Home » 2019 Symposium | Onika Abraham

Onika Abraham Farm School NYC

I want to invite everyone who's here right now who it feels accessible for to stand with me just for a moment maybe stretch a little bit and just ground down your feet because what I want to do right now before I move forward in my talk and what I often do before I start speaking especially in a place that I'm new to.

I've not been to New Hampshire in quite some time is to just ground down in the space where we are, in the land where we are in the soil that we all care so much about and give acknowledgement and thanks and respect for the indigenous people whose land we're on. We haven't yet had a moment to do that together yet today.

My understanding, this is not where my people come from, but my understanding is that the Abenaki are part of the indigenous peoples of this land and the Western Pennacook I think – but I see some heads nodding and I'd love you to speak the names of some of the native peoples if you know them too. To just gives some recognition, whether they're original to this land or have come on to this land.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.

So, these peoples are the roots of this organic movement in so many ways. They stewarded this land before any of us came to it and built those layers of soil and beautiful organic matter that we're all talking about.

Those weren't accidental they weren't works of nature only, they were intentional and so thank you so much for coming together and just grounding down in that experience with me.

I arrived yesterday and last night and I was really so happy to be welcomed on to Dave Chapman's farm. And so even in the dark I could tell it was beautiful there and I had some wonderful conversations with y'all many of whom are in the room right now, many of whom have spoken today.

I was really so impressed because I could really understand so much of the concerns that we all had. And they were common concerns, and so much of the knowledge I felt just immersed in this environment where we all understood that the centrality of soil to our health and to the growing techniques that we all care about. And I thought how wonderful.

How wonderful to be immersed in that. How wonderful to feel that commonality. And it also reminded me of, one of my own religious practices is actually listening to “On Being” with Krista Tippett. Am I alone? Okay. I am a little obsessed with the show and if you listen to this week's podcast you might have heard this quote:

“If we live in an environment where we take the right opinion for granted as a given, “now everybody knows that,” maybe you're called upon to explore ideas that not everybody knows.”

So that was by a thinker, Harvard professor, an essayist, poet Teju Cole, and it made me think about what I could actually come and talk about today with y'all because so many of the farmers that are here already share what I know and love about organic farming and about the soil and we've heard so much of that today.

Building Biodiversity and Racial Diversity within the Organic Movement

So what am I called upon to talk about, was my question. And I think what I am challenged to do, what I'm challenging myself to do, and it's a little uncomfortable for me I have to say, but my idea is:

If we want this movement to grow, for the sake of the planet, for the sake of our pockets, for the sake of your plate, you must care as much about the racial diversity and equity of America's farmers as we do about the biodiversity of the farmland.

Black and brown farmers are severely underrepresented in farming as a whole and in organic farming in particular.

Black people, my people make up 13% of the people in this country. We make up 1.4 percent of all farmers, organic or not. So for me, stewarding not only the biodiversity of our soil but also of our farmers is one of the key points, the key origins of Farm School NYC and that's the organization that I'm so blessed to steward.

Focusing on the Abundance within Urban Gardens and Communities

So, Farm School NYC was created by a collective of farmers, urban farmers community gardeners, activists, educators who all came together and really wanted to give back to their communities in a way that they had wasn't seeing happening.

In particular, they were working in low-income communities mostly communities of color throughout New York City and they were so used to people defining their communities by everything they lacked, right.

Lack of access to fresh healthy foods. Lack of access to education. Lack of access to economic opportunity.

And they wanted to redefine and change that framework to focus on the things that they had in abundance.

600 community gardens that were growing food for communities often free low-income communities, giving that food or embracing the fact that people can feed themselves.

And then “people resources”, knowledge base, expertise of growing for generations in urban areas; we had that in abundance in New York City and so they figured what they really were missing was an opportunity to bring those things together and to train the next generation of growers.

So they created a professional level school that's comprehensive organization really training farmers and sustainable agriculture adults, everyone's over the age of 18, and really looking at not only just the practices of organic agriculture but looking at how we do this work as a community and how we do this work grounded in social justice, it's the key part of Farm School's mission.

One of the things that I love about Farm School is that we not only really we don't have our own farm per se because we're a collective of all these different farms and gardens came together to develop this organization we really go out into the community and go to all these different farms and gardens around the city.

So here you see us at Taqwa Community Farm in the Bronx in 2014 doing a wonderful soil health class together. And these gardens that you see here, this is the real root of my own agricultural history.

So I am a born and bred New Yorker. I was raised on the Lower East Side of New York City. Who here has been to the Lower East Side of New York City recently who was in the New York City Lower East Side in like 1973?

Okay. So that's when I was born 1973 in New York City and that was the real heyday of this community gardening movement that really birthed me in a lot of ways and my interest in organic and my interest in organic and sustainable agriculture.

There are so many beautiful community gardens in New York City.

This is the ninth Street community garden. It's a lovely garden a lot of produce grown here. This is another community garden El Sol Brilliante. It is a beautiful community garden tons and tons of tomatoes I've picked in this very garden.

I'm so obsessed with community gardens that I actually got married in one. That's me and my husband at 6pc garden. There's an incredible lots of beehives right above that garden because there's so much wonderful fodder for all of the bees to enjoy and appreciate. It's really beautiful.

So our founders at Farm School really wanted us to ensure the growth and continuity of our city community gardens and urban farms because they knew that I was so vital for the health and self-determination of money poor folk in New York City.

I grew up surrounded and inspired by these community gardens and I still am to this day.

I also remember the epic battles over land on the Lower East Side battles that resulted in these beautiful gardens and battles that still continue on today.

Soil as the Foundation of Urban Agriculture

But Urban Ag is actually older than these gardens. It is as old as the concept of a city itself and since the first plot was first dug in the first city, soil has been at the heart of organic agriculture of urban agriculture, it's practice innovated and dominated primarily by those who really needed that food for survival the poor and the marginalized and the people of color and it still is.

Urban Ag might be hip, but it's not new and for the clear majority of urban farmers it's not soilless.

Soil has always been integral to organic agriculture in urban settings and in my city in New York City, it's a city of migrants and immigrants and each new wave of these migrants and immigrants brought soil-based practices to our patch of land.

From Italian immigrants using fig trees and backyard gardens to my own black and brown ancestors bringing collard greens and callaloo to church yards.

My ancestors had generations of experience farming marginal land, the only land they could access in the south due to racist practices and business policies and they brought those practices to New York City where the land they could farm was often just as marginalized and worst polluted.

But they believed that the soil could provide and with the hard work of digging and hoeing and testing and amending and stewarding the soils it did provide.

This is a wonderful picture of one of the original farm mavens matrons Carmen Pabon and she was celebrating on the Lower East Side in the 1980s.

I remember this kind of liveliness and vibrancy in this in the community of farms that really nurtured me when I was growing up in New York City so not just food but there was so much cultural and relational richness that were birthed in those gardens which I really loved but also a fair amount of food.

And this is the Hattie Carthan Community Garden in Brooklyn.

There are really hundreds of thousands of pounds of food that are grown sustainably in New York City farms and gardens each year and most of it is in the soil that our residents worked hard to reclaim for over generations.

So in restoring our city's soil our urban farmers are restorers of our communities our families our local economies our own bodies.

Urban agriculture has been the bedrock of food sovereignty for generations of urban poor because we can do it with a few seeds and the sun and the rain and the soil. We can have control over what we eat and what we grow without a GoFundMe site or venture capital.

We Need More Farmers of Color

We have a stake in urban areas of keeping soils central to the conversation around urban agriculture and sustainable agriculture in general Urban growers especially people of color have fought to reclaim and protect and restore our soils so we seek solidarity with fellow stewards of the soil everywhere and solidarity does go both ways.

We want to see the organic movement embrace and reflect the racial diversity of the growers that we see in New York City and in all of our cities.

We need more farmers of color to be part of the organic organic movement. Farmers of color in this country are much more likely are much less likely to be certified organic but are much more likely to grow fruit and vegetables then commodity crops and they're more likely to use sustainable farming techniques like biodiversity and closed-loop systems.

In fact, the same external forces of racism and white supremacy that limited our entry into large-scale commercial agriculture may have served to preserve and even innovate the sustainable practices of farmers of color so we really do feel like we're on the growing edge of this movement.

But more than just diversity we really want to see the organic movement work towards equity.

The Organic Agriculture Community Should Not be Complicit in Racism

We need a shared understanding that racism isn't just mean people saying racist things but well-meaning folks living quiet lives of inaction while systemic racism lives on.

Just by living in this country where structural racism exists, we are all complicit unless we actively resist it.

And I want to thank you Jean-Paul for bringing up that Buckminister Fuller quote earlier this morning about how resisting isn't enough, right because I agree fighting against existing realities isn't enough.

We need a new model that really looks at making old models obsolete, the ones that aren't working for us.

Places like Farm School we're training farmers and activists who are building these new models as are organizations like the Black Urban Growers and SAFFON and the White Earth Land Recovery Project and the Real Organic Project has so much to gain by working in solidarity with these efforts and I'm really excited to see that grow in the years to come.

I want to know that this organic movement is willing to investigate and address the ways in which it's upholding patriarchy and white supremacy just as I am striving each day to do this messy urgent critical work in my own organization and in my own heart and in my own mind.

It isn't easy work, it isn't easy for me. Every day it takes guts and courage to stand up in rooms like this to talk about this.

It also isn't easy in relationship with my own colleagues and comrades of people of color. I stumble, I fail, I fall, I get up, I get help which is so important, from my comrades and my mentors and other people of color and other people and allies and I get held accountable and I keep going.

So when we find ourselves in a room like this – a safe space where the sanctity of soil is a given, where everybody knows the true meaning of organic and its virtues, it's time for us to get brave in a different way. Let's go further.

There are powerful forces working to keep us divided and silent but we get to be brave together in spaces like this.