Working to Create a Future for Black Farmers

Kelly Carlisle on her East Oakland farm, Acta Non Verba.  (Courtesy of Acta Non Verba )

This is the story of two farmers from very different worlds -- with very different origin stories.

One is a urban farmer, a young woman who runs a small farm on a fourth of an acre in East Oakland. The other is a long-established farmer, an elder from a rural part of Mississippi.

Despite their differences, they are bound together by the fact they are both black farmers. Black farmers have faced years of strife and discrimination. Many black farmers say racist lending practices, land grabs and a lack of opportunity have made it hard for them to stake a claim. In the early '80s, the federal government predicted that black farmers would be extinct by the year 2000.

That prediction didn't come true. Black farmers now make up less than 2 percent of the total farming population, but their numbers are slowly growing.

For a long time, Ben Burkett has worked to create a solid foundation for black farmers in the South. He's the head of the National Family Farm Coalition and was part of a group of farmers who successfully sued the USDA over unequal treatment.

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It took time for Burkett to recognize urban farmers as part of the solution.

“For the longest time I looked upon -- how you say it -- urban gardeners or farmers -- as just a fad,” Burkett says. “They don’t produce much, and they're just doing something in the city.”

The Okra Pod

Ben Burkett on his Mississippi farm.
Ben Burkett on his Mississippi farm. (Photo Credit: Grassroots International. )

For Burkett, history matters. He can still trace the okra pods he grows on his farm to a story passed down through family legend.

“The story,” he says, “is that a young lady was captured in West Africa,” and forced to travel across oceans to a place near what we now know as New Orleans. She was “sold into slavery and went to a plantation up the Mississippi river.” But in her hands she carried the seeds that would become Burkett’s okra pods. “She held those pods in her hand all the way across the Atlantic Ocean,” he says.

It was just a piece of family folklore, Burkett says, until he visited West Africa.

“I look at the pods they have, and the pod, it’s a little fat pod, instead of a long slender one,” Burkett says, and they looked just like his pods. “And I say, there might be a little truth to this story.”

Burkett has a working wisdom of how to reap and sow, a wisdom not written down in books, but held in his hands.

Burkett is lucky, in a way. His daughter is taking on his farm, and he knows it will stay in the family. Even so, black farmers in rural areas are scarce.

But farming is growing in a place Burkett once discounted -- cities.

“Most of the young people are trying to leave the farm,” he says. But, he adds, “these young people are trying to come to the farm.”

The Lemon Tree

Burkett is talking about young people like Kelly Carlisle. She grew up pretty far from the Mississippi Delta.

Growing up in East Oakland and then Berkeley, Carlisle knew she wanted a stable office job early on.

“My parents were street vendors, and from age 13 I knew that I wanted to be in an office,” she says.

She wanted a climate-controlled office, something predictable and regulated.

“I did not want to work out in the streets, I did not want to go from event to event,” she says.

Carlisle got that office job in the first dot-com boom, but when the boom went bust, she lost it. Fast forward to a hot summer day in Oakland when Carlisle was walking around with her young daughter, looking for a place to cool down. She found herself stepping into the old Longs drugstore on 51st Street and Broadway.

“They had a nursery in there, and I used to work there, but I had never been in the nursery part,” she says.

Carlisle and her daughter were soaking up the free air conditioning, when she noticed a lemon tree. It was a lemon tree that would change her life.

She didn’t understand how this little tree was growing lemons. She looked at it once, then again, and thought, "who would tie this giant lemon on this tiny little tree?"

She laughs as she tells the story, admitting at the time she thought someone was playing a trick.

“I actually bought the lemon tree to dare it to do it again,” she says. "Well that’s all fine and well inside the nursery, but can Kelly Carlisle do this?”

It turns out, she could.

“Within a month we had two more lemons, and that was when I knew, when I was like ‘Aaaahhhh’ -- I love everything else about this, what else can I grow?”

Carlisle still had a lot to learn about farming, so she started trying to find other farmers -- especially other black farmers.

That's how she found the Black Urban Growers conference, known as BUGS. Last year, she helped bring the conference to Oakland. It was at BUGS where she first met Ben Burkett.

When she met him, she was still a city mouse.

“I laughed at him, because I was telling him how our collards don’t do well in the summertime. You know, they go to seed very quickly. And he’s like, ‘Well, I always use the light of the moon. I use moon cycles to grow in.’ And I started laughing,” she says. “I laughed in his face. That’s not real! Who does that?”

Growing by moon cycles uses the lunar calendar to plant collards when the moon is waxing -- and it is very real, as Carlisle soon found out. “I Googled it,” she says. “And it’s really a thing!”

Today, Carlisle is the first to admit how much she needs Burkett and farmers like him. They might be polar opposites: one rural, the other urban, one from Oakland, the other from Mississippi. But she says the fact they are both black farmers binds them together.

Diversity from Farm to Table 

Carlisle knows that her farm, Acta Non Verba, is different than Burkett's farm. But even though it is small and urban, she says she's faced difficulties entering into what she says has traditionally been a white space.

“I used to liken farming -- and fava beans and kale -- with pilates,” she says. “Who do you see doing pilates? It doesn’t look like us.”

Carlisle says the conversation around food sustainability has been dominated by white voices.

“I don’t have anything to say to Michael Pollan or Joel Salatin or Mark Bittman. I don’t have anything to say to those guys,” she says.

Carlisle doesn’t disagree with their message, she just believes it is aimed at very specific audience.

“You know they have their place, and kudos to you for making white people eat better,” she says.

But Carlisle is engaged in a different battle -- bringing her farm to the tables of people that live in her neighborhood.

She says she faces an uphill battle on all sides.

“It’s certainly not just from white men and white women, you know -- it’s also from my own people. Organic,” Carlisle says, “carries it’s own stigma with it.”

Carlisle says for many the organic label just means produce that is more expensive, and for farmers it's also expensive for a farm to be certified organic. While her farm uses organic practices, it's technically not an organic farm -- which isn't uncommon for black farmers.

And then there is just old negative thinking about the idea of urban farming itself. Remember those collard greens Burkett was telling her to get to grow by using moon cycles? Carlisle recalls having a bumper crop -- so many that she tried to give it away.

“I went to one of our neighbors, and I was like, "Miss, this entire bag, it’s yours, please -- do you want any collard greens,' and she recoiled from me and she said, 'No! where did you get that?'”

Carlisle told her it came from her farm. That answer, she says, was met with skepticism.

“She says, 'you say, got a farm back there?' I was like 'yeah, I’m a farmer.' She says 'oh girl, no, why would you call yourself that, that’s terrible.'”

Carlisle is working hard to change that narrative. And she is proud to call herself a farmer, even though her farm is only a fourth of an acre. She dreams, she says, of one day having real acreage outside the city. But before she does that, she wants to make organic food, farm-to-table food, something that is available and desirable in her own neighborhood.

That is one big reason her farm doubles as a camp and after-school program, where she teaches kids to farm.

In a way, she is passing on some of the lessons she learned from Ben Burkett. They are lessons Burkett is still anxious to instill in the next generation.

“I’m gonna do what I can to pass the knowledge and the wisdom,” Burkett says. “Even if they want to come to Mississippi."

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Together, these two rural and urban farmers are connecting okra pods that traveled on slave ships from West Africa to drug store lemon trees. Both of them working to create a future for the black farm.

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