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By Hal B. Klein
In March and April, as the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold of the region, the program Ebony Lunsford-Evans designed to teach gardening to seniors on the North Side of Pittsburgh was shut down.
It was also the first spring for her business, FarmerGirlEb, through which she sells a variety of produce grown in plots peppered throughout the West End and North Side. At the time, nobody was sure how long the stay-at-home order would last and what it would mean for the season’s sales.
In May, TaRay and Raynice Kelly launched their small business, Soil Sisters Plant Nursery, selling seedlings to experienced and beginner gardeners eager to get a start on the growing season. They worried, however, about the fate of their garden-focused summer camp for kids.
Those working in agriculture, a fragile business to start with, typically handle so many variables each year that are out of business owners’ hands. But 2020 has been a season full of more than the usual mix of uncertainty, one shaped by the economic and cultural impact of a pandemic few could have planned for. The ongoing public health measures in place to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 made it harder to connect with potential customers. At the same time, it has bolstered an awareness of food access and increased sensitivities to what is produced locally.
For new business owners Lunsford-Evans and the Kelly sisters, the pandemic, as well as the social justice movement that has grown exponentially this summer, put a greater emphasis on what had driven them to start their own companies. Both are part of a relatively new movement of Black farmers in Pittsburgh, and their business goals include helping to create a better system, a lasting framework for Black-owned agricultural businesses, along with addressing issues surrounding food apartheid — a term that highlights the lack of high-quality, affordable fresh food and the systemic race-based structures that cause it.
“We’re working to change an unfair system,” TaRay Kelly says. “There aren’t too many of us, yet. So we’re going to put that knowledge together and expand it.”
Building the movement
According to the recently released 2017 United States Department of Agriculture census, there are zero Black-owned production farms or ranches in Allegheny County and just three in the counties surrounding the city.
The growers who set up stands at farmers markets and those with direct access to area restaurants, particularly high-end establishments, are almost universally white. Dan Dalton, Three Rivers Hub manager for Pasa Sustainable Agriculture, says that this reflects the current population of farmers in the area who are growing at scale, but that there are an increasing number of BIPOC farmers who are distributing their produce through different channels such as donation and sharing among neighbors.
TaRay Kelly says that changing the system means taking a full-spectrum approach to sustainability, starting with compost and seeds, moving through the growing season, and then into extending and preserving the harvest through the winter.
“We need to think about the whole system. We should be able to support Black ownership throughout the system. And we want to all work together to elevate that culture,” she says. “That’s how our economic system should work.”
For Lunsford-Evans, sustainability is erecting an infrastructure that addresses everything from reviving and sharing knowledge about how to grow food at home to creating greater access to transportation and mobility so that Black farmers can get their products to neighborhoods across Pittsburgh.
“We need an economy that teaches our children how to grow and how to get a stake in the agriculture industry. Right now, we have none,” Lunsford-Evans says.
More than two decades ago, Raqueeb Bey, one of the movement’s pioneers, began to lay a foundation for this work toward systematic change after she moved back to Pittsburgh from Atlanta in 2000 and was inspired by her godfather, Baba Amir Rashid, an avid backyard gardener. She went on to found an organization to teach young people in the city how to garden, Mama Africa’s Green Scouts, in 2011 and then, in 2015, she formed the Black Urban Gardeners and Farmers of Pittsburgh Cooperative, (also known as BUG-FPC) “a collective of Black men and women involved in urban gardening and food justice for Black people.”
The need to pass on the fraying generational knowledge of how to garden is why she took action, she said. In addition to what she learned from her godfather, she tapped into resources ranging from establishment organizations such as the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture and Grow Pittsburgh to permaculturists who ran Landslide Community Farm. Those early connections led to other organizational work, including with the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, where she served on the steering committee through December 2019 and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, where she serves as a board member.
Now, in addition to her work at Grow Pittsburgh, where she oversees a tool lending library as the garden resource coordinator, she also runs the Homewood Community Historic Farm, a project of BUG-FPC. It broke ground in 2017 and has blossomed into abundance this summer under the supervision of Bey and a fellow certified master gardener, Celeste Taylor. On a hot, sunny August afternoon, you’ll find a crew of volunteers tending to bountiful beds of vegetables, an apiary, juvenile fruit trees and a hoop house on two formerly blighted lots on a block in Homewood covering an area of 31,000 square feet.
“Black people growing food has become more mainstream,” Bey says, referring to the shift in thinking in Pittsburgh but also reflecting an ongoing change throughout the country. “But,” she says, “like I always tell people about this farm in Homewood, we didn’t do this overnight.”
Kent Bey (no relation to Raqueeb) is one of the newer entrants into the local industry. A longtime community organizer of multidisciplinary arts and youth leadership programs, it’s his first year tending to Peace and Friendship Farm, which includes 85 beds, mostly of galvanized steel, on land in the Hill District.
On a hot August afternoon, as he talks about the work, the novice farmer has something in common with just about every farmer and gardener in Pittsburgh — he’s battling groundhogs. It’s just one of the obstacles he is learning how to deal with. There are also irrigation issues to figure out this hot, dry summer. But the United States Navy veteran — he served overseas in the 1980s — is confident he and his colleagues can handle it all. The farm is the latest project of his Project Love Coalition, an organization that empowers veterans.
“We’re accustomed to doing service for our nation, so we wanted to continue to do service for our communities,” Bey says.
Starting a farm made sense, he says, because of its therapeutic value, both in the physical and mental act of working the land and the impression it makes on a neighborhood. There are currently about 20 people working in the plot, with a core team of eight that put in the most work.
What Bey wants is for Peace and Friendship Farm to become a catalyst to a more substantial farming and workforce development project, helping veterans use the skills they learned in military service to become community leaders and feed those less fortunate.
“This is all justice-related. You’re dealing with housing injustice, with gentrification. You’re dealing with police brutality. And if you have an urban farm, which is what we have here, you’re empowered to grow what you eat,” he says.
Empowering Black residents to have agency over what they eat is what matters most to Lunsford-Evans, too. The longtime educator teaches everyone from youth to seniors how to garden and what to do with the food that they grow.
“The fear of not knowing what to do is a barrier. People ask if they have to go to school to learn how to grow. Or, they lost one plant years ago, and they think they can’t do it,” she says. “I’m on a mission to restore the lost abilities of a generation.”
When the pandemic threatened to pause that work, at least temporarily, she got creative.
“When COVID came along, it really opened up my eyes to the struggles of senior citizens,” she says.
In March and April, she set up gardens for seniors at the community center run by Allen Place Community Services on the North Side, where the original teaching program she had designed was shut down. She helped them with upkeep, keeping a safe distance. “I Zoom with them, I email them, they send me pictures if they’re having issues,” she says.
The latest project at the Homewood Community Historic Farm is a meditation and healing garden in the shape of an ankh on the corner of Monticello and North Murtland. It will be furnished with aromatic herbs and colorful tiles, a place for refuge and reflection. Like many urban agricultural spaces, part of its mission is to bring people together, Raqueeb Bey says.
Bey is also leading the charge for BUG-FPC to expand into operating a cooperative grocery store in Homewood. “This is a neighborhood of food apartheid. We need a store here that serves the community. It’s not just about growing gardens. There is community organizing we need to do, too,” she says.
On a one-acre Perry Hilltop farm, in early August, Abdulkadir Chirambo, executive director of Mwanakuche Farm, works with three elders in the community to produce a field laden with okra, peppers, tomatoes, greens and a massive swath of sweet corn.
Last year, the food from what’s now called Mwanakuche Community Garden went to feed the Somali community, as well as the farm’s neighbors and anyone who happened to visit the occasional farmstand. This year, despite having open days for people to pick, the harvest is in danger of going to waste. “I have no idea what I’m going to do with all this food right now,” Chirambo says.
Chirambo says that he was planning on setting up a stand for the farm at the CitiParks Northside Farmers’ Market, but internal financial struggles prevented him from applying for a spot this year.
Even if he had applied, this year would have been hard for a new farmer to get access, according to Christina Howell, executive director of Bloomfield Development Corp., which runs one of the largest farmers’ markets in the city.
She says that because of the issues surrounding the pandemic they only added one new vendor, a fabric mending business, to the Bloomfield Saturday Market this year. Market attendance is down about 35 percent, but the growers are seeing sales that are equal to, or, in some cases, significantly exceeding previous years.
Howell says that the market operators hadn’t made much of an effort in the past to reach out to Black farmers, but that it’s become a priority for when the market is able once again to expand the number of growers it can support.
And there are organizations such as Grow Pittsburgh, Grounded PGH and Pasa Sustainable Agriculture that are offering in-kind labor, advice and help navigating barriers farmers run into.
Chirambo, for example, is now working on a larger project — Mwanakuche Farm, a 13.5 acre piece of land in Mercer County he is leasing from the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy.
It is an endeavor that he says has benefited from advice and introductions from several of those organizations, along with the Penn State Extension. On the new farm, the Somali-Bantu community will grow food crops friendly to the western Pennsylvania climate, and will also aim to adapt Somali crops to the environment.
He also plans on raising animals such as goats, chickens and maybe even a few cows in a closed-loop system where animals feed the farm, and the farm feeds the animals. It’ll allow the Somali-Bantu to combine their homeland’s institutional knowledge with farming practices they’ve learned in the United States. They plan to bring the farm’s expected bounty back to Allegheny County to distribute in areas affected by food poverty.
“It will represent us. It will be a place for the community to visit and for people to come and learn more about our culture,” Chirambo says.
Growing the business
When TaRay and Raynise Kelly opened Soil Sisters in 2020, it was both a business decision and one made with a bigger purpose: They envision themselves as the next set of pioneers for systemic change.
Both sisters have significant experience in growing plants. TaRay Kelly works at the University of Pittsburgh, helping to maintain the grounds — she says she was the first Black woman, and only the second woman overall, to have her position in which she does pest control, hardscaping, tree care and flower planting on campus. Raynise Kelly studied horticulture at Bidwell and interned with Plantscape, Tree Pittsburgh and The Frick and then worked a two-year externship at Brenckles Greenhouses. After graduation, she landed a job at Grow Pittsburgh, where she still works.
“We’re often the first people who look like us who are in the room trying to do something,” says TaRay Kelly. “So, if we meet someone else who wants to do it, we’re there to share this with them.”
Opening and running a plant nursery and selling seedlings is a way to keep breaking through barriors. That’s because it is a part of the food economy Black people in Pittsburgh have no stake in. And, continuing the earlier efforts of organizations such as BUG-FPC, it’s also a means of empowering other people to grow their food, too.
And while acknowledging that the local food justice movement has received more support from Pittsburgh institutions and private foundations, they point to challenges new entrants into the business world still face.
Earlier this year, the Soil Sisters were at first denied a permit through the city of Pittsburgh to build a hoop house — a structure similar to a greenhouse that, among other small differences, doesn’t use electricity for heating and cooling. It took a concentrated effort through connections they had built through their advocacy work to finally get the help they needed to work their way through the bureaucracy.
“There are people within our network who understand how the system isn’t fair. They see it. And they’re using their platforms, their privilege, their connections to fight for us,” Raynise Kelly says.
That access to influence shouldn’t be the way to get things done, she said. “People from out of state are coming into neighborhoods, building places that people that live in them can’t afford. What value does that add to those communities? We have two inner-city residents, natives of this city, with a table and a tent selling seedlings. Why aren’t we the ones you’re helping?”
Lisa Freeman, owner of Manchester Growing Together Farm, just built a greenhouse on a large plot that she owns in Manchester. Instead of another run of boxy, generic houses put up by developers, something that’s happening throughout the North Side neighborhood, Freeman’s land is vibrant with summer vegetables and decorative touches, including a colorful rooster mural. The longtime urban gardener plans on filing the greenhouse over the next few weeks for a winter CSA subscription. She also plans on offering a full year’s worth of produce next growing season.
She said the industry needs to address access — and land ownership.
“It has to be looked at through a full lens. And the way we’ve been doing it until now hasn’t been fair. It hasn’t been equitable,” she says. Utilizing public programs such as Adopt-a-Lot to build a small farm won’t necessarily build lasting equity for the farmers, for example.
“The people doing it on public land, they’re providing numbers the nonprofits are feeding back to funders. And those organizations are using those numbers to get big donations and feeding back pennies.”
“I don’t want to be beholden to anyone. I own this,” she says. “I want to develop wealth for my next generation. Black people haven’t developed that wealth.”
“Access to land is a big issue,” says Lunsford-Evans, echoing Freeman. “As is the lack of Black-owned banks.”
Lunsford-Evans, who grows her produce in her backyard, a nearby community garden and in her sister’s yard, sees herself selling her array of produce, as well as value-added products such as tinctures and salves, at more markets, particularly in the West End, where access to fresh produce is limited.
“My complete vision is to consolidate into one place where I can grow food and flowers, and have a space for education and for the community to grow,” she says.
Her business plan for FarmerGirlEb is to eventually own acreage but right now she’s thinking about the generational roadblocks — such as redlining — to getting there.
“We as Black people need to look to ourselves for what we can do to build ourselves. We are the understructure of the United States. We hold it up. But we have no base for ourselves. So, we need to get together to build that,” she says.
A movement grows
At the Homewood Historic Farm, Raqueeb Bey noticed an increased interest this summer from the community — more people getting in touch with her to learn how to grow their own food. That curiosity, she says, is beginning to extend the network of Black agriculture in Pittsburgh.
“We love that more people are growing their own food. And we love it that more Black growers are coming together as a collective to work,” she says.
Lunsford-Evans says that connecting and collaborating with people has been hard to do this summer with everyone trying to stay as safe as possible. Still, she’s built a loyal customer base at a small weekend farmers market in Sheraden, and she has on occasion brought her produce to neighborhoods such as Clariton, south of the city, and to areas farther north, to Aliquippa in Beaver County, that don’t typically have access to fresh produce.
“I feel so secure when I come out here [to my garden], regardless of what’s happening,” says Lunsford-Evans. “If I don’t have any money. If I can’t go anywhere. If my kids are hungry, they can go out and grab strawberries or an apple. If they want to have a salad, they can get lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. That makes me feel good. So, that’s what I want for other people, too.”
TaRay Kelly says that, “we couldn’t have asked for a better first season or introduction to our business.” They have a fall crop of seedlings that will be ready for sale in the forthcoming weeks. “The show must go on. Everything is back in its rotation.”
In July, the sisters were able to get their Soil Sisters summer camp running, outdoors with face coverings and physical distancing measures in place to ensure best public health practices. They ran two Sunday sessions — for 10 kids 6 to 9 and 12 kids 10 to 13 — for five weeks at McKinley Top Park in Beltzhoover.
That next generation will “think beyond where we are,” Raynise Kelly says. “Where can you put yourself to make a profit? How does the chain of command work? What are the pieces in the system? I’m buying tons of pots, for example. I don’t know any Black-owned pot companies. Somebody needs to get out there and start making some pots, so I can buy pots from that company.”
Updated and corrected Sept. 11,2020: A photo caption was replaced at 2:30 p.m. to correct a copying and pasting error that also meant the woman in the photo was wrongly identified. We deeply regret the mistake.
Updated and corrected Oct. 2, 2020: An earlier version of this story, misstated the title of Abdulkadir Chirambo. He is the executive director of Mwanakuche Farm. The article also incorrectly described the type of denial the Soil Sisters received when they applied for a permit for their hoop house and the name of the agency that denied it. The Soil Sisters were denied their original request for a permit through the city of Pittsburgh. They were later granted a variance through the Zoning Board of Adjustment.