“If Mother Nature can’t see who puts the seed in the ground, then why do we have such enormous disparities in agriculture?” asks Lexington native Ashley C. Smith.
This lack of equity in agriculture, coupled with food insecurity and lack of access to freshly grown produce among many populations of color, prompted Smith and partner Trevor Claiborn to co-found Black Soil: Our Better Nature. The Lexington-based agritourism business’ mission, Smith said, is “to reconnect Black Kentuckians to their heritage and legacy in agriculture.”
Partnering with Black farmers across the Commonwealth, Black Soil organizes farm tours, farm-to-table dinners, off-season workshops and educational outreach programs. Black Soil also operates a shop and produce stand, called The Recipe, at Julietta Market in Greyline Station. It has also turned a nearby building most recently home to Cosmic Charlie’s music club into an urban warehouse where farmers can store their fresh goods before they go on sale at the market.
In February, Black Soil was awarded a one-year fellowship with the University of Kentucky. The fellowship includes a dedicated space in UK’s new Cornerstone Exchange facility to host programming for students and the general public. Black Soil will also partner with several colleges on campus and work closely with students to educate about its mission and develop new initiatives.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, out of 3.4 million farmers in the nation, only 45,508 — less than 2 percent — are African Americans. It’s a stark contrast from 1920, when there were nearly 1 million U.S. Black farmers. The Center for American Progress released a report in 2019 attributing a century of structural racism to the declining number of Black farmers.
“The USDA has a long and well-documented history of discrimination against Black farmers,” it said. “The unequal administration of government farm support programs, crucial to protecting farmers from an inherently risky enterprise, has had a profound impact on rural communities of color.”
In Kentucky, only 600 farms out of 76,000 are operated by Black farmers.
“Oftentimes, Kentucky gets forgotten on a national scale when it comes to African Americans in agriculture and their lived experience and quality of life in the state,” Smith said.
To help raise awareness, Black Soil organizes farm tours and dinners April through October. The partnering farmer sets the menu, and ingredients are sourced from the host farm or another Black-owned farm or business. Meals are prepared by an African-American Kentucky chef.
As a child, Lillian Bland, who lives in Versailles, often visited her aunt and uncle’s Franklin County farm, which they eventually sold. When she heard about the farm-to-table event at Cleave’s Family Farm in LaRue County sponsored by Black Soil, she purchased a ticket.
“It reminded me of my childhood; it took me back to my roots,” Bland said.
She has attended two other events and said it is important to support Black farmers because their numbers are dwindling.
Smith and Claiborn had to cancel last season’s in-person programming due to COVID-19 restrictions, but were able to introduce new efforts.
“What is really helping us make our mark with more entities, households, institutions and small, locally owned businesses is our strategic sourcing — our produce with a purpose,” Smith said.
In the midst of the pandemic, Black Soil has helped connect small-scale farms with farm-to-table restaurants; partnered with AppHarvest, a sustainable agriculture technology company dedicated to growing food in the heart of Appalachia; and assisted producers, farmers and chefs in extending the life of their produce and meats to help minimize waste.
Black Soil also partnered with Community Farm Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy agency, to create the Kentucky Black Farmer Fund. Through joint efforts, they identified 51 Black-owned Kentucky farms to receive a one-time COVID-19 relief grant of up to $750 per farm.
Smith says strategic sourcing coupled with community supported agriculture (CSA) has also expanded Black Soil’s reach. CSA is a food distribution system that connects members of the community directly with local farmers. Individuals purchase a share of the farm’s produce, dairy, eggs or meat and have it delivered weekly to their homes or for pick up. CSAs provide consumers with nutritional, locally grown foods while helping to support farmers.
While CSAs gained widespread recognition in the U.S. in the mid 1980s, Booker T. Whatley, Ph.D., an African-American horticulturist and farmer from Alabama, first introduced the concept in the 1960s. In what he termed Clientele Membership Clubs, members paid an advance fee that allowed them to select their own produce from local farms. Farmers benefited by using the membership fees to buy seed and equipment.
“Booker T. Whatley created this technique that encouraged farmers to rally community support around their small-scale farms,” Smith said. “We can think of it as cooperative economics, collective responsibility and looking at the farmer as the anchor of the community.”
Black Soil purchases food items wholesale from partnering farms and retails them via subscription at www.shopblacksoilky.com. Orders may be home delivered or picked up at a designated location. In December they opened The Recipe, a year-round, indoor, Kentucky Proud, farmers market located at the Julietta Market. Some of the featured items include seasonal produce, bundled meats, spices, honey, Kenyan roasted co.ee, candles and farm-to-table meal prep kits.
“Our vision is to help foster a greater market share for Black farmers and producers as they provide healthy food options to a larger consumer base,” Smith said.
Tiffany El-Amin, owner of Ballew Estates in Madison County and co-owner of Alfalfa restaurant, says that Black Soil has already made an impact in reaching out to Black farmers, establishing relationships and connecting them to the community.
“Ashley and Trevor have constantly said, ‘We see you; we hear you; we are you,’” she said.
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