s resources than anyone, and that meant I wanted to stay here and focus on how to help us become a better example for the rest of the world.
I began looking for a community that reflected what I was beginning to understand as the connections between many different social issues, from racial and religious discrimination to economic injustice to environmental degradation, and that was actively involved in transformative social change.
I met people in organic farming through a job creating wind farms in the Northeast. I began volunteering on a small farm in upstate New York, and that was where I both started thinking about food through a political lens and began to develop my race consciousness.
At that farm, where most of the people were white, I got into an argument with someone who was talking about a Black community where people had interrupted a town hall meeting about building a trash incinerator in the neighborhood. This person—who was white—was disapproving, like these people were just making too much noise. It triggered something in me; I felt like he was strangling me with his words and I couldn’t be quiet about it.
I erupted at him: “When you are poor and Black and nobody is listening to your community, what are you supposed to do? How are you supposed to get people’s attention?!” I hadn’t grown up with stories of people of color speaking up for themselves. Speaking up in the places where I grew up, you ended up dead. I had it ingrained in me that it wasn’t safe to be Black. So as I began learning about resistance in Black communities, and community-based resistance and organizing of all kinds, it felt very powerful to me.
From that point on, I started to get politicized. I started looking for jobs working on food justice, and I was hired Just Food. What drew me in was their approach to community work. A community would invite them in to listen and learn about their assets and needs and tell Just Food how they could help—rather than Just Food telling the community what it needed.
What were some of the challenges when you started in food justice?
As a Black woman, raised in a white family from rural Missouri, my first challenge continues to be developing my own consciousness around Blackness and whiteness, the impact of colonization, the concept and process of decolonizing the mind, reclaiming narratives missing from U.S. history as it has been taught, and understanding my own internalized racism.
I was one of two Black women employed at Just Food when I started, and we were the only two people of color. Unlike at many places, as a staff we did talk a great deal about race: what did it mean to send white volunteers and AmeriCorps staff into Black neighborhoods; how could we improve outreach to recruit more people of color?
But in general, there were very few people of color involved in what was becoming the food movement in New York City. I met long-time community garden activist and WhyHunger Board Member Karen Washington early on. Eventually, after attending too many conferences where Black people and communities were talked about but not represented, Karen and I, along with seven other women, founded BUGs and organized the first Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference in 2010. Over 500 Black farmers, chefs, food justice activists, policy makers, and students showed up. It made a difference—we’ve all noticed a rise in the recognition of Black leadership in the food justice movement, whether at conferences or on the staff and boards of non-profits.
What led you to become a full-time farmer?
I began meeting Black community leaders and elders who gardened or farmed. I also eventually got a plot myself at Taqwa Community Farm in the South Bronx.
Hearing stories from Karen and Abu Talib (African-American New Yorkers who started community gardens and who had chosen to make agriculture such a big part of their lives), learning to tend my own little plot of land, and tasting the fruits of my own labor were all key in helping me break the slavery narrative. Slavery is about power and oppression; it has nothing to do with the skill and the desire to grow food.
Talib talked about what he learned from his aunt in South Carolina about the medicinal uses of wild plants. He taught me to see community differently; his community included the bees and the critters in the soil, and it was important to him to take care of them as well. He helped me to reconnect to the land as a source of healing and nourishment, separating it from the trauma of slavery. It was Talib who first told me, “Whoever controls your breadbasket controls your destiny.” And from Karen, I learned the power of growing food as an act of resistance, a form of participatory democracy and a tool for community organizing. “Each one teach one,” Karen often says, and acts on it.
Whenever I worked in my little 10-by-13-foot plot at Taqwa, I didn’t want to go home. I would plan to work for two hours and still be there six hours later. When you’re doing something you love, time just doesn’t exist. I started farming because I enjoyed it and because I wanted there to be people who look like me farming. So I decided, why not be that person?
Why is it important for there to be people who look like you farming?
Black people, Brown people, and Native American people—we need to see ourselves growing our food, especially food that was indigenous to us, to heal that relationship with the land and the food. So many of us are not eating culturally appropriate foods; a lot of us don’t even think about the food that we’re eating. We’re too financially strapped to even wander in that direction, we just eat what we can get our hands on, so there’s still such a disconnect. But seeing people who look like us growing healthy food, having a spiritual relationship with the land, rather than one of oppressive entrapment and violence, is healing.
How have food and farming been healing and liberating for Black and Brown communities—and for you?
For me, having that first plot at Taqwa Community Farm and harvesting my first tomatoes was the first time that I ever felt free. I could do anything; as long as I grow my own food, I’ll be fine.
For the African-American community, gaining access to land and growing food can be powerful. Many people reconnect to memories they didn’t even know they had, memories of grandparents or aunties or uncles growing food and sharing it with them, the taste of it… remembering they’ve had real food before and realizing that what they’re eating now is not what they’re supposed to be eating and that they can make other choices.
What are some of the challenges of farming?
I’m personally feeling trapped in a system that dictates how I have to treat people as a business owner. It’s the biggest thing I’m grappling with: how we’re going to hire people and pay them, when we can’t afford to pay ourselves. I want to create a business where I don’t own anyone’s labor, where we all equally contribute to a common cause of supporting ourselves, each other, and communities that need it the most… But how do we do that within the current structures?
We have not moved away from growing food being seen as a lower-class job. We’ve only intensified it by adding race to the mix. Until we recognize the value of farm labor, we’re not ever going to have a sustainable, just food system.
To be a farmer today often means to live in poverty, unless you’re a really big farm. No one chooses farming, because you can’t make any money. But we did choose it. So despite my love of the work and my commitment to learning and growing as a farmer, the financial impact of that choice was difficult, not just logistically, but psychologically and emotionally, wrestling with how I’ve put myself back in a space that I worked so hard to get myself out of as a kid.
What’s your vision?
My vision is for Rise and Root Farm—a cooperative farm that I started with women I met early on in my food justice work, Karen Washington, Jane Hodge, and Michaela Hayes—to be a farm business that acknowledges the U.S. history of exploitation around agriculture and is choosing to create something different. Fair wages, yes, but more than that: a model where people are respected, where they want to come and farm, or work with us in whatever capacity.
I’d be happy just gardening, but what we’re trying to do is build space for people like myself; for people who have experienced oppression and violence to feel safe with the land. Some of the best experiences on our farm have been workdays focused on healing, where people can come and talk about how it feels to live in a country that says everybody has the right to pursue freedom and happiness, and yet police officers are gunning us down. Where members of the LGBTQ community can talk about their struggles. There are not enough of those spaces, particularly in the farm and agricultural world.
When we’re having a bad day, when we’re trying to get our budget to balance for this year, I remember this vision. It’s not that I don’t care about the business, but being able to provide that space… that’s why I wanted to farm.
A version of this interview originally appeared on WhyHunger.org.