Farming While Black Book Report by Nick Speed

Nick Speed, Gateway Greening Educator

I recently read Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been combing through the book and blown away at all of the topics included. Each topic is centered around people of color, their contributions to agriculture, and the history of systemic discrimination in American agriculture.

The author, Leah Penniman, is the founder of Soul Fire Farm in New York. Her goal for the book was to create a manual “for African-heritage people ready to ready reclaim our rightful place of dignified agency in the food system”. Farming While Black also details her experiences as a farmer/activist, and how people with zero experience in gardening and farming can find real power and dignity through food. This comprehensive piece highlights topics including finding land and resources, restoring degraded land, healing from historical trauma, youth programming practices, and tangible ways for white people to build equitable authentic relationships with people of color and institutions/organizations led by people of color.

One of my favorite quotes can be found in the introduction and sets the tone for the book. “To farm while Black is an act of defiance against white supremacy and a means to honor the agricultural ingenuity of our ancestors.” To me, this quote highlights the importance of acknowledging not just the legacy of slavery and plunder of black and brown people in America, but the innovation, perseverance, contributions by people of color that helped advance American agriculture and our food systems.  

Pattonville School District Garden

Simon Amies, Pattonville School District Webmaster and leads the youth garden at the Pattonville School District’s Learning Center. 

After joining the Pattonville School District team, Simon Amies, an avid gardener with vegetable, berry, and herb gardens at home, noticed the absence of community and school gardens in the northwest area of Saint Louis County.  He approached the district with the idea of putting in a youth garden at the district Learning Center.  They not only approved the project, the district supported it with the installation of a sturdy perimeter fence, irrigation infrastructure, and a tiller that the district owned but had been gathering dust in a garage. Gateway Greening donated compost and trellises, and Simon’s Pattonville co-workers helped till the garden its first year.

The Pattonville District Garden is a great example of community members coming together for a common goal.  Since its creation, the garden has developed strategies for engaging people throughout the Pattonville community. The district, community, Chartwell’s food services, and Gateway Greening continue to play a large role in the success of the garden. In previous years, the garden has hosted annual seed swaps, seedling sales, gardening classes for community members, and community garden tours. The produce from the garden is used in school lunches, and Chartwell’s has conducted a series of veggie tastings with the students.  Kohlrabi went from being an unheard of vegetable to one of the kids’ favorites – especially if it’s dipped in ranch dressing! Even the local Starbucks donates coffee grounds each day.

In the district, Simon’s main “thing” is technology, and he enjoys teaching the connection between science, technology, and gardening.  He uses problem-based learning to provide students opportunities to use science to tackle an obstacle in the garden.  For example, one class used a raspberry pi computer to create a web-based sprinkler application for the garden that uses weather forecasts and past rainfall data to adjust watering schedules.  The application also allows the garden to be watered from any location. Pretty cool!  Having tangible results, like seeing the garden being watered by a system they created, inspired students.

Simon thinks of his role as being the “seasonal clock” for the gardens, facilitating the correct timing for various garden tasks, and empowering the faculty and students to get involved.   Teaching the kids that putting in a little bit of work in the garden early in the year can lead to big rewards come harvest time. When asked what his secret to success was, Simon replied that “There are fun things to do in the garden, but there are also not-so-fun things to do. By creating automated systems (like the sprinkler app) for those not-so-fun things, more time can be spend doing the ‘fun stuff’.”  

Simon wants to increase gardening across the district and make it easier for other teachers to incorporate the garden into their classroom. 

A new, exciting project at the Pattonville Learning Center is the installation of a large, glass-fronted refrigerator near the front desk.  During the growing season it will be stocked with excess garden produce to distribution to school families in need and to encourage healthy eating in the district.

Simon’s advice to other school gardeners: You need support! Ideally on an institutional level, but support from anywhere you can find it is extremely beneficial. Build relationships with people and find ways to work with people on their level.

Simon will be sharing his wisdom and strategies he’s used at the Pattonville Youth Garden at our Community Agriculture Conference in his session called “Youth Garden School Integration & Maintenance Strategies.”