Op-ed: 6 Reasons People of Color Should Grow Their Own Food

In November 2007, my husband and I decided to leave our jobs in biotech, sell our Southern California suburban house, and buy an organic farm. Although we knew <em">what we wanted to do, we had no clue where we would do it. The only thing we knew for certain is that it would have to be a place that felt safe for my husband, an unambiguous Black man. As an ambiguous-looking, Black-identifying woman, I could adapt anywhere.

The majority of our friends and family warned us about the huge mistake we were about to make. Over time, some have come to understand why we’d give up all that we had to grow our own food and live a much simpler life.

Sarah Ratliff with one of the goats from her farm.

Sarah Ratliff and one of her goats, Amari.(Photo courtesy of Sarah Ratliff)

We chose Puerto Rico. And by the time Hurricane Maria struck on September 20, 2017, we’d been on our farm for nine years, growing fruit, vegetables, and bamboo. We were also raising dairy goats, chickens, and ducks. We did all of this for our own self-sufficiency. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) isn’t supportive of organic farming in Puerto Rico—but does offer numerous incentives to farmers who use herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers—early on, we gave up on the idea of selling what we produced.

The devastation from the category 4 storm spared no one in Puerto Rico, and our small homestead was no exception. We lost 80 percent of our fruit trees, which included species that came from Southeast Asia, the Amazon, and West Africa, as well as Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean. We also lost about half of our bamboo, and suffered some property damage, but we had built hurricane shelters for our farm animals, so thankfully there were no casualties.

We spent nine months rebuilding without electricity and three months living only on the rain water caught in our many cisterns. It was an ordeal that required patience, creativity, and persistence. Four years later, recovery is still ongoing, for us as well as for our community.

With a U.S. corporation recently purchasing the Puerto Rico electrical grid and the government’s refusal to dredge the island’s reservoirs, we deal with more frequent power and water interruptions (including water rationing) than we did prior to Maria. For our inconvenience, Puerto Rico residents get to pay 45 percent more for our utilities than the average U.S. resident.

A landscape photo of the area around the author's farm before Hurricane Maria.

A landscape photo of the area around the author's farm after Hurricane Maria.

A photo of the valley surrounding the author’s homestead before (top) and after (bottom) Hurricane Maria struck. (Photos courtesy of Sarah Ratliff)

Prior to Maria, we were focusing on long-term goals, which meant growing trees that can take up to 10 years to bear fruit, but could feed us well into our old age. We are both vegetarians, and our dairy goats, chickens, and ducks produce all the milk, cheese, and eggs we need for protein. Bamboo is multifunctional: it can provide sustenance for the farm animals and us, along with wood for creating furniture, and scaffolding for construction.

In the wake of the disaster, we’re now focused on growing vegetables that offer a quicker yield. We’re also concentrating on other ways we can be more self-reliant, which includes forging and strengthening relationships with nearby organic farms that have sprung up since Maria. We’re also learning how to make do without many of our creature comforts. If we learned anything from the amount of food and water that were held in warehouses after Maria and never distributed to the most needy on the island, it’s that we can’t expect the government to care, let alone help. It’s up to us all—particularly those of us who are marginalized and/or live in marginalized communities—to feed ourselves. And it’s not as difficult as it sounds, even for city dwellers.

Running a homestead has been an important, empowering way to live, and we want to share what we’ve learned with other aspiring growers. If you’re a person of color or from another marginalized community, here are six good reasons to consider growing organic food.

1. You’ll be standing up against modern and historical racism and discrimination.

For the past 150 years, established forces in the agricultural sector have clearly perceived Black farmers and all farmers of color as serious threats. In 1920, there were just under 1 million Black farmers in the U.S. By 2020, that number had dwindled to less that 50,000, which represents just 1.4 percent of American farmers who are still working the land.

Throughout the 20th century, when Black farmers chose to stay on the land, systematic discrimination and racism at every level of agriculture made it difficult, if not impossible, to succeed. The Pigford v. Glickman class action lawsuitagainst USDA in 1997 marked the first efforts to repay Black farmers for the oppression they endured—and those efforts are still ongoing, with the Biden administration’s recent approval of a $4 billion program of debt forgiveness for Black farmers in its most recent COVID-19 relief package (and the lawsuit filed by white farmers aimed at stopping it).

Similarly, those same institutional forces saw Cesar Chavez as a threat, for his union organizing work and for his attempts to start worker-owned farming co-ops going back to the 1960s, both of which would empower Latinx farmers and farmworkers.

Your efforts to take control of your own food supply might be just as unwelcome now as they were then, at least in some quarters. Food sovereignty is power—it always has been.

2. You’ll be helping to co-create a community-level agricultural economy.

Those same institutional forces that aligned against farmers of color have also left many communities of color—rural, urban, and suburban alike—without access to fresh, healthy food. One of the few family members who gets our lifestyle is our nephew, Mason, who has taken to agriculture in a big way. A master gardener in North Carolina, Mason is the host of Jigijigi, an Afrikan-centered podcast that seeks to encourage Black and brown people to learn more about growing plants, food, soil, and their souls. Wanting to pay it forward, Mason volunteers at an urban farm in Charlotte run by Ricky Hall, who is a community organizer and a co-founder of Seeds of Change Urban Farm. The quarter-acre organic garden is located on the future site of a community-owned grocery co-op and includes a youth training program in hopes of creating an inter-generational commitment to growing food.

Mr. Ricky—as he is known—says projects like his can help revitalize marginalized areas. “Number one is the provision of fresh, healthy fruit, vegetables, and grocery amenities,” he said. “Two is to provide good paying jobs. Three is to create community wealth. Four is to rebuild that sense of community around food.”

Living in a community that has suffered under food and economic apartheid spurred Mr. Ricky to action. “We’re tired of waiting on market forces to service our needs,” he continued. “We’re going to pursue it from a community perspective, from a design perspective. It’s our problem to solve.”

Less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland is farmed using organic practices and conventional agriculture is fraught with a whole list of environmental problems, from excess nitrogen runoff from overfertilization that leads to dead zones in our waterways, to the ongoing loss of insects and pollinators at the base of the food chain.

We chose to farm in a way that utilizes compost and intercropping, rather than rely on synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. We make good use of our machetes to deal with the abundance of bejucos, which are climbing vines of weeds common in the tropics. They grow much faster than any plant we grow for sustenance, so we need to keep on top of them.

Our compost comes from a combination of rotten food, cardboard and paper, dead leaves (about 90 percent are bamboo) and manure from our goats, chickens, and ducks. We encourage the chickens to get inside the compost heaps and dig for food. As they dig, they turn everything over. There’s an entire ecosystem in a compost heap, which then gets used to fertilize plants.

We’re up at 4:00 a.m. and crawl into bed at 9:00 p.m. It’s not an easy way to live and it’s a lot more labor intensive, but it’s worth it to know we’re building healthy soil, sequestering carbon, supporting pollinators, and adding to biodiversity in Puerto Rico.

4. You can help economically neglected communities discover the true meaning of food sovereignty.

When we speak of food apartheid, we’re really identifying a symptom of a larger problem: a lack of food sovereignty.

Puerto Rico offers large-scale, real-world examples of what a lack of food sovereignty can do. This enchanted island has been blessed with an abundance of land that is perfect for agriculture. The weather is ideal for growing all year round, and yet, we import approximately 80 percent of our food. As a result, we pay 25 percent more for food than U.S. residents, and more than 40 percent of Puerto Ricans live on SNAP benefits, or “food stamps,” and more than one-third of the residents live with food insecurity, which has increased since the pandemic started.

This is what can happen when we rely on a corrupt and discriminatory system to provide for everyone. Only by actively working to create decentralized food-growing systems, which function at the community level to deliver food sovereignty to marginalized communities that desperately need it, can we expect situations like this to improve.

In addition to supporting organic farmers in the area, we also barter with our neighbors. It’s understood that when we call one of them to “borrow” some coffee, we come bearing plantains or something else they need. If also share seeds and they do the same in return—and that sharing usually often leads us to learn how to grow something new.

5. Once you learn, you can become a mentor.

As new farmers, we had a lot to learn when we arrived in Puerto Rico. We were blessed to receive mentorship from farmer Sadhu Govardhan, who also sold us our starter goats and fruit trees. Prior to the hurricane, his farm had the largest and most varied collection of tropical fruits and bamboo in the Caribbean, and we benefited tremendously from his kind assistance and unfailing generosity. For the first few years, we had Govardhan’s number on speed dial.

Now, we’re doing our best to follow his selfless example by passing on the knowledge we’ve gained to others.

Héctor Seda and his wife, Wendy Toledo, are close friends of ours who live in San Juan. When the pandemic hit, concerned about supply chains and the fear that they might lose their jobs (neither has, thankfully), they converted their patio to a rooftop garden.

During visits to our homestead, they ask us a lot of questions about how different plants respond to soil types, sun exposure, and warmer temperatures, as well as plant uses and sizes at maturity (much more important for them than for us) and how to fertilize and control pests naturally. Today, they grow everything from jalapeño peppers to spinach.

Héctor Seda and Wendy Toledo on their rooftop garden. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Ratliff)

Héctor and Wendy on their rooftop garden. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Ratliff)

Mentoring is every bit as rewarding as farming itself. But you don’t have to take my word for it; this is a joyful truth you can discover for yourself. We recently had a “student surpasses the teacher” moment when Héctor and Wendy reported to us they’ve had success growing carrots—something we’ve been unable to do so far.

When they shared they were growing tobacco as a natural pesticide along with an insulin plant and other medicinal plants, we were genuinely filled with pride. Those kinds of interactions make up for every person who ever questioned our decision to leave our old life behind and become homesteaders.

6. Farming helps you prepare for disasters.

As the climate-caused extreme weather becomes commonplace and the pandemic continues, farming has helped us stay prepared in the face of the unforeseen.

Case in point, the island’s largest truck drivers’ union went on strike earlier this summer. Without a raise for the last 13 years, they weren’t left with a choice. The strike had very dire consequences: For three-days, there were no deliveries of food, water, toiletries or medicines to stores and no gas was delivered to the stations.

Frightened people lined up and waited for hours to buy gas, groceries, and medicine, and the panic didn’t subside until the local government agreed to the truck drivers’ demands.

This is all to say: circumstances beyond our control can happen, and they’re likely to happen more often in the years ahead. The simple act of growing your own food can help mitigate the impact on you and your family; it is a wise investment in the future.

My husband and I took the most radical approach possible: we gave up everything and dedicated ourselves completely to farming. But many people start out small, with more accessible first steps. If you don’t have space on your rooftop or in your backyard to start gardening, you can pursue a plot at an existing community garden or pool your resources with friends or neighbors to purchase a small plot of land where you could share the farming and maintenance duties. You could also volunteer at an existing farm. You could organize a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription-style project, recruiting others to support the efforts.

You can choose the terms of your involvement, and if you like it, increase your investment in the lifestyle as you become more knowledgeable. No matter how modest your contributions, you’ll feel personally empowered as you develop your skills.

When we came to Puerto Rico 13 years ago, it represented a new beginning. And we experienced yet another new beginning nine years later, after Hurricane Maria destroyed so much of what we’d worked hard to create. But it didn’t stop us. We’ve found meaning, purpose and great personal satisfaction pursuing this lifestyle. You may find the same, if you’re ready and willing to give it a try. It may be exactly what you need, and we know it’s what your community needs, too.

This piece was originally published by Civil Eats and is republished with permission.


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