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Reflections on the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference
Nov 30, 2010 @ 12:00 AM by FFN with  comments
Author:FFN Guest Blogger: Malik Yakini, Founder and Chairman of the Detroit Black Community Network
Agriculture is inextricably woven into the history and culture of African people in the “western hemisphere.” Millions of our ancestors were forcibly brought to the shores of the Caribbean,
South America, Central America and North America to serve as enslaved laborers on plantations that grew cotton, tobacco, rice, indigo, sugar cane and other crops used for food or fiber. After chattel slavery officially ended in the U.S. in 1865, millions of formerly enslaved Africans continued to be tied to the land, and to the continued enrichment of the landowners, as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Beginning in the 1920s, the lure of steady, better paying jobs brought thousands of southern-born Blacks to Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and other industrial cities. They brought their agricultural heritage with them often maintaining gardens at or near their homes. Not everyone left for the northern promised land. In 1964, there were still more than 180,000 Black farmers, 40% of whom owned the land they farmed, primarily concentrated in the southern states.
The Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference (http://www.blackfarmersconf.org/) held in Brooklyn, New York from November 19 -21 brought together those two related experiences within our agricultural history. It was like a family reunion of urban and rural cousins. In all fairness, the majority of the conference participants were urban gardeners from places like, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. But also present, in smaller numbers, were southern farmers like Daisy Garret, Ben Burkett, Gary Grant and Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min.
D-Town Farm Manager Nefer Ra Barber, Earthworks Urban Farm Manager Patrick Crouch and I stayed with Nancy Romer, Founder and General Coordinator of the Brooklyn Food Coalition (http://brooklynfoodcoalition.ning.com), and organizer of the Brooklyn Food Conference that I presented at last year. Also staying there with us was an “Afro-Dominican” woman named Juana Mercedes, the General Coordinator of the National Confederation of Rural Women, a 10,000 member strong organization in the Dominican Republic that is part of the international Via Campesina movement. The night prior to travelling from my home in Detroit to New York, I did some reading on the history of the Dominican Republic in hopes of being conversant with Juana when I met her. I discovered that in many ways the history of the Dominican Republic is a miniature version of the history of the "western hemisphere."
Dominican Republic, or DR as it is affectionately known, is the spot where Christobal Colon and his men first made landfall in the “western hemisphere” on December 6, 1492. He named the island Hispaniola to honor the Spain under whose flag the Italian Colon had sailed. Within 50 years of Colon’s arrival the indigenous Tainos and Caribs population on the island had been reduced from 400,000 to 6,000. In 1503 the first enslaved Africans were brought to the island from Spain. These Christianize Africans known as “Ladinos,” were soon followed by Africans captured in West Africa. The first major slave revolt in the “western hemisphere” occurred in 1522 in Santo Domingo, by Wolof Muslims on the sugar plantation owned by Colon’s son Don Diego.
Many Africans escaped into the hills and established maroon communities that struck fear into the Spaniards. In 1640, the French established control of the north coast of the island and in 1697 the western end under the Treaty of Ryswick. At one point, the English tried to conquer Santo Domingo, were repelled and moved on to take Jamaica instead. In 1804 the Independent Republic of Haiti was established on the island. For 22 years Haiti controlled the entire island. The relations between DR and Haiti remained tense for years with Dominican President Tujillo ordering the massacre of more than 20,000 Haitians in 1937. Trujillo’s administration also implemented a program called “blanquismo” which sought to whiten DR’s population through promoting immigration from Europe. DR currently fares much better than Haiti with which it shares the island.
As is turned out, my conversations with Juana were limited, because I spoke no Spanish, and she spoke no English. Through Nancy, who served as translator, she was able to tell me about the solidarity work of her organization with Haitians devastated by the recent earthquake. We talked a little, and then walked a few blocks to Nancy’s car for the ride to the conference site.
When Juana, Patrick, Nefer Ra and I arrived at the conference, on Saturday morning, we were a little late. By the time we checked in at the registration table, found a translator for Juana, and took the elevator to the 6th floor where the morning plenary was being held, keynote speaker Will Allen, of Milwaukee’s Growing Power Inc. (http://www.growingpower.org/), had already begun. As fate would have it, as we approached the door of the plenary session, I could hear Will praising the work of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and asking the folks from Detroit to stand. It was at this moment that we walked through the door to resounding applause and to greet our other comrades from Detroit who had arrived earlier.
Will shared a powerpoint presentation about the great and ever expanding work of Growing Power. His 700 slides showed the evolution of the organization, their composting, aquaponics, hoophouse, mushroom, apiary operations, their Regional Outreach Training centers throughout the U.S. and their projects internationally. Will stressed, as he always does, that in this “Good Food Revolution,” everyone must be invited to the table, including corporations. His discussions with Wal-Mart about putting Growing Power products in their Milwaukee area stores was met with a mixed reaction from the conference participants, many of whom have boycotted Wal-Mart because of their labor practices (http://walmartwatch.com/).
After Will Allen’s keynote, I was scheduled to present in the same room, on the work of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. The session started late because of the many people wanting to have a word with Will after his talk. Once the room was finally cleared of all, except the 15 or so people who stayed for my presentation, I began with an ancestral libations of sorts, giving tribute to my great-grandfather, Sandy Shepard Odom, who along with the other Black leadership of Marion, Arkansas was banished from his farm and from the town at gunpoint by an armed white mob. I often begin presentations in this manner to connect myself with my own ancestral legacy and to make the point that we can’t discuss food security and food justice for “African-Americans” without discussing the history of terror, lies and trickery that so-often separated Blacks from our land and thus the opportunity to be self-reliant and self-determining.
I then let participants know that, wherever I go, I unapologetically represent Detroit, and the red, black and green colors given to us by the Honorable Marcus Garvey. I shared my love for Detroit, and the many contributions it has made to 20th century culture such as assembly line production of the automobile (perhaps a blessing and a curse), Vernors Ginger Ale, the Motown Sound and jazz artists like Betty Bebop Carter. I also shared that while I have a great love for the city in which I was born and have lived my more than 50 years, it has also become the poster child for post-industrial urban decay.
Detroit’s official unemployment rate hovers between 25-30%. This doesn’t take into account those who have been out of work for so long that they have stopped seeking employment. More than 40,000 Detroiter’s water is shut off. Hundreds and perhaps thousands are dangerously jury-rigged to electrical lines in order to have some power and means of surviving the city’s harsh winters. Between 1970 and 2000, more than 60,000 dwellings were demolished in the city. Detroit has more than 103,000 vacant lots. All of the major national grocery stores have left Detroit as of 2007. Detroiters in many neighborhoods have few healthy food options. The results are seen in soaring obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure rates. A less obvious impact is seen in the behavior and academic performance of many of Detroit’s students.
The gist of my presentation at the Black Farmers Conference was about the response of, the organization that I chair, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) (http://detroitblackfoodsecurity.org/) to the food crisis faced by Detroiters. DBCFSN was founded in February 2006 at a meeting attended by more than 40 gardeners, cooks, raw-foodists, food co-op advocates, social justice activists and other members of Detroit’s African-American Community who were interested in working together to promote greater access to healthy food, sound food policies, and community self-determination.
Since our founding almost five years ago, DBCFSN has operated D-Town Farm in the City owned Rouge Park, initiated the Ujamaa Co-op Food Buying Club, run youth programs, wrote ( with input from others) the City of Detroit Food Security Policy, provided leadership in the creation of the Detroit Food Policy Council, been actively involved in the “Undoing Racism in the Detroit Food System” conversations and trainings, and partnered with the Detroit Public Library to present the “What’s for Dinner?” Lecture Series.
Before the workshop concluded, I asked our secretary Charity Hicks to respond to a question about the process of re-imagining Detroit, and introduced our Board President Kwamena Mensah. I passed out our newsletter, “Down to Earth” and provided DBCFSN contact information to the participants. After I few more questions, I was off to lunch with my old friend Segun Shabaka, who also happened to be presenting at the conference that afternoon. I hadn’t seen Segun in 20 years, and was recently put back in touch with him by one of the conference organizer, Gail Asantewaa Harris, of the Community Visions Council (http://cvcouncil.blogspot.com/).
I met Segun in the mid-1970s when he worked with a Bed-Stuy based cultural nationalist organization called The EAST, and was the editor of the group’s newsmagazine Black News. I was the distributor for Black News in Detroit. Segun continues to provide leadership to the International African Arts Festival (http://www.iaafestival.org/), which originated as a fundraiser for Uhuru Sasa Shule, the independent African-centered school operated by The East. Thirty-nine years later, the festival is still held annually in Brooklyn, and attracts up to 50,000 people.
Unlike in Detroit, we were able to walk a few blocks from the conference site and find a Caribbean restaurant that could supply me with a soulful vegan meal, and Segun could get the fish he wanted. When we got to the counter I ordered a veggie roti. Segun ordered Talapia. A few minutes later, we were informed that they had neither rotis nor fish today. I settled for rice and peas, and a side of mixed vegetables. Segun got a chicken dish. The food was ready within a few minutes. We sat down at one of the six or so small tables, and ate. The food wasn’t bad. It was better than the pasta and vegetables that I had the night before at a late night restaurant on 5th Avenue in Park Slope. We quickly finished our lunch, and headed back to the conference site.
We got back just in time to tag along with Will Allen and 20 or so other conference participants visiting the aquaponics project at Brooklyn College (http://aquaponicscommunity.com/video/urban-aquaculture). The high tech operation which cost more than $2,000,000 only had a few Talapia in it during our visit. Will looked at the fish and said that they weighed about three pounds each, and that the best weight for the market is one pound. As we toured the facility, one professor commented that the project was having no real impact on the Brooklyn community which has a need for clean, high-quality protein, and that this disconnect with the real world was often a problem with academia. He said that he had hoped after 15 years to see this project scaled up to impact the local fresh fish supply. Will Allen is still on crutches from knee replacement surgery earlier this year, so the tour moved slowly as he made his way around.
By the time we got back to the building where the conference was being held, the afternoon plenary was well underway. The panel discussion was titled “Pigford, USDA and the 2010 Farm Bill” and featured Gary Grant, President of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (http://www.bfaa-us.org/) , Spencer D. Wood, Ph. D., from Kansas State University, and Dr. Ridgely Abdul Mu’min, The Nation of Islam’s Minister of Agriculture and Manager of Muhammad Farms (http://www.muhammadfarms.com/) in Albany Georgia.
Panelist made it clear that even though the U.S. Senate recently approved $1.2 Billion to be paid to the remaining claimants in the so-called Pigford II settlement (http://www.nationalaglawcenter.org/assets/crs/RS20430.pdf), that amount was too little, too late, and will not help those famers whose farms went into foreclosure, due to discrimination in USDA loans, prior to the time period (1983-1997) covered by the agreement. As it stands now, claimants in the case could receive a lump sum payment of about $50,000 each. Gary Grant shared that many who could potentially receive a settlement payment could look forward to a hefty tax bill next April. Interestingly, the senate verison of Pigford II, proposes to take “surplus funding” from WIC to pay the bill. Some Republican Congressmen strongly oppose the measure and claim that many of the Pigford II applicants made fraudulent claims. We’ll continue to watch how this evolves.
Next, I attended the workshop in which my friend Segun was presenting. The workshop was titled: “A Project Overview – Northeast Alliance in Support of African American Farmers (NEASAAF)” Segun was the founder and co-chair of the brief lived organization that was founded in 1997 to provide fresh produce to Black New Yorkers by buying in bulk from Black farmers in the southeast United States. Also presenting in the workshop was Lisa Jackson who formerly served as secretary and treasurer of NEASAAF. The two presenters talked about the purpose of the group, how they organized support for their “Save the Black Farmers” initiative. They utilized existing Black organizations such as The African Poetry Theatre, and the House of The Lord Church headed by Rev. Herbert Daughtry (http://www.holnj.org/nationalpresider.html) to encourage their members to pre-pay for a share of produce prior to delivery. They shared how trust was an important factor in this operation. They also shared the two major challenges that led to the demise of their effort. The first being that they were not able to build the level of support needed to sustain the project. Segun related that some of the program’s participants complained about the smaller, sometimes not “perfectly” shaped organic produce they got from the cooperative effort, as opposed to the larger, better looking industrial farm produce they could get at the store down the street. The second challenge was not having enough hands-on volunteers for the labor intensive operation. While the main purpose of this workshop was to share the successes and challenges of a project from the past, Segun seemed to be inspired to try it again, and asked for people in the room who might be interested to leave their contact information with him before they left. Several did.
Segun and Lisa’s workshop ran over, and I was unable to get a seat in the closing plenary featuring Ralph Paige, Executive Director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives (http://www.federationsoutherncoop.com/offices.htm). I spent the remainder of my time at the conference in the hallway, trying to catch a few of Paige’s remarks, and greeting people I had not seen in years such as Elder Oduno, a long-time urban agriculturalist from D.C., Empress Ima, who owned Africa House in Harlem in the 1980s and Brother Surya a longtime cultural activist and member of the New York Chapter of the National Conference of Artists.
Before the plenary was over, Segun whisked me away, insisting that I see the Broadway Play Fela. He and his beautiful companion Ellen found an online discount coupon for Fela tickets, took me to dinner, and put the money for half the price of the ticket in my hand and dropped me at the theatre in time to purchase my ticket and sit down a few minutes before the show began. The play, depicting the life of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, is the best theatrical production I have ever seen. The set, the music, and the dancing were incredible. Fela’s story deserves to be told. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usnznJZ0XvA). The bottom line is, see the play if you are able.
On Sunday morning I went to the Weeksville Heritage Center (http://www.weeksvillesociety.org/) which was the starting point of the Brooklyn Garden Tour that I had signed up for as part of the Black Farmers Conference. Other tours looked at urban agricultural sites in the Bronx and Manhattan. The Weeksville Heritage Center documents and preserves the history of the free and intentional 19th century African American community of Weeksville founded in 1838 by seven Black men. The site has several raised beds behind the historic houses. During the tour led by Jennifer Stepherson, she pointed out that community gardening is not new to Weeksville, it’s been happening there continuously.
Next we boarded a bus to visit East New York Farms (http://www.eastnewyorkfarms.org/). The organization was awarded the George Washington Carver Award at the conference the previous day.
East New York Farms manages two micro-farms and works with more than 50 gardeners in the East New York section of Brooklyn. They operate farmers markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. They coordinate a weekly CSA and have a youth internship program that serves 24 young people. Two of those young people, Tonya Joseph and Camille Tapper gave us a wonderful tour of the farm, adjacent to their headquarters, including their bee keeping, composting, hoophouse, and water catchment operations. Most importantly they shared how working with the farm has boosted their confidence, public speaking skills and self-esteem.
My final stop was Brooklyn Rescue Mission/Bed-Stuy Farm (http://brooklynrescuemission.org/default.aspx) run by Rev. Robert and Rev. DeVanie Jackson. Bed-Stuy is the part of Brooklyn that I am most familiar with from my visits in the past. I had met the Jacksons on several occasions at Kellogg conferences, at last year’s Brooklyn Food Conference and most recently at the Growing Power Conference in Milwaukee this past September. It was good to see them on their home turf. The Rescue Mission feeds 1,000 people per month. The Jacksons started growing food for the emergency food pantry that they run. They soon branched out and began selling to neighbors because of the increasing demand for fresh produce. They are currently growing thousands of lbs of produce each year on a vacant lot between two buildings. They get help from both seniors and youth in their community. Rev. Robert related how drug addicts and alcoholics helped establish the garden, and how working in the garden helped some to get off drugs and alcohol.
They Jacksons have also gotten involved in food policy work as a result of wanting to see higher quality food made available for their pantry. Rev. Robert related that the neighborhood has a 35% poverty rate, but that there are also middle class folk in neighborhood. He says that the garden has helped to break down class and other community divisions. He also shared how the Malcolm X Farmers Market that they run in a local park has helped to transform the area and that now people come to the park to exercise. It was wonderful feeling the passion of the Revs. Jackson as they talked about the Bed-Stuy Farm and its role in helping to transform their community. I’m also pleased to see Black folks running an agricultural project in their own community.
Before our visit with the Jacksons was over, I had to dash about three blocks to the subway station to catch the A Train, to the 7th Train to the Q33 bus, to LaGuardia Airport. As I boarded the plane I got a reminder about the xenophobic attitude of many Americans. Two older white men in front of me were complaining about people who can’t speak English holding things up. A few hours later I was back in Detroit, thankful for my New York experience, but glad to be back in the D, with the fam, where my real work is.
I am encouraged that this first Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference successfully brought together Black folk from several locales to talk about growing food and related issues. I am optimistic that the participants were inspired to ramp-up organizing in their own communities for justice, ownership and control within the food system. I am hopeful that the networking that occurred at the conference is another step towards creating the unity and cooperation, needed among and between Black rural and urban farmers and gardeners that will be necessary to build a strong Black Food Sovereignty Movement.
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