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There are Black farmers losing land faster than Monsanto can split open seeds; and then there are Black farmers building up land with money handed to them by Wal-Mart.

This is the furrow we find ourselves in right now as Black farmers. Caught between keeping our heads above water and the integrity of our work above the bulls-eye of corporate ag.

This seemed to sum up the vibe of last weekend’s 2nd Annual Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference, held in New York and attended by over 300 farmers, urban growers and food activists in the Black community and other communities of color nationwide.

Much attention was given to the urgency of mobilizing and organizing around the 2012 Farm Bill, highlighting resources for  farmers in the Northeast, and ensuring that farmers of color are counted in the 2012 USDA census.

We heard from Audrey Rowe, Administrator of Food & Nutrition Service at the USDA. While she didn’t have much to say about the Pigford case and the money that Black farmers are still waiting for from the USDA,  she did speak of her experience starting the Black Oaks Center in and outside of Chicago, and her efforts at supporting the Advisory Council on Minority Farmers.  (a council which many members of the audience and myself would like to see representing and meeting in all regions instead of just the South…black people did move North too, remember USDA? But a good start anyway.)

However, the spotlight was really held for the countless Black leaders in food and farming who have been holding it down in their communities for decades: Farmers who have been preserving African traditions through their agriculture, nutrition education and culinary healing.  Growers who have been educating youth of color to advocate for their own food sovereignty.  Survivors using land in New Orleans to rebuild community. And bold leaders who have ventured into majority white rural areas to live off-grid, without much support from their community, because they want to own their freedom from a broken system.

I especially enjoyed hearing from the Black farming collective, Truly Living Well Center for Natural Urban Agriculture.  Based in Atlanta, they are building solid, impressive structures for feeding their communities in the South, and members like Eugene Cooke are replicating that structure in communities as far away as Kenya.

That effort of reaching far and wide out to each other, as brothers and sisters in this movement for food sovereignty, was the thread I took away from the conference.  Rashid Nuri from Truly Living Well reminded us that Black farmers during the civil rights era put up their hard-earned land in order to bail out activists marching alongside MLK.  This kind of unity is the only glue that will get this food revolution to stick; get any revolution to stick.

I couldn’t help but think of OccupyWallStreet, and how we should be working together to decolonize the food system. Jalal Sabur says let’s OccupyMonsanto. I say let’s OccupyUSDA, OccupyCongress, OccupytheWhiteHouse. Just because Wall St. has the government in the palm of their hands doesn’t mean it’s excused for allowing rock bottom to knock on so many doors.

Coming together last weekend and seeing all that power in one room was undeniable.  If we can just harness it all and send it full blast in the right direction, we – Black farmers, farmers and agtivists of color- can lead the way out of this mess.  If there’s one thing I know is certain about the Black community, it is resilience… through anything and everything.

logo credit: Tristan Joy

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There were ten of us. Some rooted in different generations, others in different cultures, and some living in separate places. A few of us had never met before.

But all of us shared a passion for feeding our communities.  And together we were setting out on a journey… to the mushy center of fighting racism.

Sixteen long hours later we all arrived, sleep-deprived, at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds in Milwaukee. This was the site of Growing Power’s Growing Food and Justice for All Gathering 2011.

This gathering was to be about dismantling racism in the food system, coming together as food activists and growers to understand how to do this work with one another and take what we learn back to our communities.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d been to conferences like this before where there are often hard discussions, emotional sharing circles, and intense anti-racist and leadership training. But for this conference, I was slightly skeptical.  Mainly because Growing Power has been developing relationships with corporations like Wal-Mart and Sysco recently, and I didn’t get how an organization funded by the king of screwing people over was going to lead a conference on how to keep people from getting screwed over.

Immediately in the welcoming speech, I was rolling my eyes. Will Allen, the head of Growing Power(GP), was trying to rally us around the idea of working harmoniously with corporations. To be clear: the same institutions responsible for sustaining systemic racism and oppression within society for decades.

My crew and I weren’t buyin’ it. And apparently we weren’t alone. Later, on the mural “tagging wall” in the conference lobby, someone drew a big red box with the words “Wal-Mart !?” written inside of it.

There was a general “WTF?!” buzz when on the tour of GP’s different farm sites too, where we rolled up right in front of Sysco. This multinational food distributor conglomerate had given GP a slice of land, stamped with their brand. My thoughts immediately jumped to whether this compromised GP’ s growing tactics. The crops looked pristine – Were they spraying pesticides? Chemical fertilizers? Using GMO seeds?

But as the tour went on, I learned this wasn’t the case at all. Growing Power did not compromise their growing tactics. In fact, not only did they not spray anything on these Sysco crops, nor use GMO seeds, they also didn’t irrigate or even use organic fertilizer at this particular site. They simply relied on the rain, sun and hard work of their farmers to grow copious amounts of healthy food. It was impressive.

Lesson #1: Don’t Assume

I also seemed to soften up on the fact that they were working with Sysco. Not to the point of wanting to walk hand-in-hand with corporations, but just to recognize that this meant the public schools in Wisconsin would now source their food from a healthy farmer instead of many other farmers Sysco would normally source from.  However, I wasn’t as easily swayed with justifying the whole Wal-Mart relationship.

But I was blown away by the amount of production GP was making possible on only 2.7 acres of land. (17 greenhouses, goats, chickens, turkeys, tilapia, mushrooms, compost, solar water and rain catchment systems)

The question of sustaining the integrity of one’s work while sustaining the finances needed to do that work, was a recurring debate throughout this journey.

Lesson #2: No One Seems to Have the Answers to This Vital Question

Once we moved past the skepticism and debate however, we finally arrived at the beautiful, mushy center of love and traditions.

It made perfect sense to me that those two themes were woven into a conference about dismantling racism. Love and tradition are important themes that I think get lost in most gatherings like this.  Many conferences I attend are all full-speed-ahead action steps and networking, but this one reminded us of why we are doing this work. It gave us time to connect with each other’s cultures and honor each other’s traditions.

I heard stories from many people about what calls them to this work. From Bean, whose ancestors immigrated from Japan to grow pineapples here, to Dawoud who began working on a goat farm to heal his post-traumatic stress disorder as a war veteran. I learned about Michael’s native wisdom on the herbs of tobacco, sweet grass, sage and cedar. We rallied with farmworkers and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at the local Trader Joe’s to demand more money for the tomatoes Immokalee farmworkers grow.  We listened to the beat of the drums played by the brothers from the Oyotunji African Village.

We paid respects every morning at sunrise to indigenous burial grounds nearby.  We kept a sacred fire burning the entire gathering, and shared stories, wisdom, songs, languages and hopes around it.  We had Capoeira and Bembe sessions and even the women gathered for a Mother Moon full moon ceremony.

These moments outside of the workshops were vital to creating a space for understanding, love and respect, which are the only ways we can even begin to approach the beast of racism.

Lesson # 3: Every Fighter Needs a Mushy Center

Now we’re ready for anything.

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