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
Okay, not literally. But you know I can’t resist a story about seeds and seed sovereignty! So I was thrilled to come across this episode of the Wisconsin Public Radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge all about the topic. Listen for 4 stories exploring the question “Who owns seeds?”
The show’s description reads “It's easy to take seeds for granted, to assume that there will always be more corn or wheat or rice to plant. But as monocropping and agribusiness continue to dominate modern farming, are we losing genetic diversity, cultural history, and the nutritional value of our food? We speak to farmers, botanists and indigenous people about how they are reclaiming our seeds.”
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of seed saving and the work of seed banks such as the World Vegetable Center. I want to share a wonderful update from the world of seed saving that I read recently. According to this article in The Guardian, the Cherokee Nation is depositing seeds from nine of its most culturally important crops in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seed repository known as the “doomsday vault,” located deep in a Norwegian mountain above the Arctic Circle.
Various seed banks have been destroyed due to war, natural disasters, and the affects of climate change, losing precious crop seed forever. The carefully built Svalbard vault stores backup copies of acquisitions from seed banks all over the world with the intention of preserving crop diversity for thousands of years. The Cherokee are depositing seeds from four types of corn, four types of beans, and candy roaster squash (a delicious variety that we grow at Dandelion Ridge Farm!). These crops have been integral to Cherokee culture for many generations.
Incredibly, the only other seeds from an indigenous community in the Svalbard Vault are potatoes from the Quechua people of the Andes. Indigenous peoples around the world domesticated most of the food plants we all know and enjoy, and many varieties that are vital to their diets and ways of life. Hopefully there will be many more of these seed deposits to come.
Packets of Cherokee white eagle corn seeds. Photograph: Stephanie Remer/Cherokee Nation Communications. Photo Courtesy of The Guardian.