Food Sovereignty and Farmers of Color: An Interview with Natasha Bowens

From by Claudia Urdanivia
Food Sovereignty and Farmers of Color: An Interview with Natasha Bowens

In The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming, farmer and community activist Natasha Bowens explores the intersections between food and race as she tells the story of Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous farmers and food activists through storytelling, photography, and oral history. As the organic and local food movement has taken shape in the United States over the last two decades, ongoing issues faced by farmers of color in the U.S. have not gained similar visibility. Bowens brings farmers’ stories and portraits to the forefront and celebrates culture, tradition and community, while also addressing the movement for food sovereignty.

The Color of Food was recently featured in Food Tank’s Spring Reading List. Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Natasha about her new book.

Food Tank (FT): Can you talk about why you decided to talk to farmers of color in the U.S.? Why was it important to you to explore their stories?

As a woman of color myself, when I started immersing myself in this movement, I was working on health care issues but also really passionate about environmental and social justice issues. A light went off and I saw that food was at the center of all these issues that I was working on. And I started to immerse myself in the food movement. I wanted to grow my own food and learn how to do it sustainably. I also wanted to address the racial and economic inequities that I was seeing in the food system. And I really fell in love with everything about food and agriculture. As a woman of color, I was instantly kind of shocked and frustrated at the lack of diversity in the movement and really what was being represented. Everywhere I was going to -  conferences, farmers’ markets, books I was reading, all of that. It just seemed like a very exclusive movement while at the same time, people of color were the ones that seemed to be impacted most heavily by the broken food system. It just didn’t add up and I really thought, why aren’t we hearing from farmers of color? And after doing some research, I realized maybe I could get on the road and try to hear from them. It was also a really personal journey. Other than that, just kind of as a biracial woman, struggling with that identity of now being a farmer and feeling like it wasn’t really a movement for people of color, or welcoming people of color.  So I just kind of felt this calling to go meet other farmers of color and connect with them and hear their stories.

FT: In your introduction, you talked about how during your involvement with the good food movement in different parts of the U.S., you noticed a discernible absence of people of color. Why was it important for you to trace the intersections of food and race and as you mention, “redefine our agrarian identity as people of color?”

Well, once I started asking questions and writing about the intersection of race and agriculture on my blog, Brown.Girl.Farming., just to get all these thoughts out while I was out there farming, the research that I was doing and the things that I was finding was that my agrarian story was already written. Everything that talked about the intersection of race and agriculture was about our past and a very negative past, slavery and oppression of people of color in the field. And it was either that or farm labor and migrant labor or talking about food justice and all these issues. And I felt it was very exclusive. It was this very pigeonholed agrarian story for people of color. That wasn’t anything that was inspired by a legacy of the land or knowledge and wisdom of the land but I knew it was out there for my people. So I really wanted to kind of redefine that while of course definitely still raising awareness about the history and the negative aspects that are there that we have to address. But I didn’t want that to be my agrarian story only.

FT: Your book provides many examples of resilience and persistence among farmers of colors across the United States, despite the many obstacles stacked against them. What were some of the most difficult barriers for farmers of color, and how have they dealt with it?

I think the book starts out with the section Rooted in Rights which really talks about water rights, but mainly land rights - land ownership and land loss. I think particularly coming from the descendants of enslaved African American people to recognize and acknowledge that we were once owned as property and in a very short time after emancipation, black land ownership was really skyrocketing, really growing in a way that was kind of shocking when you think about once being property and then suddenly owning your own property and being able to grow food and sustain your lives and your family off of that. So to me that is the epitome of resilience and it just continues today as we keep struggling with land rights and land loss and land ownership but other issues like accessing resources, accessing markets, and all of the discrimination that is deeply woven still into many aspects of our food system. Around the time that I started getting on the road for The Color of Food was the same year that the Pigford v. Glickman case was coming to a close. That of course was the discrimination case that was filed by black farmers against the USDA for racial discrimination that ultimately caused many black farmers to have foreclose their farms and lose their lands because they were not getting the same access to resources and loans as white farmers.

FT: One of the prevalent themes in your book throughout many poignant portraits of farmers of color is access to land. You just discussed the history of land loss in the United States. How did farmers interviewed for The Color of Food respond to these challenges in their local communities?

Sure. Some people ask me what my biggest surprise was getting out on the road. And I guess I thought would find a lot of farmers that were angry and still trying to fight the system and maybe getting involved on the political level to change things so that they could have an equal footing in agriculture. But instead what I found were really revolutionary farmers who were completely bucking the system and figuring out their own ways to look at the capital for their farms or things they needed for their farms. Going back to concepts their ancestors invented, like cooperative farms, a lot of communal farming and cooperative marketing for their crops so that they can overcome a lot of these barriers. Also I think a lot of focus was, in a lot of the farmers that I interviewed in their communities - I don’t want to say that they weren’t running successful businesses because that’s not the case at all -  but it seems to me that the number one goal other than having a successful business was preserving and growing community. A lot of these farmers were bucking the system and focusing on their communities and sharing with their communities how to grow food. Food that was relevant to that community and the preservation of culture, tradition, storytelling, and heirloom seed centers special to that community. It was this kind of badass revolutionary way of saying there are barriers here but we are operating outside that system as much as we can and doing our thing over here and resiliently stepping forward.

FT: In the Portrait Cherokee Seed Bank, Cherokee agricultural educator Kevin Welch says:  “just like storytelling, song and art, agriculture is part of culture, it enriches culture. When we talk about getting back to our roots, food is really at the basis of that.” How does the revival of some of these food and farming traditions empower communities of color?

I think it's invaluable and so empowering because it was almost circling back to my experience getting into farming and that negative stigma for people of color, the history of farming. You're farming for someone else. You are building someone else's business, you are building someone's profit and power and you're not building your own independence and power. And then even today a lot of the times, you're growing for others and operating on these big agribusiness farms and often these farmers, farmworkers, live in "food deserts" where they are growing food yet they're still hungry. So it's the complete opposite of empowering whereas things like what Kevin Welch are doing are really reviving and facilitating the remembrance of tradition and agricultural techniques that communities have. And really bringing those back for ourselves, not for someone else. To build our own profit, business, community and therefore, power. So to me it is the most empowering thing that we can be doing.

FT: In your prologue to the chapter on women farmers, you outline women farmers’ global contribution to feeding the world. How are the women farmers that you interviewed for The Color of Food spearheading the way forward for small family farmers and sustainable agriculture through their sustainable practices and innovation?

Well, very similarly but I definitely wanted to dedicate an entire section to the fierce farming women out there. Similarly to farmers of color, I found that a lot of the women were farming for their communities. They got into farming for their families and for their communities because they were sick and tired of the food choices. Or like in Nelida's case, who was a farmer in Washington State, she was sick and tired of the corporate controlled agricultural system that she worked for as a migrant laborer. So she decided that she wanted to start her own farm and run it her own way, which is organically. I felt like the reason that a lot of women got into farming were far more empowering and far more community-minded than any of the other farmers. I also found that a lot of the women farmers were spearheading a lot of the cooperatives and community efforts, like community kitchens and wanting to do community markets and cooperatively starting in that way. I feel like even though before I said a lot of the farmers were doing their own thing and operating outside of the system, when I did meet farmers who were heavily involved as food activists and really advocating to making food policy councils and really just hitting the streets to make things in their community, it was more often than not the women that I met. There was Jenga Mwendo down in New Orleans who was creating a food policy council in New Orleans to really change the way the food movement is going down there in the Lower Ninth Ward. So I just felt like the women were far more revolutionary and kind of fierce, hence the name for that section.

FT: You wrap up The Color of Food by talking about the young farmers of color. Can you describe the importance of having young farmers of color involved in the good food movement and some of the main lessons learned from the young farmers you interviewed for The Color of Food?

As we know, the agricultural industry is something that is aging out rapidly. The average age of the farmer is about 57 but the black farmer for example is 63 so I think it's much higher for farmers of color. And as far as young farmers entering into the field, our numbers as young farmers of color are much lower than young white farmers. So it is absolutely vital that we are picking up the pitchfork today and joining the movement and it doesn't just have to be farming. There are a lot of food activists, farm educators that I interviewed as well that were playing a lot of different roles in the movement. But it goes down to the whole message of the book - if we want to have a truly sustainable food system, that is inclusive and taps into a lot of what I think are answers that our ancestors told and a lot of our overlooked communities told, then those leaders have to be from these communities. So if we want to have land ownership, we want to have food sovereignty over our seeds, from seed to table, then we have to be the ones picking up the pitchfork and we can't have an exclusive movement representing us. We have to stand up and be heard as people of color and represent ourselves. So to me that is the biggest push for getting young farmers of color.

We face all the same barriers that farmers of color face now with discrimination but I think as young and new and beginning farmers, one of the biggest barriers is land access and capital. So I think one of the young farmers - a couple actually - that I interviewed that really taught me the most were Cristina and Tahz of Tierra Negra Farms. While we [young farmers] are supposed to be picking up that pitchfork and carrying that torch forward, we can't do it alone and we can't do it without the guidance of our elders and those who came before us. And I think that was one of the biggest lessons that they [Cristina and Tahz] have. They were really surrounding themselves with what they called eldership. Their region is home to Occaneechi Band of the Saponi nation, a Native American tribe there in the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. So they were really reaching out and surrounding themselves with the native elder community there. They were really teaching them a new way of looking at land ownership, a communal way of owning land and really just kind of honoring the elders.

FT: And finally, you talk about food sovereignty. How would you define food sovereignty? How would you say the farmers you talked to are working towards it?

I feel like food sovereignty is one that I really like to advocate for the most because it's broad and it's all encompassing in my mind. All empowering. And to me it means ownership, full ownership over our food from seed to table. Whether we don't want genetically modified seeds then we have to start saving our own seeds and owning our own keys and starting seed collectives and seed banks as an example of what I see some of these farmers doing for food sovereignty. And then moving forward, growing our own food, owning our own land, having ownership over our right to water which are some examples of some of the southwestern farmers out in New Mexico and Arizona who are using the acequia system which is pretty much makes water a common. It's a democratic ownership system over water that has been around for a really long time. And just bring it all the way forward with food sovereignty, instead of really dividing up the food movement where we have people working on farmworker rights, people working on local and organic food, and food justice, food sovereignty is the all encompassing movement in my mind because we have to have ownership and fair wages for everyone working in the food system whether it be picking our food or processing our food or selling our food. And also finally I think a lot of the indigenous farmers that I interviewed taught me that food sovereignty comes down to what we eat and how we eat it. We've got this movement of nutrition and healthy food, and local and education programs happening in communities of color that have high health issues but they are intertwined to introduce such foods that aren't native to that community. So that is also a part of food sovereignty, being able to have ownership of this is what I want to eat; this is what my people eat.

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