“The chosen story for people of color in agriculture seems to play out on repeat, reducing our agrarian identity to slavery or farm labor and summing up our communities as deserts in need of water and food. But I know our story is so much richer than that.” – Natasha Bowens, The Color of Food
The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience, and Farming begins with lack—a lack of solidarity, of representation, and of a sense of rootedness in a common agrarian identity. After grappling with feelings of alienation as a woman of color farming in a movement that seemed to be represented exclusively by white male voices, Natasha Bowens, the creative force behind the Brown Girl Farming blog, decided to set off on a cross-country tour of the United States in search of other farmers of color and their stories. The Color of Food is the resulting story of her journey, collected into a series of portraits of the farmers and food workers that she met and interviewed along the way.
The book is broken into six parts, starting with the story of Natasha’s own introduction to farming and the experiences that led her to set out on the journey that she shares with us over the subsequent chapters. As Bowens notes in the introduction, the stories of modern farmers of color are rarely represented in the mainstream media. Even within the burgeoning food justice movement, the agrarian identity of people of color is so often associated with farm labor, oppressive work conditions, and underserved communities.
In response to this dearth of representation, Bowens states, “I felt the need to redefine our agrarian identity as people of color, in my own small way… I saw that raising awareness of all the issues and inequities that intersect with race and food was imperative. Storytelling from other farmers of color seemed like the perfect answer.”
As she meanders across the American landscape from North Carolina to Washington state, interviewing farmers of color all along the way, she delves into the issues of minority land rights and land loss, the role food plays in fostering community resilience and preserving culture, and the experiences of women and young people of color in the farming movement, with each section focusing in on one of these recurring themes.
In North Carolina we’re introduced to Daniel Whitaker, a 93-year-old retired hog farmer and a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, who learned the value of land ownership after watching his father, a sharecropper, toil away for years in a discriminatory system that seemed designed to keep him forever in debt. “Your parents would work all the year and the opposite people [Whitaker’s term for white people] would come up and tell ya you didn’t earn any money this year, Mr. Whitaker recalls. “We would make 10 cents a day or 25 cents a day… that’s the way it was.”
In Berkeley, California, we meet Aileen Suzara, a 29-year-old farmer and chef of Filipino descent, who has discovered farming and cooking as ways to preserve her cultural heritage, and to reintroduce healthy food traditions to an immigrant population that has been inundated with non-traditional, often unhealthy foods through the process of colonization and assimilation. “I started looking at Filipino food culture and the colonization of the Philippines and realizing that when the U.S. came… they also sent cooks and nutritionists to teach native people how to cook.” “I probably grew up eating more Spam, Vienna sausages and corned beef than the food my ancestors ate,” she notes.
In northern Arizona, we travel to Navajo Nation in the heart of the Great American Desert to meet with Tyrone Thompson of North Leupp Family Farms, a non-profit community farm run by and for Navajo families. Despite being guaranteed by treaty, the Navajo community’s water rights have recently fallen under siege, threatening this community farm, which is one of the only irrigated farms in a desert that sees between three and fifteen inches of rainfall a year. “They’re trying to steal our water,” says Thompson. “Big water companies, the state of Arizona and Nevada, they’re trying to take our water.” Tyrone’s story, and the greater story of the Navajo Nation, resonates strongly in the wake of the water cuts mandated by law in response to California’s current drought. Access to water will only become a bigger issue as global warming heats up.
One of the things I enjoyed the most about reading the interviews, was the way in which Natasha allowed the unique and passionate voices of the individual farmers to shine. Each individual has the chance to enumerate the distinct challenges they face as farmers of color and how they have dealt with them, as well as the victories they’ve achieved and the goals they carry with them for the future. Bowens deftly weaves the narratives together, highlighting common themes and explaining historical circumstances that may have led to some of her interviewees shared experiences, but she also realizes that each of the farmers profiled throughout the book has a deeply personal story to tell, and Natasha gives them the space to tell it in their own words. And their words are powerful.
The men and women profiled in The Color of Food know that farming is not just a career choice. It’s an affirmation of the critical role that food plays in human culture. Food has the power to bind communities together over traditions as old as the act of working the land itself. It can create self-sufficiency and resilience in communities that have struggled with access to healthy foods. It can help individuals in marginalized communities break away from exploitative systems by giving them a chance to start their own business on their own land.
Indeed, one of the recurring themes throughout the interviews was the importance that many of the farmers ascribed to either owning their own land, or being able to work for themselves and survive off their own efforts. Historically numerous barriers have existed for minorities to land ownership—from the forced migrations and loss of land experience by Native Americans, to the discrimination and economic disadvantage faced by freed slaves after emancipation, to the property and financial loss that thousands of Japanese Americans faced when they were sent to internment camps during World War II. Despite these challenges, the farmers of The Color of Food had practiced resourcefulness and found ways to persevere and continue farming. Whether they owned the land they worked, or whether they rented, partnered with others, operated cooperative land systems, or gardened guerilla-style in vacant lots, they found a way to make it work.
Their stories are stories of strength, power, resilience, and love – love of community, love of food, and love of farming.
Want to read more? You can find an excerpt from the book here. You can also order the full book in either print or ebook form on New Society’s website, here. Happy reading!
About the author: Danielle Arostegui is a Yardfarmers fellow with Worldwatch Institute’s Transforming Cultures Project. She is an avid gardener and kitchen tinkerer. Follow her at on Instagram at @girlgonegardener.