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Why am I the only brown person here?

Author Natasha Bowen

Natasha Bowen, author of Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience, and Farming, shares her beginnings of leaving her urban existence to go ‘back to the land’, where she realized she was often the only woman of color, setting her on a quest to find out why that was.

Natasha Bowens is an author, farmer, and political activist whose advocacy focuses on food sovereignty and social issues. As a young biracial woman in today's agricultural movement , she is dedicated to honoring, preserving and amplifying the stories of Black, Native, Asian and Latina farmers and food activists.

Excerpt from the Book

There I was, barefoot in the mud wondering, “Why am I the only brown person here? This whole organic farming thing can’t just be for hipsters. I mean, we all came from the land, so why does it seem like young White folks are the only ones going back to it? People of color farm too, right?”

I sure didn’t grow up on a farm or anywhere near farmers. I was born in industrial Newark and raised in metropolitan South Florida, not exactly what you’d call farming towns. I didn’t come from a farming family, but I know my ancestors did. Down in South Carolina, they knew what it meant to eat well and grow okra with their own chicken waste fertilizer. But they didn’t call it “organic.” Nor did the first stewards of this soil, before their land was taken. They showed the pilgrims how to grow food and what golden treasures hid beneath those husks. So where were they now? I might have been in the wrong place out there looking for solidarity in the middle of West Virginia, but it hadn’t been much different in the good food movement when I was living in Washington, D.C.

Before I left the city for the farm, I worked for a non-profit as a political organizer and blogger on environmental issues and health care reform. It didn’t take me long to see the elephant in the room, stomping on our environmental and health problems and making them worse. The elephant was the food and agricultural system. I became captivated by it. I immersed myself in the healthy food and farm movement and morphed into a crazed activist, overly excited to grow my own food. I went to conferences, worked at farmers markets, volunteered at community gardens and eventually left my job to move out to an organic farm. Even though my grandmother would have slapped me for this kind of decision — you just don’t leave a stable job in my family — I was passionate about making the move to agriculture.

I was right there alongside other “back-to-the-land” hipsters, but I remember feeling out of place and a little irked, not only because I didn’t own a bike or have a beard, but because I was often the only woman of color. The farmers markets in D.C. were everywhere but in communities of color, as were the good grocery stores for that matter. The urban farms and community gardens sprouting up all over the place might have been in some Black and Latina neighborhoods, but they weren’t necessarily run by the folks from the neighborhood or even accessible to them. Any exceptions to that, I would find out, were just not getting the same visibility.

Rigoberto and Luis

It seemed to be the same deal with the national trend of young folks picking up the pitchfork and heading back to the land. I thought all the talk about farm-fresh food and backyard chickens was great, but wondered where all the faces of hipsters of color donning muck boots were. I wanted to know where to find the permaculture workshops led by the farmers of color we needed as our mentors. I wondered where all the books on Amazon were that held knowledge and wisdom our ancestors had passed down.

I knew it was all out there, but the lack of visibility was killing me. Sure, the visibility of agrarian life in general has been dwindling. America has been trying to forget its agrarian identity since industrialization took everyone off the farm. But I could clearly see that life coming back — even if it was with the modern twist of growing on rooftops, in empty lots, or without Roundup. And people still loved that identity. Society still loved to romanticize and honor the American farmer. So I couldn’t help but ask why faces like mine weren’t showing up in those Super Bowl commercials or in the rest of the media’s portrayal of agriculture. I started thinking, “Are people of color being excluded from this food and farm movement? Are we simply not on the farm anymore? What’s caused our departure from the farm? Or are we staying off the farm by choice?”

Pang Chang and Michael Yang

I still remember sitting in my office in D.C., two years before I decided to transform myself into a farmhand, telling my friend Paula that I wanted to quit our place of employment and move to a farm in the country. She’d looked at me as if I suddenly had two heads and then preceded to remind me that working out in the fields was supposed to be a thing of the past for our people. “You won’t find me out in those fields,” she huffed, “Too much like cotton picking for me.” I remember rolling my eyes and opening my mouth to remind Paula that farming didn’t equal slavery. But I hesitated.

As descendants of African slaves, we do have an ugly history with farming. I think of my own family history. Both sides of my family are coincidentally from the same tiny town outside of Greenville, South Carolina — a state through which 80 percent of African slaves entered this country. A few years ago, I discovered that my mother’s European American ancestors bought my father’s African American ancestors to work their fields. The Colemans (my mother’s family) literally owned the Bowens (my father’s). As a product of the two families’ reunion, it’s hard not to think about that history. The thought kept me conflicted about my new love for farming.

Was I returning to a trade my ancestors worked to free me of? Or was I bringing back a powerful connection to the land that my generation has lost?

I’m sure this thought exists for many families and communities of color in this country. For many, agriculture can represent deep pain because of the history of slavery, but also because of current land loss, forced migration and oppressive farm labor practices. But I remember thinking, “Could this be enough to keep us from picking up the plow again?” I think, for some people, possibly it is. But I’d like to think we recognize that our legacy with the land is so much more than that. As Dr. Monica White, author of Sisters of the Soil, states, “Our history is much richer than sharecropping, tenant farming, and slavery.”

We have legacies of innovative and cooperative agriculture, traditional food ways, family heritages and powerful stories rooted in the land. How could we not embrace farming as part of our culture and a sacred connection to celebrate?

Author Natasha Bowen

However, I know that simply choosing to farm or to continue a family heritage on the land is unfortunately not enough. There is a long history of barriers for farmers of color resulting in a system today laden with inequities which make it hard to survive. There are farmers of color fighting to keep the land they are losing at three times the rate of White farmers. We have also been losing our connection to the land, our food and our culture as each generation leaves the farm and rural towns for jobs in urban areas, and we become dependent on the industrialization of agriculture and corporatization of our food system. The system itself is also severely imbalanced in its distribution of healthy food options, resulting in inequitable access for many communities. And the results are diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and obesity plaguing these communities at disproportionate rates. Even with the recent effort toward equality from the “food justice” movement, there’s still a perpetual problem. We have policy makers and organization leaders spouting statistics about and introducing solutions for communities they have never lived in or fields they have never plowed.

We have farmers markets opening in predominantly ethnic neighborhoods without farmers of color, bilingual staff or culturally relevant foods — which does not help increase food access in these neighborhoods labeled “food deserts.” Most of the decision makers and shareholders in food and ag do not represent the diverse communities most impacted by the broken systems, which makes it difficult to effect real change.

I knew there were farmers and food activists of color trying to shed light on the solutions, but felt that maybe they weren’t being heard. I knew there were communities of color revitalizing farms and gardens to combat the health and access issues in their communities, but maybe they weren’t being supported. Maybe their organizations weren’t receiving the funding. Or their hard work was going unrecognized in articles about food revolutionaries and new sustainable farm projects. Or their names and faces weren’t showing up in the food and farm aisles of the bookstore. But I knew they were out there fighting. I knew because I had been searching for them. Feeling alone and frustrated out in West Virginia, I began searching for answers to all of my questions. I began searching for solidarity. I started searching for our stories of food, instead of continuing to feel like I was living in someone else’s. I decided to leave West Virginia, and found myself on an urban farm in the heart of Brooklyn. It was a good move. I was living off of savings from my D.C. job and crashing on an old friend’s couch while I worked odd jobs at juice bars and volunteered on urban farms. These farms were throughout Brooklyn and the Bronx, growing food in communities labeled as “food deserts,” but residents were taking their food system into their own hands — residents like those of the South Bronx who started La Finca del Sur, an urban farm run by Black and Latina women in the neighborhood. Or those of Harlem and Brooklyn who have come together as the Community Vision Council led by Asantewaa Harris, a woman who has been promoting community health and the support of local Black farmers for longer than I’ve been alive. I instantly fell into this amazing network of food activists and urban gardeners of color who taught me a lot about the history of the movement as well as their struggles and successes. I attended countless workshops and conferences addressing issues for communities of color in the food movement, including a few outside of New York City. From Detroit to Chicago and Oakland to Milwaukee, I was discovering a movement of people of color working to revolutionize the food system and tell their own story of food. It was a sigh of relief. It was beyond powerful.

Kozuki Farm

At this point, I had started my blog Brown.Girl.Farming. and was also writing for a few online magazines about people of color in the food movement. I was inspired as more and more folks reached out to tell me about their work and where they were in the country. I began dreaming of a way to connect all of us together — to share our stories.

Jenga Mwendo

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