Urban Ag as Resilience to Persistent Social Inequity

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. 

Will Scott

Scott Family Farms - Welcome

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. 

Image courtesy of Ken Grimes, National Resources Conservation Service, Fresno Field Office

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. 



Dr. Tammy Gray-Steele

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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.”

To learn more about NWIAA, please visit the website:https://www.nwiaa.org

We eat what we were

The stories of people raising, harvesting, cooking and serving food cannot help but speak to core values and being. There is something about farming that makes people want to tell their family stories, maybe becasue so many of us have at least some farming in our families’ pasts — after all, in many places growing and gathering food occupied most people most of the time.

This is not to say that all family stories are the same. They are not. Also, just because your family comes from farmers doesn’t mean you understand what farming — or working the land — means for other families. My farm experiences as a child and young adult in a small family-based village in central Sweden doesn’t mean I understand the lives or histories of the Richardson or Pullen families I’ve written about and photographed in previous posts on this blog. History is too complicated for complete understandings of that kind — but there is reason to hope that stories can help us grow enough understanding and empathy to take each others’ stories seriously. There is no reason to ignore the facts that remind us that slaves and serfs and stolen Indigenous lands are all part of farming, the growing of food. But those evils do not erase connections at the heart of farming that can connect and heal — family, community, hard work, land, spirituality and nutrition. The growing of food so that people can thrive.

The link below will take you to a radio conversation on NPR that, on one level, speaks to some very topical, difficult and current discussions in America (and the world), while also reaching deep into ideas about place and being — who we are in this time and place, given the histories and communities we grow from. The guests on this show are Ashley Gripper, an environmental epidemiology PhD candidate at Harvard, and Khaliah Pitts, a culinary artist and co-founder of Philadelphia non-profit Our Mothers’ Kitchens. I hope you enjoy it. It triggered some thoughts about my upbringing in the folds of my grandmother’s farm in central Sweden. I’ll post on that soon.

— Torsten


Ted Pullen

I met Ted Pullen almost three decades ago, when we were both closer the the beginning o our careers than we were to the ends. That’s changed for both of us, now sliding down the backside of our chosen work. What hasn’t changed is that Ted and I still love to tell and hear stories whose result is that we’re both laughing. During phone calls and occasional meetings in person when I travel through his home near Siketson, Missouri, we share worries about our kids, now grown well past needing our worries. When I began Black Soil way back in the early 1990s, Ted introduced me to his extended family of farmers, his farming neighbors, the differences between Black and white agriculture in the Bootheel of Missouri — a place I found impossibly flat, wet, hot and humid. I’d never stood in a cotton field or a garden growing okra. There was a lot to learn. Ted was my teacher.

Ted has now retired from farming, but he still owns his land. He rents to other farmers and helps his nephew Andy Pullen with his farm, which sits on the other side of the Pullen Family Cemetery. It was at the church in that cemetery that Will Atwater and I were going to spend last Memorial Day, fully immersed in the annual Pullen Family Reunion. CoVid-19 quenched that gathering, so we’ll have to go back once we’re all travelling and blessedly socially undistanced. Based on past experience, I expect hugging and some intimately close eating at that reunion. I also expect to exchange stories with Ted — stories that may have no purpose beyond making us laugh.

– Torsten

From Lewis to Jones: History Matters

“You must also study and learn the lessons of history because humanity has been involved in this soul-wrenching, existential struggle for a very long time. “ – John Lewis

As I’m sure you know, on July 30, 2020, civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis was laid to rest. Maybe less well known but also very informative, on that same day New York Times Magazine journalist and producer of the 1619 Project, Nikole-Hannah-Jones, was the guest on the latest episode of Homeroom with Sal, hosted by Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. The show is lived-streamed daily at noon PT/ 3pm ET and can be viewed on YouTube or FaceBook. During each episode, Sal and a special guest discuss that day’s topic and answer viewers’ questions.

I’m highlighting these two events that occurred on a day filled with plenty of headlines—news about the latest tropical storm heading toward the U.S., growing unemployment numbers, and the continued rise of coronavirus infections—because I find hope in John Lewis’ legacy as a civil rights leader and inspiration in Hannah-Nikole Jones’ work on the 1619 Project. Lewis noted the importance of history, and the work to re-investigate it continues, as evidenced by Jone’s work, which asks us to re-examine who we are as a nation now that the missing pages of our backstory have been found. To be sure, 244 years after its founding and 401 years after the White Lion brought the first cargo of slaves to Virginia, America is still a work-in-progress.

In order to carve out a more perfect union, I can think of no better start than to acknowledge that the American Story is much fuller than the one most of us learned in school. How many of us had to learn about the Tulsa Race Massacre as adults? Now that you know it and can see its relevance to where we are today, it begs the question of how to share this story and others more broadly. The 1619 project offers a curriculum that fills in what our old history books are missing.

Op-ed: How Urban Agriculture Can Fight Racism in the Food System

I am reposting this article because the role of urban agriculture in the food system is an important topic. Activist, educator, and farmer, Karen Washington is a leader in the urban agriculture movement and has valuable insight to share. To learn about the fund she co-founded please visit https://www.blackfarmerfund.

Karen Washington in her urban farm. Photo courtesy of Bioneers.
Karen Washington is a New York City-based farmer at Rise & Root Farm

This article was originally published by Bioneers, and is an edited excerpt of a presentation Washington made at a past Bioneers Conference.

I live in a marginalized community in the Bronx in New York City. Out of 62 counties in New York State, the Bronx is rated number 62 as the unhealthiest county in the state. People in marginalized communities have been labeled as people in need, as people who have deficits. We have to change the way we look at marginalized communities, and it starts with the food system.

Shifting Power in the Food System

The food system is not broken; it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to: as a caste system based on demographics, economics, and race. If we’re going to transform this food system, we have to look at power and who has power. The current food system is controlled by a handful of people who are predominantly white men.

The dynamics have to change so that people of color have wealth and power. I’ve been involved in urban agriculture for a long time, and there have been some advances for people of color, but we don’t have power in decision making, and we don’t have the power in policy. In order for that to change, we have to change the way we look at ourselves and change the language of being called poor.

In my community, I see people who have done so much with very little resources. I see the power in those communities, rather than viewing them as weak. But, I have mixed feelings about the promise of the urban agriculture movement—because I don’t see our faces, and I don’t see our voices, and I don’t see our power.

The food system is not broken; it’s working exactly the way it’s supposed to: as a caste system based on demographics, economics, and race.

In my community and communities that look like mine, we are trying to form our own destiny. We don’t want to replicate the capitalistic system that extracts wealth, but rather we want to tap into the value of the social capital within our communities. Time and time again we’ve asked for help, but to no avail. So, now we look at our communities as a force and a power to come together to challenge the industrial, capitalistic system and to look at the impact of inequity when it comes to wealth and land.

Urban Agriculture: Local Control of Food and Economics

People have been growing food in cities for thousands of years. There seems to be a feeling that if people are able to grow food in their communities that things are going to change. For me, growing food isn’t enough. We need to address the structural, industrial, and environmental determinants that reinforce racism in our society.

When we first started growing food in New York City, it was about taking back ownership of a community that had been devastated because of the exodus of white people—white flight. The people that stayed in those communities were usually people of color.

People began community gardens collectively, coming together to change something that was devastated into something that is beautiful. Community gardens were a way to take ownership and to control the food and economics in our neighborhoods. Those things were unheard-of in marginalized communities. Twenty years ago, we started a community-based farmers’ market, which was unprecedented in a low-income neighborhood.

Growing food isn’t enough: We need to address the structural, industrial, and environmental determinants that reinforce racism in our society.

Marginalized communities are surrounded by a charity-based, subsidized food system. In addition, on every block there’s a fast food restaurant. From Monday to Saturday you can go to a soup kitchen or food pantry. I’m not saying that those things are not important, but they don’t encourage local ownership. In order to change the structure of a charity-based, subsidized food system, people have to understand the language of financial literacy, economic development, and entrepreneurship so that the money that we make in our community stays in our community. That’s number one. Starting a farmers market in communities of color is an opportunity to make money and take ownership.

Overcoming Political Obstacles

But whenever communities of color try to move forward, politics come into play. In New York City, there is a growing problem between open-space community gardens and development. How do we make structural change when the local food economy is up against city politics? If we’re going to move forward in the urban agriculture movement, we have to understand the politics that make it difficult to grow and sell food in the city.

The city said it was illegal to raise chickens and bees. Bees were designated as ferocious animals. We had to correct that misconception and educate the city that bees are critical to pollinate many crops. We had to explain the social impact of those restrictions.

We are trying to change the system so that the power of financial literacy and economic development is in the hands of people who have been oppressed.

I view community gardens and urban agriculture as a way to change the dynamic of the power structure, because people within marginalized communities are not going to advance unless we take back power. For me and for a lot of people in my position—not only in New York, but in Detroit, Baltimore, and Oakland—we are trying to change the system so that the power of financial literacy and economic development is in the hands of people who have been oppressed.

That means we have to change the dynamics of the power structure so that people in those communities have control over their food system, but that’s a difficult task. I hear the promise of urban agriculture, but it’s not going to be fulfilled unless the people in those communities have ownership of land, have the right to grow, and have ownership of an economy that is a base for building from the ground up.

Building Social Capital and Community Wealth

A group of people in New York City have decided that we’re going to create something else that’s unprecedented—a Black Farmer Fund. We have been waiting for support from the USDA for a long time. We have been waiting for the government to solve our economic dilemma, but the only way we’re going to move forward is by building social capital and wealth within communities of color in place of the capitalist system that extracts wealth and resources.

The Black Farmer Fund in New York State has started to put the power back into the hands of people that look like me. We’re starting to form a language that is totally different. We’re trying to get people who have been out of wealth building, who have been out of the context of economic development and entrepreneurship and making them understand the power that they have within their own community to build wealth. Wealth building is never talked about in our community. Financial literacy and ownership are not talked about in our community.

I’m working to change that dichotomy, change the language, and help people understand the power that they have by coming together, sharing resources and putting money into a system that’s going to change the economic outlook so that farmers will be able to purchase seeds within their own community, purchase land, and purchase resources. It’s not going to come from outside. It’s not going to come from the government, it’s going to come from the social capital that’s built within those communities.

Around and around

Monique wants to go to town with her father, Joe Richardson. Joe raised his three kids just outside of New Madrid, Missouri, ona farm with his parents. Like so many Black farm families, obtaining and keeping land was, and is, a constant uphill battle. With one mistake or bit of bad luck, the forces pushing Black farmers off their land can quickly get the upper hand. Today, the farmland no longer belongs to the family, although the house still does. Photo copyright Torsten Kjellstrand, 1995.

If this is your first time to Cultivating Justice: Welcome!

This project is the happy collision of decades work done by Will Atwater and Laura Lawson — who have worked with community agriculture, land ownership, justice issues and such for a long time – with the photos I’ve made with Black farm families in the Bootheel of Missouri since 1993. Our hope is that others’ works and efforts will collide with Cultivating Justice, too, in hopes of giving a full and dynamic view of the intersection of race, agriculture and land ownership in the United States.

Looking back and forward from my perspective here in the summer of 2020, it feels like the conversation about race and land in America has moved into spaces unimaginable when I started photographing the Richardson family, and others, in 1993. On the other hand, it feels depressingly similar, as if we are just going around and around, as we constantly find new ways to engage but not move forward. I choose to think of this as an opportunity for all of us who want to be relevant and constructive in the conversations we must have and actions we must take, and I hope that this collaboration can make some contribution to making that real.

I will post more pictures of Joe and his family, as well as some from the Pullen and Peat families near Sikeston, Missouri, from visits I’ve made between 1993 and 2018.

Please follow us and keep coming back. Better yet, join the conversation.


Timeout is Over

I hope this post finds you in good health.

The world has changed a lot since I last posted! In March, my colleague Torsten Kjellstrand and I were planning a trip to the Missouri Bootheel region to collect stories and photographs of farmers and community members, but the pandemic arrived and forced a stop to this plan. We hope to make the trip once it’s deemed safe to do so. When we do make the journey, we’ll share the experience with you in the form of photographs and video footage.

In response to the Coronavirus pandemic, which continues to hover over the planet and the social unrest gripping our nation, I’ve found myself needing to take a step back, to slow down, and to devote more time and energy toward supporting my family and loved ones in whatever way I can as we, like many of you, grapple with the uncertainty and chaos currently dominating daily life. Most of my efforts to support those I care about have felt inadequate at best. Recently, I have felt emotionally and physically drained by my Groundhog-Day-like routine. But if nothing else, I’ve tried to create a space where I can listen to and encourage family and friends, even when I’m not sure how to respond or resolve their concerns. The silver lining in all of this is: I may emerge a better listener and, as a result, a better husband, father, son, and friend. Fingers crossed!

My apologies for rambling on … I just thought I should take a minute to brief you on what I’ve been up to since my last post. Now that that’s out of the way, I’d like to share some information related to the Cultivating Justice project.

I’d like to thank Sylvia-Chan Malik and Badi Malik for inviting Laura Lawson and me to address a group of avid gardeners and food activists via a Zoom meeting, which took place on Sunday, July 5. The group meets bi-weekly on Sundays to discuss topics related to vegetable gardening. Laura and I were invited to discuss Cultivating Justice, the multiplatform documentary project we’re developing that chronicles the history of African Americans in agriculture, starting with the emancipation and continuing to current times. We were excited to engage with people from different parts of the country, including California, Michigan, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Laura and I came away from the Zoom meeting feeling energized and grateful for the opportunity to converse with such a thoughtful and informed group! Additionally, we are taking this time to explore alternative ways to produce content for the blog while also remaining in semi-shutdown mode due to the pandemic. We’re confident we can and look forward to the challenge!

Moving on, in keeping with a major focus of this blog, which is to share information, I’d like to draw your attention to two recently published articles and one short documentary I feel are worth exploring. Blog contributor and Cultivating Justice cofounder, Laura Lawson, is cited in the first article published in Mother Jones. The second article is also published in Mother Jones and addresses the issue of land tenure. In keeping with the theme of tenure, How Black Americans Were Robbed of their Land, is a short documentary I recently discovered. Produced by the Atlantic in 2019, the film documents discriminatory practices faced by black farmers that extended over several decades and ultimately resulted in the Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuit brought by black farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture(USDA) in 1999.


Soon to come … a farmer’s profile!

Until then, be well.