If memory serves me correctly, it was late summer 1999 when Ms. Lillie Mae Estes agreed to “demonstrate” how she tended her community garden plot. At the time, I was the site’s director and eager to document the gradual transformation of the vacant lot located in Northeast Central Durham, North Carolina into the community green space. It would eventually become a space which included both a mural and garden plots where local residents could grow organic vegetables. On this day, I had invited cinematographer Roger Beebe to come to the garden to capture Ms. Estes’ actions with his 16mm camera. My goal was to produce a feature-length film about the garden and the neighborhood using Roger’s footage and the Super 8 film I had captured over the course of several months. Ultimately, what I produced was an audio soundscape that meshed interview soundbites with the sounds of garden and neighborhood activities. While the finished product differed from what I originally intended to produce, this period marked the moment when I realized my passions for urban agriculture, green spaces, and doing documentary work.
Now more than 20 years later, I am so thankful to have this footage of Ms. Estes. One of my favorite images is a freeze frame of her gardening that I used as cover art for the cultivating justice blog. Another is the image at the top of the blog that shows Ms.Estes and I preparing to sell leafy greens at the mid-week market that was held on site. At the time, she was one of my North stars—no matter what, during the growing season, you could always count on her presence at the garden. Most days, barring bad weather or a previously scheduled trip to the grocery store or another errand, she would arrive early usually wearing a baseball cap or wide-brimmed hat with a hoe in hand and a teasing look of disappointment if I arrived after her. Born in 1919, Ms. Estes was “raised on a farm in the country,” where she acquired her knowledge of all things gardening before later moving to Durham in the ’70s. In mid-August of 1994, our paths crossed when I was hired to assist with the transformation of the vacant lot, and my life was forever changed. Ms. Estes is no longer with us and I am decades removed from my time at that garden, but every time I visit the blog and see her image, I am transported back to that time.
I have only just begun delving into the world of the food justice movement. For a couple weeks now I have been sorting through articles and video clips documenting the initiatives made by numerous people of color to get better access to land and quality food. The food justice movement addresses how past injustices, from enslavement to sharecropping, have shaped communities of color today, and advocates for power and equality. Already I have noticed a pattern. From names, such as Karen Washington, Leah Penniman, Dara Cooper, and many more, the food justice movement is largely led by women of color. I have been asking myself, as a white college student studying how gender is shaped by society, why that is, and what I can learn through exploring the deep roots of injustice in the US, challenged by years of activism, so that I can better appreciate why women of color have taken the reins on this issue and blazed forward.
I have been thinking back to moments in history where women of color have organized around food insecurity. In the late 60s and 70s, black women in the Black Panther Party emphasized the need to provide black folk with services for their daily oppressions. This concept was coined “survival pending revolution” (Dr. Farmer, 2019). Black women saw the need to address the short term effects of systematic racism that inhibited black folk from progressing, and that included food. The Free Breakfast Program provided food to children who were starving or lacking enough nutrients to succeed in school. Black women were at the forefront advocating for their communities, and addressing basic needs that were not being met for people of color.
So here we are now, 2020, and the same battle continues. And at the root of the fight around food security is the lack of the most basic need for food in communities of color and the activism needed to gain control and power in an unjust system. I hope to apply what I’ve studied in college to better understand the food justice movement and the role that gender plays in local activism.
-Dorothy Weiss, 12/18/2020
Dr. Farmer, Ashley. The Black Women Intellectuals and Activists Who Revolutionized
Hello Cultivating Justice community. My name is Dorothy and I’m joining Cultivating Justice to contribute to the conversation around food injustice and discuss one of the many ways in which racist policies create barriers for people of color in obtaining land rights and ownership. I am a student at Earlham College studying Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies. I have spent my time unpacking the ways in which society marginalizes communities whether by class, race, or gender, and I am excited to enrich what I’ve learned through my work with Cultivating Justice. I also hope to connect to younger generations who have turned to farming as a way of seeking hope and stability in a fracturing world. Let’s create a conversation so that we can all work towards a more sustainable future.
Thanks to Alyssa and Allen for sharing their farm story with us! The Ward’s have a 12-acre cut-flower farm in Salem, New Jersey. For more information, please visit: wardsfarmnj.com.
My husband, Allen grew up spending the summers on his grandparents 200+ acre horse farm in Minnesota. That is where he learned how to farm. As an adult, he has always grown vegetables. In 2012, he started to take backyard growing and turn it into farming. I on the other hand grew up in the Poconos in a very woodsy area but never farmed. I was introduced to farming when I met Allen in 2013. I learned how great farming could be when I had my first fresh from the farm asparagus for dinner and I was hooked into farming!
During the week in season, Allen wakes up at sunrise to tend to the farm. That could include weeding, picking flowers for our roadside stand, florist or other stands, making flower arrangements or other various farm tasks. Allen works a full time 9-5 job in banking where he spends the bulk of the day. When he comes home, he spends more time on the farm, whether it’s mowing, tilling, planting, cutting more flowers and hosting our ‘Pick Your Own’ evening events. Oh, and taking pictures for our social media. Weekends in the early spring are spent on the farm all day tilling the fields to be planted and planting the fields. As the season progresses, the weekends are spent tending to the blooming fields and finishing the weekday tasks that couldn’t be completed. This includes cutting flowers, tilling the weeds between the rows and hosting day time ‘Pick Your Own’ events. All year round, he suits up in the bee keeper suit to take care of our 4 honey bee hives. This can include checking for mites/beetles and making sure the overall health of the hives are good. In the winter, Allen spends time cleaning and beautifying the farm to ensure it looks in tip top shape for the warmer months.
I too work a full time 9-5 job in pharmaceuticals. I am the voice of the farm’s social media, posting the pictures and responding to customer questions, requests and scheduling events & farm visits. On the weekends and weekday evenings in the warm months, I tend our herb raised beds where we grow over 18 mint varieties to sell our Ward’s Farm all natural sun teas. During the busy season, I work our evening weekday and weekend day ‘Pick Your Own’ events. All year round, I work on our indoor succulents where I am constantly propagating so we can eventually sell those in the winter months when we don’t have our pretty summer blooms.
We both are so appreciative of our parents who know how busy farm work can get. They spend hours helping us whether it’s bringing food for dinner, spending time with the animals, helping with ‘Pick Your Own’ events or helping cut flowers to make arrangements for the stand.
We both love seeing the things we plant grow and flourish. It’s a great feeling to see something you hand planted thrive, grow and share it with others. It has become a passion and we are both blessed that we have the opportunity to do something we enjoy so much.
We have learned that it is important to go with the flow. We started out as an organic vegetables farm but converted to cut flowers after seeing there were an abundance of vegetable farms but not nearly as many flower farms. As Covid-19 has impacted everyone in the world, it has also changed our business a bit. Due to the cancellation of many events like weddings and parties, florists weren’t in need of flowers from the farm. In turn, we have had to shift our plans to now open our cut flower fields to the public rather than supply to florist. We have taken an obstacle and turned it into an opportunity.
As for the sunflowers fields, we have done ‘Pick Your Own’ events in the past but have seen an increase of visitors. We believe this is due to the fact that everyone has been in quarantine and just wants to get outside! We are so happy that we can bring joy in this tough time. We are blessed to have plenty of acreage so we are able to follow social distancing guidelines all while sharing the fields with others.
Working full time jobs, we have both learned to balance work, life, and farming. It can definitely get overwhelming at times, but as we get older, we see the importance of finding time for things that make you happy and that is farming to us.
In addition to our love for flowers, we have a love for honey bees that help pollinate the world. Not only do they help us create our own breeds of sunflowers, they also pollinate our other flowers (and veggies). Because bees will travel to get pollen, they help to pollinate the surrounding farms too.
It also doesn’t hurt that these wonderful pollinators produce something we both love and enjoy- honey! Between the two of us, we can go through a 5lb jar of honey in a couple months and we are very thankful that in time, our little hard working bees will produce that for us.
Our passion for bees comes from the fact that we wouldn’t have these beautiful flowers or tasty vegetables without the bees pollinating. We got our bees so we can help sustain the bee population. Our plan is to add more hives each year.
Our goal for the future is to continue to share our farm and flowers with our community for years to come.
To reinforce our intention with Cultivating Justice to connect African American rural and urban experiences in agriculture, here is a video montage of interviews we have done over the past couple years:
When I wrote City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America (University of California Press, 2005), my underlying goal was permanent community gardens and urban farms as part of our urban and suburban fabric. Through a historical account of the critical phases of garden programs, I showed the persistent, if episodic, support community gardens received as a means to address a range of social and economic concerns. Since the 1890s, I argued, we’ve promoted community gardens as a means to address local food access, community engagement, education, and empowerment in times of war, economic downturn, and social unrest. By showing that we’ve successfully done this over and over, I made the case for not reinventing the wheel but instead sustaining productive landscapes as part of our public infrastructure, similar to our attitude and investment in parks, playgrounds, and schools.
I was wrong. Or at least my perspective was misleading. This was not intentional and probably due in part to my scholarly training that focused on documentation and proof from reliable sources. As a scholar, I used the materials at hand – archived documents from libraries and collections that included advocacy materials produced by federal, state, and local governments, non-profit organizations, philanthropic groups, and popular magazine and news articles. Within these documents were second-hand references to gardeners’ lived experiences, but more often it was experts stating the need and providing advice and guidance to get people to garden. Let me teach you how to grow food so that you can help yourself and your community. It was the gardening version of the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.”
Twenty years of scholarship later, I acknowledge that it has taken me far too long to see what was in front of my eyes and being told to me time and again by contemporary gardeners and urban farmers – that individuals find value in urban gardening and farming and do it, regardless of the support and advocacy out there.
What I missed was that the experts were already relying on existing practices. Many people – particularly recent immigrants from rural communities in and out of the US were already gardening. They had to – it was not only part of their way of life but also a skill that was necessary to support self and family.
In other words, community gardens and urban agriculture are persistent because they are valuable to individuals. Period. Support from government, philanthropy, and others may rise during times of crisis because gardening is seen as a means to many ends, and this support helps but can rarely be relied upon. Over and over again, supports diminish after the crises end. Experts shift back to other duties, land reverts to previous uses. And while gardeners enjoy their harvest, their sweat equity in the land, their work building soil fertility, and the social capital that grows out of cooperative gardening are not honored as permanent investments.
Why does this matter? It matters when we think of structural inequalities inherent in US communities that made exceptions to allow gardening and farming during crises but ignored the sustained need for this resource. The worked land is an investment that needs to be recognized. It is also important because it gives agency to the gardeners who have always made things grow, made gardens thrive.
For me, our work with Cultivating Justice is about shifting the focus toward the many leaders in African American communities that sustained the skill and ability to grow food, whether in rural contexts, towns, suburbs, or cities. This connection between African American experiences in rural farming and urban community gardening is another aspect of the Great Migration that still needs to be told.
In the coming weeks, we are asking some community garden activists to share their stories as part of this blog. The stories often have connections to rural farming, but also to aspirations of what urban communities can become.
Image: Arlington, Virginia. FSA (Farm Security Administration) trailer camp project for Negroes. Project occupant tending his victory garden. Photograph by Marjory Collins. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress) . Call number: LC-USF34- 100030-E [P&P] LOT 204 (corresponding photographic print).
Once farmers near retirement, the task to establish a succession plan can be a struggle for Black-owned farms, which could ultimately result in the land being sold. Often, family members are not interested or able to continue to work the land.
Black-owned farms make up only 1.7 percent of all U.S. farms, according to the 2017 Agriculture Census. The average age of a Black farmer in the U.S. is 60.1 years, while the average age of a White farmer is 57.5 years.
Recently, I spoke with two people who are aware of the statistics and are working to increase African Americans’ participation in agriculture.
In 1997, farmer Will Scott organized the African American Farmers of California, a nonprofit organization based in f Fresno, California, with a mission to train the next generation of African American farmers. The 80-year-old believes it is important for African Americans and people of color to learn to produce food. The demonstration site consists of 18 acres and training lasts from 1 to 3 years, depending on each participant’s needs and interests. Participants are charged $200.00 per year, which gives them access to 1 acre of land, instruction in farming techniques, and assistance with soil preparation.
Scott believes it is necessary for the next generation to learn how to farm, and that the training program will provide a boost to those interested.
“As people of color we have a part to play in this food production. We need to be in it, we need to play our part. … I think the next crisis we’ll have is food – not only the quality of food but availability of food.”
In addition to the hands-on training offered, technical support is provided by Fresno State Agriculture Research Institute and University of California Extension, as needed.
Currently, there are five families growing vegetables, in addition to a community organization that is raising sweet potatoes and producing value-added products.
Aside from supporting the 18-acre training program, Scott devotes 30 acres of land to growing market crops, including black eye peas, heirloom tomatoes varieties, jalapeno and habanero peppers, mustard and collard greens and spinach. Scott hopes his granddaughter will one day take over the farm once he retires. If not her, then maybe one of the program’s graduates he has trained over the years.
I spoke with Dr. Gray a few weeks ago when I was trying to reach her uncle George Roberts, who is one of the farmers featured in season 5, episode 2 of “United Shades of America,” produced by CNN and hosted by W. Kamau Bell. Go to CNN.com and click on the show page to learn about the struggles George Roberts and the other farmers featured in the episode are facing.
Dr. Gray-Steele was born into a farming family, which owns approximately 1000 acres of farmland in Oklahoma. She remembers as a child attending community meetings with her grandfather, who stressed the importance of landownership and community development to African Americans in his community.
Fast forward to 2008, armed with a law degree and corporate experience, Dr. Steele founded National Women In Agriculture Association (NWIAA), which, according its website, “is the largest agricultural organization for women in the world, and is committed to providing equality and sustainable opportunities to women farmers and at-risk youth.”