Empowerment Through Farming

By: Emily Weitz 
May 02, 2021

As new life breathes into the planet with each warming day of Springtime, farms across the country are seeing their labors come to fruition. There is deep satisfaction and a sense of empowerment in the experience of farming, from a reclaiming of health to a reclaiming of heritage.

When Brooke Bridges, Food Justice Coordinator at Soul Fire Farm in Petersburg, New York, started farming, it transported her from a fast-paced LA lifestyle to something much more grounding. And while her life as a child actress held potential for fame and wealth, the path to more lasting happiness was unclear.

“The practice of farming is empowering to me,” Bridges said, “because now I know that I’ll be able to fend for myself, my family, and my community if I so desire.”

woman farming

Brooke working on Soul Fire Farm

We’ve all learned over the past year how dependent we are on a vast network of suppliers. From vying for supermarket delivery slots, to watching in shock as a blockage in the Suez Canal disrupted global supply chains, there were many moments that validated Malcolm X’s statement that “land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” That’s why food sovereignty is such an important aspect of the work Bridges and her colleagues do at Soul Fire Farm.

“I know that I can provide fresh, life-giving food,” said Bridges. “I know that I can save seeds for next season. I know that I can preserve crops to eat over the winter. I know that if I want to eat chicken I can raise them and process them myself.”

This knowledge means she doesn’t have to depend on entities that are out of her control. If there’s a run on eggs at the supermarket, it doesn’t affect Bridges and the other people who work the farm, because they know where the chickens are laying.

“All of these things make me feel like a sovereign individual who can provide for themselves and those around them,” she said. “And this is why we do what we do at Soul Fire Farm, to spread food sovereignty and empower folks to learn to be self-sufficient through the humble act of sustainable farming.”

working in the grass

Brooke working on Soul Fire Farm

Just as small-scale, organic farming is a source of strength for the individual, it also brings vibrancy and health to the planet. Germaine Jenkins, Chief Farm Officer at Future Fresh Farm in South Carolina, spends a lot of time thinking about soil health.

“We prefer 'low and slow' soil nourishment,” she said. “Just like a forest, we use mulch and food scraps to build our soil instead of adding amendments… We sequester carbon and capture water in the ground because of the intense mulching we do.”

They make the most of their land, which is less than an acre of indigenous Cusabo land near Charleston.

farming

On the grounds of Future Fresh Farm

“When my mom tells me that our greens taste like the crops she ate in the 50s and 60s,” said Jenkins, “I know we're doing something right. The depth of flavor in produce is directly tied to soil health.”

Add to that the distance that so much of the food in our supermarkets has traveled, and the benefits of the food we’re putting in our bodies is diminished.

“Flavor and nutrition evaporate over time and miles,” said Jenkins. “That's why the fruits, vegetables, and herbs we grow and sell at our grocery store can't be compared to what's sold at traditional grocery stores, or even health food stores. Their travel time on organic produce is hundreds and thousands of miles, while ours is never more than 200 feet.”

There is another aspect of farming that is deeply empowering. So much of the American farming industry was built through the hard, forced labor of enslaved African people, who were unable to pass anything down to their ancestors. Even after their descendants acquired land, it was taken from them.

“Inadequate housing, food access and other disparities would be non-issues if Black communities still owned the 16 million acres of land acquired by our formerly enslaved ancestors,” said Jenkins.

And yet, she believes that farming can offer a beacon of hope, not only for these communities, but for the planet.

“Black, brown and low-wealth communities have the capacity to clean up and green up blighted disinvested communities across the country,” said Jenkins.

Hopefully, this will create a shift that will positively impact generations. For people of color who were kept from owning land, and thus unable to pass that land down to their children, the act of farming and reclaiming the land has yet another layer of significance.

“80 percent of all wealth in this country is inherited; 90 percent of that consists of land and homes,” Joe Leonard, who served as Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at the USDA under the Obama Administration, told me a few years back. In 2010, Leonard helped to pass The Claims Resolution Act, which returned $2.5 billion to minority farmers and landowners.

“This act increased the likelihood that wealth will be transmitted from one generation to another in the African American community,” said Leonard.

The sense of confidence and independence that owning a plot of land can instill, is passed down, so that a deep psychological sense of security can develop.

“Land ownership is a great thing,” said Dr. John Wesley Boyd, Founder of the National Black Farmers Association, when I interviewed him in 2017. “You can’t leave your PhDs to your children, but you can leave this raggedy old farm… If you can afford a Mercedes Benz, you can afford five to ten acres in the country, and land is something that you can pass on that will keep your family name and legacy.”

Farming is also affirming to the identity.

Empowerment through farming

On the grounds of Future Fresh Farm

“My grandfather was an old school humble African farmer,” Dr. Boyd told me, “and he taught me that the land didn’t know any color. The land didn’t mistreat anybody. People did. You take care of the land, the land will take care of you and your family.”

For Bridges, farming helped her realize what parts of her identity were truly her, and what were remnants of a life spent trying to fit into a certain mold.

“Those things fell away the longer I was on Soul Fire land,” she recalled, “and space was made for my true self to flourish. Being here (I live on the farm now) on Stockbridge Munsee Mohican land, dancing, farming, cooking, laughing, and engaging in true Black joy with other black and brown folks was something I had never experienced before.”

She began to connect to her lineage in a deep way, a way that was robbed from so many who were forced from their land, or who never had land to claim as their own.

“It showed me that organic and sustainable agriculture is not a space where I shouldn’t be,” she said. “It’s a space that my ancestors gave so much wisdom and guidance to and that these practices, as well as the inherent, spiritual connection to Earth, food, and nature, exist within my DNA.”