This free directory connects communities to black farmers
by Alexa Spencer
Dr. Kaia Niambi Shivers was stuck in Italy in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic when she had an idea: to create a directory of black farmers.
What started as a small project for his online media store, Ark Republic, quickly grew into a list of more than 1,000 black farmers and growers around the world.
Although she hoped the Black Farmers Index (BFI) would become a resource during a time of global food insecurity, initially, the Philadelphia resident didn’t receive much support when it launched in April 2020.
“People were like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. That’s cute.’ So what [the murder of George Floyd] happened, and everyone and their mom wanted to be on the right side of the story,” Shivers says.
Now, two years later, the Black Famers Index features a variety of farmers and growers from all parts of the United States, as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Africa, Canada, Central America, and from the South, Europe and the Caribbean.
“We have beekeepers. We have people picking mushrooms. We have cotton farmers, oystercatchers, fishermen, breeders, [and] poultry farmers. We even have people growing nuts and rice. And so, it runs the gamut,” Shivers told Word In Black in a video interview.
Who went hungry during the pandemic
As a New York University liberal arts professor teaching in Florence at the time, Shivers was prompted to launch the index after noticing that, as in America, low-income residents had the least access to the food supply during the pandemic – even though some of them were farming for a living.
“It was a sad irony that people working in the growing industry couldn’t even afford the food they choose,” she says.
She suspected that at home in the United States, black people would also be hardest hit by food shortages. She was right.
Black households were already struggling to access food before the pandemic. But in 2020, 21.7% of black households experienced food insecurity, compared to 17.2% of Hispanic households and 7.1% of white households, according to the Center for American Progress.
Shivers and his team set to work building a pipeline to the black farms. They started with a list of only 150 producers.
By the end of that year, they were packing holiday gift baskets containing organic jam, jars of honey, supreme Tanzanian coffee, dehydrated oranges, salt mixes, nut butters, and more. all produced by black producers.
Date producer joins the index and sees strong growth
The index has helped producers expand their businesses. Sam Cobb, who grows dates in Blythe and Sky Valley, California, experienced exponential growth following an encounter between Shivers and a woman in the Middle East.
Chills were offered dates in Abu Dhabi during a visit to an NYU campus – a custom in this region. But having previously tasted dates from California’s farms in Cobb’s Riverside County, she was not happy with dates from the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
“I said to a woman, I said, ‘I’m not trying to hate, but I know a man who goes on good dates,'” Shivers says.
The woman then contacted Cobb and ordered over $1,000 worth of product. Cobb says the purchase made him want to grow even better dates.
“I was kind of impressed because the Middle East is the land of dates, but my dates go to the land of dates,” he told Word In Black in a phone interview.
Not all farmers have the same luck. Cobb himself struggled financially when initially starting a farm in 1982.
“Farming is serious business. And I know this because I went bankrupt trying to do ordinary farming,” he says.
After a few years, he found himself in his mother’s garden, praying under a tree, when God said to him, “Sam, you have to sell your own stuff. You have to control the market.
It took Cobb 30 years to do this, but after working for the United States Department of Agriculture as a soil defender, he became the only grower of black dates in the United States.
“Since I’ve grown it, my customers have been getting the best dates on the market,” he says.
Cobb Farms grows seven types of dates, including Medjool, Safari and its own copyrighted creation, Black Gold.
Cobb says he’s doing what he always wanted to do. When asked how he knew farming was his childhood calling, he replied, “It was just in me.”
The BFI team has found other creative ways to help communities feed themselves and farmers get paid.
Early on, they launched “Black Farmer and a Chef,” an initiative that pairs chefs with farmers who provide them with food.
They also hosted “Soil to Shelf,” a free four-part workshop series that provided farmers with marketing tips where they honed their customer service skills and learned how to promote their farms on social media.
“The reason we did this is because many farmers are either left out of many marketing initiatives, don’t know how to participate in marketing initiatives, or don’t have the business know-how,” says Chills.
Cobb and his wife, Maxine, have found the workshops helpful.
“Marketing is everything… If we can’t sell it, there’s no sense in developing it,” says Cobb.
Black farmers have been harassed for too long
Shivers says the pandemic has brought to light many of the inequalities farmers face, including discrimination in the agricultural sector.
After the Biden administration introduced the Farmers of Color Act — a 2021 bill that corrects historic inequalities by providing farmers of color with debt relief and other resources — black farmers told Shivers that they were harassed.
But this type of treatment is not new. Shivers herself comes from a farming family who experienced racial harassment.
In the early 1900s, his father’s family owned a general depot, church, and farmland in Vicksburg, Mississippi.
“They had it all,” says Shivers.
A male family member who was a preacher and spoke out against the incarceration of pregnant black women was once accused of doing or saying something inappropriate to a white man.
The local white militiamen then pursued his family.
“Women, old people and children fled. The men stayed to defend the land, but no one made it. We think everyone was either killed or maybe fled somewhere else, but they were never seen,” Shivers says.
Shivers’ maternal side of the family hails from St. Martinville, Louisiana and suffered similar trauma.
One day, while working his land, Shivers’ maternal great-grandfather was approached by a white man who was “notorious for bullying, as well as physical dealings with local black farmers to get their earth”.
The man told his great-grandfather to give him the land before pulling out a gun.
“The gun jammed, then my grandfather, who was working the field with the hoe, hit him with the hoe…and killed him,” Shivers said.
Although he was arrested, his great-grandfather was acquitted after a local priest and relative of the deceased testified on his behalf – but the lynching mob came after him and he had to run to save his life in Texas.
Shivers’ great-grandfather returned 10 years later after hearing stories of his terrorized wife and children.
“Within a week, his body parts were found on the train tracks in Saint-Martinville,” Shivers says.
There might be oil on the land, so Shivers’ family members tried to get it back, but her maternal grandmother, who died in 2016, called the land ‘cursed’ and said she wouldn’t. couldn’t bring his father back.
“These are incidents where land was stolen, and it disrupted – badly – the economic trajectory and even the family trajectory,” says Shivers.
Wondering who and where she would be if her family could have kept their land, she now finds peace in supporting black farmers.
“Black Farmers Index is the healing my family is doing,”
Chills said. “It’s my restorative justice work that I have to do.”