Meet the young Black farmers fighting environmental food injustice: 'Sustainability is about longevity'

·7 min read
"People think that justice has to be super radical," says Ivy Walls, founder of Ivy Leaf Farms. "But it can be as simple as supporting the farmer who is growing food in your community."
"People think that justice has to be super radical," says Ivy Walls, founder of Ivy Leaf Farms. "But it can be as simple as supporting the farmer who is growing food in your community."

In Unearthed, Gen Z climate-change activists discuss some of the most pressing issues facing our planet — and reveal what you can do to help make a real difference.

Extreme heat, droughts and severe downpours fueled by the climate crisis are affecting crops around the world. And farmers, perhaps more than anyone, understand that climate change, with its decreasing crop yields, require action before it is too late — and that includes funding to enable farmers "to truly revolutionize current ways of farming globally," implored researchers in the journal Nature Food recently.

In the United States, Black farmers point out how communities of color — often located in urban "food deserts," with little access to fresh fruits and vegetables, thus increasing the reliance on unsustainable practices such as eating at fast-food chains and having to drive long distances to well-stocked stores — are most vulnerable to the climate crisis.

"If we are to create a society that values Black life, we cannot ignore the role of food and land," wrote Leah Penniman, co-director of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York, of the 80-acre farm, which, like many other small Black farms across the country, is bringing "diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills on sustainable agriculture, natural building, spiritual activism, health, and environmental justice," notes its website.

"People think that justice has to be super radical," says Ivy Walls, founder of Ivy Leaf Farms in South Houston, Tex. "But it can be as simple as supporting the farmer who is growing food in your community. When you do that, you're supporting so many other people. Because farmers who are making money will produce more food, right?"

Food justice means providing healthy, nourishing, affordable food to people right where they live. It also means educating people to grow their own food, as well as creating a welcoming space where people can gather, work together and support each other.

That's the also the aim of Kamal Bell, founder of Sankofa Farms in North Carolina, on a mission to create a sustainable food source for families of color in rural and urban areas, and also provide new economic and educational opportunities.

Since 2016, Bell and his mostly Gen Z team — local youth between the ages of 11 and 17 — have worked year-round on this thriving 12-acre farm outside of Durham. (Sankofa is a West African term that signifies remembering your past as you move forward and progress in life.) They grow everything from lettuce and cucumbers to peppers and tomatoes. They also have prospering beehives and chickens.

Feeding local communities through farming

Walls, after graduating from Prairie View A&M University in 2016 — with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and minor in Chemistry — first got a job as an infection preventionist, which had her working closely with COVID-19 patients during the current pandemic. That's when she began making the connections between staying healthy and having access to fresh produce.

"They turned this community into a dump, with literally miles high worth of trash," says Walls about the history of her Sunnyside, which she describes as a "historically Black neighborhood," that eventually "kind of got forgotten," adding that the city dump there once housed a toxin-spewing incinerator.

In 1912, a white councilman had segregated, or annexed, Sunnyside, along with other neighborhoods in Texas, and by the 1960s, the community had so many Black-owned businesses that residents called a stretch of Cullen Boulevard “Black Wall Street.” But in the 1980s, the oil bust shuttered many doors, leaving the neighborhood to become a desert economically.

Sunnyside also became a food desert, Walls says. Because while the incinerator in Sunnyside has since closed, today the community of roughly 20,000 people has yet another health-risking problem: only one grocery store — Fiesta Mart — which is reviewed on Yelp with one-and-half stars, and described as "old" and "dusty."

It all compelled Walls to found Ivy Leaf Farms in 2020, when she was just 25, with an initial investment of $500. Today her dad, a computer engineer for NASA, is her lead farmhand.

Everything that Walls grows is free to her community; she even drops off produce free of charge to Sunnyside residents. "I raise money by selling seeds and merch," she says. While the land she farms was already owned by her family, she's also received grants aplenty — including from Kellogg's, the NAACP and even Beyonce.

Walls has also joined forces with Jeremy Peaches, a fellow Prairie View A&M University alumnus, to found Black Farmer Box — a farmer-owned, community-operated affordable food system to provide fresh food to food desert communities, supporting local Black farmers through the purchase of wholesale produce, and creating jobs and opportunities; they also have plans to open a new fresh food grocery store. Walls hopes her business can become a "blueprint" for the nation, and others have similar goals.

"A lot of our work right now is in advocating for Black farmers, and as well as fighting on the legal front to make sure that Black farmers receive some form of debt relief," says LeeAnn C. Morrissette, of the National Black Food & Justice Alliance, a member-based organization consisting of Black farmers and food justice organizations working towards Black food and land sovereignty.

The Justice for Black Farmers Act — landmark legislation aimed at addressing and correcting historic discrimination within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in federal farm assistance, introduced by Sen. Corey Booker — calls for "making up to 160 acres of land available to any Black person committed to stewarding land," as well as providing resources, funds and legal support to Black-led organizations, training programs and more.

Morrissette explains, for example, that debt relief in the United States would help small and medium farmers stay in business, keep their land and continue to feed communities across the country as we recover from the pandemic.

"It's important for people to educate themselves about what it takes to grow food," says Yemi Amu, who founded Oko Farms in New York City in 2013. Most people don't know where their food comes from, she says, or how farmers, many of whom are immigrants, make a living. "Folks need to expand their awareness to include rights for farmers."

"We often don't talk about how farmers in the United States are dealing with drought because of climate change," adds Amu, who runs two urban farms in Brooklyn. Through the farms she cultivates a variety of freshwater fish and plants using a recirculating closed loop system known as "aquaponics," which allows farmers to cultivate both freshwater fish and vegetables while saving water — not to mention that the waste from fish such as koi and goldfish acts to fertilize the plants. Like Sankofa and Ivy Leaf Farms, Oko Farms provides fresh produce to the community, and also offers workshops to teach others how to create a soilless farm.

"We talk a lot about water and the role of water in agriculture to raise awareness about water use and water scarcity," says Amu about her workshops, which are open to kids, youth and adults.

Adds Bell, “Sustainability is about longevity. We should be able to pass our farms to the next generation."

It's why he and so many other farm owners are focused on youth. "Young people, for us, is how we address sustainability," says Bell. "It means having human interactions. It means ensuring that youth look at farming as a potential career."

How to be a part of the food-justice movement

"Get involved in your local food system," says Morrissette. "Find out who your local farmers are, and if you can, buy from BIPOC farmers."

Indexes of Black-owned farms can be found here and here. Shopping there will not only work toward turning food deserts around, but will cut down on food miles — the distance food travels to reach stores — and the related fossil-fuel emissions.

Bell from Sankofa Farms agrees that supporting farmers who are doing the work is crucial. He encourages businesses to collaborate with farmers in creative ways, like compensating them to hold workshops or team building events on a local farm.

"Farms could always use some extra help!" Bell says. "Farming is labor intensive and if you have some free time and are willing to learn, then offering your time can be helpful. Farming is also susceptible to Mother Nature… So if you have a giving heart, it's not a bad idea to send your favorite farmer a contribution every now or then."

Walls also encourages people to "try to grow something."

"Don't be scared to grow something in your own backyard, on your balcony, on your windowsill," she says. "I would love to challenge everyone to grow one meal that comes from your backyard."