Young, Black and Growing

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.

Photo by  Sabriaya Shipley

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!


What Neonicotinoids Means for Farmers and Food Production

by Chi-Chi Anemelu


Bees are one of the most amazing and essential creatures on this planet. Not only do they help produce some of the foods we eat every day, but they also help beautify the Earth by helping pollinate millions of flowers. Sadly, news has been surfacing for a while that neonicotinoid pesticides, which are commonly used on farms, have been found to kill bees in large amounts. According to, “studies have shown that these pesticides harm and eventually kill the bees over an extended period of time. The pesticides also threaten bee queens in particular, which means colonies would have lower reproductive rates.” When seeds are treated with neonicotinoids, the chemicals work their way into the pollen and nectar which makes the plants toxic to the bees. There was a story published in 2013 in CBC news about a farmer named Dave Schuit, who claimed neonics killed millions of his honeybees and millions of others in Ontario, Canada. We rely on bees to pollinate 71 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, and also 80% of flowering plants on this Earth. Honeybees are essential, because they pollinate approximately $15 billion worth of crops every year.  They pollinate crops such as broccoli, asparagus, cantaloupes, cucumbers, pumpkins, blueberries, watermelons, almonds, apples, cranberries, and cherries.


How Pollination Works

Pollination occurs when pollen is moved from the male part of the plant, the stamen, to the female part of the plant, the stigma. Seeds are produced only when pollen is transferred between flowers of the same species. Once the pollen is deposited on the stigma, a pollen tube is formed where the male cells from the pollen grain are transported to the ovules at the base of the pistil.  Complete fertilization of the plant results in the growth of seeds and fruit. Pollination is often times unintentional; the animal is found eating, collecting pollen, or sipping the sweet nectar from the flower when pollen grains attach to their bodies. When the animal travels to a new flower, the pollen on its body can transfer to the flower which could result in successful reproduction of the flower. 


How to Protect Our Bees and Food Sources

It’s important that we protect the bees, because without bees our food sources would not be as abundant. A ban on neonicotinoids was recently approved by the European Union in April, and will be in effect by the end of this year. They have set a great example which the US could follow. If enough states ban together, we can limit our use of insecticides to more than 50 percent. This will send a strong message to large chemical companies and the federal government that we refuse to not only let our food, but also our public spaces such as parks to be sprayed with these toxins. We also can’t forget the importance of supporting our organic farms. They provide us with wholesome and more nutritious produce options.


Information on Ways to Support the Bee Population


Reclaiming Our Spaces in Nature

by Chi-Chi Anemelu


“If we think of urban life as a location where black folks learned to accept a mind/body split that made it possible to abuse the body, we can better understand the growth of nihilism and despair in the black psyche. And we can know when we talk about healing that psyche we must also speak about restoring our connection to the natural world”- bell hooks

When you think of the outdoors and nature it is often associated with white men and women going hiking or camping, and even as a black woman I have also fed into the narrative that black people aren’t “into” nature. Recently, I’ve decided to explore the stereotype that black people don’t go out in nature or are scared of it. Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, mentioned, “In terms of the majority culture in the United States setting a narrative and tone about the environment and the way we should think about and relate to it, we Black and brown folks have largely been left out of that mainstream conversation”.  If you look at outdoor magazines and environmental organizations, there is a significant lack of representation of people from the African American community.  This lack of representation has led to many of us in the black community not feeling like these wild spaces belong to us. History has shown when black people are in a space where they’re not welcomed, it can end in a deadly interaction. It wasn’t too long ago that you would find the KKK chasing black folks through the woods, and lynching them on trees. Even with this in mind we should not let our history define our livelihood and happiness; it is time that we reclaim our space and take control of our bodies and our healing.  


Healing Begins with Our Connection to the Soil

It is also important that we start to reevaluate the way in which we use the spaces we inhabit. It is not necessary to travel to a national state park to enjoy the beauty of nature and your surroundings, your own backyard can be your playground. During the summertime you could find boys riding their dirt bikes through the Philadelphia roads, or folks just riding their bikes through Philadelphia. This is their own way of navigating the land around them. Our healing also begins with our connection to the soil. Reclaiming our spaces through urban farming provides physical and mental healing; by working the land and nurturing the plants you are nurturing your soul. Providing more fresh produce to our inner city neighborhoods helps us take control of our health and well-being. There are also beautiful places like the Cobbs Creek trail, Fairmount Park, Clark Park, and Schuylkill River Trail in Philadelphia to explore.  What would be seemingly “little” interactions with the land are often discounted when we talk about various relationships with the environment and land, which shouldn’t be the case. Whatever space we choose to utilize, we have the right to enjoy and celebrate in these spaces as much as anyone else. We should continue to shift our focus on creating safe spaces for black folks to enjoy nature as a space for healing. There is something about being in nature that creates a peace of mind and reduces physical and mental stress.  Organizations like Outdoor Afro provide a great opportunity for the African American community to reconnect with nature and the land. Black Surfers Collective is another group based in California that engages the public in the sport of surfing, and helps individuals build a spiritual connection to the ocean. There is also Black Girls Do Bike, which was a movement started to “grow and support a community of women of color who share a passion for cycling”. They have various locations in cities across the nation.


Self- love as an Act of Revolution

To heal our bodies in natural spaces would also mean practicing self- love as an act of revolution. One of my favorite quotes is by Lao Tzu where he wrote, “Love the world as your own self, then you can truly care for all things.” This unconditional love starts from recognizing your value and worth, and not limiting yourself by living up to the standard of others. If we don’t have love for ourselves and don’t take care of ourselves, then there is no possible way for us to spread love and create unity among ourselves. This allows us to see ourselves in others and realize everyone deserves to be loved. By transforming ourselves, we can transform our spaces and the planet.