40 Acres and a Mule

Cotton, one of the staple crops grown in North Carolina throughout history, is still grown in fields all around Tillery, NC

“40 Acres and a Mule” is what many emancipated slave descendants and sharecroppers were promised during the New Deal, or Resettlement period, under President Roosevelt. Resettlement communities were created throughout the South, and Tillery, North Carolina was the largest Black Resettlement Community in the country.

It is now home to Black farmers and elders who can remember moving here to farm with their families so many years ago. It was my first stop in North Carolina after leaving Virginia.

Mr. Daniel Whitaker, 93 yr old farmer in Tillery, NC

One of my favorite sit-downs so far, is without a doubt, my time with Mr. Whitaker. He is a sweet and strong-willed 93 year-old hog farmer and WWII veteran who rebelled against the New Deal system by turning down the offer of 40 acres and a mule and saved up his own money to buy himself land, which he still owns today.

Gary Grant of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association shows me documentation over the decades-long struggle for Black farmers

I also sat with Gary Grant of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association who, in addition to gifting me with his infectious laugh, imparted upon me history and knowledge on the struggle of the Black farmer; stories of struggle which can only be told by those who have really lived them, as he and so many members of Tillery have.

Mr. Haywood Harrel a 2,000-acre farmer in Tillery, NC

I am not solely focusing on organic and sustainable farmers in The Color of Food / photo documentary. And that’s because, sometimes, history, resources, and knowledge base guide a 2nd and 3rd-generation farmer’s business. That’s an important piece that I want to recognize when looking at farmers of color. No matter how uncomfortable it made me to see Mr. Harrel wearing a Monsanto cap when he greeted me on his farm, next to his fields of wheat and Round-Up Ready corn, I listened to him talk about the support and resources available to large, conventional farmers like him through Monsanto and the USDA, and I could see how some farmers choose to go that route. When the alternative is getting zero support while fighting to keep your land and desperately find a market, who can blame them? The problem lies not entirely in the farmer’s choice, but in between the rock and the hard place that government funding and corporate push is forcing them to be.

This last stop before leaving Tillery left me reflecting on the rich history of defiant Black farmers like Mr. Whitaker, but also on the bitter irony of today’s Black farmers, like Mr. Harrel, working to put money in the hands of Agribusiness giants. A relationship all too reminiscent of sharecropping in my opinion.

Check out this video made about the history of Tillery by the Concerned Citizens of Tillery!

These posts are just small excerpts from the upcoming Color of Food / photo documentary book.  The COLOR of FOOD/ photo documentary tour: Currently en route through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana! Holla at me if you know of farmers of color I should stop and see in these areas!

Mother of Seeds

Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange sits in the Acorn Community house she helped start

Thanks to Renard Turner of Vanguard Ranch, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the founders of the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and the Acorn Community near Charlottesville, Virginia.  Ira is well known in the seed world, having played an instrumental role in growing the worker-owned seed business housed in the decades-old intentional community Acorn. Her knowledge on growing food and growing for seed currently has her busy writing a guidebook and keeping up her blog column for Mother Earth News. Ira learned to love gardening through her grandmother, who she remembers grew collards, sweet potatoes and had pecan and guava trees. Her grandmother also made soap and many other natural, homemade products. So when Ira spoke about being one of very few people of color living in intentional communities throughout her adult life and how she’s witnessed the growth of the movement to be sustainable and natural, she commented, ” Growing up, this is just what we did. Its nothing new.”

We discussed the possible reasons for why the percentage of people of color in communities/communes like Acorn is so low. What’s your opinion?  We also talked about how Ira was reluctant to encourage Black farmers in the Southeast to grow for seed at first, for fear of the business’s success in the early stages. But now, with a customer base of over 100,000 and success an obvious quality of the business, she is reaching out to farmers of color who are interested in growing, saving and selling their seed! Get in touch on the website, linked above, if you or someone you know is interested.

As Ira would say, democracy is in the seeds. Let’s all join the revolution – go plant.

Brother Lewis

Brother Lewis, a goat farmer near Charlottesville, Virginia shows me his land, his goats and his dogs

A fellow goat farmer and good friend to Renard also volunteered to meet with me before I left the area. I drove over from Acorn Community to Brother Lewis’s home on 30 acres, where his family has been farming for decades. He’s raising about 40 goats and sells them directly to consumers through word of mouth in his community. Brother Lewis is raising his goats and his vegetable crops organically, but like many of the other farmers I’ve interviewed, he thinks it’s funny that Organic is a label nowadays. “It’s just what we’ve always done…we use the chicken manure as fertilizer,” Lewis says, ” Back then, when your roots depended on growing food, it’s what you did. You didn’t think about it being the ‘right’ thing to do.”

Brother Lewis grew up farming but taught himself about how to raise goats by talking to other farmers, such as Renard, and reading. He spoke about how depending on your community, particularly in areas rich in agricultural history, is the best way to learn. “Sometimes all this [formal] education makes you miss the simple things,” says Lewis, “We just need to respect the land and it will give us what we want.”

Brother Lewis is a strong believer in his words, “It’s not about me, it’s about us.” And our definition of ‘us’ needs to expand all the way to the soil.

Sisters Grow


I spent an afternoon with Tamara and her mother Gwen(left) and Stef (above) in Richmond!

On my last stop in the state of Virginia, the home of big tobacco farms, I paid a visit to some sister food community organizers, health advocates and gardeners in Richmond. Tamara Elmore of TELMORE Gardens, her mother Gwendolyn Young and Stef Paige-Reese, who connected with Tamara through a group called Sisters Grow (a Facebook group for girls and women of African Descent growing food).  Tamara started growing her own food due to her neighborhood’s food access and is now expanding her backyard garden to the front yard in order to grow for her neighbors and get them involved. Stef is on a mission of “reconnecting with self “and continuing her social justice activism through becoming self-sufficient.

We talked about the history of Richmond’s food access, old Soul Food restaurants, health for Black women and plans Tamara and Stef both have for their food and farming futures. Tamara and a friend are starting a farm called Two Sistahs and A Hoe (you know you love it). While Stef has been reconnecting with her own family’s roots in agriculture through her relatives’ farms in Virginia and wants to start a farmers’ market in Richmond.

Their take on food access in Richmond and starting a movement of change is ” If you never speak up about your situation, nothing will be done about your situation.”

These posts are just excerpts from the upcoming Color of Food  photo documentary book.  The COLOR of FOOD/ photo documentary tour: Currently in Florida and Georgia!

“Behind the Wheel” posts are my experiences and perceptions during this project and how I’m holding up on the journey.

My family thinks I’m nuts. As do my friends, some acquaintances, a few colleagues, the majority of farmers I’m visiting and about 90% of all strangers that cross my path.

“You’re doing what, girl?!”is the milder of the average question posed at me when I pull up in my 22-year-old station wagon, still rockin’ the wood panels on the side, with homemade curtains (to cover my 7-month stash of supplies, gear and life necessities) billowing in the wind.

And after I explain that I’m driving 12,000 miles around the country interviewing farmers of color by myself – as if it’s the most common response in the world – “You’re crazy, girl,” is always the definitive closure to that conversation.

And maybe I am. Thus far, after four weeks on the road, I’ve already slept in 11 different homes, driven about 2,000 miles, subsisted on peanut butter, trail mix and pretzels between farms and gotten lost more times than I care to admit at the moment (I’m also not going to admit that I’m driving with a GPS).

It’s been amazing though. I live for this – regardless of how crazy it makes me. I just see it a different way. I see it is as being blessed with the opportunity to be welcomed into the homes of amazing change-makers, beautiful souls and wise, weathered mentors who are imparting their knowledge, memories and profound visions for the future onto me.  All I can think is “How did I get this lucky? How is this my job?”

Maybe you just have to be a little crazy to seek out the work you love.

The COLOR of FOOD/ photo documentary tour: Currently along the Gullah coasts of South Carolina and Georgia!

Renard Turner rakes in fresh seeds in March on Vanguard Ranch, Gordonsville VA

From The Button Farm in Maryland, I found myself on a beautiful 94 acres of land, tucked into the wooded hills of Gordonsville, Virginia. This land has been nurtured and stewarded by Mr. and Mrs. Turner, as well as a large herd of goats, for the last 11 years.

Vanguard Ranch raises Myotonic goats for meat. (Known as fainting goats because of their tendency to stiffen up and fall over!) They sell curried goat, goat kabobs and goat burgers to their larger community by traveling to festivals and fairs in their mobile kitchen, while also marketing to local food stores. (Goat is the most commonly consumed red meat in the world!)  They also grow a variety of vegetables which are sold to the Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, VA, because as Renard says ” You’ve got to have more than one avenue of income stream.”

My time on Vanguard Ranch was spent keeping up with the fast-moving Renard during his busy days of tending to the land, spring seeding, tending to the goats and the fencing that keeps the goats in. Not to mention making stops around town to buy seed, feed and attend community events like the screening of the film The World According to Monsanto, hosted by the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and other groups that are suing Monsanto for their practices with GMO seeds.

Renard and Chinette were a family passionate about self-sufficiency, having moved from Washington D.C. to Virginia in the 70’s with a desire to be fully independent and sustainable on their own land. They are firm believers in the ideology that self-sufficiency equals freedom, because “being dependent on broken systems is simply not sustainable.” With their thriving business rooting from their own land, they are paving the way to freedom for us all.

Goats on Vanguard Ranch hit their horns together in playful affection

Renard and Chinette Turner pose in their home at Vanguard Ranch

These posts are just snippets of the interviews for The Color of Food  photo documentary book! Next stops on the tour are along the coasts of North and South Carolina, holla at me!   And check out the NEW Color of Food website!

Starting at the Roots

I hit the road last week and had my first interview in a place that was fitting for portraying one of the largest roots of our country’s agriculture industry and a significant piece of history that formed the painful relationship with African-Americans and farming.

The Button Farm Living History Center in Germantown, Maryland is a plantation-slavery education and farm project run by Anthony Cohen, a Black historian turned farmer/ immersion experience educator.

He started the Button Farm after providing a slavery immersion experience to Oprah in order for her to prepare for her role in Beloved. He realized this was not only an educational experience that people would actually seek out, but a way of preserving the contributions and culture African people brought to this country’s early agricultural system.

The farm blossomed into more than just a historical, educational experience but, through the demand of the community, it also became a fully operational farm, providing CSA shares with heirloom vegetables, eggs and even firewood. Visitors can tour the farm and learn of the many heirloom vegetables (such as the Maryland Fish Pepper) and heritage livestock breeds (such as the Cotton Patch Geese, pictured below) being raised there that trace back to the days when African slaves were growing and raising the same line of seeds and animals.

The Cotton Patch Goose is a natural weed eater and therefore was used by Southern cotton farmers, during but especially after emancipation of slavery, to weed between the rows of cotton. The geese are now almost extinct but were in abundance in the South up until the 1950s. The Button Farm has 6 Cotton Patch Geese and is preserving the woven history with this heritage breed during the African slavery era.

Anthony Cohen feeds one of the Cotton Patch Geese on The Button Living History Farm

It’s All Happening

As the Dogwood and Cherry Blossom trees begin to bloom, I know it’s finally time to begin my trek across the country.

My project to find, connect and hear directly from other brown farmers has been in germination for a year and a half, and I’m filled with excited anticipation now that it has emerged.

I started thinking about the need for this project while I was writing a series called The Color of Food for Grist.org in 2010. The issues of race and food were discussed and the voices of farmers of color rang loud and clear for me, yet I knew they weren’t being heard.  I spent the next year trying to make the idea of amplifying these voices come to fruition. And thanks to the support of many beautiful souls and comrades in this movement, at the end of 2011 the idea became a reality.

Now with the fresh, new season upon us – as my favorite wizard of one liners would say – “It’s all happening.”

The winter  “spring” was spent in much needed hibernation(if you can even hibernate in 60 degree weather). I spent the time preparing for the trip and working at Cedar Springs farm for extra cash to help when on the road.

I researched and bought a car to get around to all the farmers in (Lucille, a 22 year old wagon, aged like a fine wine), which will double as my home for the season. I also acquired all the camera and audio equipment I’ll need and began planning my route and reaching out to farmers to set up interview stays.

Now I’m officially on the road and the COLOR of FOOD/ photo documentary tour has officially commenced!

Snapshots of the farmers along the way and pieces of their interviews will be posted here. As well as updates of my route so that folks can reach out to me when I’m in your area if you want to participate, support or suggest a farmer I should connect with!

First states: D.C./Maryland/Virginia area, then North Carolina! Give me a shout if you or anyone you know in these states should be included in this project or if there’s a couch for me to lay my head on 😉

i heart mushrooms

Mushrooms are freaking cool. At least that’s what the average mycology lover’s t-shirt says. Each variety with its own idiosyncratic qualities. The incredibly fast and far reaching growth rate of fungi. And the delicious flavors and culinary uses each mushroom has. (Though some people are also fascinated with the not-so-edible varieties too. You know the ones.)

For farmers and urban growers, mushrooms aren’t a bad crop to market. There’s not a whole lot of competition out there and you can charge a pretty penny for varieties like Shitake, Mitake and Oysters, to name a few. But after the past 6 weeks, I’ve had a little peek into why not too many folks are growing them: You gotta get the science. And you gotta love the science.

Maybe for other farmers that’s a given; science is in everything we grow. But I’m talking about delicately controlled-environment science. Like some petri dish, hepafilter, lab coat type craziness. Not everybody has the patience, interest, time or resources for doing all that.

Granted, not all growing techniques require a mycology lab. There a variety of ways to grow mushrooms. With Shitake, for example, you can just plug your spores right into a log and voíla – you’re chowin’ down on Shitake burgers in no time.

But even when you’re inoculating and growing in logs or outdoors in other mediums, you still have to be aware of the microcosm of a controlled-environment you’re dealing with. There are other spores everywhere that can get in and take it all over, and plenty of other factors that can have an impact.

When creating the perfect environment for growing mushrooms, you’re creating the perfect environment to grow fungi, period. And when you think about that, you can see how venturing down this path is no walk in the park.

The farm I’ve been on these last weeks should be renamed Farm Sterile because that’s where the bulk of the energy (both literally and figuratively speaking) has gone. Ensuring the labs, built by the farmers in the basement of their home; the grow house, built in their drained pool; and the growing mediums of pasteurized straw and grain, which they pasteurized themselves, is all completely sterile. Your mushrooms can get contaminated with a number of other bacteria spores and just like that your whole crop can be wiped out. It’s a lot of work! A lot of understanding the science involved in controlling those environments and maintaining the systems needed to do so, such as humidity irrigation, air filters and air flow systems.

That’s all a little too intensive for me personally. But I have a newfound respect for mycologists and those brave souls that have a passion for cultivating and successfully marketing mushrooms.

Tyler and Kara here at Cedar Springs Farm decided to grow in this way for more control over their production and an increased guarantee to yield good results. They sell to local chefs from West Virginia to D.C. and the chefs are lining up to buy the first local mushrooms in the state to add to their menus. Tyler won the Innovative Farmer of the Year award from the local agriculture bureau for his growing techniques. Techniques he learned from a quick weekend course with Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti in Washington state.

I’ve been here to witness and help with the entire process from scratch, so I’m excited to share what I’ve learned. But, since I’m no Peter Stamets, I’ll share the experience through photos and let them do the talking. Any further information you may want on growing mushrooms can be found on various online resources, but Fungi Perfecti is a good start.

Yours Truly,

The Newest Mycology Fan


i heart mushrooms

a peek into the mushroom lab at Cedar Springs Farm

First we start with petri dishes and sterilized Agar as the growing medium for the spores. You could put the spores right into the final growing medium (straw,grain) but this helps multiply your “seed”

Everything is done in front of the Hepafilter to minimize contamination

We sterilize the Agar medium by cooking it in a pressure cooker

They ordered many varieties of mushroom spores from Fungi Perfecti – study up on your latin!

Next we carefully extract spores and transplant into the Agar growing medium where they’ll multiply and be used for inoculation

After the spores grow in the petri they are transferred to sterilized grain which serves as the inoculation medium, once the grain is covered in “fuzz” they are ready to be put into the straw columns shown here

The Spawn Room is full of the straw columns inoculated and ready to grow and fruit

You can see the mycelium growth as the straw turns white with fuzz and the mushrooms begin fruiting (shown poking out of the holes in the columns)

Fully fruiting column of Pink Oyster mushrooms!

Pink Oysters are ready for harvest

By the end of my time at Cedar Springs we were able to move the straw column production from the little room setup in their basement out to the finished Mushroom House built in their drained pool

Almost finished Mushroom House is huge. It will hold hundreds of straw columns for growing thousands and thousand of mushrooms. (Unfortunately I left before getting shots of the finished and functioning space, but I’ll be back at the end of the year and will post an update on the progress)

(Now that my time working at this farm has come to an end, along with the “winter”, it’s time for me to finally hit the road for the Color of Food/photo documentary. Stay Tuned!)