Digging for Answers: Exploring Stories of Race, Resilience and Farming

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

The long, lone road stretches out in front of me and Lucille’s steering wheel feels sturdy under my grip. Dust from the farm road flies off of her windshield and the wind stirs all the beads and feathers hanging from her rearview. We glow together in the light of the setting sun, heading south to the next farm…

…After four consecutive months driving across this country, I have driven almost 15,000 miles, traveled through 16 states, laid my head in 49 different places, interviewed 53 farmers and taken roughly 3,500 photographs. It’s been quite a journey. And it’s not over yet.

I never would have imagined that my desire to dig in the dirt would lead me here, digging instead into the stories of farmers of color across America—Black, Latina, Native, and Asian farmers and food activists. All I wanted to do when this all started [five] years ago was grow food, know exactly where my food was coming from, and live more in tune with the Earth.

But as I began to feel rooted in my life as someone who worked the land, I quickly realized all the cultural and historic baggage that came with that. My father’s ancestors worked in the fields as slaves, in fact they were slaves owned by my mother’s ancestors. I’m literally the product of ownership and oppression reuniting, as if to rewrite the story. So when I ended up in the fields myself, I felt deeply conflicted. It was as if all of my feelings about my family history and this country’s agricultural history were converging at once. It was as if my agrarian story was already written.

Many people ask me what inspired the creation of my photographic storytelling project, now turned book, The Color of Food. My answer always starts off with, “Well, I was just a girl who wanted to farm and then…” And it’s that ‘and then’ which brings them on a very personal journey with me. To these curious folks I always launch into explaining how, after joining the food movement and the beautifully crunchy calvary of organic farmers picking up the pitchfork nationwide, I instantly felt more alive and connected to the earth than I ever had. I had found my path.

But at the very same time, I also began to question whether I, and other people like me, belonged on the farm. As a young woman of color, the food and agricultural industry — crunchy, organic, or not — didn’t seem to represent me, or other communities of color. Nor, for the most part, did the farmer and activist movements working to bring change to the industry. My heart sank with the realization that this was yet another arena communities of color were being excluded from.

But then, within, something lit up. Whenever I pushed seeds into the earth with my hands; when I bit into a freshly harvested tomato from the vine; when I knelt in the sun watching the sweat drip from my brow to the black soil below, I felt a pull to discover a deeper truth. It was a truth that recognized the historical inequities in agriculture and the food system for communities of color, but also carried beautiful legacies resiliently persisting in our communities.

It was a shining promise that if I began to dig with open eyes, I could unearth an agrarian story far different than the one I was seeing for people of color. It was a story where food deserts, farm labor or the history of oppressive sharecropping and slavery didn’t define us. It was a reminder — no, a validation — that stewarding this land and eating the diet of my ancestors was indeed a path laid out for me, for all of us.

This promise of truth tugging at me on the farm is how I ended up out on the road digging for answers. This, I always conclude, is how I found myself living out of a 1990 Oldsmobile station wagon during the second-hottest year on record toting my Canon, pen and notebook around from farm to farm, traveling from the red-clay farms of the Black South to the desert farms of the Navajo Nation.

This is the story of The Color of Food and I hope you’ll join me as I share its lessons, reflections, and inspirations along with my continued experiences as a brown girl farming.

Photo by Natasha Bowens

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