Sankofa Farms: Putting down resilient roots to grow a more secure future

Sankofa Farms from above (Bell, 2020).

Founded in 2016 by Kamal Bell, Sankofa Farms is a 12-acre farm in Cedar Grove, NC that educates young Black men about agriculture and helps them to become agents of change. Sankofa also supplies food to urban communities that do not have access to fresh and healthy produce. The farm currently produces dehydrated chips, farm fresh eggs, and farm goods and is home to a summer agricultural program for young Black men. 

The name ‘Sankofa’ is a west African word which means, “go back and get it”, and to Bell, this reminds him to remember his African culture and carry it with him going forward (K. Bell, personal communication, September 30, 2020). Bell believes in self-sufficiency, serving historically marginalized groups, and encouraging individuals to act as agents of change in their communities. He is proud of his own African heritage and is helping his students reclaim their own heritage through farming.

Kamal Bell had been an Agriculture teacher in Durham, NC for 5 years when he noticed that the school systems did not have many opportunities for young Black males (The Atlantic Festival, 2019). Bell asked his school if he could start a summer experience for students using the school’s garden, but the school said ‘No’. In 2016, Bell purchased a 12-acre plot of land and founded the Sankofa Farm. Bell and a few students spent almost two years clearing and preparing the overgrown land that had once been a trash dump (Quillin, 2019). After Bell and the boys cleared the land, one of the students called the farm “an ideal farm like one you would see on television” (The Atlantic Festival, 2019).

In food deserts, people are forced to by groceries at places without fresh produce, such as drug stores and gas stations (stock photos, pictured above).

While North Carolina has quite a substantial agricultural base, with over $12 million added to the economy by the agricultural sector in 2018 (General Statistics, 2018) and ranking 8th overall in the nation for farm income, the USDA estimates that roughly 1.5 million people, or 1 in 10, in North Carolina live in a “food desert” (Healthy Food Access, 2013) A food desert is defined as an area with a low income, where a third or more of the population live more than 1 mile away from a grocery store (Healthy Food Access, 2013). This substantially limits people living in these areas from regularly obtaining fresh, quality produce as part of a healthy diet. As Bell notes in an interview with Medium: “Through conversations with my students and their families, I learned that many purchase most of their food from places like convenience stores and grocery stores with limited healthy options” (Medium, 2018). According to a nationwide interactive map produced by the USDA, 1 in 5 people in Durham live in a food desert (USDA ERS, 2020).

While African Americans make up roughly 13% of the United States population, they make up only 1.2% of farm owners nationally, according to the USDA (Census of Agriculture Highlights, 2014). The history of land loss among African American farmers in the 20th Century is an extensive and complex subject, one which cannot be given due justice in the confines of this article. Systemic racism came in the form of programs such as a USDA federal lending program, which repeatedly denied loans to Black farmers. The effects of such programs are evident to this day, as Black farmers receive on average only half the loan amounts given to white farmers, and only a third of Black farmers received any kind of government payout in 2007 (as compared to about one half of white farmers) (Cowan & Feder, 2013). Not only have the amount of Black farm owners decreased over the decades due to practices like these, but youth interest in farming in Black communities has also decreased (Gilman, 2013). A large contributing factor to this decrease was the absorption, rather than integration, of the Black New Farmers of America (NFA) program by the white Future Farmers of America (FFA) program in 1965 (New Farmers of America Records, 2016). 

An interactive map created by the USDA shows by percentage populations that live in food deserts (USDA ERS, 2020).

“You lost Black agricultural teachers,” says Bell, which, combined with other effects of systemic racism within the agricultural sector, lead to “this whole chain that’s broken, where Black people are literally… starting over and starting new” (K. Bell, personal communication, September 30, 2020).  With this loss of historical knowledge and interest, he asks: “How do you get Black kids into agriculture?” Organizations like Sankofa Farms are striving to tackle this problem by working within the local community to build interest and skills in agriculture among the next generation, as well as more intangible skills and knowledge that are picked up from working on the farm (Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy Website).

(Sankofa Farms, 2020a)

 

Sankofa Farms’ work is rooted in re-establishing the connection between Black communities and the land that has historically been eroded by centuries of structural racism. “Growing food is a tool for dismantling systemic oppression” (Gripper, 2020) and Bell also views agriculture as a tool for liberation (Dillahunt, 2019). In this way, Sankofa Farms is attempting to strengthen the existing values and beliefs about land in his community, and to recharacterize the relationship with the land as one of freedom rather than oppression. In her article “The Cracked Mirror”, Wangari Maathai discusses the importance of cultural revival and perpetuating “the knowledge and wisdom inherited from the past” in order to ensure the future (2004). Drawing on this shared knowledge has been made difficult by the historical efforts to strip Black people of their land. Bell’s challenge is twofold: working to revive the connection between Black communities and the land while also starting a farm from scratch in the 21st century. In addition to acquiring the land and infrastructure for Sankofa, he is working to combat the dearth of Black agricultural professionals simply by offering Black students exposure to farming at a young age.

 

Another key component of Sankofa Farms’ success is the triple bottom line approach, a process that focuses on “the integration of social well-being, environmental protection, and economic viability goals” (Rogers & Ryan, 2001). Through the Agricultural Academy, Bell focuses on serving the youth in his community. The work at the farm ties together social, environmental, and economic goals by providing young people of color with an opportunity to learn farming techniques and see how those translate into economic opportunity. By providing students and their families with healthy produce, Sankofa Farms increases access to fresh, nutritious food (Bell, 2018). Bell also works to ameliorate deficits in his community. Food insecurity, inequitable resource allocation, and health issues are just a few of the problems Sankofa Farms seeks to address (Matsuoka, 2020). In recent years, community developers have sought to replace the deficit-oriented methods with asset-based community development (ABCD), an approach that focuses on community strengths with special emphasis on social assets, such as individual talent and informal networks (Mathie & Cunningham, 2003). It’s important to recognize that ABCD is designed as an alternative approach for external actors. Bell is a part of the community he seeks to help, which helps him avoid some of the major pitfalls typically associated with the deficiency model. An approach that focuses on community needs often generates dependency on services (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1996). While Bell hopes Sankofa Farms provides assistance to his community, he also sees his work as a story of resiliency and a model for others trying to do similar community development work (K. Bell, personal communication, September 30, 2020). By maintaining a strong focus on education and skill-building, Sankofa Farms is able to build capacity in the community while also addressing a need without creating the sense of dependency that can undermine community empowerment.

 

(Sankofa Farms, 2020b)

Sankofa Farms is a dual effort operation. On the farm itself, students receive hands-on experience growing produce, beekeeping, and tending to livestock, while in the classroom, the organization’s Agricultural Academy offers students additional STEM knowledge (Matsuoka, 2020). Sankofa Farms’ educational process, however, is not just about providing new knowledge. As Bell says, the “only thing [he] provides is a space” (The News & Observer, 2020). Students are there because they want to be, and he gives them the chance to develop their own ideas around nutrition, skills, and goals. The farm centers learning around resolving community issues that aren’t addressed through traditional education, while also creating an environment that encourages positive behavioral changes in students (US, 2018). 

The work done by students encourages them to realize their own autonomy and use it to both help their community and determine their individual paths in life. Exposing them to their own land and to nature while incorporating traditional African agriculture helps combat the societal impacts on their lives stemming from the treatment of minorities and the conditions of living in a food desert. By teaching boys about simple, traditional ways to farm, Bell puts power back into their hands to help bring fresh produce to their food scarce communities. Additionally, the agricultural skills learned on the farm require relatively little outside capacity/material, so that students and their communities feel empowered to improve their health without reliance on too many outside supplies or institutions (US, 2018). The incorporation of African agriculture increases the idea of community power lying in ancestral traditions, and the independence involved in the boys’ work helps build confidence and self-reliance. 

Exposing students to a more hands-on approach to learning STEM allows for the broadening of their professional perspectives and has encouraged participants in the program to expand their idea of which professional fields Black boys can pursue outside of those that society pushes them toward. As Bell says, the farm exposes Black youth “to the possibilities of agriculture,” versus society’s traditional push for them to enter the athletic and music industries. This in turn increases the power and autonomy of the Black community (K. Bell, personal communication, September 30, 2020). At the Academy, Bell focuses on building leadership and teamwork skills with the boys, helping them to improve their behavior and chance of success both in and outside of school. The Academy also helps improve the longevity of the program itself – it “teaches transferable skills to future generations” (K. Bell, personal communication, September 30, 2020). The positive impacts on the boys’ self-images, behavior, and skills help improve their chances of positively contributing to their communities and themselves. 

Bell’s greatest success through this program seems to come from the way he views and has framed it. He is quick to point out that the work done through Sankofa is no more thanks to him than it is to his students – they have equal ownership of the farm. He views Sankofa as a way to amplify Black youths’ voices and expand their possibilities, and he uses tactics that show them their individual power to do so. Additionally, Bell states that he doesn’t believe “one time-service is effective,” a mindset that allows him to put more effort into small group learning to create more concrete and lasting change (K. Bell, personal communication, September 30, 2020). 

(Sankofa Farms, 2019)

In addition to providing fresh produce such as romaine lettuce and seasonal root vegetables to Communities in Partnership and other organizations that distribute to food deserts in the Durham area, Sankofa Farm has had a direct impact on the lives of a cohort of young Black men in the Durham area. The Agricultural Academy uplifts these young men by providing a safe communal space on the farm for them to gain new skills, put them to practice growing their own produce and beekeeping, and through that process become self-sufficient, confident problem solvers. As one student Kamoni articulated, he sees his work at Sankofa and the knowledge he has gained from the Agricultural Academy as a way to “break the generational poverty in the African American community” (The Atlantic Festival, 2019). These young men in turn have an impact on their community in that they see themselves as an asset — as providers for their families (bringing their produce home),  empowered to access economic opportunity through farming, and as valuable variables in the sustainability equation as they envision their future careers in Agriculture or the STEM field. 

Bell is most proud of amplifying and celebrating his student’s voices at the Agricultural Academy. “The farm is more so a tool in that the students come into their process of self-discovery by being at the farm…that’s what I think happens when Black people have spaces where we can be Black, that we can appreciate our Blackness.” (K. Bell, personal communication, September 30, 2020) The first two graduates of the Agricultural Academy are both pursuing college degrees next year, one in aquaculture (with aspirations of a masters degree in marine biology) and the other in horticulture. 

Bell sees the impact of Sankofa Farms reverberating through the generations in the Durham Black community, as the farm grows and provides more fresh produce for food deserts, and as the graduates of the Agricultural Academy grow and help solve the root of the food scarcity problem. 

 “You can create your own Sankofa. That’s what I want people to know. Once they’ve pulled out an issue in the community, they can take up the means to solve it themselves, and not have to wait on another institution to solve the issue for them.” (K. Bell, personal communication, September 30, 2020).

Through Bell’s work, or, as he would more likely say, through his students’ own work, participants are empowered to feel successful, change their perspectives, and make a difference without relying on societal structures that have historically failed their communities. Bell is a firm believer that everyone receives help in life. He doesn’t see Sankofa Farms as charity, but rather as his duty to give back to the larger Black community.  He has certainly created an organization to be proud of and that creates lasting impacts, and our team is excited to continue following Bell’s journey as he continues to expand his work on the farm and in the Academy.

On the Sankofa Farms website, you can see interviews with Kamal Bell and other updates about the farm. The website has a shop, to buy farm produce and apparel, and a ‘Book Online’ page where you can purchase consultation time with Kamal Bell, online beekeeping lessons, and farm tours! You can stay up to date with daily life on the farm through Sankofa’s FaceBook and Instagram accounts. Sankofa Farms also has a YouTube channel with educational videos featuring Kamal Bell talking about beekeeping, farming, and more. 

 

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