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'Welcome Black to the Land': Inside Sonoma County’s First Afro-Indigenous Permaculture Farm

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a woman holding a feather in an orchard
EARTHseed Farm founder Pandora Thomas finds a feather at the farm and orchard in Sonoma County. The farm operates on Afro-Indigenous permaculture principles. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

One of the first things you see when you approach the driveway of EARTHseed Farm in Sebastopol is a yellow, hand-painted sign that reads “Welcome Black to the Land.” It’s an intentional message that speaks to the vision held by EARTHseed’s founder Pandora Thomas: a farm that serves as a place of refuge and healing for the Afro-Indigenous community.

“With everything that’s happening in the world, there’s such a need for people of Afro-Indigenous ancestry to understand our stories and our legacy, stewarding ourselves and our earth,” Thomas said, of her inspiration for the space.

a hand-painted sign against greenery says 'Welcome Black to the land.'
A sign at the entrance of EARTHseed Farm says ‘Welcome Black to the Land.’ The 14-acre organic farm and orchard in Sonoma County operates on Afro-Indigenous permaculture principles. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Only 2% of farmland in Sonoma County is Black-owned. That number is worse statewide — less than 1%, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

Thomas, an environmental educator and permaculture designer, purchased the historic 14-acre farm known for its organic apple and Asian pear orchards last year. She and her team are now in the midst of a multi-year process that will turn the farm into the first Afro-Indigenous permaculture farm in Sonoma County.

An ‘expansive’ vision rooted in ancestry

Thomas’ vision for EARTHseed is part of a long lineage that “began as far back as life began,” she said. “Sounds crazy and expansive, but I truly believe that.”

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Two significant people in that lineage are Thomas’ parents. Her mother, Frances Louise Short Thomas, was raised a sharecropper in South Carolina until she was three years old. Her family moved to a small town in Pennsylvania, where Pandora herself would eventually be born and raised. Thomas is now a caregiver to her mother, who holds the title of “EARTHseed Elder” on the farm.

a carved sign denotes the 'Carver-Tubman Home'
The Carver Tubman home, dedicated in memory of Lawrence “Jelly” Thomas. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Pandora’s father, Lawrence “Jelly” Thomas, was a mill worker who loved being outdoors and taught Pandora how to fish and to value all life forms, not just humans. The farm’s Carver Tubman home — named for Black historical figures George Washington Carver, an agricultural scientist and inventor, and Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist — is dedicated to his memory.

When it came to naming the farm, Thomas looked to another significant figure: acclaimed science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, whose image graces a mural on one of the farm’s buildings. The name is a nod to Butler’s fictional “Earthseed” religion, in which one of the key tenets is educating and supporting oneself and the community.

“When Octavia Butler wrote ‘Parable of the Sower,’ she was really drawing on her kind of ancestral wisdom and knowledge to tell this story, this dystopian future,” Thomas said. “So it feels like it’s been in the making. There’ll be several more EARTHseeds. I feel like part of my job is to support the next EARTHseed that’s even more impactful than this one. So it feels timeless, yet also timely.”

A mural in honor of Octavia E. Butler by Artist-in-Residence Radioactive sits on EARTHseed farm. The books of the Black science fiction writer inspired the name of the farm. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Thomas, who first moved to Northern California 24 years ago, has worked and lived in more than 12 countries, including Venezuela, Senegal and Germany. She sees EARTHseed as a culmination of her lifelong work to honor the legacies of land stewards who are of African ancestry.

The making of an Afro-Indigenous permaculture farm

EARTHseed’s team of about 20 predominantly Black and Latinx people includes an array of interdisciplinary roles, including farm stewards, an herbalist, an artist-in-residence and a culinary artist, among others. Alongside them is a small group of animals, including two composting Kunekune pigs, Humphrey and Benny.

a smiling Black woman kneels while feeding a large pig on a farm with greenery in the background
EARTHseed Farm founder Pandora Thomas feeds two Kunekune pigs, Humphrey and Benny, at the farm and orchard in Sonoma County. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For now, the farm continues to grow the crops it’s known for, while Thomas and others listen to and observe the land. For instance, they noticed mullein, a weed that is known to reduce inflammation and treat respiratory problems when smoked or made into a tea, growing naturally.

“Right now, this is an organic farm where all the systems make it so that we can make a lot of fruit that basically leaves the site, which isn’t a bad thing,” Thomas said. “But the Afro-Indigenous permaculture goal is what will it look like when we are seeing the mullein that grows as a weed here, and learning about the legacy of mullein. Maybe the mullein has come into our lives because of all the respiratory issues and swelling happening in our communities right now.”

a basket with freshly harvested mullein, a green plant, sits on a table with a green tablecloth
A basket of mullein leaves at EARTHseed’s “Black to the Land” gathering. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

The term permaculture, a conjugation of the words permanent and culture — or agriculture, depending on who you’re talking to — was coined by Bill Mollison, a white Australian researcher and scientist, in the 1970s. Permaculture is defined as the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient, an approach derived heavily from indigenous science and land practices.

The term “Afro-Indigenous permaculture” may sound redundant, then, given the practice’s roots. But it’s part of a greater reclamation and acknowledgement of the agricultural contributions of Indigenous people and people of African descent.

a Latino man in jeans and a pink sweatshirt walks through an orchard
Farm manager Antonio Paniagua walks through the orchard at EARTHseed Farm. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Thomas and her team acknowledge the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo ancestral land the farm sits on, and received blessings from the local Graton Rancheria Tribe to operate using Afro-Indigenous permaculture principles. Antonio Paniagua, the farm’s manager, who has worked the land for over 17 years, wears a hat that reads “YOU ARE ON NATIVE LAND” as he reflects on the impact of the farm’s transfer of ownership thus far.

“Barely a year has passed and the change is already being noticed. I’m looking at it,” he said.

Farm steward Fernando Gonzalez, who’s skilled in carpentry and animal husbandry in addition to farming, echoed the ethos of Thomas’ vision, saying it’s important to “get to know how the land works and understand the trees” as they continue their work.

a Latino man in jeans and a green shirt poses by a tree in an orchard
Farm steward Fernando Gonzalez works at the EARTHseed Farm. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Grace Harris Johnson, the farm’s fiber arts fellow, says she’s working on making a natural dye using EARTHseed’s mullein, as well as exploring processes for other dyes using the farm’s fruit.

“I’m going to probably take the plums and some pears that end up becoming a little too old and I’ll probably turn it into a fructose fat for indigo,” she said.

Thomas seeks to foster a spirit of exploration and creativity around EARTHseed’s resources among all who visit, particularly Black people, whether they work in environmental sciences or not.

“We want Black folks to be able to come here and tap into ‘what’s their role’,” Thomas said. “Maybe you’re a fashion designer. Maybe you do hair. Maybe you’re a doula. Maybe you’re a therapist. We want you to come here, be inspired, and learn what do you do and take back to your community.”

a woman walks through an orchard with a dog, their backs to the camera
EARTHseed Farm founder Pandora Thomas walks with the farm’s dog, Jackson Black, through the organic orchard. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

As California’s severe drought continues and the effects of the climate crisis worsen across the state and globe, practitioners of Afro-Indigenous permaculture principles, like Thomas and EARTHseed, can offer lessons on adapting to circumstances and building a relationship with the land.

“We are on a farm that’s an orchard, but it’s like this is the classroom we’ve been given, the earth has given us,” Thomas said. “And the lessons are not just, ‘OK, tell everybody how to farm.’ It’s more, how can our communities learn how to be in alignment with the limitations, but also the bounty, that the Earth has to give us.”

Welcoming community members ‘Black to the Land’

EARTHseed’s regular “Black to the Land” gatherings offer opportunities to experience being on the land, with a mission to reconnect Black people to the roots of Afro-Indigenous wisdom. At EARTHseed’s most recent gathering, held on a warm Sunday afternoon in July, a DJ spun music while over 30 predominantly Black and Latinx guests from around the Bay Area munched on tacos and sipped farm-fresh apple, pear and persimmon juices.

two smiling Black women sit under a tree on an orchard
Photographer Devin Ariel, left, and artist Féven Zewdi hang out under the trees at EARTHseed’s “Black to the Land” gathering. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Some guests took self-guided tours, while others wandered through the rows of organic raspberry bushes to pick and eat berries in an informal version of EARTHseed’s “U-Pick” program.

Doris Kiambati, an environmental educator and teacher-in-residence at Slide Ranch in Muir Beach, said the gatherings are “a good opportunity to meet with other Black farmers and environmentalists in the area.”

two Black women pick berries on an orchard
Doris Kiambati, an environmental educator, left, and Kenya Wright, a healer and doula, pick raspberries during EARTHseed’s “Black to the Land” gathering. (Ariana Proehl/KQED)

Abi Huff, an herbalist who resides in Santa Rosa and serves as EARTHseed’s Herb Diva, recalled her initial encounter with EARTHseed when she attended one of the first “Black to the Land” programs last summer.

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“I remember walking down the driveway and walking up to the house and seeing all these beautiful Black people on the porch,” she said. “You know, my eyes welled up. Felt like something that’s been so needed here.”

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