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In Boston, there is a growing movement of Black farmers returning to their roots. This means building a future that is sustainable.
Mattapan, nestled in the southeastern part of Boston, is a working class neighborhood stacked with endless rows of brown and tan multi-family homes and restaurants that cater to every flavor of the African diaspora. Historically a Jewish community, there is now a vibrant mix of approximately 38,000 Haitians, Africans and people from the Caribbean. Those who call Mattapan home are deeply loyal and protective of it — especially to the rush of newcomers who’ve flocked to the area in recent years to scoop up affordable homes and property, compared to other parts of Boston.
Walking the narrow and windy concrete streets, littered with bodegas and gas stations, it can be hard to remember the deep, almost spiritual, knowledge Black folks have always had with the land. However, community activists and farmers Bobby Walker and Nataka Crayton are working hard each day to remind Black and brown residents of this history with the Urban Farming Institute (UFI).
The pair are a part of a growing movement of Black people returning to their roots and taking up farming. On three quarters of an acre smack in the middle of Mattapan, their bustling farm grows everything from strawberries to kaloo. Founded in 2013, UFI is a sanctuary of sorts — not just for Walker and Crayton but the neighborhood as well.
“We have people coming through all the time; it’s cool and interesting being over here,” Walker said. “On our opening day, we had over 500 people come through.”’
Some of those customers could potentially become farmers themselves with help from the American Rescue Plan, passed earlier in the year. In this plan, the U.S. government announced a much-overdue financial investment. Of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, $5 billion is direct relief to farmers of color to help pave the way for those with a desire to start a farm. In addition to capital, for many of these farmers, understanding and sharing the rich history of Black people who have tilled and learned the soil is just as important.
Not surprisingly, the staple crops of UFI’s planting season are juneberries, kaloo, and okra — lining up almost perfectly with the same type of seeds transported from Africa to America during the transatlantic slave trade. In fact, during the initial period of plantation development, the movement of African plant and food animals across the Atlantic Ocean was dependent on the transatlantic slave trade for its dispersal.
Professor of geography Judith A. Carney writes about the connections between slave ships with African captives, plants and animals in her book African Ethnobotany in the Americas. Nutrient-dense foods cultivated and harvested on the continent, such as okra, kaloo, rice, and watermelon, contributed to the global food supply. Slaves already knew how to properly cultivate the seeds and soil, and held onto their farming knowledge in their forced living spaces. In Carney’s book, she writes, “Slaves grew these to ward off hunger, diversify their diet, reinstate customary food preferences, and to treat illness.”
It was necessary that slaves supplement the insufficient diets provided by their masters with native food and herbs from their own gardens to truly nourish and sustain their bodies. In another section of the book, Carney writes, “A proper appreciation of African contributions to New World agricultural systems requires a new perspective on plantation societies, one that shifts standard research from the export commodities that slaves grew to the plants they cultivated for their own needs.”
This history of resilience and deep-rooted connection to the land is central to what Walker and Crayton teach students and volunteers at UFI. Walker and Crayton — founders of the Urban Farming Institute — want all Black people to better understand their cultural history. And Walker has had a lifelong relationship with nature and the city of Boston.
“My grandmother gardened,” Walker said. “Even when I was really young, I knew how to identify the plants and spent a lot of time outside.”
While teenagers in the inner city might spend their summers and weekends hanging on the corner or going to movie theaters, Walker found himself tending to his grandmother’s garden, a safe haven from the hustle and commotion of the inner city, alongside other folks from the community.
It was far from trendy in the early 2000s to be tending to a garden, especially for a Black man. But for Walker, it just always felt right and kept him out of trouble.
“My cousin used to call me nature boy,” he said.
These formative experiences were instrumental in developing his connection to the soil. Learning how to weed and plant as a kid taught him the importance of patience and persistence, two attributes he’d rely on when trying to start his own farm decades later. But even with Black people’s historical connection to farming in America, trying to buy land for Black people has been an all-but-impossible task. According to the Census of Agriculture, “Land ownership by Black farmers peaked in 1910 at 16-19 million acres.” Centuries of compounded racial oppressions and systemic hurdles put in place by the United States government made it nearly impossible for Black farmers to gain access to credit and loans to cover the operational costs of running a farm.
In 2017, only about 1.4% of American farmer owners were Black. That same year, the Center for American Progress found the average annual income for a full-time Black farmer was just $2,408 while white farmers made more than seven times that ($17,190) in farm income.
“At its core, government is a tool that helps distribute power by structuring the rules of economic and political systems,” according to a Center for American Progress report. “For too long in the United States, that tool was used to discriminate against black farmers in favor of their white peers.”
Even in 2007, Walker and Crayton knew they would face an uphill battle getting the city at large to buy into their mission of providing Black and brown people with local produce. Nonetheless, they set after their goal.
“A lot of the farmers at that time  didn’t want to come to our neighborhood because they didn’t think it was worthwhile,” Walker said. “And because we couldn’t get any farmers to come, we became farmers.”
While the pair has spent eight years working and managing small plots of land crammed with a hodgepodge of crops as garden coordinators and managers for several communities across the city, they decided it was time to become farmers.
“You can do gardening leisurely, but farming is a job,” Walker said. “With farming, you’re planning everything out and timing everything so you have enough crops to keep producing.”
The first step was converting the red clay courts of the sports and tennis center of Boston into 100 feet of planting beds for lettuce.
“That first year, I messed up everything,” he continued. “I was still coming from a gardener’s perspective or a farmer’s market where I’m producing a variety, not just lettuce.”
While frustrating, the slow and tedious process of learning how to run a farm showed Walker and Crayton the type of impact they could have on their community. Not only were they able to employ kids from their own neighborhood as farm hands, but several people who learned alongside them started their own agricultural-based business.
“The first year, we made about $5K, and the second year we made about $25K,” Walker said. “And that’s what helped to get the ball rolling on Article 89.”
Article 89 would permit farming, or “urban farming” as it’s now known, within the city limits, and allow for places like UFI to share their skills with their community.
The center of UFI now has a nine-week course that runs from March to Mid-May where participants, primarily Black and brown people, learn everything from farm theory to crop planning, and even community relation, followed by 20 weeks of field experience. Walker, who serves as the program and farm trainer, is especially proud that in addition to training the next generation of Black farmers, UFI is able to be a meeting ground for the community.
Donation-based yoga classes on the lawn, cooking classes inside the farm house, along with a weekly farm stand that runs through the summer bring neighbors across generations together on the farm. Earlier this month, the team hosted their second annual seedling sale in an effort to empower others to grow their own fresh food — something still inaccessible for many Black people in Boston.
According to Laura Ancona, the marketing and communications manager for the Daily Table, a nonprofit community grocery store based in Boston, “Traditionally, Boston’s Black communities have had significantly less access to fresh food via fewer grocery stores per capita than other communities at prices that are often higher than suburban supermarkets.”
Founded by Doug Rauch, former president of Trader Joe’s, in 2012 to help address food insecurity, the Daily Table is on a mission to make healthy food affordable for communities most in need by offering quality affordable produce and groceries.
“By placing our store locations in low-moderate income neighborhoods, we are working to remove economic and geographic barriers to healthy food,” Ancona said. “We sell fruits, vegetables and groceries at prices that are an average of 30% less than traditional grocery stores, making nutrition more accessible for the neighborhoods we serve.”
While there are very obvious ways that food apartheid can implicate people’s lives — such as life-threatening health implications like diabetes and heart disease — it’s the more subtle ones that can have a long-lasting impact that almost always goes undetected.
My sister, Asha Dirshe, an educator turned chef, and now farmer at UFI, was one of the first people to make the connection so starkly, for me, between her fifth grade students’ inability to concentrate during the day and their lack of adequate daily nutrition. After her first year as a teacher at a public therapeutic day school in Boston, Dirshe realized a lot of her prepubescent Black students weren’t able to get through each period without frequent outbursts, like getting up and walking out of the classroom, or falling asleep. She also observed her students were often most distracted and irritable at the beginning of the day and after lunch.
I knew “the ability to come in and learn is so heavily dependent on how well they’ve eaten the night before — how you show up for the day depends on what your diet is like,” she said.
As a sort of experiment to help supplement her students’ nutritional needs, she began implementing healthy snack time, out of her own pocket, by swapping chips for carrots and dips. She also implemented frequent water breaks instead of soda.
Dirshe soon noticed longer attention spans, less frequent outbursts and an overall mood boost in her students. Dirshe also did her best to teach her classroom about all of the Black people who have contributed to the American agricultural industry to help feel a connection and sense of pride in their food.
“The burden of education is displaced onto the individual and not the school system,” Dirshe said. “And it’s important that it’s reinforced at home.”
The relearning she was helping her students do prompted her to explore her own relationship with food. She first went on a plant-based diet, and then she enrolled in a 12-week training program with a trailblazing non-profit at the forefront of radicalizing food as medicine, Community Servings.
Upon completing the course, it quickly became apparent that working as an educator in the traditional sense wouldn’t be enough for Dirshe.
“It was not supportive of the type of education I would have liked to have led, like being outside and making the garden my classroom,” Dirshe said. “So that’s how I became interested in growing my own food.”
She officially switched careers in 2018, and now uses food as a medium to address and better understand issues of inequity and social justice by cooking meals and sharing her knowledge with her growing digital community on Instagram.
“It’s really important to me now to be connecting with Black farmers and being intentional about the spaces I show up in,” Dirshe said.
For her, that now means bi-weekly volunteer sessions on UFI’s farm and partnering with Black-run organizations to share her skills. This interest and activation is something that excites Dirshe, but she’s quick to mention: “farming really comes down to access — access to the land and the training.”
While it’s clear from programs like UFI and nonprofits like Daily Table that Black people want to learn about the land and have access to fresh produce, the reality is that it’s still incredibly difficult to start and run a farm, especially as a Black person.
Maham Rizvi, a food systems consultant who writes USDA grants for small and medium scale farms, emphasizes that the real estate market for farmland is extremely opaque. It’s hard to figure out contacts, and finding Black and brown realtors in the commercial land space is difficult. Even if one is able to precure access to workable farmland — whether through ownership, leasing (very common for small scale farms) or other means — Rizvi is quick to point out the truth about most farms: “Selling, producing or running programming doesn’t cover operating expenses.”
Growing enough and having the right produce, which is no easy feat, is only the beginning. You also need people who want to eat and buy what’s been grown if the farm hopes to be financially sustainable.
“For small scale farmers, finding consumers is a lot of personal contacts,” Rizvi said. “It’s a lot of neighbors and people who care about your personal project, and it requires marketing yourself to a wider audience.” Think robust websites and active social media profiles. This cycle often leaves small and medium farms on a hamster wheel of grant and donation chasing.
The average grant size her clients seek starts at around $250K and can easily go up to $500K. These funds, which can be onetime grants or multi-year ones, can be used to help everything from farmer’s market programs to training programs. The operational costs alone can quickly balloon to seven figures. Even for a small, non-profit farm, running and operating is almost unattainably expensive, leaving Black graduates of programs like UFI with very few options — except each other.
Co-operative farming is nothing new. In many ways, activist Fannie Lou Hamer pioneered this idea in 1969 when she founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative. Not unlike today, Hamer wanted to free Black farmers from being holden to white and governmental landowners. She knew, even then, that in order to create true and sustainable change, leaning on our community would help forge us forward. As the newest crop of Black farmers become land experts and seek ways to put their newfound skills to use, finding others with aligned interests and complementary skill sets, like planting and marketing, can be a sustainable path forward to connect back with their roots.
Siraad Dirshe is a storyteller whose work centers Black women. Her ultimate goal is to amplify voices that have traditionally been seen as unworthy of being shared. .