Q+A with Natasha Bowens

REAL FOOD READS WITH AUTHOR Natasha Bowens

NatashaPhotoThis month’s #realfoodreads selection, The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming, features stories and portraits of farmers and food activists that Natasha Bowens has gathered over five years of conversations. Natasha is an author, beginning farmer and activist who focuses on building empowerment and community with food and storytelling. She started The Color of Food in 2010 after exploring race and agriculture on her blog Brown.Girl.Farming. and for Grist magazine. Her work has garnered media attention from The Atlantic, Bill Moyers and Mother Earth News. I sat down with Tasha to ask her some questions about the book – read on for our conversation below!

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AL: Can you share a little bit of how you found yourself writing this beautiful book?

NB: I found myself writing the book not long after I found myself digging barefoot on an organic farm outside of D.C. and wondering where all the other brown farmers were. I had a lot of questions about race, inequity and agrarian identity as a new member of the food movement sweeping the nation and it seemed there was nowhere to turn for the answers. I knew that couldn’t be true, so I decided to hit the road and hear from farmers of color myself.

AL: I really enjoyed the combination of history and storytelling in the book, helping readers understand the long and painful ties between farming and land and exploitation and racism in this country. In the opening of the chapter “Black Land Loss,” you quote Ralph Paige of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives who says: “Land is the only real wealth in this country and if we don’t own any, we’ll be out of the picture.” Can you talk about that group and about black land loss?

NB: The Federation of Southern Cooperatives is one of the oldest cooperatives representing Black family farms in the country. Forming over 40 years ago to save and protect Black-owned land and support cooperatives in rural communities across the South, the Federation merged with the Emergency Land Fund in the 80s to strengthen their focus on reversing Black land loss. Land loss has hit the Black farming community the hardest, with Black farmers losing land at three times the rate of White farmers, according to the Federation. In 1920 Black farmers were nearly one million strong, owning over 15 million acres of land, today that number has declined to about 30,000 Black farmers and only 3 million acres. This loss is fiercely disempowering. It not only takes away independence and invaluable wealth, but it takes away the root of food sovereignty for the Black community – a goal that is of utmost importance for a community that is so largely impacted by the broken food system.

AL: I loved your chapter about water as the “lifeblood of the land.” What are some innovative ways that you discovered community groups using water wisely?

NB: I was most impressed by the acequia system in the Southwest, a cooperative and democratic system that puts governance and rights to water in the hands of the farmers. As highlighted in the chapter “Acequia Culture,” acequias are a system of small canals engineered to carry water from the mountains to the fields, making water a commons. The system originated in Arabic and Muslim cultures in the high deserts of the Middle East and North Africa and spread first to Spain with the community of Moors and later to the Americas as it was integrated with Pueblo Indian irrigation systems. This irrigation system not only works well for dry and drought prone areas like the Southwest where water can be harvested from the surrounding mountain ranges, but it is one of the only water systems in the country that is cooperatively owned as a commons. New Mexican farmer, Don Bustos pointed out in the chapter that community cooperation is the key to changing the food system and as we stood together next to the acequia that has been running through his family farm for the last 300 years, he noted “It’s the tradition of our ancestors to work cooperatively. They’ve been working together through acequia systems for generations.”

AL: There are so many wonderful, uplifting stories in this book, when I think back on it now I picture page after page of smiles. Can you talk about how you found the people you profiled in the book? 

NB: I wanted this to be a book of smiles, because although the topic intentionally digs up painful history and forces us to have tough, overdue conversations, it’s also about honoring overlooked voices and faces and celebrating community resilience, pride in food culture and legacies with the land. To find all these beautiful smiles, I spent two years immersing myself into the pockets of people of color-led food movements around the country, connecting with folks through my writing for various magazines, as well as through my work in food justice in New York, attending conferences centered around race and justice in the food system and researching and reaching out to organizations representing farmers of color, such as the Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network or the National Hmong Farmers Association. After two years of outreach and building relationships, I had hundreds of farmers and food activists who were eager to share their stories and open their doors to me across the country.

AL: You may have read Mark Bittman’s recent piece about the lament over our aging farmer population whose average age is inching up to 60. Having been on the road and connecting with so many new and beginning farmers of color what do you think are the biggest barriers to getting more new farmers on the land? What can we do to help? 

NB: The average age of the White farmer is inching up to 60, but for the Black farmer it is already at 63. So finding young and beginning farmers of color was even more important for me. One of the biggest barriers to getting new farmers on land is the struggle to own land. Most young farmers find themselves in a situation far too reminiscent of sharecropping and tenant farming, leasing land from wealthy White land owners and working with no security for the future of their farm. One young farmer couple I interviewed in North Carolina said it best, “We need to be able to put up structures and not have to walk away from them and start over each time…it takes time to build up soil. We’re reclaiming and renewing land; we add value to the land we work. Landowners should be paying us if anything! We need land to invest in the next generations. All these new initiatives we are trying in this movement won’t shift power unless we shift who owns the land.” I think there has to be major policy shifts in supporting young and beginning farmers, creating far more opportunity for young farmers to access not only available land but the capital to purchase land. I’d like to see an increase in programs that link beginning farmers to retiring farmers for land access, incubator farm programs that give young farmers a chance to build capital on community land while getting connected to resources and land purchasing opportunities, and a bigger push for cooperatively owned land, particularly in communities of color. These programs will not shift the dynamic of power if they remain exclusively White-led, so we need to be supporting communities of color who are already doing this work on the ground.

AL: Can you give an example from the book of a project that you feel like is really changing the story of food in the community where it’s based, changing people’s relationship to food and farming?

NB: I think farmer Kevin Welch’s story of food in Cherokee, NC is really making a difference in reclaiming the Cherokee food story. With his partner Sarah, he runs the Center for Cherokee Plants which is a seed bank of sorts that saves and propagates heirloom Cherokee plants that were once either cultivated or wild harvested as traditional Cherokee foods. However Kevin says they are not a typical seed bank because they do not keep the seeds but give them away annually as seedlings in “garden kits” that go to every Cherokee family on the reservation. Through their programs, Kevin and Sara also have a mobile classroom where they visit Cherokee families at their homes or community centers to hold gardening workshops and seed storytelling which aims to bring back the Cherokee food story and reignite a relationship to farming in a community that, as Kevin says of his people, “are the original agriculturists of this land.”

AL: I loved how visual the book is. The pictures are a huge part of the “story.” Did you always intend to have photographs as part of the process and can you talk about what it took to incorporate them into the text?

NB: I always intended to have this book be photographic. I grew up with a love of photography because of the power it can have to tell a story and connect you so intimately with someone you have never met. For this project in particular, the portraits were vital because it is time to recognize and honor the diversity of faces behind our food. Due to my frustration with the exclusive picture of the good food movement when I became a part of it, I wanted in my own small way to try and repaint that picture. Incorporating photos into the stories was natural – these stories are told in the words of the farmers so there was no way they were going to be printed without the farmers’ faces there with them. I pitched this book to over 50 publishers and the response was overwhelmingly positive but many small publishers don’t have the budget to print a lot of photos or print in full color so it narrowed my choices. As a new author, it’s rare to pass up an opportunity to be published, but I was adamant about having the pictures incorporated. When New Society Publishers reviewed my proposal, they got it and did a beautiful job incorporating all the portraits in a full-page, full-color design.

AL: Can you talk about what you’ve been up to since the book has come out? Any responses that have particularly heartened you?

NB: Actually since the book was officially released in spring I have been busy getting my hands back into the soil, which is the journey I was on when the idea for the book came about. After finishing the book and the journey around the country, I finally put roots down outside of D.C. with my husband where I run two community gardens and work as a beginning farmer trainee with the Chesapeake Association for Sustainable Agriculture. With growing season and my book release fully underway it has been a whirlwind of wonderful! I get to travel and share stories from the book while growing food and community at home. Each day before heading out to the garden, I flip on my computer and see the book being shared around the country. Knowing that these stories are sparking much needed conversations and impacting the lives of farmers, activists and eaters is invaluable. Some of the most heartening responses for me are those from other brown girls farming who write to tell me of the joy and relief they feel realizing they are not alone – the same joy and relief I experienced when I got on the road for The Color of Food.