written by Gennifer Rollins
contributions by Atiba Ellerby
There is a generational shift of young people entering the world of food and land work, that is beautifully present in Philadelphia. For some, the process is an uncovering of familial histories, and for others, the change is struck by active engagement with community networks and non-profit entities. Living in congruence with seasonal and ecological functions of the land is reminding many of the agrarian paths their ancestors and relatives knew fondly, and through opportunity, experience and support, young people are returning to the land.
One young farmer, Atiba Ellerby, is taking the dive to reconnect with his agrarian roots through agroecology. Influenced in his early teens by communities of West Philadelphia, Atiba experienced a myriad of landscapes that seemed too small for a garden. Still, folks from all different backgrounds found ways to populate their limited land with paw-paw trees, herbs, and whatever else would grow. Seeing a connection to plantlife in communities of color helped Atiba begin to see himself in the narrative. The image of who can be a farmer has long been perpetuated as white, cis-gendered, and male, creating a distance between Black and non-Black folks of color, and the land. In West Philadelphia, Atiba connected with queer communities involved in herbalism, food systems and land work. The connection altered his understanding of who belongs in farmwork, centralizing femininity as a “dynamic part of the whole” (Ellerby, 2018).
Another huge factor in Atiba’s journey has been his connection to Soil Generation. He started meeting some of the original Soil Generation members at age 14, before the group was fully formed. Connecting directly with Black and Brown people who valued and uplifted an agrarian lifestyle became a deeply influential part of his story. The sovereign leadership of Black women and queer folx in what is now known as Soil Generation, uncovered certain ideas that Atiba was not being exposed to in other areas of his young life.
Just recently at a workshop with Farm for the City on Agro and Afroecology [as Methodologies for Growing Life], Gypsy, a young volunteer with the Farm for the City crew was asked what she thinks a farmer looks like. Her response⸺Black. This is an entirely different image from nationally and internationally perpetuated ideas of who works with the land. Her statement was nourished by the labor and the love experienced in her farming communities of Philadelphia, an environment Gypsy knows as a series of second-homes.
So what brings young people to see land work as a viable option for their own futures? In Philadelphia, many young people begin their agrarian careers through exposure to ideas that they weren’t directly connected to before. Atiba was engaged in the Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative in his early teens, where he gained tools to gage his distance from the food he eats and where it comes from. The experience led him to understand how the benefits of the agriculture industry are often disconnected from the people growing the food, as well as those experiencing systemic poverty. Making this connection allowed Atiba to recognize himself as a member of a global community of land workers and people managing and creating for shared struggles in food, land, and economic injustice.
A few other notable groups along the east coast have created regional dialogue, and formed an ecosystem for land and food workers of all ages to connect. In upstate New York, Soul Fire Farm has been very influential with their annual Black-Latinx Farmers Immersion Program, where farmers have journeyed from throughout the country to get involved. In the mid-Atlantic, Soilful City and Black Dirt Farm Collective imbue their communities with practices of afro-ecology, a praxis combining agroecological methods with revolutionary artistry and spiritual understanding particular to African descended communities. Their initiatives are spread throughout areas of Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Locally, in Philadelphia, agroecology is being cultivated by Soil Generation member farms, practiced by Sankofa Community Farm, Mill Creek Farm, Urban Tree Connection, VietLead and Norris Square Neighborhood Project, providing educational spaces for their communities to learn and grow with the land. The uplifting leadership of Philly Urban Creators rejuvenates North Philly every year, with the life-giving forces of Hoodstock and Juice, and works all year long to provide fruitful learning experience in collaboration with young folks and neighbors.
Our contingencies travel, too, with annually requested gatherings, such as the AgroEco Teens workshop, hosted by Soil Generation, Soilful City and Black Dirt Farm Collective. The gathering of changemakers, held by the National Black Food and Justice Alliance (NBFJA), reminds regionally focused growers and organizers just how nationally connected we are. Whether under the wing of SAFFON or warmly meeting up with new family at the Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference, once we find each other, our communities are rooted.
However young folks are being connected to their land practices, having strong support systems is necessary to bring those skills to fruition. With nearly 15 years of land work behind him, Atiba can now identify some of the major factors that help him feel supported in his agrarian journey. At age 28, Atiba is involved in a soil remediation project at Two Bears Farm in Durango, CO. His work in soil remediation requires a lot of independent study, not often thought of when discussing agricultural work. As a non-matriculated student, Atiba has said that the greatest support he could have, would be access to information. Farming communities are very reliant on cross-communication of methods, practices, and even seeds to best serve their local environments. Perhaps the inherent value of sharing knowledge cannot be separated from the future of agriculture, and maybe that’s a taste of why groups like Soil Generation are connected to groups like Soul Fire Farm. It is through that solidarity, support, and shared knowledge that land work is given new meaning, and folks find reason to invest in agrarian futures.
For an opportunity to connect with other Black farmers, land workers, herbalists, and food workers, click the link for this year’s Black Farmers and Urban Growers Conference.
Also keep an eye out for NESAWG the following weekend!