In a prior post we talked about Local being the province of the poor…in the past. Now, we’d like to elaborate a little on one aspect of that “past.” When clients are asked about growing their own food, the reaction is sometimes one of surprise and incredulity. Sometimes there’s even a question: You mean like sharecropping?
Since the mid 20th century, people of color (primarily blacks) moved away from the system of farming called sharecropping. In theory, sharecropping was supposed to benefit both the landowner and the worker. The landowner reaped the benefits of the crop while the worker got paid for a share of the crops. Of course, historically – from Reconstruction to the mid-20th century that is – sharecropping was a system that took advantage of black farmers and often found them abused and hugely indebted to landowners. So, it’s less than amusing to most clients to hear people calling the current local food movement “urban sharecropping” or referring to their backyards as plantations.
But, urban farming is a necessary component of a sustainable community – one that has its own food resources and food security. Unfortunately, that message is getting lost in a loaded word.
The problems of obesity and food insecurity are primarily in low-income communities, especially those of color. So the solutions need to be there, too. The first step is getting people that look like those in the community to bring the message of urban agriculture there. Thankfully, there are more than a few options.
Will Allen is most known among these “options.” The child of sharecroppers and a MacArthur Fellow, he is working to reduce the stigma farming carries in these communities. He says that it’s “crucial they see faces that look like their own,” and that it’s essential the urban agriculture movement be “truly multi cultural.”
As a Minnesota Department of Agriculture consultant, Collie Graddick is advocating for urban farms, urban gardening and urban food systems as a way to bring economic improvement to low-income communities of color. As he puts it, getting a food system in place isn’t a chancy proposition. It’s a proven one. People “already know that is works, because we sit at the table and eat everyday.”
Then there’s Reginald Fagan who I met at the Urban Agriculture symposium in Los Angeles last Thursday. He’s setting up the Timbuktu Resource Center and Learning Academy, to involve youth in sustainable agriculture in Compton, California. During the Q&A session, he frankly observed the handful of black faces in the audience to prove that there really is a trend that needs reversing. Time ran short, but I heard people commenting on the way out that they wished he’d been given more time to speak. So, it’s clear that people of all backgrounds are ready to hear about and help grow a diverse urban agriculture movement. But where to start on solutions?
Can the word be re-appropriated?
One of the first tasks is to dispel myths in the community about farming the land. Most people on the frontline of this part of the movement say it starts with the kids – a generation that doesn’t necessarily attach the same stigma to farming. Indeed, each man mentioned above has taken a similar approach in their respective organizations. Another large organization taking on this task is The Food Project in Massachusetts. It engages “young people in personal and social change through sustainable agriculture” and gives them a “personal connection to our food system and issues of food justice.”
For older folks, we need to talk about this “new sharecropping” as something they have control over. It’s not a job they have to do, but one they should. One where they can name the terms and re-appropriate the word to bring economic growth. On top of that, there has to be an educational component that lets everyone know if they don’t do it, someone else will come in to the neighborhood and do it instead. (And…they’ll charge you for something you could be making money from!) Finally, community-level, real solutions have to be put in place.
One community level solution is an urban farming co-op where members share the labor and profits of a harvest from either one parcel of land or many. People can also create or participate in Community Supported Agriculture by buying a share of crops from a farm. (We believe more of these CSAs will have to be subsidized or willing to take SNAP, WIC and other benefits to be a fully viable option for low-income people.) An increase in community gardens can be an initial small-scale approach that reduces the “farming the land” stigma, while bringing the community together. Perhaps nearest to the original definition of sharecropping, residents can also take part in a yardshare where landowners provide space for others to come and garden, with both parties benefiting financially.
In these ways, the “new sharecropping” can be a reinterpretation of the word meaning true sharing in low-income communities of color.