Whenever Robert Pierce gets stressed or depressed, he goes outside and digs his hands into the soil that fills his approximately 22.5-acre urban farm on Madison’s south side.
Pierce, who is finishing up his 37th season of organic farming, calls this process “getting grounded.” When you work with the soil it does something to you internally — it changes your whole way of thinking, Pierce said.
Pierce said generations of violence, erasure and gatekeeping have severed Black communities from the healing power of the land. This connection is something he has spent his career trying to repair through his work as the market manager of the South Madison Farmers Market and as the founder and director of Neighborhood Food Solutions, where he runs a Program for Entrepreneurial Agricultural Training and Farming After Incarceration Release.
Uprooted from the land
Pierce’s programs all work to empower urban communities — particularly communities of color and low income communities — by increasing access to land, healthy produce and all around self-sufficiency.
Coalition Organizer with the newly-formed Midwest Farmers of Color Collective Zoe Hollomon said building this accessibility and restoring this relationship with the land is particularly important within the Black community.
“It’s really only been kind of recently that many people aren’t growing their own food,” Hollomon said. “Reconnecting with that is our birthright, it’s a really important part of resiliency and autonomy that hasn’t been ours for a long time.”
Hollomon said 500 years of land seizure and acculturation has led to this decrease in Black farmers.
In 1920, the number of Black farmers peaked at 949,889, or about 17% of all U.S. farm operators. By 2012, this number had plummeted to 45,508, or less than 2% of all U.S. farmers, according to the USDA.
Though, even before the forced removal of Black farmers from their land, their populations remained low in the Midwest. In 1920, less than 12% of farmers operating rented land in Wisconsin were nonwhite, and today 90% of America’s Black farmers are located in the South. In Wisconsin, only 51 out of 64,793 farms have a principal producer who is Black.
The population of students at the University of Wisconsin interested in farming reflect these numbers — only 8% of UW’s Black students are in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Senior Assistant Dean of CALS Thomas Browne said this lower diversity is largely due to Black students having less familiarity and knowledge of agriculture.
“There’s a stigma of agriculture, particularly in the Black community,” Browne said.
Pierce said a lot of this lack of familiarity can be traced back to the USDA’s racist lending practices — that Black farmers have been “kicked out of agriculture” for the past 100 years. He said this exclusion has caused Black farmers to trail generations behind their white counterparts.
Browne said that ag-related programs at UW are not only suffering from a lack of diversity, but a lack of overall students. He said programs like the farming short course have experienced a drop in students over the years.
This decrease is not unique to UW, with farmers having an average age of 58.3 years nationwide and 56 years in Wisconsin. Pierce said reaching young, urban and diverse populations is essential to sustaining our local food systems.
“If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, get to the puppies, baby,” Pierce said.
Sowing the seeds
Watching youth learn how to grow crops first got Hollomon interested in foodways, or food systems, she said. In the early 2000s, while organizing around housing justice in Buffalo, New York, Hollomon started volunteering with an organization that teaches young people how to farm.
“It changed me, it changed my perspective, that food — which is this incredibly powerful, sacred, central critical thing for all of us — has been taken away from us and specifically from communities of color,” Hollomon said. “These young people who are just managing and dealing with all these other forms of oppression in their lives are super resilient, kind of like some plants.”
Hollomon said the farm empowered and engaged the youth on multiple levels. Between tending to the 35,000 tilapia and koi fish they had in their aquaponics system and maintaining the 70-foot hoop house, the young farmers would discuss food policy and business plans. By selling what they grew, they learned how to attract customers.
Browne said this kind of hands-on engagement is part of how CALS works to engage a more diverse array of students. He said students of color often don’t start out in CALS, but navigate there after trying out different majors.
Many students just don’t know what CALS has to offer, Browne said. To address this, CALS has been working with local high schools that already have food system curriculums in place to recruit undergraduates. This gradual navigation was the case for Donale Richards, a CALS alum who is now the associate policy director for the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute.
Richards said he entered UW with the dream of becoming an engineer, and he chose biological systems engineering, which is housed within CALS. Being involved in CALS, Richards said, got him connected with other people doing food system work.
Through doing this food system work, Richards learned about Pierce. Richards said discovering other Black farmers was eye-opening. Passing on this knowledge to young people who may not have access to it is central to both the work he does with Michael Fields and his previous role as a manager of Off the Block, a program that teaches youth how to produce and market their own food products.
“Thinking about kids who are from the city, like myself, how do they have access to these types of educational opportunities?” Richards said. “The way that you teach people about agriculture is they gotta see it.”
Pierce said he sees the influence this education can have through his PEAT program. PEAT, in its 15th year, teaches young people how to grow food and sell it at the South Madison Farmers Market.
Pierce recalled one participant who, at the beginning of the program, wouldn’t even eat the tomatoes she was growing because they did not come from the store. By the end of the program, the girl’s mother told Pierce she had to stop taking her daughter grocery shopping because she wouldn’t let her mom buy anything if she didn’t know what all of the ingredients were.
“It’s great to see these kids working and changing their minds, one tomato at a time,” Pierce said.
Working with the land doesn’t just change how communities view food, Pierce said. It also changes how you view yourself.
Feeding the soil, feeding the soul
Pierce has been making his own soil for years now. He crafts a careful mix of nitrogen and carbon by adding dead leaves and food scraps to ensure it is as nutritious as possible.
Caring for the land in this mindful way is good for both the soil and soul, Pierce said. This is why Pierce started the FAIR program, to give the formerly incarcerated an avenue to connect with the land while learning a skill that can sustain them.
FAIR, in its fifth year, hires about four people each summer. These participants earn an hourly wage as they learn to grow crops on 37 acres of land outside Fitchburg. This produce is then sold through the South Madison Farmers Market. For those interested in continuing to grow beyond the program, Pierce can provide them a half acre or so of their own land.
Pierce said learning to grow food is especially important for the formerly incarcerated, as it gives them a way to become self-sufficient. He said being shifted in and out of prisons has become a business, that there is no longer a space for rehabilitation or forgiveness. The FAIR program is working to provide this space.
“People are gonna survive one way or another,” Pierce said. “My way of helping them out is giving them a way to grow food and then you can bring yourself out of desperation — if you can feed yourself or turn around and pay yourself by growing your own food and selling it, well then there’s a way out.”
This ability to sustain yourself, specifically with food that is culturally-relevant, is central to everyone’s liberation process, Richards said, as food replenishes you both nutritiously and socially by bringing people together.
Richards is working to strengthen these culturally-relevant foodways with the recent creation of Madtown Food Services, a delivery food service serving health-conscious Jamaican, American and Gambian food. Currently, Richards and his small staff cook out of a shared commercial kitchen space that they rent, but one day he hopes they will have their own sit-down restaurant.
Madtown has been participating in the Cook it Forward program, a collaboration between local restaurants and community-based organizations working to address food insecurity in the area.
So far, Madtown has provided over 700 meals to various local groups. Richards said bringing people together around food and being able to feed the community in this way was especially important this summer.
Richards said an essential aspect of their movement has been feeding and sustaining community-based groups such as Urban Triage and Freedom Inc. as they lead the efforts for Black liberation on the ground.
“We keep fighting the fight [and] make sure you get a good helping of food,” Richards said. “Seeing how people are starting to come together, throwing food into it is just natural.”
For Hollomon, part of this liberation is about providing a space where Black people can be curious and free. Because these communities have been forced to work on the land in the past, finding a way to work with it in a peaceful way is valuable.
This is why Hollomon is currently acquiring 36 acres in Annandale, Minnesota. The space, Root Springs, would allow people of color to connect with nature through activism, art and farming. The land, complete with a spring-fed lake, sweat lodge, orchard and wellness center, has operated as a retreat — but primarily only for white people who can afford it, Hollomon said.
As projects like Root Springs and other Black land efforts gain traction, farmers have started to partner with one another. Hollomon said this can look like fundraising together, sharing research or even just having open dialogues with people working toward similar goals.
This partnership is often necessary as farmers of color face countless barriers when trying to obtain land, Hollomon said.
Growing the next generation
Today, white farmers own 98% of all rural land. Conversely, Black farmers own less than 1%, according to the USDA.
A report from the USDA analyzing land tenure and past land sales predicted 10% of all rural land would change hands between 2015 and 2019. While a follow-up report has yet to confirm this estimate, this same study predicted that three-fourths of that land would be sold to a relative. This inheritance of land ensures farming remains overwhelmingly white.
But as older white farmers begin to retire, Hollomon said not all of their children are interested in inheriting the family farm. She said this land must be left to farmers of color, both to address past land theft through reparations and to protect local foodways.
“There’s this increasing gap in our regional food system and it’s like, who is gonna grow our food?” Hollomon said. “Meanwhile these farmers of color have been fighting to try and fill those roles for decades.”
Pierce said the USDA’s long history of excluding Black farmers continues to be damaging as older farmers pass on their land. He said Black farmers are often forgotten when discussing giving land to new farmers because they aren’t thought of as “new.”
Pierce said while the Black community has been working with the land for a long time, that work has largely been an uphill battle.
To fill these vacant farming positions, we must make growing more accessible to young folks living in urban areas and communities of color, Browne said.
One way UW is working to do that is by expanding their view of agriculture, Browne said. For example, CALS changed the name of their rural sociology major to community and environmental sociology, a shift which Browne said better reflected the major and made it more accessible to those interested in working in cities.
Though it is currently gaining traction, this shift to practicing agriculture in urban areas is nothing new, Pierce said. He and Will Allen first started this work through Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that shows city dwellers how to grow food in small spaces.
Now, community gardens and urban farms are popping up everywhere. In Madison, the Gardens Network is an organization that helps people start community gardens and then tracks them. According to the network, over 30 community gardens reside in the Madison area.
Pierce said urban agriculture is key to diversifying food systems. He said he believes urban agriculture is “designed” for people of color as it expands access to land in previously unavailable ways.
Richards said urban agriculture both requires less land and less experience to work, making it more accessible.
“That’s a skill that we’ve had for a very long time as humans,” Richards said. “In a lot of ways, we’ve kind of forgotten that knowledge and feel as though we don’t have the skill sets to be able to grow our own food, but take it one day at a time, you’ll learn how to grow a plant.”
For Hollomon, this work of restoring foodways and empowering communities of color is intersectional. She said the MFCC does this by addressing the five areas key to self-sufficiency that have been intentionally severed through generations of violent colonialism. These areas include land access, traditional foods, culture, political power and economic autonomy.
Hollomon said restoring these five areas through growing must be a part of future liberation efforts, for the good of our community, our foodways and our land.
“What racial equity means in the future of our food system, to us it really means addressing those five things that have been severed and restoring them with communities of color so that they can be free,” Hollomon said.