Magazine Articles

Growing Community

yellow sunflowers against a blue sky with white clouds and power lines.

A network of Ohio Black farmers has cultivated an interest in regenerative agriculture and a support system for each other.

Text by Cheryl Durgans | Photographs by Matt Odom | Issue 1, 2024

Urban Growing Sunflowers grow tall as power lines stretch overhead. © Matt Odom

In September, about 250 people gathered at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, for the 2023 Black Farming Conference. They learned how to grow mushrooms and how to make creams and salves. In one-on-one consultations, attendees learned about applying for grants for their agriculture businesses. That evening, participants gathered around a bonfire at a nearby farm and ate soup made from the plants grown in the area.

The event, in its fourth year, was hosted by an Ohio-based organization called the Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) Food and Farming Network. Launched in 2021, it’s a community-driven network of area growers, as well as those interested in food justice and food policy, joining together for support—one of many grassroots efforts around the country.

close up of hands pouring seeds out of a brown bag.
New Growth River Johnson holds some of the seeds of the native plants she's growing. © Matt Odom

Ohio’s population of Black farmers dwindled from around 2,000 in the 1900s to about 344 in the state today. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reported that since 1920, when there were nearly 1 million Black farmers in America, the number of Black farmers had declined by about 95%. A class-action lawsuit filed against the USDA in 1997 made clear some of the discriminatory systems, practices and outright racism that contributed to that decline. It would become one of the largest civil rights settlements in U.S. history.

Out of this legacy have arisen local, community-driven efforts to support established and emerging Black farmers. Among the BIPOC Food and Farming Network in Ohio, there are farmers in both rural and urban areas, people with small gardens, herbalists and folks interested in food sovereignty. Some are interested in regenerative growing practices—an approach to agriculture that focuses on rehabilitating the soil. Some are building businesses. Several have been drawn to farming as a way to counteract “food deserts”—places where communities lack access to nutritious food such as fresh fruits and vegetables typically found in grocery stores.

close up of a gourd painted decoratively.
Art & Nature Some of the growers find creative outlets in their farming. River Johnson has painted gourds she has grown in the past. © Matt Odom

Some farmers in the group are looking for connection—both to other farmers and to the land itself. For network member River Johnson, inspiration to work on the land comes from deep history.

“It goes back to the young, the generations,” she says, “thinking about Indigenous farming and agriculture and the connection culturally that my people and our people had and observed—reconnecting with that and understanding and being inspired to carry that forward, to try to understand how we lost the connection and how to rebuild that connection.”

Below meet some of the members of the BIPOC Food and Farming Network working to help their communities, change farming practices and renew a diverse legacy of farming in the Midwest.

Woman in a purple dress kneels on the ground surrounded by green and purple plants.
River Johnson © Matt Odom

River Johnson | Breaking Barriers

River Johnson was born into a military family. When she was 12 years old, her family moved to Mad River Township, outside of Dayton. It was there that Johnson developed an appreciation for nature, roaming the countryside near her home as a child.

She recalls that her family was one of the first Black families to integrate the community.

“I remember moving there and being confronted with racism,” Johnson says. “When we moved there, they actually shot out our window.”

In the face of that racism, Johnson’s family stayed in the community, and her mother grew a vegetable garden, not so much because she loved to garden, but because she loved to cook.

Johnson herself worked in the corporate sector before finding her calling in working with the earth. While getting her master’s degree at Antioch University Midwest, she studied different types of food systems, such as market gardens, permaculture, and those using biodynamic frameworks and organic farming methods.

“I started working with several community gardens and community centers, helping to establish perma-culture gardening, Indigenous gardening methods, and teaching and doing little workshops,” Johnson says.

BIPOC farmers in particular, she says, face a lack of money and safety, making it challenging to grow in the regenerative farming space. Today Johnson is developing a garden in a historically underserved community in West Dayton. There, she grows primarily native plants, trees and shrubs. She uses gourds she grows as canvases to paint on. And she collects seeds from and propagates more than 20 species of native plants—the beginnings of her dream of a future native plant nursery.

“I want to have my business there,” Johnson says. “I want it to be a demonstration of what a pollinator garden looks like, what wildlife habitat looks like, and what a regenerative household can look like in an urban environment.”

woman stands leaning against a large John Deere tractor wheel.
Patty Allen © Matt Odom

Patty Allen | Growing a Network

Patty Allen’s connection to farming and advocacy goes back several generations. Allen, the program manager of the BIPOC Food and Farming Network, grew up in Dayton, about 230 miles from an all-Black farming settlement called Stringtown. In the 1860s, her great, great, great grandparents were part of a group of four or five families that co-founded Stringtown in Champaign County, Illinois. By 1905, other Black farmers and businessmen had created a “colored business cooperative,” focused on selling groceries.

Allen remembers receiving her first garden plot when she was about 10 years old, launching a lifelong interest in growing food and, later, food justice. She took a break from a career in journalism and public relations to travel to Europe, where she learned about organic farming in Oxfordshire, England. In 2018, she took a farm apprenticeship in Brewster, New York, where she worked hands on raising goats, chickens and vegetable crops alongside a group of nuns.

“I wanted to do something that was growing, nurturing, making a difference in the world,” Allen says.

In 2022 she returned to Ohio to run what was then known as the BIPOC Farming Network as a program under a local environmental organization called Agraria Center for Regenerative Practice. When that organization developed financial issues in 2023, she took the program independent, determined that it should continue, and later changed the name to reflect its broader mission.

Today the BIPOC Food and Farming Network is supported by grants from several organizations, including Hall Hunger Initiative, The Nature Conservancy, Central State University Extension, the Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education program, and its key sponsor, The 365 Project—a local community organization that promotes African American heritage, Black culture and racial equity.

Among its initiatives is an annual Black farming conference as well as regular meetings on farming topics and events attended by alumni of a former fellowship program under Agraria that was focused on regenerative farming. In 2023 the group launched a policy fellowship designed to educate farmers about agricultural laws and policies at the local, state and federal levels.

man sits on a wood pallet outside with his hands clasped, resting on his knees.
A.J. Boyce © Matt Odom

A.J. Boyce | Supporting Conservationists

“These urban and smaller growers come to food production from a lens of environmental justice that is intrinsically connected from the start. Supporting them advances the work we're all trying to do.”

A.J. Boyce is an agriculture conservation practitioner for The Nature Conservancy in Ohio. He was on the planning committee for the 2023 Black Farming Conference on behalf of TNC, which used USDA funding to provide support for a regenerative farming fellowship series in the area from 2020 to 2023 as well as a recent farming policy fellowship held in collaboration with the BIPOC Food and Farming Network.

woman sits on a chair with trees and a small corn field behind her.
Sharifa Tomlinson © Matt Odom

Sharifa Tomlinson | Creating a Legacy

“I never knew I could be a farmer,” says Sharifa Tomlinson. Born in 1960 and raised by two schoolteachers in Massachusetts, Tomlinson never saw agriculture as an option. “At that time, at my age, Black women—we could be nurses, we could be teachers, we could be social workers. If we were really good, we could be doctors, lawyers. No one ever said there were other things, too.”

Today, she describes herself as a “woods womyn,” as well as a registered nurse, doula and community educator. She helped run the 2023 Black Farming Conference after previously participating in the Regenerative Farmer Fellowship, where she learned regenerative agriculture techniques.

In 2017, Tomlinson founded a 12-acre urban sanctuary near Dayton that she calls ARROWROCK FARM, becoming a full-time farmer in 2023. She’s building it into a cooperative urban market for farmers of color and a demonstration farm, complete with housing for those learning about regenerative farming on the property. She recently expanded her poultry farming operations, rapidly growing from 30 chickens to 1,000.

She sells her produce and butchered chickens to an Ohio program that distributes them to food banks and pantries. “That’s a big deal to me. I’m able to give out sustainable food that’s locally sourced,” Tomlinson says. “It’s right from here, and it’s going to our community in the Miami Valley.”

Tomlinson wants to encourage people in her generation to grow wealth generationally—through passing land to family, or to fellow BIPOC growers—“to make sure that people in my generation know to attempt to leave their land to people in the future generation that will keep on farming it.

“If you are a farmer now, or if you have land acreage and want to do something with it, don’t always look at your family,” she says. “Yes, give something to your family, but look at other BIPOC farmers that might want to carry that legacy on, even if they don’t carry your name.”

man squats among squash vines with an industrial plant visible behind him across the street.
Gregory Muhammad © Matt Odom

Gregory Muhammad | Feeding a Community

Gregory Muhammad grew up gardening.

“My father used to always have a garden in our yard,” says Muhammad, who was raised in Dayton. “And I always planted something myself, even growing up, at five, six, seven—I don’t know how old [I was when] I started.”

By the time he became a student at Tuskegee University in the 1970s, Muhammad was already interested in farming. Today the university is one of 107 remaining historically Black colleges and universities in the United States. “I started learning about health and nutrition as well as Black history” there, he says.

A longtime educator, Muhammad has taught people how to garden and has provided fresh food to people living in food deserts. He operates a 4-acre farm in Dayton called Oasis.

“This year we had corn, okra, green beans, red potatoes, lettuce," he says. "I planted some raspberry bushes last year, so we got quite a few raspberries. I had some watermelon and yellow squash.”

Muhammad sells the crops he grows at local farmers markets and festivals. He also works as the garden manager for the Dayton men’s shelter St. Vincent de Paul, and the produce grown there is used in the homeless shelter’s food kitchen.

Muhammad’s connections through the BIPOC Food and Farming Network have helped him feel less alone as a Black farmer. It’s been encouraging, he says, “just to know there are other people who want to farm or garden or recognize the need for healthy organically grown foods and vegetables, to know that they are there.”

woman stands among empty raised bed containers with one foot propped on the edge of a raised bed.
Anita Armstead © Matt Odom

Anita Armstead | Reconnecting to Heritage

“I’ve been able to reconnect with the land and my heritage in a way I could not have imagined even just two short years earlier,” says Anita Armstead.

Armstead, a single mother of three children, including a niece and nephew, gravitated to farming through “happenstance,” she says. “I attended a lecture on food sovereignty, and the need for that in the Black community, the need for Black farms. I prayed and asked God how I could help.” In 2021 a community member who wanted to see their land used to grow food allowed Armstead to begin farming their 3.5-acre plot of land in a quiet neighborhood of Dayton. Two years later, Armstead bought the land outright. She named it Eden’s Harvest.

Farming is a part of Armstead’s ministry. “I feel that the land is a gift for us. It’s an opportunity for us to not only connect with our maker, but to actually connect with ourselves.” Armstead grows zucchini, squash, beets, cabbage, broccolini, lettuce, tomatoes and peppers, in addition to amaranth, wildflowers and sunflowers.

People in her neighborhood are able not only to gather food from her farm, she says, “but they can also learn how to grow food themselves.

“In the future, our goal is to grow more culturally appropriate foods that really hold space for the cultural practices of our community as BIPOC people,” Armstead says. “Foods like collard greens, and dark leafy greens, and okra, potatoes, beans and watermelon.”

She works with a Dayton-based food truck called Food for the Journey, which prepares hot meals for the community. “As we expand, we are definitely looking for other ways to distribute and partner with work that’s already being done in the community to increase food access,” says Armstead.

Now, Armstead wants to do even more. In 2023 she joined the BIPOC Food and Farming Network’s policy fellowship to learn about agricultural laws and how to advocate for policy change.

The network, she says, has also connected her with people of many different experience levels who are all working to change the food system in some meaningful way.

“For me, that has been beneficial because not only do I get to see through others where I can go, but it also allows me to see where I’ve been,” she says.

About the Creators

Cheryl Durgans is a writer, artist, herbalist and licensed massage therapist from Ohio. She is an award-winning columnist and the first African American editor and co-owner of the 143-year-old local newspaper The Yellow Springs News.

Matt Odom is a photographer based in Macon, Georgia. His work has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal, among others.