To the uninitiated, the term “urban farming” may seem like something of a contradiction. The typical image of a farm might include a tractor, long rows of crops, clouds of dust drifting past a rickety barn, while the image of an urban landscape is that of entombed earth under austere buildings and roads, with the occasional manicured park. The combined term may evoke a community garden, or perhaps a legacy parcel of land on the fringe that has not yet succumbed to the march of concrete. What is not obvious from the term urban farming is that it is as much a political act as a means of providing food.
The California EcoFarm Conference has in recent years begun increasing its commitment to equity with its convocation of a Diversity Advisory Group. In 2019 the Conference featured as a keynote speaker urban farmer Karen Washington of Rise and Root Farm in New York, and showcased as successful organic farmers Chanowk (pronounced can-oak) and Judith Yisrael of Yisrael Family Farm in Sacramento. In addition to their plenary talks, these invitees participated in workshops dealing with equity and urban farming.
Rise and Root Farm is in upstate New York, but Bronx resident Karen Washington also participated in the urban community garden movement starting in the 1980s. She set the scene for the history lesson by evoking neighborhoods where buildings had been bulldozed in the wake of white flight during New York City’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s. The resulting open spaces became magnets for trash, not from the residents but from outsiders who dumped their loads in the dark of night, including tires and even automobiles. It was the residents who undertook the cleanup of vacant properties, only to find an endless supply of trash poised to fill the void. The advent of the community gardens was first and foremost a means of holding space that residents had cleaned up.
Gardening, however, is a fraught subject among African-Americans in the northern states. The history of slavery and Jim Crow has tainted their view of working with the earth, and many turn their back on planting and weeding in order to feel that they have moved ahead. Ms. Washington turns that historically based aversion on its head by pointing out to the members of her community that before slavery Africans were farmers. The reason that Africans were so crucial to agriculture in the humid southern US was not that they were mere laborers, but that they had the knowledge to farm in such a climate. Africans had domesticated rice independently, using an indigenous African species, and American plantation owners had to learn rice production from the Africans over whom they claimed ownership. Africans brought seeds with them from the old world. African-American families passed on the knowledge of medicinal herbs down through the generations. Today African-American urban gardeners can tap into a source of pride by learning the deeper history that has been kept from them.
With gardens beautifying the neighborhoods of New York, the community members felt that they had done a service to their city. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took notice, but not in a good way. Seeing the opportunity to turn a profit off the volunteer labor of poor and minority people, Giuliani moved to auction off the land underneath hundreds of community gardens throughout the city. Thanks to the organizing that underlay the community garden movement, communities from all five boroughs sprang into action with a campaign of resistance that culminated in a lawsuit by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer blocking the sale and transferring the gardens to the Parks Department. That battle was won. Nevertheless, capital continues to test new schemes to dispossess the people.
Chanowk Yisrael had the epiphany to leave his IT job and harness his love of gardening to empower his community in the ‘hood. Starting out as a family operation, the Yisraels did not have to disabuse their fellow African-Americans of the notion that growing food was slave labor. Instead, nature did the recruiting. As urban dwellers spent time in the refuge of the garden, their eyes opened wide, they breathed easier, and their doubts melted away. The Yisraels’ sleight of social alchemy was to make their small farm a multi-use space where residents would be pulled in by community events and would leave as allies.
And allies became crucial for the functioning of the farm. When the Yisraels set up a farm stand they learned that selling garden produce was illegal in Sacramento. With the community at their back they approached City Hall and got the ban lifted. When the Yisraels wanted to set up a community farmers market, they had the foresight to approach community leaders in order to insure buy-in by the community before the market ever opened.
The Yisraels had to confront another legacy of racism, one now identified as food apartheid. African-American neighborhoods suffer from a dearth of grocery stores with fresh produce, a result of decades of social engineering and disinvestment. In their place are liquor stores, fast food joints, and food pantries. These areas have previously been referred to as food deserts, but activists point out that this latter term has been co-opted by the fast food corporations, and ecologists complain that the term does a disservice to deserts. What it meant to the farmers was that the residents did not know how to deal with farm stand produce.
Judith Yisrael had faced one of these knowledge gaps when she married Chanowk and his garden — how to prepare the variety of produce. Through trial and error she persevered, and now she runs edible education classes for the community. A more insidious knowledge gap surfaced when the residents asked why they should pay for the produce. The food pantry model upon which they had become dependent had instilled in them the expectation that food was free. The Yisraels had to educate them on the true cost of producing food, as well as the importance of community self-sufficiency. Non-profits that use their resources to provide free food are making the choice to not fund actual community development. The Yisrael Family Farm by contrast uses its profits to re-invest in the community. The neighbors who buy from the Yisraels are not just consumers, but what Karen Washington would call co-producers.
The inclusion of an equity track at the mostly white EcoFarm Conference allowed for a discussion of the role of white allies. Beth Smoker of the Pesticide Action Network spoke from her experience as a white person supporting communities of color. Sympathetic white people become allies when they ask how they can be supportive rather than imposing their own ideas about how to proceed. They have to be prepared for some discomfort as their understandings are challenged. Being an ally is an action, not a state of mind, and an ally must go out of his or her way to amplify the voices of the oppressed, rather than leaving the targets of oppression to take on the entire battle themselves. Mr. Yisrael recommends that white people who want to be allies read the chapter dedicated to white allyship in Leah Penniman’s book Farming While Black. In the end, white activists cannot transform the food system on their own. They will need to make alliances with African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and Native American communities who are on the front lines of confronting the unsustainable system that profits corporations while exploiting people and the environment.