This is an interview with Natasha Bowens, known on her blog and in the media as Brown.Girl.Farming. In the summer of 2010, she left her job as a political advocate in D.C. to dig her hands in the soil and learn all she could about sustainable farming.
She locates her passion for food justice at the intersection of environmental activism, healthcare, and social justice; a blend of interests that led her search for minority-run farms and agricultural organizations across the country. She visited as many farms as possible, volunteering as a farmer, gathering stories along the way, and documenting her journey in a series blog-style posts at Grist.
Using google maps, she started an online directory of farmers of color in 2010, and took the ongoing project a step further with in-depth interviews with the farmers themselves.
Her media-work, featuring photography and her interactive map, is called “The Color of Food,” a portion of which can be found on Food Politic’s multimedia page. Her photos and interviews will be published in her upcoming book,”The Color of Food.” This interview took place on 4/15/13.
You take a multimedia approach of photo documentaries, interiviews, and mapping to produce The Color of Food. What are the pros working through multi-media to make change in the food movement? What is the role of media in social justice movements?
Media’s role in the social justice movements, like the food movement, is vital. It allows us to reach people from many perspectives, it facilitates making the issues personal and resonating with communities right in their homes, it also provides a great way to share the info easily and preserve the stories through different formats. Media is powerful. Pictures say a million words. Seeing is believing. All of this helps us move past the conversations, reports, and articles over-saturating the movement.
On your site, you mention that the communities of farmers of color are “on the brink of extinction.” How did this happen, and what does it mean for the future of the food system?
To answer the question of how this happened to farmers of color, you have to travel all the way back through time, to the beginnings of our agricultural industry. Injustice, oppression and discrimination are woven deep into agriculture for communities of color. Starting from land grabbing from the Indigenous, to slave labor forming the backbone of ag’s success—not forgetting today’s modern form of slave labor with immigrant farmworkers—to discrimination from the USDA, to land loss…the list goes on.
The overarching theme is structural racism that has played out in all areas of our food and agricultural system and left farmers of color struggling twice as hard to keep their land, keep their farms and compete in a dominated industry.
In my opinion, this means a continuation of what we are seeing now: a food system run by a very tiny percent of the country, with no diversity in representation and therefore no understanding of what we all need and want. A food system dominated by agribusiness instead of farmers and consumers. A food system where we don’t own our seeds, we don’t own our land and we don’t know what’s in our food. A food system devoid of our cultural traditions.
Why are there so few farmers of color in the US?
This answer is the same as above. When land, rights, fair and equal opportunity have been taken from people throughout history, we can’t be surprised when we see less of them.
Based on your farm tours and interviews, what are some obstacles that farmers of color face in the US? In the world?
The farmers I interviewed share a lot of obstacles all small farmers face today like climate change, competition with agribusiness, higher costs, etc. But farmers of color have also been dealing with discrimination on top of all those issues. When looking for support from the USDA, farm credit agents, banks for farm loans, and other entities that most farmers depend on for support and success, farmers of color have been turned on solely based on discrimination. This discrimination seeps past support and is found in issues surrounding land allocation ( for natives, black sharecroppers, etc in history when they were given land on flood banks or in dry, hot conditions harder to grow in. Many of these communities are still in these areas as land has passed down) and land loss (today many farmers are having their land taken and sold from under them due to tax loopholes created by people in power, this is happening worldwide with land grabbing).
Farmers of color can also have a harder time finding labor, for example the popular WWOOF network of farm volunteers is working well for many white farmers but does not list many farmers of color. They can also deal with more discrimination getting into farmers’ markets and gaining consumer trust. Worldwide farmers of color are being targeted for experimental solutions such as the “Green Movements” of India and Africa and GMO seed programs from which we don’t yet know the dangerous affects.
How are farmers of color affected by your projects?
My projects amplify the voices of farmers of color, facilitate the telling of their stories, allow them to preserve their history, celebrate their resilience and make an effort to educate the broader public on these issues. My hope is to remind us all that our communities have been farming forever and we deserve to be seen too – we need to change the face of agriculture. I also hope to inspire young farmers of color and spur action for food sovereignty in our communities.
How is The Color of Food affecting the food movement right now?
Right now the project has sparked a lot of conversation on racism in the food system, joined many other groups doing the same to create solidarity, and has made many farmers feel like they are not alone—it has connected many farmers with each other and new, young farmers to mentors.
If you were President of the United States, what three changes would you make to our food system?
Ha. Just 3?? I would (1) shut down Monsanto and ban GMO. I would (2) get rid of subsidies to big ag and direct them to small farmers growing vegetables, meat, etc. I would (3) funnel more money to support regional food systems solutions happening in so many communities of color instead of keeping them dependent on programs like SNAP/EBT, like mobile markets, community CoOps, urban farming, renewable energy farms, etc.
-Aly Miller and Natasha Bowens