atasha Bowens was living in Washington, D.C. and working for the Center for American Progress as a healthcare advocate, earning a livable $35,000 per year, when she began longing to live and work on a farm, to put her hands into the dirt and cultivate fruits and vegetables.
In December 2009, the University of Florida graduate packed her bags and headed to Argentina for three weeks to do just that. The then-25-year-old was already an environmental activist and was starting to believe that one of the best ways to protect the environment and improve health was to grow food responsibly.
When she returned from Argentina, she began Google searching urban farms and community gardens where she could work in exchange for housing and food. She found a farm she liked in Brooklyn and in July 2010, with $1,300 in savings, quit her job and headed there.
Her journey — which she documented for the online magazine Grist — has been eye-opening, not only for her, but for dozens more black farmers and black-farmer-wannabes, who seldom see themselves represented in agriculture.
A century-and-a-half after plantation slavery, the last thing many black people want to be associated with is working on a farm and that’s exactly what Bowens and her fellow farmers want to change.
“A lot of my black friends are like, ‘What are you doing? You’re going back to picking cotton?’” Bowens says. “I kept hearing this kind of stigma especially from youth, from a lot of first generation immigrant youth whose parents would, over their dead bodies, let their youth go into farming.”
Yet farming is one way that black communities can increase their control over their food supply, reducing food deserts, hunger and the health problems that stem from them. It’s called food justice.
“It’s a beautiful, powerful thing to be able to feed your own community and we should be the ones to lead the way,” Bowens adds.
First Day on the Job
Bowens spent her first three months as a full-time farmer at East New York Farms in Brooklyn and her first full-season as a farmer in Wassaic, New York, on a 4-person, multiracial, Duchess County organic farm, about 90-miles north of New York City. After working 70 to 80 hours per week cultivating herbs and vegetables, she and her fellow farmers sold their harvests at two Bronx farmers markets and at two in Duchess County, filling the demand of a lot of West Indian families for medicinal roots and herbs.
To dispel the myth that black people don’t farm, Bowens began creating an online map of the food justice movement, documenting the locations of people of color who are farmers, food activists, grocery co-op founders, and more.