I’m a permaculture farmer. My goal is to develop natural ecosystems that produce food. My dream is a world with ready access to a diet that nourishes the body of the consumer, provides a living for the producer, and leaves the Earth joyfully habitable.
I share that dream with a lot of people who call themselves permaculturalists, natural farmers, plantsmen, or foodies. I fear, however, that this doughty lot of green thumbs and stock-folk and food advocates is succumbing to tribalism; forgetting that saving the world means saving all of the people in it; even the ones that love cheap burgers and Coke. We’re digging foxholes and making monsters out of people who don’t agree with us, or who don’t understand, or who do understand but are powerless to act.
Note: this article has the title “Farming While Black” because it’s part of a series about perspectives of people of color in the food and agriculture business. This particular story, however, is told from my point of view as an enrolled member of the Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians — the indigenous people of southern and central Maryland.
As it often does, it started with a bumper sticker.
JM Stock Provisions — a butcher outfit with a location in Charlottesville — didn’t mean any harm when they posted this:
Mom always wanted a Lexus truck. She would talk about it incessantly, cooing about her “baby shoe” whenever one of the Japanese luxury upstarts shot by us on I-395 as she drove me to school. My eyes would roll, teenaged broodiness blinding me to another of Mom’s uncountable sacrifices; she couldn’t have her baby shoe because she was spending all her money sending me to this school. Money likely unimaginable to her as a Black farmer’s daughter growing up in the Virginia Tidewater. A successful farmer, even.
Her father, a stout and handsome man with skin the color of rich soil, quit his well-paying job as a cooper in North Carolina at the ripe old age of 20, relocating to Virginia to build a house on the farm his mother bought in 1914. A new house in Depression-era Virginia was peculiar. For that house to belong to a Black man sounded like a fish story. Strangers travelled for miles to watch Coston Beamon pound nails into his roof.
Charlottesville Through the Looking Glass of the Local Negro
Back in May, I was on the farm watering a group of pigs in a great big field of chickory. In one hand was a black plastic tube pouring water into a 100-gallon trough. In the other hand was my cellphone, which I was using to relieve the boredom of watching the muddy water rise around the pigs’ noses. I flipped through a newsfeed peppered with a half-dozen of the President’s daily outrages, eventually happening across an article titled something to the effect of “Charlottesville Confronts Racism.”
If you’re aware of the recent Nazi/KKK/Militia/Alt-Right Axis-of-Nostalgia rally that took place in Charlottesville a few days ago, then you may have missed the two earlier rallies that took place here in the Spring and mid-summer. Between the two, a few dozen Klansmen and a small band of people led by distinguished fist-magnet Richard Spencer descended on the city to whine about statue-oriented programming and “White genocide” in what is arguably the Whitest place in the western hemisphere.
“The global population is skyrocketing, the climate is changing, and diets are shifting. So how do you tackle the problem of feeding 9 billion people by 2050? Assemble an elite team of scientists for a year-long brainstorming session… What’s needed is akin to a moonshot. Or as committee co-chair John D. Floros put it, a “green revolution 2.0.””
This is from a month-old article in the Washington Post entitled “This quiet agricultural ‘moonshot’ could change the future of food.’ They are some of the scariest words I’ve seen put together in quite some time.
Back in 2013, my wife (Annie) and I made an abrupt change. I was working as a software engineering consultant near Washington D.C. with a team that I loved (and still do), but a client that seemed determined to send me to an early grave. When the stress of the job finally culminated in a cancer scare, Annie exercised her spousal veto over our lives: our plan to start a farm as a retirement project got moved up to right that very minute, I left my job and she hers as director of Washington Printmakers Gallery, and off we went to Annie’s hometown outside Charlottesville, Virginia.
We had no background in farming. Neither of us went to ag school, had any experience as farm interns, or had even WWOOFed. The biggest thing I’d ever planted was a 100′ diameter three-sisters garden in a park in southern Maryland. My grandparents were farmers, but none of that knowledge got passed down to me. My formal education in farming occurred on the weekend of my 31st birthday, where I spent two hot days in July at the Polyface IDS. I devoured books and YouTube videos on permaculture and pasture farming, and that was that.
When my farm was first starting up in 2013, the farm-to-table community around Charlottesville was all abuzz about a promising local startup called Relay Foods. This was an online grocery store that, at least initially, sourced foods almost exclusively from farms in Virginia with the idea that “the farmers [are] the celebrities promoting their foods, as it should be.” Relay would just be the thing that brought the farms and the foodies together.
At a farmers’ conference in our county’s administrative building, a Relay rep reiterated this point about farmers being the center of the story, and even announced their new website would give each farm its own page to talk about its story and its products. A childhood friend of my wife’s was involved with the company at a very early stage and talked about it very convincingly. The company was attracting scores of young, idealistic employees committed to the idea of local agriculture.