Afrolachian Agriculture: Bringing People Closer to Food

Robert (Bob) White in his massive garden lined with fruit trees and crops. Photo: Tamia Dame
By Tamia Dame –

Stories about the role and disparity of WNC’s farmers of color.

It wasn’t until I gained an interest in agriculture that I found a passion in the social justice of farming.

Being African American and interning at intern for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC) in Asheville, NC, I didn’t know what to expect when immersing myself into a predominantly white space. Having observed a lack of diversity in the environmental field, I became passionate about the improvement of racial equity and representation in this discipline. I find these topics to be particularly relevant in the Southern Appalachian region.

According to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, black Americans account for only 3% of total NC farmers, and about 33% of those black-operated farms are considered to have a sales value of less than $1,000. Although SAHC is working to provide programs for farmers of color, farmers with disabilities, and farmers of all age ranges and backgrounds, there is improvement to be made.

Kathey Avery of Fairview, NC.

Kathey Avery of Fairview, NC discussed her relationship with agriculture, and being the daughter of two African American farming parents in WNC. The Center for Cultural Preservation initiative entitled the “Mountain Elder Wisdom Project,” is intended to preserve the culture, history, and adaptive strategies of our nation’s cultural legacies. In a video, Kathey’s late mother, Alma Avery, described her upbringing in rural Cedar Creek.

She described her father and working in his vegetable gardens. Her perspective shared a relationship between black Americans and agriculture around the 1930s and ’40s; growing your food was for survival. “We had a hard time but it was a good life,” Alma remembered. By second grade, Alma withdrew from school to help her family in the gardens. “I quit school because daddy kept us out to work. We’d can beans and sauerkraut and things in the summertime because if we didn’t, in the wintertime we wouldn’t eat!”

Kathey Avery’s late mother Alma in her garden.

The Avery’s had an apple orchard which was utilized for both personal use and marketing for several decades. “The trees are still there but they’re not salvageable. We sold the mountain part of our property to The Nature Conservancy so it wouldn’t get developed,” said Kathey.

In a time when loss of black-owned farmland is prevalent, there is a distinct value to protecting these lands to preserve the historic and cultural importance left by the families who inhabited them.

I had the privilege of meeting Wallace Bohanan to talk with him about his experiences with agriculture. A native of Brooklyn, NY, Wallace has enjoyed living in WNC for 13 years. He talked about his childhood and the start of his personal connection to land. “My father started a Cub Scout Pack, and he got the community involved. My mother said it was because they wanted to keep my brother and me out of the gangs. We went camping and learned the Boy Scout skills like knot-tying, compass-reading, building a fire, putting up a tent, and I loved it!”

These experiences influenced his decision to move to the Southern Appalachian region. “When I was older I got to go camping out in the mountains and it was amazing,” Wallace said. “That’s when I told myself ‘One day I’m going to buy some land and move to the mountains,’ so here I am.” In his indoor aquaponic and outdoor gardens, Wallace grows an abundance of vegetables including beans and sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, kale, and more. His interest lies less in the monetary gain from producing food, as he opts not to sell at any market, and more with knowing where his food comes from and sharing that food with those around him.

Wallace Bohanan grows an abundance of vegetables. Photo: Tamia Dame

Wallace discussed why it seems fewer people are choosing to pursue agricultural businesses, although the movement for personal food gardens is on the rise. “If you grow your own food, you know the source. I think that’s what people are interested in,” he offered.

Curious about the role of urban gardens in black communities and agriculture, I sought out the former Pisgah View Community Peace Gardens Director Robert White of Leicester, NC, to talk about the creation of the gardens, their experiences with urban agriculture, and their decision to own a homestead themselves.

Robert is a native of New Jersey who moved to the mountains of North Carolina to escape gang violence and a harsh living environment. Because his mother is originally from Asheville, he was already familiar with the area when he began his life here in 1976. His wife Lucia was born in Cincinnati, Ohio and moved to Asheville in 1998 for an AmeriCorps position. The two were living in the Pisgah View Apartments when Robert says he was overwhelmed with the compulsion to build a community garden.

“A boy told me once that he thought tomatoes grew out of a can. I laughed at first, then later I sat down in my garden and cried.” It was the disconnect between the people and their food supply that pushed Lucia and Robert to create a safe, green space for the benefit of the Pisgah View community. “It needed to be someone from that community, a black man that was doing something positive,” Robert knew that if he wanted to make a difference, he had to be willing to lead by example. “If people see you trying to lift yourself up they will come and give you all the assistance you’d need. And that’s how we got so many people into the community who would have never come otherwise. The garden was something everybody understood.” Over time the Peace Gardens became the focal point of the community. “It was a community garden in every sense of the word,” Robert emphasized.

“There is a better economy in selling collard greens than there is in selling crack cocaine,” Robert stated. They provided classes for people of all ages to learn about cooking, food preservation, poultry raising, and more.

Robert and Lucia along with their three daughters are now living in an agricultural oasis at their homestead in rural Leicester. The two are happy to have an invaluable connection to land and food, with multitudes of fruits and vegetables growing right outside their home. “We’re growing pear trees, peach trees, apple trees, we’ve got lettuce, kale, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, some butterfly bushes…” Robert went on, showing me around the garden in their front yard. “They say you should eat food within 100 miles from where you are, I believe there should be food 100 feet from your front door.”

Robert White is a man with a wealth of knowledge, yet when told about the SAHC’s Farmer Incubator Program he was surprised to know such a program exists. SAHC’s Farmer Incubator Program supports small agricultural businesses by helping farmers turn their dreams into realities. This program is meant to alleviate financial burdens and create accessibility to forming a business in agriculture. These incubator programs hold potential for diverse involvement and equitable representation.

As of today the Southern Appalachian region appears to be predominantly white, though this has not always been the case. In her essay “African Americans in Appalachia,” Dr. Althea Webb of Berea College writes:

“History reveals that Appalachia has always had a racially and ethnically diverse population that has been significant and influential. Migration and mobility has shifted patterns of diversity within sub-regions and particular counties … while some areas today are largely white, the collective memory of a county may reveal a vastly different history.”

The history of people of color in agriculture is rich in the Southern Appalachians; for this reason it is crucial to uncover this history and the stories of the people before they are lost.

About Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy:

The Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy is a non-profit land trust headquartered in Asheville, NC. Since 1974, SAHC has protected over 70,000 acres of unique plant and animal habitat, clean water, farmland and places for outdoor recreation of the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina.

SAHC’s Community Farm in Alexander, NC offers a Farmer Incubator Program and Farmer Education Workshop Series, supported with grants from the Community Foundation of WNC and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2016-70017-25341 for Farm Pathways: Integrating Farmer Training with Land Access.

About the Author

Tamia Dame is a 19-year old student at UNCA, and is serving as the Communication, Education, and Outreach intern for the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. She is passionate about topics relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion and hopes to pursue a career in conservation.