Arcadia Farms

  (Portage, Michigan)
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Thinking about African Americans in Agriculture

black farmer in corn field

By definition, being a minority means that in most circles and situations I’m among people who are different than me. I don’t mind. In fact someday I’d like to write about how being a multi-racial person has helped (and in some ways necessitated) me to appreciate and be comfortable with people from different racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. That’s for another day. Today’s post is much simpler.

February is Black History Month, but the idea behind this post first came to me this past summer. At the time I was looking for stock images to use in promotional materials and I wanted them to be diverse, showing people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds. That was the first time it dawned on me that, in our culture, the title “Farmer” usually means “White guy.” Think about it – when I say “farmer” to you, my guess is that the first image that comes to your mind is a middle-aged white man with a straw hat… maybe sitting on a tractor. There were no farmer stock-images of female farmers. And there were no stock-images of minority farmers of any color.

That brief experience got me thinking about all of the farmers I’ve met in real life and it dawned on me for the first time that none of them are minorities. (It’s not that I’m slow – I promise – it’s just that racial surveying is not high on my priority list when meeting new people.) I could think of one farmer’s market employee who was Hispanic. But as I mentally surveyed the faces of all my new agriculture friends and acquaintances, there was only one face of African American descent in the bunch: Me.

I wondered about whether this trend was consistent throughout the nation. Is our stereotypical idea that a farmer is a white guy based on real probability? And if so, why? Why wouldn’t a career in agriculture be just as appealing to black people as it is to white people?

Some Statistics

african american farmer

So I started doing some research. What I discovered is that agriculture used to be a very significant occupation for the black community in America but as of today (2010 census) black farmers aren’t even statistically on the map. Here are some numbers to paint the picture.

In 1862 when the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established, 90% of all American were farmers. By 1920 (nearly sixty years after emancipation) just over 14% of all farmers were black. Fast forward to 1987 and you can reduce that statistic to about 1.5%. Today less than 1% of all US citizens (regardless of race) are farmers. Compared to the entire US population, African American farmers comprise a teeny, tiny .01% of all Americans.

The decline in American farmers overall is shocking – and the numbers for African American participation in that small subset are abysmal. I wanted to get a better feel on the percentage change of farming within the black community itself. Since I can’t find hard-and-fast statistics on a portion of this, let’s make a reasonable assumption. Given the educational, economic and prejudicial hardships newly-freed slaves faced as they attempted to create a living for themselves, let’s assume that half (50%) of the nearly 4 million black Americans emancipated turned to something they had significant experience in: Agriculture. This number obviously could be significantly higher or lower, but it isn’t unreasonable.

By that statistic, nearly 2 million black citizens (50% of African Americans) would be employed in agriculture. According to the 2010 census, today there are approximately 47,000 African Americans employed in agriculture – an unbelievable .1% of the black population, representing a 49.9% reduction in 150 years.

Voices of Agriculture Video

Those numbers certainly paint a picture, but they don’t really answer why. Based on the numbers I think it’s safe to say that agriculture was once an important occupation for all Americans – regardless of race – and is a dwindling group of people – regardless of race. Still, I wanted to know more specifically about the African American agriculture experience. This post doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the African American contribution to and historical impact on agriculture. I have a lot more to learn and investigate. I’m still researching, but I found this documentary that fills in some of the narrative outside of statistics, and I wanted to share it with you. (Interestingly, almost all of the useful information I found on present-day African American farming came from a source related to South Carolina in some way or another.)

  To watch the video, please visit our site: http://www.arcadia-farms.net/thinking-about-african-americans-in-agriculture

 
 

Black Friday Black Gold


I hope you all had a fabulous Thanksgiving holiday! We enjoyed ours and know that we have much to be thankful for.

Many of you probably also ‘celebrated’ Black Friday by standing in unbelievably long lines early in the cold morning to get great deals on Christmas gifts. Although I did do some shopping online, I didn’t dare venture out into the mob of wild shoppers. Instead of heading toward the retail district, we headed the other direction into the country to take advantage of an awesome (FREE!) deal: Horse manure! That’s right – on Black Friday we went out to a local farm and picked up some ‘black gold.’

To be honest, we didn’t really get ‘black gold.’ Black Gold is a term used to describe compost because of its extreme value in creating healthy gardens. Composted (aged) manure contains lots of nutrients and is a great addition to any garden! This manure is far from composted but it will bring value to our garden by warming our hotbeds as it decomposes. And as the gardening season progresses next spring and summer, it will indeed become ‘black gold.’ Even if this hotbed experiment doesn’t work, I’m excited that in the spring I’ll have raised beds that are essentially 3 feet deep and full of very rich soil!

My original plan for winter growing was to convert six of our4’ (wide) x 12’ (long) x 1’ (deep) raised beds into hotbeds. The conversion process involves removing the 12 inches of garden soil, digging a pit in the bottom of the bed that is 1.5 to 2 feet deep, filling the pit with manure (horse and goat so far) and hay/leaves/grass clippings, adding 6 inches of soil back on top and then topping the bed with a plastic row cover on PVC hoops. Here’s a quick update on the process.

Bed #1 was converted to a hotbed a month or longer now. It has peas and lettuce (transplanted from the greenhouse last week) growing in it and they’re coming along beautifully!

Hotbed raised garden bed with plastic row cover

Hotbed #1 with peas and lettuce growing in it

Hotbed #1 with peas and lettuce growing in it. At the time I took this picture it was 85* inside the row cover and about 35* outside.

Peas growing in Hotbed #1.

Peas growing in Hotbed #1.

Lettuce seedling in Hotbed #1

Lettuce seedling in Hotbed #1

Bed #2 was converted to a hotbed last week except that it still needs a plastic row cover. I’m hoping to cut plastic for this today (I have a roll of plastic in the garage… somewhere…). The bed currently has kale growing the middle; that portion of the bed has not been converted because I transferred the kale there this fall from other parts of the garden. The hotbed ends are ready for cabbage and cauliflower transplants. The cabbage and cauliflower seedlings are in the greenhouse right now and should be ready within a week to be transplanted.

Kale in a raised hotbed

Kale is growing in the center portion of this bed. The ends have been converted for hotbeds (there’s horse manure underneath). All we need now is a row cover!

Bed #3 was converted to a hotbed this past weekend. All it needs is a plastic row cover. Unfortunately I don’t think the plastic I have in the garage will be large enough for more than one cover so I need to buy more ASAP. (It currently has a “roof” of plastic sheeting that isn’t quite big enough to cover the whole thing.) The middle of the bed is occupied by carrots that I transplanted from another bed. (Yes, I transplanted carrots. I’ve done it before and they’ll be fine.) Next week the ends of the bed will be receiving leeks which are currently in the greenhouse.

Remember that these beds start with 10-12 inches of garden soil in them but I’m only returning 6 inches of soil back. That’s because I discovered last month that the manure can heat 6 inches of soil but 12 inches is too much. So where do the other six inches go? I’ve been topping off other beds in the garden that have lost soil or compacted slightly. In fact as I went to fill this bed back in, I was running low on garden soil and decided to add compost from our summer compost pile. It’s hard to believe that the rich, dark dirt I shoveled in was carrot peels, onion tops and grass clippings just a couple of months ago.

Hotbed #3 with partial plastic row cover

This is hotbed #3. Soon it will have a row cover that also covers the ends.

Transplanted carrots inside a hotbed

These are the carrots I transplanted last weekend. They look pretty sad right now, but they’ll perk up soon. :)

Bed #4 currently has turnips growing in one third of it (on the end). I have to say that they are holding on just fine but are showing no progress in their growth. I left them undisturbed while I dug up the remaining 2/3 of the bed. Currently there’s a 2 foot hole there waiting for manure. There wasn’t enough horse manure to fill all the beds so I’m hoping to get enough goat manure this week to fill at least this bed. I’ll also need to get plastic for a row cover. Once its complete, I’ll be transplanting lettuce and broccoli into it from the greenhouse.

Hotbed #4 with turnips and lettuce seedlings

This is hotbed #4. There are currently turnip and lettuce seedlings growing here. I’ll be converted the other side into a hotbed this week.

Bed #5 is all tucked in for the winter. Because it was around 70% full of existing, frost-tolerant plants (chard, beets, radishes) I decided not to convert it to a hotbed. Instead I planted spinach in the remaining 30% of the bed and gave it a row cover. So far the established plants look great in there but the spinach is taking its sweet time germinating. It will be interesting to see how this bed fares during the winter compared to its hotbed counterparts.

Raised bed with winter row cover

This bed already had many frost-tolerant plants growing in it so I decided not to convert it to a hotbed. Instead, I planted some spinach in the remaining space (which doesn’t seem to be germinating). We’ll see how this bed fares through the winter without any manure beneath it.

Radishes, Beets and Chard

Radishes, Beets and Chard

Bed #6 had carrots still growing in it until this weekend when I transplanted them into Bed #3. Why did I transplant them? For several reasons. One is that I needed to move some plants around to stage the garden for my new crop rotation plan. (What I grow in each bed this winter will impact what I can grow there this coming spring and summer.) Also, the carrots were spread throughout the entire bed (carrots that were too small to harvest during our CSA season but have grown since then). I decided to put them all in one concentrated place to make better use of the bed. At any rate, this bed still needs a lot of work. I need to remove all of the garden soil, dig the 2 foot pit (before the ground freezes!) and then fill it up with compost. I’m starting to think I won’t have enough manure to fill both this bed and bed #4, so I’m going to experiment by using non-manure compost here. I’ll be using table scraps, lots of leaves, and if I can manage to mow the lawn one last time before sticking snow, grass clippings. Once this bed is converted, it will be home to lettuce (in the greenhouse). I was also hoping to direct seed radishes into this bed… but I thought I would be doing that several weeks ago. We’ll see if the bed gets/stays warm enough for the seeds to germinate.

Raised Bed

This raised bed has a long way to go to become a hotbed! It will feature plant-based compost instead of manure.

Other garden areas are mostly being ‘winterized’. I’m halfway through the process of mulching the Fenceline Garden with leaves. Three of the beds in the Main Garden have received seeds that will overwinter and grow in the spring. Crops include scallions (no growth seen), parsnips (growth observed), carrots (germination observed) and asparagus (no growth seen). These beds will be mulched with shredded leaves this week. Dormant beds will be mulched with either leaves (likely un-shredded because of time constraints) or maple wood chips. And last but not least, one of the small beds at the front of the Main Garden was supposed to overwinter spinach, but the seedlings are coming along so well that I think we’ll be eating from it this winter instead of harvesting from it in the spring! That will mess up my crop rotation a little bit, but my excitement over hopefully having fresh spinach in January is overshadowing that conundrum for now.

Raised garden bed with winter row cover

This garden bed is half as wide as the others and is NOT a hotbed (no manure below). Spinach is growing inside… we’ll see how long it lasts!

Spinach seedlings in raisede bed under row cover

Spinach Seedling

Spinach Seedling

So that’s what’s happening around here regarding winter growing. We have some exciting developments happening regarding expansion of the garden for next season, and I can’t wait to share that with you next week. Stay tuned!

 
 

How to Use Leaves in Your Yard and Garden

I’m pretty sure we’re the only family on the block whose lawn is still covered in leaves. Why? Because leaf pick-up happened at least a week ago. In our suburban neighborhood, leaf pick-up is where everyone rakes or blows their leaves into the street and on a specific day the city comes along and sweeps them up. And what does the city do with them? They contract with a local waste management company which composts them and then sells the compost to individuals and organizations. But we have different plans - We can use leaves for so many other things on our micro-farm. And that means there are many things you can use your leaves for as well.

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