Justice for Black Farmers

Updated: Mar 6



Farmer and beekeeper Kamal Bell owns 12-acre Sankofa Farms in Efland, NC. There he is paving a way for a new generation of young Black farmers, growing culturally connected food, focusing on strategic distribution of that food to address an expanded definition of food deserts and redefining sustainability.


In this Straight Talk episode -- the second in the series -- Kamal dances around the issues a little bit before he settles in and tells me everything: his family heritage, his reasons for becoming a farmer, how he recognizes eating healthy is tough for the African American community when the food is not relevant or culturally connected. Kamal is working to change all of this with thoughtful planning, Black farmer mentors, engaging young people in 21st Century farming practices, and pushing back on what YOU see when someone says the word "farmer."


Kamal is an important person to know and his farm, Sankofa Farms, is a good one to keep an eye on. It's a farm to be sure, but it's more than that too. It's a model for what a farming can be. Kamal promises to come back and fill us in on his progress next year and we are going to take him up on it.


In this episode, find out more about Sankofa Farms, the history of discrimination at the US Department of Agriculture and how a victorious lawsuit doesn't exactly change things overnight and what motivates Kamal to chart a new path.


I wanted to share a few relevant resources, as promised. Perhaps after listening you are going to want to know more. Links to each provided.


Three books:

Dispossession by Pete Daniel

Farming While Black by Leah Penniman (She was interviewed for Season 2, Episode 1)

Black Farming in America photographs by John Francis Ficara


Two podcast episodes from the New York Times about the Provosts, sugar cane farmers in Louisiana and the USDA:

The Land of Our Fathers, Part 1

The Land of Our Fathers, Part 2


GUESTS

Farmer and beekeeper Kamal Bell of Sankofa Farms in Efland, NC.

Find him on Instagram @sankofafarms

BTW you can find Talk Farm to Me and Farm Girl there too: @talkfarmtome and @xoxofarmgirl


PHOTOS

The photos here were used with permission by the farmer. Thank you, Kamal.


MUSIC

The music in this episode was created specifically for Talk Farm to Me by professional musician and songwriter Douglas Haines via Fiverr.

SPECIAL THANKS

Always thank you to the amazing farmers who have been on any episode of Talk Farm to Me. Thank you Kamal for joining me for some Straight Talk! Looking forward to continuing the conversation!

TRANSCRIPT

As always, a transcript of the episode follows. Please forgive any typos.

Straight Talk with Farmer and Beekeeper Kamal Bell of Sankofa Farms

Season 4, Episode 2


Farm Girl:

Hey, it's your host Farm Girl here. Welcome to the second episode of Talk Farm to Me's Straight Talk series. Straight Talk features a first take, one cut recording of a conversation with one farmer and we get into it. Today we get the chance to hang out with Kamal Bell of Sankofa farms in Efland, North Carolina. He's farming vegetables and keeping bees. I caught up with Kamala while he was on the farm and we talked quite literally from his tractor. There's a lot more going on with his farm than just veggies and bees. Let's start the conversation and you'll see what I mean.


Farm Girl:

First off, I would like to really understand your personal history as a farmer. How you got started and if you have family history in farming and just the why.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

I'm from Durham, North Carolina. My parents, on my mom's side, her dad had a farm where they were growing up. And there's also like the other side of history of like us in farming too. That I won't go in depth with, but farming is in my family like inadvertently or indirectly. And with my grandfather I think I picked up his skillset for farming. He started a grocery store in his community to help people have access to food. I didn't put it together until I was talking to somebody one time and they mentioned it and I was telling him my story and his. I think that's been ingrained in me in really indirect, I didn't realize that I had picked that up as well.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

I actually had the chance to go to public and private school. And this is where my perspective started to develop on how resources were allocated. So when I got the chance to go to a college, I wanted to go to a historically Black college because most of my peers from all of high school to middle school had been white primarily. And once I got the chance to go to a HBCU...


Farm Girl:

Just so you know HBCU is historically black colleges and universities.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

... That's when I really start to come in to this idea of becoming a farmer, because I wanted to be able to provide a product and resources to my community. And once I established that, I learned about food deserts and once I learnt about food deserts that put me into overdrive to really say like, "I want to purchase this farm and I want to be able to produce products that go to people who are affected by food deserts." So that was ultimately the thing that pushed me overboard. And also at the time me and my girlfriend at the time, who's now my wife, we found out we were having a son. So I always wanted to make sure additionally that I could provide and ideally like put food on the table. So, those are my two reasons. The fact that I wanted to be able to support my family and the other side that I wanted to be able to help people in food deserts.


Farm Girl:

So what are you talking about with this indirect connection to farming?


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So what the indirect connection to farming is is the history of slavery. And we've actually looked back in records and my family were farmers. The furthest we got back would have been like right outside of slavery and sharecropping. Those two systems, they actually go hand in hand and we saw that some of my ancestors were actually farmers.


Farm Girl:

Let's put a timeframe on slavery and sharecropping as a reference point. Following the ratification of the 13th amendment to the constitution abolishing slavery in 1865, former slaves celebrated their long awaited freedom and then faced immediate hardship. Many ended up farming their former slave owners land in sharecropping arrangements where rent was paid with a share in the expected crop yield. Many of these arrangements were harsh with contracts that favored the landowners and landed Black farmers in debt with no opportunity to own land.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

And actually my great grandmother, she had a farm, she tended to chickens, and I think he got that bug too. We have a indirect relationship with farming and it's really affected our perspective in the African-American community of farming.

Farm Girl:

When Kamal's great grandparents were farmers it was pretty common. Today, barely 1% of farmers in the United States are African-American.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So we have individuals who might be interested, but the majority of us, you don't see us on TV being farmers, that's not being fed to us. We'll pick another route because the media ultimately controls a lot of how we perceive careers. So I think that it's just been interesting to see people warm up to the fact that I'm a beekeeper, that I grow vegetable crops, I work with youth at the farm. It's kind of challenging all of our ideals we developed about the farm.


Farm Girl:

I'm glad that you shared that with me. Can we talk for just a little bit, before we get into these issues, can we talk about your farm? Particularly what you're growing, where you're selling it, how you're doing that. Can you talk to me about that?


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So right now the farm is 12 acres, but we're only working on three right now. And we have some pretty cool plans that I don't want to spoil, but we have some pretty cool themes coming up with the farm this spring. Right now we have four tunnels, our caterpillar tunnels, they're greenhouses to anyone who's new who doesn't know what caterpillar tunnels are, and what we're able to do with them is grow all year round. So the type of things that we grow here are kale, lettuce, mustard greens, and collard greens right now. We're going to be doing some more chard later in the year for the spring, the early part of the spring. We're going to be doing tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, and squash as well as okra. So those are some of the things that we grow.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

And right now we're working with distribution and services that may have a mission to getting food to people in food deserts, or they may have a mission to get people who have been recommended by the physician to eat healthy. And then we actually just started a partnership with -- called Life Around the Table -- with the United Methodist Church. So those are the primary three organizations that purchase food from Sankofa right now and that's also going to grow as we ramp up production here at the farm.


Farm Girl:

Now, you just mentioned the name of your farm: Sankofa. And I did a little research that it is part of the Akon language from Ghana. And literally it translates to, "It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot," or more loosely, "Go back and get it." Now, why is that the name of your farm? Tell me about that.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

Well, Sankofa, we understand it in another way, it's the same premise, but we think about it as to remember our African ancestry as we move forward in life, so it's literally to go back and get it and don't forget what's been lost. So I chose the name Sankofa because I wanted to build an institution and a business that actually was centered around our culture and our value system and not build something that wasn't associated. No matter what I do or no matter what anybody who identifies as being a person of African descent, no matter what you do at any point, we are African people and we have to make sure that we embody our culture if we want to solve solutions.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

We can't use bits and pieces of other groups and then try to utilize them to fix our situation. I'm a firm believer that we need to be able to use our own history and our own legacy and our values to fix our present day problems. And in that we have to then learn about those, learn about our culture and learn about who we are as a people, and that gives us a better idea of how to move forward and to stay in it.


Farm Girl:

How did you come to get the land that you farm on and how did you get started?


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So, we actually purchased our farm through the Farm Service Agency. That's a long story. We faced racism with the USDA at the point in acquiring the farm, but I was really denied the farm because they said I didn't meet the experience qualification that they had, but I literally was running the business, an agricultural business, my undergraduate degree is in animal industry, my master's degree is agricultural education. And then I also had managerial experience at North Carolina ANC Farm. And they still try to deny me, so we had to [inaudible 00:08:34] farm. But part of their process was to have an offer of purchase for the farm and I luckily just literally Googled this place and found it. I don't have any connection to this area that I know of, but I literally Googled this place and this became my farm.


Farm Girl:

Racial discrimination is not new at the USDA. In April of 1999, the Pigford vs Glickman class action lawsuit was decided in favor of 400 Southern Black farmers. Timothy Pigford who filed the lawsuit was a corn and soybean tenant farmer in North Carolina. The victory underscored racial discrimination by the USDA with regard to farm loans and assistance to Black farmers. Over 13,000 farmers received settlements totalling nearly $1 billion in the largest civil rights settlement to date.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So I can see how we get this big gap in land ownership if these guys are staying in these positions and they're bringing people up like them, they're making sure... Literally what this guy did, as I started reading more and more Black farmer stories, it was the same exact thing. Wouldn't pick up the phone, he tried to get me to bundle my house in with the land because they know if one fails, like you can't pay one and take the other. It's little tricks like that that they use on people. And literally when I read other stories, I'm like, "Dang, this is exactly what they were trying to do to me."


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So it's just a cycle of values that they make sure that they instill. But I do think things may change with them in the coming years, but it's going to take a lot of work. Or maybe it needs to be another organization separately that's supported by farmers. Maybe we should start thinking about that. Instead of depending on that system, maybe we create another system that specifically supports Black farmers. So we don't have to even worry about this happening again.


Farm Girl:

So let's talk a little bit more deeply about food deserts and food insecurity as it has to do with your local community there in North Carolina, but also more in general.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

I'm not a real big person on using a specific definition. I kind of take it as my own. So I define a food desert as a place where people don't have readily access. There's a radius that the USDA uses, but I generally don't use that radius because I think that there are a couple of different parameters that create a food desert.


Farm Girl:

The USDA defines a food desert as a low income census tract, where a substantial number or share of the residents has low access to a supermarket. That doesn't quite get at or even near the heart of the matter. What's more important to think about when you hear the label food desert is to think about the lack of investment over multiple decades in poor and often predominantly Black communities. Kamal is addressing the real definition of food desert in his North Carolina community in multiple ways. Listen closely, Kamal explains further.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So what I like to do is I like to do the education piece, like to have the food ready to incorporate youth, to challenge this idea of what healthy food is. Because the healthy food movement is not that African-Americans don't want to eat healthy food, it's just that culturally these items aren't relevant to us. These aren't things that we normally cook with. So when there's research being conducted that's saying people don't buy the healthy food, but it's more so in a sense of what you're accustomed to eating. So we've just been really trying to do our best at challenging the notion of what healthy food is per se. So a lot of the crops that we grow at the farm, we will try to make sure they have a connection to our culture and a connection to Africa.


Farm Girl:

Does your definition of food desert or food insecurity intersect in some ways with what's happening in terms of the USDA's definition?


Farmer Kamal Bell:

It does just based on the fact that we both, I guess, emphasize that people aren't having access to healthy food. So I believe in an urban area it's a mile radius, and I think in an urban area it's a 10 mile radius. I'm just real big on that's not all that dictated if a person gets healthy food. There's a transportation issue, there a economic issue, there's a cultural, all these different parameters that make up what we call a food desert, it's a zoning issue. All these different things make up what the food desert is, and that definition doesn't really incorporate that.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So it's just looking at a lot of issues in our community, there are often one sided and you don't see there's a larger system that influences and creates these issues. Thinking about the farming industry, across cultural barriers there are a whole lot of different parameters that create the issues and the challenges that we see in farming. It's a shared experience amongst farmers. So I like to look at things from that perspective so we're not cornered into a position of agreeing with our... Like, not being one way. There's different ways that you've got to address these issues.


Farm Girl:

Do you have a community of Black farmers there in North Carolina and peers and mentors that you work with?


Farmer Kamal Bell:

I do, I do. I actually just got off the phone with a farmer in Chapel Hill today. We're talking almost every week and there's another older gentleman in Durham who I talk to very regularly, and they serve as my mentors to help me with the idea of the farm and also is to give me good feedback on some of the things that we're working on out here. We just all share ideas, so if they have an idea they might run it by me, we talk about it [inaudible 00:14:29] idea. It's mostly me asking them questions than presenting ideas and they're very, very helpful with helping develop the direction and especially with the growing. The growing aspect, the vegetable crop operation. That's not my strong point. My strong point is the bees. So just being able to bounce ideas off of them really gives me a sense of direction throughout the farm.


Farm Girl:

I want to do a little bit of a history review here for a second because there are some really interesting numbers to talk about as we get into the next part of what I hope we can talk about. In the late 1860s, we had general William Sherman declaring 40 acres and a mule, that did not come to fruition. And when we look at some of the numbers, we had sort of a peak in the 1940s of African-American farmers. And from 1940 to 1974, that number, which was at about 700,000, felt 93% to 45,000. And now today in 2021, we have approximately 45,000 black farmers still and that is out of 3.4 million farmers. So only a very small percentage of our farming population is Black and 95% of rural land is owned by white farmers. That is a lot to get your head around.


Farm Girl:

And I wanted to talk to you about, in particular, the Justice for Black Farmers Act that Senator Cory Booker introduced in November of last year, in November of 2020. And I thought it was interesting. I actually printed the entire bill, it's Senate bill 4929. And it says as its headline that its purpose is to address the history of discrimination against Black farmers and ranchers to require reforms within the department of agriculture, which you mentioned, to prevent future discrimination and for other purposes, and at the center of it is a desire to distribute 160 acres of land to Black farmers. So I wanted to hear your thoughts on this and what you know about it.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

My perspective on this is if we can make sure that the younger generation is educated to be, and then there are programs that allow people who are already in farming to become 21st century farmers. I think the bill will be very effective and we're just talking about the land transition, that's kind of hard for me just because of all the different systems of farming now. And then the startup costs, and then just making sure people go find a market. It's a very ambitious goal. I think it can happen, but I think it really starts with supporting the farmers and supporting youth who may have an interest in farming because I taught at an urban school and the students love farming, but when they left my middle school they were districts of schools that didn't have agricultural programs. So there're barriers that I think that have to be addressed, but I think it's ambition and I think it would be very helpful if the youth and the education piece, that's just my opinion, the education piece has to be the focal point of a bill like that.


Farm Girl:

I want to get to that and your role in that in one second, but I just thought I would mention, I've been talking to farmers on farmers on farmers, in all different industries and especially small farmers, no matter what their race is, they are struggling. Like you said, they're struggling with startup costs. And when you're talking 21st century, they're struggling with tractor expenses and breaking equipment and getting to a market and autonomy and all of that. So I think that your suggestion, 160 acres is one thing, but as you know there's a lot more between getting the land and getting something out of it and making money, supporting your family, than just having the land itself.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

Those are all things I think the bill has to cover and I often see that part left out of agricultural initiatives just in general, is the education of the youth. And I haven't quite figured out why, but that just seems to be a trend in agriculture across the board. That the youth aren't being prepared to tackle these problems.


Farm Girl:

Well, it sounds like 160 acres per Black farmer is sort of a sexy headline, but saying, "Let's educate a bunch of kids on how to farm isn't as sexy a headline, but it's the headline you get. So let's talk about your agricultural academy and what you're doing with young people to fill this void.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So, what I decided to do when I started the farm, I was also teaching at the moment, and what ended up happening was I saw that the students were interested in the farm. And I was like, "Let me see if we can start a program at the school with these students who everybody say was at risk." And all this hoopla. Basically it's a narrative that's created so you don't pump resources to actually empowering the students. Like, "Oh, the school's on free and reduced lunch. They have bad things going on at home." It's a whole bunch of stuff to justify why they don't invest in the child as much as they should. So when I saw this, I was just like, "I see the students literally improve by being in my class."


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So the principal at the time, I took the idea of the farm to her and she ended up saying no, she didn't want to do it. So I ended up saying, I'm acquiring this farm at time, "Let me go ahead and just start the program with you." So I brought some of the students out here and they've been at the farm for five years, been learning how to build things, they've been learning how to help their community, they've been learning about what they're interested in, four out of the six students in the program are certified beekeepers. The students set up the irrigation lines that operate the equipment. They are in the YouTube content with us. They've grown from being at the farm and I just think about how important that is because sustainability isn't just from a practical aspect working with plants. For me, the sustainability comes in from working with people. That's how you ensure that the system is maintained is when you pass the ideals onto the younger generation. So we take a sustainability approach from a humanistic aspect and not from a farming per se aspect.


Farm Girl:

I like your philosophy. I don't think I've ever heard it put that way before where the sustainability and the regeneration that everyone is talking about, they're talking about soil and they're talking about carbon sequestration, but nobody's talking about raising the next generation of farmers in that way. And I think that's really interesting. I have loved talking with you. I'm wondering if there's something that you'd really like to talk about before we go.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

So we have plans to develop the additional nine acres once we get this whole space into production.


Farm Girl:

So they're secret plans?


Farmer Kamal Bell:

Yeah, there are a secret plans I don't want to give out yet. We have some really cool things that you'll see from the farm that I think people will really enjoy in the coming year, year or two. I just hope that people at Sankofa Grows sees that it's a model, it's much bigger than the space here and that it will grow and there'll be a lot of opportunity for people to support its growth. So I'm just excited that we're going to be able to build community with more people.


Farm Girl:

I'm excited to see that happen and to have you back when you're ready to talk about your new, big secret thing that you won't tell me about.


Farmer Kamal Bell:

I'll be back to talk about it.


Farm Girl:

Okay. I like that.


Farm Girl:

Farmer Kamal bell of Sankofa farms is farming three of his 12 acres, training young people to farm and to keep bees, distributing healthy food through churches and social service organizations to reach people in food deserts, and forging a career path for Black farmers. Kamal shared how legislators need to think more strategically about the bills they put forward, because the true definition of sustainable agriculture involves our young people being able to farm well in a 21st century world.


Farm Girl:

The Justice for Black Farmers Act died in committee last year. It was however resurrected by its original sponsor. Senator Cory Booker and joined by new Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock. Keep your eyes on this bill and senators Booker and Warnock, maybe you guys want to sit down for a chat with farmer Kamal bell of Sankofa Farms. There's still time to go back and get it.


Farm Girl:

Thank you for joining me for this episode of Talk Farm To Me's Straight Talk. You can find farmer Kamal bell on Instagram @sankofafarms, and you can find this podcast @talkfarmtome. I hope that you'll connect with me there to come and say hello @xoxofarmgirl. for more information and show notes for this episode, including some key books and podcast resources about the topics we've discussed, head over to talkfarmtome.com and stay tuned for a new episode coming soon.


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