Afrolachian Agriculture: Bringing People Closer to Food

Tamia doing interviewsTamia Dame, our 2017 intern from the Conservation Trust for North Carolina’s Diversity in Conservation Internship Program, spent a portion of her summer interviewing members of the community to explore the relationship between African Americans and agriculture. A portion of her story and interview excerpts were published as an article in the The Urban News, and we have published the full text here in our blog:

It wasn’t until recently that I gained an interest in agriculture, and even more recently that I found a passion in the social justice of farming.

This summer I served as Communication, Education, and Outreach intern for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) in Asheville, NC, writing about conservation efforts. Being an African American woman, I didn’t know what to expect when immersing myself into what is currently a predominantly white space. Having observed a lack of diversity in the environmental field, I became passionate about the improvement of racial equity and representation in this discipline. I find these topics to be particularly relevant in the Southern Appalachian region.

One day, I listened to a conversation about improving diversity in programs at SAHC’s Community Farm.

Being an advocate for inclusion, I asked myself why I never see black farmers in Western North Carolina (WNC). Is it because we just don’t farm? No, I refused to believe that. There must be some explanation for this lack of representation in agricultural Appalachia. So, I sought out information and insight, reaching out to the community to make some sense of this disparity, or to learn if there was any sense of it to be made.

Kathey AveryOn the suggestion of Deborah Miles from UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education, I met with Kathey Avery of Fairview, NC to discuss her relationship with agriculture as the daughter of two African American farming parents from WNC. Kathey, daughter of Oscar and Alma Avery, talked with me about the history of her parents, their apple orchard and her perspective on African American farmers today.

From her I learned of a resource provided by the Center for Cultural Preservation titled the “Mountain Elder Wisdom Project,” intended to preserve the culture, history and adaptive strategies of our nation’s cultural legacies. In a video produced as part of the project, I was able to hear the words of Kathey’s late mother, Alma Avery, as she described her upbringing in rural Cedar Creek.

Alma spoke of childhood memories, both good and bad, with a smile in her eyes. She described her upbringing, working with her father in his vegetable gardens. Her perspective highlighted the relationship between black Americans and agriculture around the 1930-40’s; growing your food was for survival. “We had a hard time but it was a good life,” Alma said.

By second grade, Alma withdrew from school to help her family in the gardens. “I quit school because daddy kept us out to work. I started coming back home and we’d can beans and sauerkraut and things in the summertime because if we didn’t, in the wintertime we wouldn’t eat!”

Alma AveryFor several decades, the Avery orchard produced apples for the family and market. Alma was passionate about selling food at the Hendersonville Tailgate Market. “She was always the first one there and the last one to pack up,” Kathey recalled. Between her parents selling produce and her mother’s factory job, the Avery’s were able to make enough money to survive.

Kathey went on to talk about the orchard today. “It’s not active anymore,” she explained. “The trees are there but they’re not salvageable. We sold the mountain part of our property to The Nature Conservancy so it wouldn’t get developed. I’m now a nurse and my brothers moved out of North Carolina.” Kathey still considers agriculture a definite part of her lifestyle despite not making it her career.

As our conversation developed, we touched on some more abstract concepts regarding the large-scale relationship between black Americans and farming.

“People often don’t want to do it because it registers to them as slave work,” Kathey stated. “They’d rather be inside or out in the city than working in the hot sun on a farm. It’s a cultural aversion that we must counteract. We need to bring agriculture as a class back into high schools.” She remembered forage clubs and agricultural classes in her rural elementary school, programs which are no longer available in most primary schools.

When loss of black-owned farmland is prevalent, there is a distinct value to protecting these lands to preserve the historic and cultural importance left by the families who inhabited them. By allowing The Nature Conservancy to protect this land, the Avery’s were able to secure a permanent connection to the land where Oscar and Alma spent much of their lives.

Kathey went on to tell me about her friend Wallace Bohanan, who is passionate about growing his own food. Later, I had the privilege of talking with Wallace about his experiences with agriculture. A native of Brooklyn, NY, Wallace has enjoyed living in WNC for 13 years.

He told me about his childhood and the start of his personal connection to land. “My father decided to start a Cub Scout Pack, and he got the community involved. We went camping and learned the Boy Scout skills like knot tying, compass reading, building a fire, putting up a tent, and I loved it!”

Wallace BohananThese experiences influenced his decision to move to the Southern Appalachians. “When I was older I got to go camping out in the mountains and it was amazing,” Wallace said. “That’s when I told myself ‘One day I’m going to buy some land and move to the mountains,’ so here I am.”

When Wallace moved to the area, he decided to rent a home with plenty of land. One day he inquired with his landlord about putting that acreage to use. “When I asked about having a garden he brought his tractor over, plowed up the land and let me grow there,” he recalls. Robert White, a founder of the Pisgah View Community Peace Gardens in West Asheville, encouraged Wallace’s interest in gardening. “He influenced me a bit and was actually the first one to give me some seeds and plants to put in the ground.”

Now, Wallace grows an abundance of vegetables including beans and sweet potatoes, as well as carrots, beets, onions, kale, and more. His interest focuses on knowing where his food comes from and sharing that food with those around him, rather than selling his produce.

Wallace and I went on to discuss why it seems fewer people are choosing to pursue agricultural businesses, although the movement for personal food gardens is on the rise. “If you grow your own food, you know the source. I think that’s what people are interested in,” he offered.

It’s also a fact that farmers often have side jobs, similar to Alma, for financial stability. According to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, black Americans account for only 3% of total NC farmers, and about 33% of those black-operated farms are considered to have a sales value of less than $1,000. This raises the question of equitability in agriculture, to which Wallace offered his insight, “I believe the equitability of agriculture is about the same as everywhere else. You can make it as a black farmer, but it’s going to be hard getting into the market to sell your produce or to get the price you want for it.”

Curious about the role of urban gardens in the relationship between black communities and agriculture, I sought out information about the Pisgah View Community Peace Gardens. I visited Lucia Daugherty and Robert White to talk about the creation of the gardens, their experiences with urban agriculture, and their decision to own a homestead themselves.

Robert WhiteRobert is a native of New Jersey who moved to the mountains of North Carolina to escape gang violence and a harsh living environment. Because his mother is originally from Asheville, he was already familiar with the area when he began his life here in 1976. Lucia was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and moved to Asheville in 1998 for an AmeriCorps position. The two were living in the Pisgah View Apartments when Robert says he was overwhelmed with the compulsion to build a community garden.

“It wasn’t a good community to live in when we first started,” Robert explained. “Violence and drugs permeated the community. The children needed a safe space to play outside, they were too aware of what gunshots sounded like. A boy told me once that he thought tomatoes grew out of a can. I laughed at first, then later I sat down in my garden and cried.” It was this disconnect between the people and their food supply that pushed Lucia and Robert to create a safe, green space in the Pisgah View community.

“It needed to be someone from that community, a black man that was doing something positive,” said Robert. He knew that if he wanted to make a difference, he had to be willing to lead by example. “If people see you trying to lift yourself up they will give you the assistance you need. That’s how we got so many people helping in the community who would have never come otherwise. The garden was something everybody understood.”

Over time the garden became the focal point of the community. From the declaration by local gangs that the garden was considered a safe zone to a young boy who was so inspired by Robert’s work that he decided to pursue higher education, the stories of the positive impact this garden had on the Pisgah View community were incredible. “It was a community garden in every sense of the word,” Robert emphasized.

The Pisgah View Community Peace Gardens were a resource for food, friendship, education, and empowerment. “There is a better economy in selling collard greens than there is in selling crack cocaine,” Robert stated. “As long as there are folks who believe they feed us through government assistance, they will do anything they can to destroy those programs. If we can eat food from our own front yards, we won’t be dependent on anybody.” This is why Lucia and Robert took the initiative to share their knowledge of agriculture with the community. They provided classes for people of all ages to learn about cooking, food preservation, raising poultry and more. Unfortunately the garden is inactive today due to challenges community members faced after Robert and Lucia moved on.

Robert pointing out growing watermelonRobert, Lucia and their three daughters now live in an agricultural oasis at their homestead in rural Leicester. They are happy to have an invaluable connection to land and fresh food, with fruits and vegetables growing right outside their home. “We’re growing pear trees, peach trees, apple trees. We’ve got lettuce, kale, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, butterfly bushes…” Robert went on, showing me around the garden in their front yard. “They say you should eat food within 100 miles from where you are; I believe there should be food 100 feet from your front door.”

Lucia shared childhood memories from growing up in a farm atmosphere, “Whether it was picking and eating blueberries, playing by the pond, watching the chickens, as a kid I mostly just enjoyed the land. All the sounds and smells of a farm bring me a sense of peace and joy, feeling connected to the earth helps us become our highest selves.”

She emphasized the value in claiming ownership of one’s food supply – that having a personal relationship with agriculture is no less valuable than a monetary relationship.

This had been a common theme throughout my exploration of the relationship between black people and agriculture. First Kathey, who believes although agriculture may not be her lifestyle of choice, it will be a part of her life forever. Then Wallace, whose interest lies in both the scenic beauty of nature and the security of knowing the source of his food. Finally Robert and Lucia, who created a community garden for the purpose of bringing people closer to food and now live with their own garden right in their front yard.

Having set out on a journey that left me with more questions than answers, I came to the conclusion that WNC’s black community is not as disconnected from agriculture as I’d originally assumed. However I was left still questioning what exactly is keeping black folk from building that monetary relationship — what is stopping qualified black agriculturalists from making a living out of farming?

While this question may have more answers than I can offer, I resonated with Robert’s perspective on the issue, “There are resources to help people, but those resources are not readily accessible to poor communities of color. Folks would do so much more if they knew how to plug in, but nobody comes to us to tell us about those opportunities.”

This statement registered to me as truth immediately. Robert White is a man with a wealth of knowledge, yet when I told him about SAHC’s Farmer Incubator Program, he was surprised to know such a program exists. I remembered having a similar feeling in late 2016 when I was introduced to the Conservation Trust for NC’s Diversity in Conservation Internship Program, which has afforded me the opportunity to write this article. It brought a feeling of elation to me when I was introduced to programs and opportunities for people of color to not only connect with nature, but to advance in knowledge and experience towards career-readiness in predominantly white fields.

I alone did not come upon this knowledge; it was passed unto me by those who already had a foot in the door and wanted to offer a hand in helping people like me reach these opportunities. Similarly, perhaps there are people growing food in their own backyards, dreaming of life as a farmer, waiting for someone to reach out and tell them it’s possible.

SAHC’s Farmer Incubator Program supports small agricultural businesses by providing access to land, infrastructure and training at a reduced rate. The program is meant to help prospective farmers overcome financial obstacles in launching agricultural businesses. Someday I hope programs like this will lead to more diverse involvement and equitable representation in our area’s farm businesses. However, the road to alleviating burdens of systemic oppression and exclusion is long. I cannot lift people from the circumstances that restrict their personal accessibility, so instead I will advocate for shared dialogue.

As of today the Southern Appalachian region appears to be predominantly white, however, this has not always been the case. In her essay “African Americans in Appalachia,” Dr. Althea Webb of Berea College (KY) states:

“History reveals that Appalachia has always had a racially and ethnically diverse population that has been significant and influential. Migration and mobility has shifted patterns of diversity within sub-regions and particular counties … while some areas today are largely white, the collective memory of a county may reveal a vastly different history.”

The history of people of color in agriculture is rich in the Southern Appalachians; for this reason it is crucial to uncover this history and the stories of the people before they are lost. My journey in talking with Kathey, Wallace, Lucia and Robert has brought to light just a few of the many stories there are to be told, and learning from my conversations with these folks has been, for me, an uplifting experience.

About the Author:

Tamia Dame is a student at the University Of North Carolina at Asheville. As a part of the Conservation Trust for North Carolina’s (CTNC) Diversity in Conservation Internship Program (DCIP), she served as our 2017 Communication, Education, and Outreach intern. She is passionate about topics relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion and hopes to pursue a career in conservation.

Blue Ridge Forever awarded $8 million for farmland

Local land trusts secure unprecedented $8 million dollars for farmland conservation in Western North Carolina

The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture National Resource Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) recently announced 2017 funding allocations from the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which included an unprecedented $8 million awarded for farmland conservation in Western North Carolina. This award for the Blue Ridge Forever coalition’s project “Forever Farms; Easements at the Eminence” will be used to protect working agricultural land and clean water sources across the region.

“This funding allocation is unique because of its size, and because it is directed specifically for the protection of important soils as well as clean water sources for our regional watersheds,” said Executive Director Carl Silverstein. “We have successfully used federal funding to accomplish significant farmland conservation projects over the past decade, and this new allocation opens the door for us to work with willing landowners to protect some of the most crucial, large contiguous tracts of farmland remaining in the mountains. This is an incredible success, reflecting well on the perseverance and dedicated, collaborative efforts of the Blue Ridge Forever partners ” 

The partnering Blue Ridge Forever land trusts plan to use the federally allocated funding to protect mountain farms from a change in land use through voluntary agricultural conservation easements. Agricultural conservation easements protect farmland and rare prime soils for food security for future generations, while also protecting the cultural heritage, scenic vistas, and farm-to-table establishments that drive tourism to the region. However, the benefits of this new funding will reach much further than the mountains. The nine river basins emanating from the WNC region contain the headwater sources for drinking water for millions of people throughout the Southeastern United States.

“We are thrilled to bring this allocation to Western North Carolina to keep mountain farms farming, and gratified the region is receiving national recognition for its importance as a freshwater source for the Southeast,” said Jessica Laggis, Blue Ridge Forever’s director. “This funding represents the culmination of years of dedication in conservation planning and relationship building. WNC land trusts have been laying the foundation for this RCPP success for a long time.”

In the past, SAHC used the same federal funding source to successfully protect several farms, including the 320-acre Reeves Homeplace Farm in Madison County, the 90-acre Watalula Farm in Leicester, 116 acres of fertile bottomland in Sandy Mush, and 80 acres of bottomland in Fairview in Buncombe County.

“The ability to protect nationally significant prime soils and water quality with the same funding source is a dream come true,” said Farmland Program Director, William Hamilton. “This funding will have a permanent, positive impact on WNC, and will be a gift that keeps on giving for generations to come. It provides us with the opportunity to help preserve some of the biggest and best farms in the region. One of the victories of this funding is that it obligates $8 million to be used exclusively for purchase of agricultural conservation easements in western North Carolina.   In the past we were competing statewide for these same federal funds, and the federal allocation to the entire state of NC ranged between $500,000 – $3.5 million.  So, securing $8 million for western North Carolina changes things in a dramatic way for us.”

Mountain farms are increasingly vulnerable to a change in land use, due in part to extraordinary development pressure and rapidly rising land values. Large mountain farms are particularly scarce because they are prone to fragmentation and development as they pass from one generation to the next, yet they are critically important for clean water because they encompass significant water sources. SAHC hopes to use this funding to continue building on more than a decade of successful farmland conservation.

“NRCS has created a unique opportunity with RCPP that recognizes the power of partnership,” continued Laggis. “Farmland preservation is great cause everyone can get behind; it brings a diverse array of stakeholders together in a beautiful way. We especially want to thank Principal Chief Patrick Lambert of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Congressman Patrick McHenry, Senator Richard Burr, Governor Pat McCrory, Representative John Ager, Representative Joe Sam Queen, and the NC Department of Agriculture for supporting farmland preservation in Western North Carolina.”


About Blue Ridge Forever: 

Blue Ridge Forever is a coalition of the 10 land trusts in Western North Carolina, that have partnered for over a decade of conservation successes in the region. The partners include: Blue Ridge Conservancy, The Conservation Trust for North Carolina, New River Conservancy, The Nature Conservancy, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust, Foothills Conservancy, Pacolet Area Conservancy, Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, Mainspring Conservation Trust, the Trust for Public Land, Riverlink, and Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy.

Farming in the Shadow of Crabtree Bald

rushforkcreek3This November we protected 32 acres of farmland in the shadow of Crabtree Bald in Haywood County. Located along Rush Fork Creek and adjacent to NC Scenic Byway 209, the farm contains prime agricultural soils and has been in the same family since the late 1700s.

Currently used for cattle grazing, the land has been used for various crops over the years, including tomatoes, corn and hay. It is now permanently protected for agricultural use under conservation easement with SAHC. Fertile soils on the property include prime farmland (Saunook loam), soils of statewide importance and of local importance. Read more

Farm Pathways

protectbody_squareSAHC, Organic Growers School (OGS), and WNC Farmlink have been awarded a $600,000 federal grant over three years to continue developing Farm Pathways: Integrating Farmer Training with Land Access.

Farm Pathways was selected this year as one of 37 projects across the nation to receive funding from the US Dept. of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), which aims to educate, mentor and enhance the sustainability of the next generation of farmers. Read more

Garrett Cove – 101 Acres Protected

garrettcove_vancegarrettWe purchased 101 acres in Garrett Cove, filling a gap in the network of more than 10,000 acres SAHC has protected in the vicinity of Sandy Mush. Settled by the Garrett family over 150 years ago, the cove is part of the cultural legacy of rugged and self-reliant individuals who homesteaded in the Newfound Mountains of the Southern Appalachians.

Located near the Buncombe/Haywood County border, this tract has been a conservation priority in Sandy Mush for several years. It adjoins three other SAHC-protected properties, and our purchasing and owning it adds to the network of protected conservation land in this historic farming community. Read more

Reeves Homeplace Farm

highelevationfield2“This project represents five years of hard work by the land trust, the landowner, and the agencies involved,” said Farmland Program Director William Hamilton. “This farm is representative of agriculture in Western North Carolina, and we are thrilled that the Reeves family will be able to continue owning, living and farming on this land in the future.”

Located in the Little Sandy Mush community amidst a scenic landscape of family farms, the property was part of a US land grant that once encompassed a much larger area. Landowner Betty Reeves is a 6th generation member of the Reeves family to farm the land, and she wanted to protect it with an agricultural conservation easement so that that it would be a resource for current and future farmers. Read more

Protecting Farmland in Fairview

lynch_fieldandvineyardThis year, SAHC protected a bucolic stretch of land along the Drovers’ Road Scenic Byway in Fairview. We placed 30 acres of fertile bottomland into conservation easements to safeguard the scenic vistas of the valley and working, productive agricultural land. The three adjoining tracts contain high percentages of nationally significant, prime agricultural soils, with portions actively farmed by Flying Cloud Farm and Bel Aire Farm.

“My Fairview farm holds special memories,” said landowner Popsie Lynch. “The land has been in my family for over 150 years. Over the years, this place provided home, livelihood, sustenance, and recreation for family and friends alike, offering opportunity to experience the outdoors and the beauty and tranquility of the mountains.” Read more

Ken and Lotta Murray: From DC to the AT, to the hills of TN

kenandlottaKen and Lotta Murray have transitioned from the hustle-and-bustle of Washington, DC, to the quiet coves of mountainous East Tennessee, carving out an idyllic home and garden on a tract where Ken’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 160 years ago. Introduced to SAHC while managing one of our conservation easement properties, they have become committed philanthropic leaders and engaged members, frequently exploring the Southern Appalachians through our guided group hikes.

Ken Murray became acquainted with SAHC when his mother, Katharine Tilson Murray, had the foresight to permanently protect the family homeplace with a conservation easement in 1999. Since retiring to the land in Unicoi County, where he often vacationed as child, Ken and his wife Lotta have become passionate supporters of SAHC, joining our Gray’s Lily Leadership Circle and frequently participating in guided outings on our other protected tracts. Read more

Ivy Creek: 102-acre conservation easement in Madison County

ponders_cowbarnChancellor Emerita of UNC Asheville Anne Ponder and her husband Chris Brookhouse have protected their 102-acre property in Madison County with a conservation easement, preserving pastoral and forest land for future generations.

Visible from the French Broad River, Ivy Creek farm is characteristic of Madison County’s rural landscape, with open pasture ridge tops and steep wooded slopes. The tract is approximately 30% pasture, grazed by cattle, and 70% forest, with a variety of forest types and mixed hardwoods.
The property contains seeps, springs, streams and water courses of high water quality, including Ivy Creek and unnamed tributaries of the creek, which flows into the French Broad River. Permanently protecting the tract preserves water quality, future agricultural use, open space, and wildlife habitat on a parcel that could otherwise have become a fairly dense development. Read more

Year-round gardens growing in greenhouses

puttingupgreenhousesIf you have ever visited a nursery or a commercial farm, you have probably seen large “hoop houses” stretching out sometimes as far as the eye can see. Without these structures, farmers would be limited to growing only during the warm season, thus drastically cutting their production. These season extension devices can range from an unheated plastic covered tunnel too small to walk through, up to engineered glass buildings with automatic venting and precise temperature control. The main objective, however, is the same: to allow the propagation and growing of plants during the colder months of the year. Read more