I was standing on 40 acres of uncultivated farmland on a crisp October day when I met this young black farmer; Soon-to-be-farmer actually. I was like him, or he was like me: interested in farming, looking for how to get started, noting the significance of FWB – Farming While Black.
While I looked out over the gold and burgundy hills surrounding us as the sun slipped down, I had a feeling we’d be working together at some point soon. I was right.
Jalal Sabur, 32 years old, is an organizer for WESPAC and a student of Just Food’s Farm School NYC program. He grew up in White Plains, NY and is planning to move upstate to start a farming collective with other food justice and earth cultivating young folk. He is on a mission to feed and educate his people.
Check out my interview with him below:
Brown.Girl.Farming(BGF): Has anyone else in your family farmed before?
Jalal Sabur (JS): My dad farms in Pennsylvania. He has an herb farm and was an herbalist first; curing cancer and AIDS. He recently got married and his wife has a youth entrepreneurship organization and they combined youth growing food with an entrepreneurship program called Dig It. They grow food year round and sell it at markets and they run a mobile market.
BGF: Do you know if you have any other farmers in your family history?
JS: No, but my ma’s side of the family is from Tennessee, so I’m pretty sure they were farming at some point. They were into food. They had a restaurant. I grew up with a large garden behind my house, so it’s natural for me to think about food. But it wasn’t until I met my father that I paid more attention to it.
BGF: Tell me about the farming you’re doing now.
JS: Currently, I’m in farm school, which is a new urban agriculture program by Just Food. It’s a two-year course on all aspects of farming, from food justice, to carpentry, to small farm business management. We’ve been going pretty heavy into soil and the importance of soil, botany and crop identification. But we also get heavy with the theoretical part of it all – ‘What is food justice? What is food sovereignty?’
BGF: What is food sovereignty to you?
JS: Food Sovereignty to me is to have control over your food; to have self-determination around where and how your food’s coming to you; who is growing it and who’s making money off of it. Food sovereignty to me looks like what Shirley Sherrod was doing in the ’60s with a land trust. They had about 6,000 acres, growing food and no one else could come develop on that land. But then I also think about international struggles and land loss issues, like farmers in Sudan, the Dominican Republic and Honduras and all these other places. That can’t happen. That shouldn’t happen in any nation.
BGF: How are you trying to contribute to that movement?
JS: For me, it’s trying to figure out a way to develop a project that’s highly sustainable, where we’re growing quality food at a low cost. Where people, Black people – who’ve been most affected by industrial food culture – can access high quality food. It’s really important to me that whatever I contribute to this movement is done with integrity and from the bottom up.
BGF: What got you interested in food and farming?
JS: I guess I’ve always been interested in healing my community. Healing them from the trauma we receive, addressing inequities in our community – particularly economic inequities. Growing up I worked in social work. My family was in social work and it’s all I saw – that the system was creating a dependency – and I wanted to create an independent, self-sufficient status for Black people. Farming is our history. Black people helped build [the agriculture system], but we’ve lost touch with it. How do we get that back? I used to do a lot of homeless and housing organizing, always working on hunger issues; always seeing housing and land issues and people struggling to get housing and then on top of that trying to get good food. But you look at farming and you’re getting housing, land and growing good food, and you should be getting paid well to do it. I kind of feel like if our people went back to farming, we wouldn’t be struggling to survive as much as we are in urban settings.
BGF: But what do you think about the current struggle of small farmers, especially Black farmers?
JS: See, that’s the thing. It goes back to the food sovereignty question. There’s a reason why there’s a struggle to be a farmer, because of corporate and government control over food and agriculture. They’ve created a dependency for farmers and how they get their seeds, their crop subsidies, and how their products are distributed. If we supported a movement to make sure farmers can survive, then folks could figure out a way to be truly self-sufficient. We have to find alternatives to living in a toxic environment.
BGF: What does your community think of you farming?
JS: Most of my close friends support it; they see the importance of it. Some people I talk to are like “That shit reminds me of sharecropping”, they can’t get over that. But for the most part, people see the need for our people to have food and the importance of being a Black farmer. They see the importance of creating that independence.
**This post is part of a new series on my blog where I’ll be sharing firsthand stories from other brown farmers. If you’d like to share your story as a farmer or descendant of farmers of color, click here for more info!