‘We are the world’s farmers’: Black female farmers in the East Bay farm for sustainability, liberation

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Kanchan Dawn Hunter/Courtesy

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In tune with the rhythms of the moon and the earth, Black female farmers in the East Bay are growing food in the learned tradition of their ancestors — not only to sustain the environment, but to sustain and uplift their communities. Their mission was recently highlighted in the East Bay Express.

Kanchan Dawn Hunter is the co-director of Spiral Gardens, a 25-year-old community garden project located in South Berkeley. She is one of the women whose mission, through farming, is to provide underserved communities of color with the means and resources to grow their own food.

“Women of color who are growing their own food and food for others are particularly suited for it because of a natural, inherent connection to the land and the roots of producing food where we come from,” Hunter said.

The methods of farming used by Black women have been passed down for generations and are rooted in a symbiotic relationship between the farmer and their environment, according to Hunter. These farmers work in harmony with the seasons and the ecosystem to minimize carbon emissions and cultivate a more sustainable food system.

The magnitude of the U.S. food system’s carbon footprint is enormous because of the use of petroleum products, pesticides and artificial chemical fertilizers, according to Hunter. She added that the current food system is “not set up for the health, safety or advancement of communities of color” in part because of its unsustainable practices.

In the years since the creation of Spiral Gardens, gentrification has proved a formidable obstacle in the project of food growth and distribution for the organization. Hunter said many of the people whom the garden was created to serve have been displaced, but that the garden’s mission to reach the same demographic has remained steadfast.

“Black farmers are often unrecognized and shoved off of land they’ve been farming for generations to make room for white farmers who want to gentrify the food system and make it a more profitable endeavor,” Hunter said.

Hunter added, however, that through her work, she wants to liberate her people and the earth from a food system that she says is “intolerable.”

But Hunter does not stand alone in her vision for a future of sustainable farming conducted by Black women.

Gail Myers discovered a passion for Black farming methods while studying to earn her doctorate in cultural anthropology at Ohio State University. In 2004, Myers founded the organization Farms to Grow in Oakland to serve the interests of Black farmers by providing them access to food markets and sending volunteers and interns to assist them on their farms.

Myers conducted research both in Ohio and California, where she interviewed Black farmers and studied their practices. She found that even on small farms, most of the legal structures and belief systems situate men as the financial decision-makers, while women are the ones on the ground who have their hands in the soil.

Myers, like Hunter, said she believes the food system is “broken” and that the primary way to change the system that is “based on patriarchy and white supremacy” is to promote a greater presence of leadership by women of color in the food movement.  

“Women were the first farmers and continue to do a majority of the farming around the world — we are the world’s farmers,” Myers said.

For Kelly Carlisle, founder of Acta Non Verba — a youth urban farm project — farming is a means of teaching children of color to “invest in themselves and their own futures” and is also a political act for women of color.

“Women of color farmers are not what folks immediately think of when thinking of U.S. farming, but our methods are vital,” Carlisle said. “Using organic practices ensures we are honoring the land and the soil we grow with.”

Despite the long-standing connection women and people of color have to farming, they are often not given the credit they are due in regard to the formation of America’s agricultural system, according to Hunter. She said people of color are mostly responsible for the agricultural techniques used in the United States, but that their contributions are often overlooked. Because of this, farming has become a political project of liberation for these women.

“If you’re growing your own food, you’re giving yourself power to feed yourself, and that’s revolutionary in and of itself,” Hunter said. “It’s important that folks of color come back to understanding that growing food is an essential part of our liberation.”

Contact Amanda Bradford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @amandabrad_uc.