In a playground in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, with the giggles and squeals of frolicking children providing background noise, David Haughton sets up his tent and carries over crates from his truck. He comes here every week to sell his organic produce, which includes peaches, plums and apples, and novelties like callaloo, an Afro-Caribbean vegetable that he says “really sells.” Brought up on a farm in Jamaica, where farming is the second-largest industry, Haughton immigrated to America in 1983, earning a living as a farmworker until he was able to buy his own thirty-acre farm in Clintondale, New York. He and Vermont farmer Ras Oba have been coming to Hecksher playground every week since 2005, when they were sought out by community activist Asantewaa Gail Harris, whose interest in health-related issues provided the impetus for her vision of a neighborhood farmers’ market.
“In 2002 I attended the National Leadership Summit on Eliminating Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health,” says Harris. “What we discovered was that the statistics they were reporting reflected our friends, our family members and our neighbors. So it was real.” In the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, one in four adults and one in three children are obese, and the neighborhood is home to 131 bodegas, where fresh produce is a rarity. Harris and her group, the Community Vision Council, began researching. “We had been around to all of the Greenmarkets in the city and did not see farmers of color.” Harris says she knew about black farmers’ ongoing battle with the US Department of Agriculture, and considered it important to support them.
Now that the Hecksher market has proven a success, Harris has been contacted by other New York City organizers who want to set up farmers’ markets in their own neighborhoods. Harris hopes to obtain enough funding to furnish the Bed-Stuy market with supplies and create a program that would allow black farmers to mentor residents.
Richard Pearson of Southside, Virginia, embodies the struggles facing black farmers, most of whom farm in the South. He says his white competitors have links to markets through business contacts that are unavailable to black farmers: “That was the difference fifty years ago, and it’s still the difference now.” Pearson’s 200 acres make him one of the five largest black landowners in his two counties. In 1970, however, Pearson saw blacks farming 1,000-acre tracts. His experience is reflected in the statistics: While the number of white farmers has declined by roughly a third, almost 80 percent of black farmers have disappeared in the past thirty years.
Arizona farmer Norvel Clark is fairly bursting with ideas about tapping urban markets, but he knows no urban food activists and says that at black farmer conferences, the innovative business proposals he’s shared and his attempts to form partnerships with other farmers have so far fallen on fallow ground. “I assume that they’re in so much turmoil, people have been lying to them for so long, that when you talk to them they don’t take it to heart.”
Clark, born in Puerto Rico, raised in Brooklyn and a relative newcomer to farming, having begun growing culinary herbs in 1990, was recognized for his green thumb while still in grade school and has had a passion to grow things ever since.
“I’m better than 100 percent organic. I’m natural,” boasts Clark. Surrounded by farmland owned by the likes of Del Monte, Clark’s 250-acre Hyder farm has expanded to include melons, vegetables and livestock. The way he sees it, black farmers hold the building blocks for a new inner-city economy. “I want to grow the best stuff and have the easiest market available.” Clark has introduced his goods to the black community in Arizona by selling produce on consignment to three different churches in Casa Grande and Phoenix. Eventually, he hopes they will get other churches involved so that fresh food will become part of the culture of fellowship.
Jason Harvey, a food activist in Oakland, explains how the Mandela Farmers’ Market he once managed has become a hub of community activity. He recalls how the market began to draw weekend crowds of 150-200 people, “which is pretty amazing, because people usually leave West Oakland to find something to do.” Local musicians have flocked to the site, as well as merchants who sell books, incense and soaps. Mandela’s founder, David Roach, observes: “Agriculture is just what it says, it has a lot of culture in it. It relates to health, it relates to economics, it’s pride as people. Spiritually, it’s about having that communion with the earth.”
It remains to be seen whether a budding awareness of the politics of food will translate into mutually beneficial connections between inner-city “food deserts” and beleaguered black farmers. There seems to be a great need for people like farmer Phillip Barker, who directs the North Carolina-based Prize of the Harvest, which helps black farmers form co-ops and market their products. While acknowledging historical and institutional racism, Barker focuses on problems facing all small farmers. “What we find is that once we grow a crop, we don’t have the systems in place to carry that crop to either get it processed or packed to regulations to go into the marketplace. We’ve done some things in the marketplace that haven’t been done before by black farmers or black groups,” he says, but all roads leading from their farms to the cities seem to be uphill for now.