Down on the Farm

My earliest memories of the outdoors? Being at grandma and grandaddy’s house: picking up pecans with my cousins from under the pecan tree, eating ripe watermelon on the picnic benches, learning to drive the tractor and slop the hogs.

My family owns a 125 acre farm — now a non-producing farm, but it’s still statistically one of the few remaining Black-owned farms. So, when Fire Flour Fork decided to shine the spotlight on the plight of Black farmers with a culinary adventure titled ‘Down on the Farm’, I simply couldn’t resist.

To contextualize farming as a whole, we first visited Randolph Farm, a 416 acre working farm dedicated to research. The farm is owned by Virginia State University, a land grant institution and historically black college, that is known for its agriculture program, in Petersburg, Virginia.

The farm raises goats, sheep and chickens. Has 57 fish ponds, raising farm-grown catfish, tilapia, and shrimp. There’s research taking place on how to cultivate indigenous African crops — like African potatoes and tomatoes — and have them thrive in America. They are researching aquaponic and hydroponic growing methods. Hops and hemp are a focus for the future. Many of the traditional staples are here too, including, soybeans, tomatoes, lettuce, ginger, cilantro, basil — and, thanks to greenhouses and high tunneling, delicacies like papaya are grown.

Want to become an urban agriculturist? Need
to increase your farm revenue? Regardless of your need, there are dozens of classes and endless resources for you at VSU.

It’s important to note, VSU is focused on supporting Virginia’s small farmers — and, while there’s no one definition of small, the average farm in America is about 400 acres in size.

As a means of highlighting the successes and challenges of Black farmers, the next stop was Browntown Farm, in Brunswick County, about 30 minutes south of Petersburg. This farm has been in the Brown family since 1908 and was originally a tobacco farm. Today, strawberries are their specialty but they also grow a variety of other fruits and vegetables, raise chickens, and are even dipping their toes in agri-tourism.

Herbert Brown Jr. and his father work the land from 7am till sundown each day. Herbert Jr. never envisioned himself as a farmer, he thought he’d ‘go off to the city and become a graphic designer’ one day. But, luckily he began to see his father’s vision for the farm and now can’t imagine being anywhere else – at age 30, he his very much the future of Black farming.

Their farm has become both a place to celebrate with family and entertain tour groups. A baseball field, farm-style basketball court, and pond dot the landscape. For us, picnic tables lined underneath the colorful leaves of fall, set to enjoy a family style meal cooked by Chef Tye Hall and her husband, who run their own (Black-owned) catering company. Using ingredients from the Brown family farm, they cooked up fried green tomatoes, sweet potato soup, chicken and pork loin, mixed greens, brussel sprouts, and pumpkin bread. The secret to their brussel sprouts? Brown butter and ‘dirt’, a homemade mix of spices that looks affectionately looks a lot like dirt.

Along the way we were blessed to spend time with and learn from numerous African-American change-makers across the culinary, farming, and food realms. Duran Chavis, an urban farmer and community engagement coordinator for Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens; Therese Nelson, founder of Black Culinary History and rising NY chef; Dr. Leni Sorensen, culinary historian; and, Devita Davison, executive director for Food Lab Detroit. While their perspectives varied across issues like food justice and the use of GMO’s, their mission was the same, to improve the lives of their communities using their love of food as a platform.

The most important thing I took away from quite literally being Down on the Farm? To know your farmer is to know your food. While maybe a little more inconvenient, while maybe a little pricier; by simply going the extra mile to support Black farmers, I, myself, can ensure their survival.