If you’re looking for a good book to read on days when it’s too hot to be out in the garden, might I recommend Patricia Klindienst’s The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans? I just finished this engaging, but gentle, almost meditative book. The author visits farmers and gardeners all over the United States whose gardens both feed their bodies and nourish their cultural connections, whether their homeland is Cambodia, Italy, or India, or their ancestors have farmed the same land since long before European settlement. Klindienst provides space for the farmers to speak for themselves, revealing the stories of their gardens as ways of telling their personal and cultural histories.
I was struck by the diversity of experience within growing food, which is done all over the world, in very different situations and environments, growing very different crops. Yet there is a deep commonality to this practice: an intense connection to the place, the land, and the particulars of climate and ecosystem, as well as the attention paid, care given, skills perfected, and community built. For the people in the book who had left their homeland to forge a new life in the United States, their gardens—their traditional practices and techniques, as well as the crops they grow—serve as a way to ground them in their new homes and tangibly connect them back to the places and people they had left behind. For people such as the Gullah farmers of South Carolina and the Native American farmers of New Mexico, growing food is an embodiment of their heritage, a continuous line from the past through the present to the future. For all of the growers in the book, their gardens are deeply healing places, and their relationships with their gardens seem akin to familial bonds, or even extensions of themselves. “The earth is the actual ground of our lives—we grow out of the soil too. If it dies, we die. If it lives, we eat and live. You know this when you grow your own food,” Klindienst reminds us.
Referring to her garden, Italian-American Maska Pelligrini tells Klindienst, “It’s our life, you know.” Klindienst reflects that “Maska’s all-embracing phrase, ‘It’s our life,’ included the whole garden—soil, plants, worms, birds, insects, water, sun, wind, and her. In her marvelous, encompassing, humble phrase, ‘our life’ extended to include ‘their lives.’ Her garden was an interdependent community, a democracy.”
Today, June 19, is the holiday known as Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 when word reached the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas that they had been freed by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation two and a half years earlier. Black communities across the county have celebrated Juneteeth ever since, making it the oldest annual celebration of the end of slavery and the fight for freedom. Festivities traditionally involve barbecue and a feast of foods specially prepared for the occasion, participants dressing in their finest clothes, prayer, speeches, and games. Understanding history in order to make progress as individuals and as a society has always been a primary focus of Juneteeth ceremonies.
In light of this focus, I’d like to share what I’m learning about the work of Fannie Lou Hamer and her Freedom Farm Cooperative, which exemplified a movement using farming as a vehicle for empowerment, self-determination, and resistance against oppression that stretches through history to the present.
Fannie Lou Hamer is best known for her voting rights work, her activism with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and her cofounding of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. But, born in 1917 into a Mississippi sharecropping family, she knew firsthand the way that the mainstream agricultural system oppressed People of Color, keeping them enslaved in all but name. Not only did the sharecropping system keep Hamer and others like her in constant poverty, hunger, and debt, but also deprived them of control over their own lives. When Hamer overcame the many barriers in place to disenfranchise Black citizens and successfully registered to vote, the owner of the plantation where she worked ordered her to rescind her voter registration. Hamer’s reply: “I didn’t go down there to register for you. I went down to register for myself.” He promptly fired her and evicted her from the property. This was a common experience among other Black folks fighting for the right to vote.
In 1969, Fannie Lou Hamer founded the Freedom Farm Cooperative (FFC) as an alternative farming model to that which forced Black Mississippians to labor either as sharecroppers or to struggle with poverty on their own small farms. “The time has come now when we are going to have to get what we need ourselves. We may get a little help, here and there, but in the main we’re going to have to do it ourselves,” Hamer stated. With financial backing from from a Wisconsin-based non-profit, Hamer bought 40 acres of farmland to grow vegetables to feed member families and cash crops to support the co-op’s operational expenses. In addition to vegetables, the farm also fed its members through a “pig bank” that raised and distributed thousands of pigs to participating families. Poverty was the only qualification for joining the co-op, Hamer explained. “This is the first kind of program that has ever been sponsored in the country in letting local people do their thing themselves.”
Under Hamer’s tireless leadership, the FFC grew exponentially over the next few years. By the early 1970s, the farm comprised nearly 700 acres, and the co-op expanded to a comprehensive system of community and individual empowerment. Its programs included child education, affordable housing, job training, and health care. It housed a sewing cooperative, a tool library, a commercial kitchen, and community gardens. The Freedom Farm Cooperative strived to address each of the various ways the community had been oppressed and deprived of opportunity, and to provide the tools and the space for members to reclaim their agency and liberate themselves. It envisioned a system that lifted people up rather than crushing them and grinding them down.
The Freedom Farm Collective received little institutional support and dissolved by the mid-1970s. However, other farmers have continued its work and legacy in various ways. Today, farms from Soul Fire Farm in New York’s Hudson Valley to Oakland, California-based Black Earth Farms work to end food apartheid and center People of Color in all they do. Soul Fire Farm offers a multitude of workshops and immersion programs for Farmers of Color, operates a sliding-scale CSA to fight food insecurity, and provides an interactive Reparations Map on its website that connects potential donors with Black and Indigenous-led farming projects seeking resources. Black Earth Farms is a collective of Black and Indigenous Farmers that works to decolonize the food system and provide fresh produce to the unhoused and others in need, including people protesting for racial justice in recent weeks. Other farms in this movement of farming as activism include:
“The people in the South are like seeds, each with the potential to grow and spread more seeds, for more growth: creating gardens and forests of themselves—lawns of living. They are planted in their lives.” –"Fannie Lou Hamer, Crabgrass Politician,” in SNCC’s The Movement, August 1965. https://www.crmvet.org/docs/mvmt/6508mvmt.pdf.
Fannie Lou Hamer. Photo from http://www.marcelinamartin.com/SouthernEthic/index22.html
Freedom Farm Cooperative. Photo from http://www.marcelinamartin.com/SouthernEthic/index22.html
Sunflower County, Mississippi Sewing Co-op. Photo from http://www.marcelinamartin.com/SouthernEthic/index22.html
I hope you are staying warm in this cold snap! Our ginger and sensitive herbs are bundled up under blankets or tucked in the greenhouse as needed. This guy is enjoying the tropical environment among the ginger foliage, too!
Now that autumn definitely seems to be here, the kale and collards we planted for the fall are coming on and we will have our first small harvest this week! We will also have dandelion greens and romaine in the next few weeks.
We have another exciting new offering: upon popular request, we are now offering a very limited supply of Dandelion Ridge Farm dried herbs and pepper flakes! We carefully dry the best of what we grow for your enjoyment year-round. We’re offering epazote, thyme, sage, oregano, and rosemary, as well as ground jalapeño peppers and crushed habanero flakes for you heat-lovers out there!
We’re staying active with events this week, too! Kevin is on his way to New York’s Hudson Valley to present at the Hudson Valley VegFest, where he will hopefully inspire folks to move along the continuum from passive consumers to active food producers, whether it be starting a farm, learning to cook, or growing a few herbs on a kitchen windowsill.
We were also pleased to be part of a World Food Day celebration at Community Action Council’s Wilburn Center in northeast Lexington on Wednesday. Community members got to watch food demos, taste dishes from diverse cuisines, and take home fresh vegetables, including Dandelion Ridge Farm sweet potatoes.
Can you believe it’s August already? We’re still swimming in tomatoes at Dandelion Ridge Farm, and have been struggling to keep up with harvesting and processing them all, so we called in GleanKY for help. GleanKY is a non-profit based in Lexington, KY that tackles hunger and food waste by gleaning excess fruit and vegetables from farms, grocery stores, and farmers’ markets and redistributing this produce to more than 100 local feeding programs. In addition to their grocery store and farmers’ market gleanings, they send volunteer crews to harvest produce from local farms and deliver it to soup kitchens, food banks, and other organizations to help the hungry. We’re enthusiastic supporters of the important work they do! A couple of folks from Glean came out to the farm one morning this week and harvested about 350 pounds of tomatoes and delivered them to recipients in need. It felt good to know that those beautiful tomatoes are going to make a lot of people happy! If you want to know more about GleanKY, including volunteer and donation opportunities, go to gleanky.org.