An Agricultural Movement for People-to-People Reparations Puts Itself on the Map

Emeline Posner May 11, 2018

The Soul Fire team harvests greens from one of the beds at their farm in Grafton, N.Y., where they operate a CSA and several young farmer immersion programs for people of color.

On a small plot of land on the out­skirts of Chica­go, a farm col­lec­tive­ly owned by gen­der-non-con­form­ing immi­grants will cul­ti­vate pro­duce and a younger gen­er­a­tion of food jus­tice activists. That’s the vision that Viviana Moreno, Nadia Sol Ireri Unzue­ta Car­ras­co and Jazmín Mar­tinez, orga­niz­ers and farm­ers based in Chicago’s Lit­tle Vil­lage neigh­bor­hood, are work­ing to turn into reality. 

Cata­tum­bo Col­lec­tive, as the three call them­selves, told Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times in an email: We’re approach­ing a work­er-owned farm through an inter­sec­tion­al and holis­tic lens that under­stands that our community’s issues can be addressed in part by sus­tain­able farm­ing and food jus­tice edu­ca­tion­al programs.” 

Viviana, Ireri and Jazmín have known each oth­er from years of orga­niz­ing against depor­ta­tions in Chica­go and work­ing in Lit­tle Village’s Semi­l­las de Jus­ti­cia com­mu­ni­ty garden. 

Of Venezue­lan and Mex­i­can her­itage, the three incor­po­rate their fam­i­lies’ expe­ri­ences — with land stew­ard­ship and NAF­TA-dri­ven migra­tion — and the his­to­ry of campesinos’ and Indige­nous peo­ples’ land strug­gles into their approach. 

As they got more involved with Chicago’s urban agri­cul­ture move­ment, Ireri found few resources that pro­vid­ed the need­ed his­tor­i­cal or cul­tur­al con­text. His­to­ry of the land, his­to­ry of the exploita­tion and abuse of peo­ple work­ing the land, and the his­to­ry of resis­tance and resilience by Indige­nous peo­ple and peo­ple of col­or,” Ireri says, was lacking. 

They found a resource in Soul Fire Farm, a peo­ple-of-col­or-led farm and edu­ca­tion­al cen­ter based in Grafton, N.Y. Last sum­mer, they all attend­ed Soul Fire’s Black and Lat­inx Farmer Immer­sion, a pro­gram designed to impart eco­log­i­cal­ly-restora­tive farm­ing tech­niques to peo­ple of col­or and to fos­ter con­ver­sa­tion about racism, and racial jus­tice, in the food system. 

At Soul Fire, co-founders Leah Pen­ni­man and Jon­ah Vitale-Wolff gave us the space to come togeth­er, look at each oth­er and real­ize [that] we are who we have been wait­ing for,” Viviana says. Our indi­vid­ual sto­ries and his­to­ries had already brought us togeth­er and Soul Fire solid­i­fied our com­mit­ment to land jus­tice and reparations.” 

Cata­tum­bo is part of an inter­na­tion­al, decades-old move­ment for food sov­er­eign­ty. Coined by inter­na­tion­al farmer coali­tion Via Campesina in 1996, food sov­er­eign­ty” is the idea that food pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion should be con­trolled by work­ers, not by pow­er­ful, prof­it-dri­ven cor­po­ra­tions. Now, orga­ni­za­tions like Soul Fire, Cata­tum­bo and oth­er groups of farm­ers of col­or are build­ing a racial jus­tice aspect into that frame­work, and are look­ing to uplift Black, Brown, Indige­nous, and immi­grant farm­ers — those who have borne the brunt of labor exploita­tion, land theft and dis­crim­i­na­to­ry agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy — all the while advo­cat­ing for eco­log­i­cal farm­ing prac­tices and racial healing. 

At Soul Fire Farm, one of the food sov­er­eign­ty movement’s sev­er­al hubs, immer­sion pro­grams have been sup­port­ing Black and Brown farm­ers across the Unit­ed States and high­light­ing their his­to­ry. Now, a younger gen­er­a­tion of Soul Fire alums — like Cata­tum­bo Col­lec­tive — are putting them­selves on the map.

The Cata­tum­bo Col­lec­tive and oth­er pro­gram par­tic­i­pants dur­ing the 2017 Black-Lat­inx Farmer Immer­sion Pro­gram at Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, N.Y. (Image: Capers Rumph / cour­tesy of Soul Fire Farm)

Build­ing Black and Brown farms through reparations 

After attend­ing the Black and Lat­inx Farmer Immer­sion Pro­gram, Viviana, Ireri and Jazmín left with the con­fi­dence to com­mit to form­ing Cata­tum­bo Col­lec­tive. But while they were there, they start­ed a con­ver­sa­tion that would lead to the online repa­ra­tions map that Soul Fire launched ear­li­er this year. 

[Work toward repa­ra­tions] has been hap­pen­ing for a cou­ple of years, but as far as the offi­cial map that was just launched, that came out of Viviana’s work,” Pen­ni­man tells Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. We were talk­ing about … repa­ra­tions gifts, and she just said, We need to spread this and have more peo­ple-to-peo­ple sol­i­dar­i­ty.’ And so we made it happen!”

The map, which has attract­ed near­ly 45,000 views to date, lists 44 farm­ers of col­or and their spe­cif­ic needs, which range from equip­ment and seeds to fund­ing, land access and legal advice. 

Soul Fire Far­m’s inter­ac­tive peo­ple-to-peo­ple repa­ra­tions map. (Source: Google Maps)

At Per­spek­tive Farms in rur­al Penn­syl­va­nia, a Black fam­i­ly of tree farm­ers are look­ing for fund­ing to build a green­house. In New Jer­sey and in Alaba­ma, orga­niz­ers are look­ing for the funds to start an Indige­nous farm­ing col­lec­tive and an Indige­nous-led ecov­il­lage, respec­tive­ly. Out­side a wildlife refuge on the island of Hon­olu­lu, the Four Women Rad­i­cals farm is look­ing for 5 acres of land to start a com­mu­ni­ty farm ded­i­cat­ed to edu­cat­ing Black and Brown women on sus­tain­ing themselves. 

As a tool for a grass­roots move­ment, the map is specif­i­cal­ly designed to facil­i­tate peo­ple-to-peo­ple dona­tions. The loca­tion of each farm and project is denot­ed by a pin. When view­ers click on a pin, a side­bar pops up with infor­ma­tion about that spe­cif­ic farmer’s vision and needs. It also pro­vides the farmer’s con­tact infor­ma­tion, so that the view­er can get in touch if they are inter­est­ed in mak­ing a contribution. 

Already, some of the tens of thou­sands of clicks have led to fund­ing for sev­er­al farm­ers’ projects. From one donor, Dal­las Robin­son received $7,000, which she’ll use toward the pur­chase of a trac­tor and the con­struc­tion of a cool room for pro­duce stor­age. With that gift, she’ll be on track to open her herb and mush­room farm, the Har­ri­et Tub­man Free­dom Farm, in Red Oak, N.C. in ear­ly 2019

Anoth­er repa­ra­tions map vic­to­ry came recent­ly to Jahshana Olivierre, a com­mu­ni­ty builder in Canar­sie, N.Y., who received $2,800 through the repa­ra­tions map—enough to fund an apothe­cary appren­tice­ship, which will help her build knowl­edge to start her own youth-led herbal apothe­cary and coop­er­a­tive.

These repa­ra­tions vic­to­ries fol­low ear­li­er gifts that orig­i­nat­ed from a dif­fer­ent Soul Fire pro­gram, Uproot­ing Racism in the Food Sys­tem Immer­sion. The pro­gram offers train­ing for peo­ple who have posi­tion­al priv­i­lege in the food sys­tem and want to learn how to avoid being com­plic­it with white suprema­cy in their day-to-day work.

Two Black- and Brown-led farms in cen­tral New York, Har­mo­ny Farm, in Goshen, N.Y., and Wild Seed Com­mu­ni­ty Farm, in Miller­ton, N.Y., were cre­at­ed through gifts of land and fund­ing by alums of the Uproot­ing Racism program. 

There’s an awak­en­ing con­scious­ness that repa­ra­tions are nec­es­sary and aren’t seen as some fringe unrea­son­able demand, but real­ly an essen­tial part of racial heal­ing,” says Penniman. 

Insti­tu­tion­al repa­ra­tions — such as the 1999 Pig­ford v. Glick­manclass action dis­crim­i­na­tion suit that won $1.25 bil­lion for Black farm­ers denied loans and assis­tance by the USDA — are nec­es­sary, Pen­ni­man says. But she points out that the aver­age pay­out was $50,000 per farmer, which is not enough to get a good trac­tor, let alone get your land back.” 

Accord­ing to a paper in the South­ern Rur­al Soci­ol­o­gy jour­nal, as of 2002 Black-owned or ‑oper­at­ed farms num­bered less than 20,000 and tend­ing a total of 2 mil­lion acres — a decrease from the 1920 peak of 926,000 farms on 16 mil­lion acres.

We absolute­ly do need to con­tin­ue to lit­i­gate, and to do that pol­i­cy work, but we don’t have to wait for that to enact repa­ra­tions,” Pen­ni­man says. We can actu­al­ly start right away with these peo­ple-to-peo­ple trans­fers, of wealth that was stolen, to the peo­ple from whom it was stolen.” 

Get­ting farm­ers of col­or on the map 

Cata­tum­bo Collective’s pri­ma­ry goal for the map was to help facil­i­tate these trans­fers of wealth. But, inci­den­tal­ly, the map may also help towards build­ing up an online data­base of farm­ers of col­or, who have long been under­rep­re­sent­ed by demo­graph­ic surveys.

While gov­ern­ment-led sur­veys are like­ly to under­rep­re­sent small-scale and Black and Brown-oper­at­ed farms, inde­pen­dent sur­veys are no more like­ly to have accu­rate counts, as Nathan Rosen­berg and Clay H. East recent­ly argued in the New Food Econ­o­my.

For exam­ple, the Wash­ing­ton Post and oth­er out­lets share uplift­ing sto­ries of how the youngest cohort of farm­ers is defined by its ded­i­ca­tion to sus­tain­able tech­niques and its diver­si­ty — but they draw on a Nation­al Young Farmer Coali­tion sur­vey that skews toward high­ly edu­cat­ed, ex-urban, first-time farm­ers,” a group that is unrep­re­sen­ta­tive of the full spread of farm­ers under 35

The Soul Fire Farm team show vis­i­tors around a hoop­house at the start of the grow­ing sea­son. (Image: Capers Rumph / cour­tesy of Soul Fire Farm)
USDA cen­sus data, on the oth­er hand, tells a dif­fer­ent sto­ry: name­ly, that the youngest gen­er­a­tion (35 and under) of farm­ers is slight­ly more white (94 per­cent) and male (90 per­cent) than old­er gen­er­a­tions, and more like­ly to prac­tice con­ven­tion­al, indus­tri­al­ized agriculture. 

In real­i­ty, the num­ber of young farm­ers of col­or is like­ly high­er than the cur­rent USDA esti­mate, though by how much is unclear. 

One rea­son for this dis­crep­an­cy in nar­ra­tive is that the USDA has long failed to account for small-scale farms in its cen­sus. (As of 2002, Black farm­ers were like­ly to oper­ate less than 50 acres of farm­land, far below the nation­al aver­age of 440.) Although the USDA has been work­ing to improve its method­ol­o­gy since 1997, its counts are like­ly still too low, giv­en how small farms are decreas­ing in num­ber at the same time as very small farms and gar­dens are increas­ing. By their very nature, very small farms and gar­dens, whether in rur­al or urban areas, are dif­fi­cult to track from year to year. 

Inde­pen­dent and grass­roots maps like Soul Fire’s repa­ra­tions map will not serve as a replace­ment for more com­pre­hen­sive sur­veys, but farm­ers like Pen­ni­man and the Cata­tum­bo mem­bers see it as a step in the right direc­tion. In the mean­time, it serves the more impor­tant func­tion of help­ing peo­ple of col­or and allies locate, and sup­port Black and Brown farms. 

We do need a direc­to­ry of POC-run farms and health cen­ters. This map may or may not be the thing, but it has been a long time call-out that we have need­ed in our move­ment,” Pen­ni­man says, adding a shout-out to Tasha Bowens, who pub­lished a book called the Col­or of Food, which maps out farm projects run by peo­ple of col­or. But I do think that we need a curat­ed space, a vet­ted space, that says these are the farms that are legit run by peo­ple of col­or that legit exist, and this is what they offer.”

In the mean­time, the map’s cre­ators are hop­ing to expand the breadth of the map, which cur­rent­ly skews heav­i­ly toward the North­east, where they’ve built their net­work. That is not where most of the Black farm­ers are,” says Pen­ni­man, They’re in the South, and in the West. But I am real­ly excit­ed for it to grow. This project is just one hum­ble and small piece of that over­all move­ment for Black land sovereignty.”

Catatumbo’s bea­con for food justice

The Cata­tum­bo Riv­er, from which the agri­cul­tur­al col­lec­tive pulls its name, flows from Colom­bia down into Venezuela. For around two-thirds of the year, and for as many as 10 hours a night, light­ning storms linger over the mouth of the Cata­tum­bo Riv­er, where it emp­ties into Lake Mara­cai­bo. The sharp bursts of light­ning that the storms gen­er­ate are so bright that they have func­tioned as a nat­ur­al light­house” for gen­er­a­tions of sailors. 

It’s a strik­ing name for the farm col­lec­tive that the three Chicagoans envi­sion build­ing, both in the inter­est of cul­ti­vat­ing eco­log­i­cal­ly and teach­ing younger mem­bers of their com­mu­ni­ties to do the same. But it won’t be built overnight: Cata­tum­bo hasn’t yet received repa­ra­tions. To start, they need assis­tance find­ing a plot of land, a truck and guid­ance on how to form a busi­ness as res­i­dents of mixed doc­u­men­ta­tion sta­tus. Through the map that they helped to cre­ate, they’ve received numer­ous mes­sages and offers of assis­tance, but most of those offers have not mate­ri­al­ized. None of them denies that it’s a long road for­ward to their peri-urban farm, but it’s one they’re com­mit­ted to following.

In the mean­time, the voic­es behind Cata­tum­bo are help­ing to shape the con­ver­sa­tion around urban agri­cul­ture and food jus­tice in Chica­go. At a Feb­ru­ary 2018 Chica­go food pol­i­cy sum­mit, a break­out ses­sion on Black and Lat­inx agri­cul­tur­al his­to­ry, which Viviana helped to lead, pulled half the summit’s atten­dees. And until they fund their farm, you can find Viviana, Jazmín and Ireri in Chica­go, orga­niz­ing, teach­ing, and using the gar­dens they do have to grow and to impart their knowl­edge about stew­ard­ship to others. 

A Soul Fire Farm team pos­es for a pic­ture in the field. (Image: Capers Rumph / cour­tesy of Soul Fire Farm)
Eme­line Pos­ner is a sum­mer 2017 Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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