8 Contributions of Black Farmers to Regenerative Agriculture

Posted by Michalina Hunter on June 18, 2020 3 Comments

8 Contributions of Black Farmers to Regenerative Agriculture

Photo via Grist

As an organization that works to increase access to land for new and young farmers, we deeply acknowledge the racism and inequality within our food systems. Farming in North America takes place on the stolen lands of Indigenous peoples, and is built on the enslavement and exploitation of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC). Check out the documentaries We Are the Roots and Secret Alberta: The Former Life of Amber Valley to learn more.

For agriculture to be truly regenerative, as a society, we must address the embedded racism that permeates our communities and institutions. Major contributions to farming have been made by People of Colour. Despite these contributions to our food systems, BIPOC are disproportionately affected by food insecurity, inequitable food distribution, and the effects of climate change. Today in Canada, Indigenous and Black families are 3.56 times more likely to be food insecure than white families.

While we don’t have farmer of colour statistics for Canada- we imagine they are similar to the U.S. In the 1920’s, Black farmers made up 14% of farmers in the U.S., but today it is less than 2%, with only 0.4% of U.S. farmland operated by black farmers. We must talk about racism when we talk about farming, farm labour, and land ownership.

We want to start by celebrating a few of the tremendous contributions that Black Farmers have made to the foundations of what we know today as modern farming, and ecological and regenerative agriculture.

8 Contributions of Black Farmers to Regenerative Agriculture

George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver

1. Regenerative & Sustainable Agriculture

Two major grandfathers of regenerative agriculture are George Washington Carver and Booker T. Whatley. Carver was an agricultural scientist, inventor, and professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Whatley also taught at Tuskegee, and had a doctorate in horticulture. They both emphasized the importance of regenerating the soil, and promoted the use of compost for building the soil and replenishing nutrients. Carver demonstrated that compost increased productivity 100 times better than the commonly practiced methods.1

2. The CSA Model

Often credited as a European or Japanese invention, the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model was developed in Alabama by Booker T. Whatley as early as the 1960’s or 70’s. Whatley promoted direct-to-consumer marketing, and coined “Clientele Membership Clubs” for farms. The structure involved city families paying a membership fee at the beginning of the year for the ability to come and harvest their own food on the farm throughout the year. The cost of the vegetables was about 60% of the equivalent supermarket cost.2

3. U-Pick

Pick Your Own models have been popular at various times in history. In the 19th century, some market gardeners near London encouraged city-dwellers to visit their farms to pick vegetables and to enjoy a countryside experience. Also in the early 19th century in America, apple growers in New Jersey and New York promoted employed similar U-Pick marketing tactics.

U-Picks really picked up in the 1950s with the onset of suburbs around cities, which brought customers even closer to rural farmers’ fields. In the 1960s however, this model died down due to liability concerns with high pesticide use on farms. 

Whatley was a big proponent of the “Pick Your Own” concept alongside his CSA model. He believed that outings to the farm should be an enjoyable part of his customers’ lives, and that healthful, contaminant-free produce would attract them there. The farm should be beautiful, and offer picnic spots for city families to enjoy country living. Whatley thought that farmers’ markets were too much work for the small farmer, and getting customers to the farm saved time and costs3. Today, U-Picks are still a popular and successful model for many farms.

4. Lean Farming

These days, we have Ben Hartman helping farmers streamline their businesses to “Minimize Waste, Increase Efficiency, and Maximize Value and Profits with Less Work” via the Lean Farming method.4 Lean concepts are often credited to Japanese farming practices and Toyota factories, but Carver and Whatley had been promoting these concepts decades before. In 1987, Booker T. Whatley published a book titled “How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres”. His 10 commandments for farmers included “minimizing unnecessary costs, limiting wastes, and maximizing income and farm space with smart crop selection.”5 

Whatley passionately advocated for what he called “smaller and smarter” farming, which is foundational to the Lean Farm’s motto to “Farm smaller and smarter.”6 Carver said “Take care of the waste on the farm and turn it into useful channels.”

Booker T. Whatley. Via thenaturalfarmer.org

5. Early Seed Planters

The earliest invention on this list is the seed planter. Henry Blair was born in 1807 and was the second African American to be issued a patent. Blair invented a corn planter and a cotton planter, which saved tremendous amounts of time and labour on the farm. There have been many advancements since these tools were created, but the general concept and components of seed planters remain the same.7

blueprints of early seed planter henry blair
Henry Blair’s early seed planter. Via farmproject.org

6. Crop Rotation & Nitrogen Fixation

Cotton requires a lot of nutrients to grow, and can deplete the soil of nitrogen if not managed correctly. George Washington Carver developed a crop rotation system using peanuts and corn to fix nitrogen and provide food crops. This rotation added nutrients back to the soil and enabled farmers to grow food crops to diversify their income streams.8

7. Transportation Refrigeration System

Frederick McKinley Jones may have invented one of the most important things for modern agriculture: the refrigerated truck. Patented in the 1940’s, the system was installed in trucks, boats, planes, and trains, which allowed perishable foods to be transported long distances and overseas. The concept of frozen foods and the cold sections in supermarkets are based off his ideas.9

Frederick McKinley Jones with truck air conditioner
Frederick McKinley Jones. Via Worldkings.org

8. Farming Co-ops

After slavery was abolished, farming cooperatives were established across the U.S. to increase access to land ownership, education, and better living conditions.10

Read more at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project and Urban Intellectuals

African-American farm and home demonstration agents posing under the Booker T. Washington statue on the Tuskegee Institute campus, 1925. Via Wikipedia.

Want to Support Black Farmers and Organizations in Canada?

Getting more educated by reading online is a great way to get engaged in anti-racism. However, redistributing wealth by for example donating to initiatives that fight racial inequality in the food system is a great next step. Here’s a list of farms and groups to support financially and follow online:

  1. Afri-Can Food Basket (Black Food Toronto). The Afri-Can Food Basket is building a team and raising money to provide emergency food support to individuals and families within the African, Caribbean, and Black community in Toronto who have been affected by COVID-19 and in need of support accessing food.
  2. Afro Van Connect (Vancouver). Empowering the voices of African descent youth through conversation, collaboration, creation, and performance.
  3. Black Farmers Collective Toronto. We grow affordable, clean food and promote food justice to our community where good nutrition and healthy food access are next to none.
  4. Black Lives Matter Toronto
  5. Black Lives Matter Vancouver
  6. Black Creek Community Farm (Toronto). An urban agricultural centre that engages, educated, and empowers diverse communities through sustainable food.
  7. Sunny Boy Farm (Toronto). Sunny Boy Farm was founded by Soniel Gordon, to reclaim the community-based farming lifestyle and it’s benefits. We aim to address some of the growing socio-economic issues that plague our communities, by providing employment opportunities, offering skill and personal development training, educational and mental health workshops. Also offers a CSA sponsorship program for families in need. 
  8. Sundance Harvest (Toronto). Sundance Harvest is a food justice centered year round urban farm located in Toronto, Ontario. Sundance Harvest strives to provide resources, knowledge and guidance to start your own food and land sovereignty movements, create your own urban farming practice and to eradicate institutionalized racism within the food system. Also runs a yard share program called Liberating Lawns.
  9. Kara-Kata Afrobeat Society (Vancouver). Kara-Kata Afrobeat Society, and Kara-Kata Afrobeat group, the musical arm, seek to harvest the powerful tool of music to promote peace, solidarity, education, and community between all people. They also have a new Africa Village Retreat Centre in Mission, BC where they will focus on getting back to nature, sustainable farming, and sharing Nigerian culture. Looking for garden space? Check out their listing on our U-MAP.

Looking to Learn More?

We highly recommend the 21 Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge from Food Solutions New England. It consists of daily reading, audio, and video email prompts, optional extra resources to dig deeper, and and online forum for discussion.

Here are some other great resources about the experiences of BIPOC in Canada, and what they face (list aggregated by the National Farmers Union):

Feedback – send it our way: community@youngagrarians.org

3 thoughts on “8 Contributions of Black Farmers to Regenerative Agriculture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *