Fierce Farming Women, Part 1

Reader Contribution by Natasha Bowens
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Below is an excerpt from the “Fierce Farming Women” chapter of Natasha’s book, The Color of Food: Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming:

I have never felt more like a woman than the day I dug my hands into the soil for the first time. I’ll never forget the feeling of my hands after my first season farming. [They were rough and tattered] and I like to think [that] describes the hands of every female farmer out there. It is a description that challenges society’s definition of feminine beauty. However, with women making up over 70 percent of the world’s farmers, I’d say we need to change the picture of feminine beauty to the image of a farmer’s hands.

Women feed the world, we always have. We’ve been the gatherers, the cooks, the ones to provide milk to our babies, the nutritionists, the healers, and even the farmers. According to the International Center for Research on Women, rural women produce 80 percent of the world’s food. That’s an astounding contribution to the survival of humanity. To have ownership over such a vital contribution is something to praise.

And praising women farming is exactly the focus of this piece. In honor of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, I’ll be sharing a series of excerpts from some of my favorite women’s stories in The Color of Food.Prepare to meet some fierce farming women.

Meet Sandra Simone, a mother, widow, and jazz singer who is raising goats on her family’s historic land that grows wild with huckleberries. Sandra owns and operates Huckleberry Hill Farm in Talladega County, Alabama. Below is an excerpt from Sandra’s story entitled “Alabama Strong” :

We blow into Alabama from Tennessee. From the cool Smoky Mountains, my partner and I descend into sticky sweet Alabama and head toward rural Talladega County, where I know of a woman farming alone [and] raising goats…After we arrive at her Huckleberry Hill Farm… farmer Sandra Simone puts us right to work. She and my partner…begin working on her old tractor while I hold all the tools along with my recorder and start asking questions. The goats mill in the pasture behind us, as if awaiting the tractor’s return to action so their new grass seed can be planted.

“Girl, I was a jazz singer,” Sandra begins in her silky smooth voice, as her long braids sway over the engine of the faded red Ford Jubilee tractor, “I never thought I’d be out here doing all this! I was always a city girl. I grew up in Birmingham and then moved to California and lived in Long Beach for 22 years. My late husband and I raised our daughters there…I had always wanted to sing since my earliest consciousness, but I had a lot of fear…But then I met my husband, Harold Burke, and he changed me—he flipped me from someone lacking self-confidence to someone who believed in possibilities…I began acting in plays and dancing and painting and having art exhibits, and I loved all of it. We then decided to move to Atlanta to get back to our Southern roots and really develop my jazz singing career…My husband was so supportive. He was the wind beneath my wings.

“Meanwhile, he was busy [talking to me] about Black-owned land. While still living in Long Beach, we would visit my mother who had moved from Birmingham back to her birthplace of Alpine, Alabama. Harold was impressed with the amount of land my great-grandfather had acquired there. I was told by a great-uncle that it was originally about 2,000 acres. My great-grandfather arrived here in America in about 1868. He had worked his passage from Mozambique and landed in Mobile. Why he chose this area, I don’t know. I was told that the hills and the red clay soil reminded him of his home in Africa.

“…He had quite a sustainable operation [here]. His family was large — 12 children. They produced what they consumed. Sheep, cows, and pigs, and vegetables, and they even had goats! There was a spinning wheel used to make clothing from the sheep’s wool. He had a Blacksmith shop, a sawmill, and a general store. Most of the land was sold through the years; it’s no longer 2,000 acres. What was left was divided into parcels that went to his eight surviving children. Then you know, it started passing down through generations and became more sub-divided.

“…My husband really began educating me about the importance of keeping the land here…he kept talking about how Black-owned land is getting away, and how important it was what my great-grandfather accomplished, and how we shouldn’t just let it be lost. It took a while…[but] I finally heard him…we eventually took on the 40 acres instead of selling, like so many of my relatives did…It was just nice having the land, coming to get away from it all, connecting with nature and honoring my great-grandfather’s legacy.

“…Next thing you know, Harold and I were planning how we could put up a little cabin that would allow us…[to] live here and see what we could accomplish on the land. We put things into motion and after a year or so of planning, we started building this beautiful little cabin. But, before the cabin was completed, Harold was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Within a few short months, he made his transition and passed on.”

Sandra, heartbroken in the home she dreamed into fruition with the man who made her unafraid to dream, now had a choice to make. She could stay on the land alone and preserve her family’s legacy of Black land ownership and live off the land, or she could go back to Atlanta to be near her daughters and heal from her loss. Pulling from an inner strength deep within herself, she decided to continue living out her and her husband’s vision on the land. Now a single Black female farmer, Sandra has not only overcome heartbreaking loss, but she has mounted the hurdles that exist for Black farmers and female farmers—and she continues to meet those challenges.

“Sometimes, I think about everything Harold did for me when he was alive,” says Sandra, “…And now here I am running a farm, working on tractors, doing everything myself and learning what I’m capable of.”

Sandra now stewards 100 acres of her family’s historic land, raising meat goats and running an organic CSA farm. She sits on the board of the Southeastern African American Farmers Organic Network and was awarded 2012 Farmer of the Year by the Alabama NRCS.

That day I drove away from Huckleberry Hill Farm with Sandra’s jazz album in the CD player, I listened to her voice singing low and strong and knew that Sandra’s strength runs deep. It runs deeper than what you might see by looking at her rough and tattered hands on the farm. It’s the kind of strength that has mended her heart and pushed her forward to feed her community. It’s the pure strength of a fierce farming woman.

To read all of Natasha’s posts, click here.

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