Building Movements for Food and Racial Justice Through Organic Farming

For Iriel Edwards, a decision to take up farming in Louisiana was fueled by a desire to connect to the deep ecological knowledge of her ancestors

Justin Perkins & Joel Bleifuss November 27, 2023

Today’s young farmers contain multitudes, as varied as the paths—conventional and unconventional, the adventurous and sometimes tortuous—that lead them into farming.

For Iriel Edwards, 25, higher education was the gateway. What began with an interest in birds and classes in conservation at Cornell University brought her to the work of Dr. Karim-Aly Kassam. His class on Indigenous and place-based knowledge connected notions of land, identity and food sovereignty. That inspired her to take a critical look at both U.S. and global food systems. What she saw begged the question: Why had she never seen Black farmers depicted in the United States?

Black landownership has declined from roughly 16 million acres in 1910 to about 4.7 million acres in 2017—or 0.5% of all arable acreage in the United States. According to a 2022 study published by the American Economic Association, this legacy of displacement amounts to $326 billion lost from Black communities.

As Edwards sees it, that financial loss, alongside the demise of a Black farming culture, extends to many systemic injustices today, such as mass incarceration and the corporate consolidation of the food industry, whose effects ripple across society, from food deserts that lead to poor health outcomes in many working class communities of color, as well as the ongoing exploitation of labor like the modern-day iteration of convict leasing, which, under the guise of debt restitution, allows the fast food industry to overwork and underpay incarcerated people in states like Louisiana and Mississippi.

Guided by works like Dianne Glave’s Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage, Edwards set off on a journey to connect movements for food justice with those for social and racial justice. As a result, she found herself returning to Louisiana, the home of her estranged father’s side of the family, where she became a farm manager on a certified organic rice farm with the Jubilee Justice Black Farmers Rice Project, a regenerative farming collective in Central Louisiana on five acres of what was once a cotton plantation called “Hard Times.”

“Although farming is often considered a business,” Edwards said in 2022 as the recipient of a Real Farmer Care grant, “I am a firm believer that food cannot be valued monetarily, for its role is much more sacred.” A 2022 survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition found that 74% of young Black farmers said that racial justice and healing was what drove them to return to the land. As Edwards has said, her time with rice “taught me that I belonged with the Earth and that my ancestry was rooted in deep ecological knowledge.”

Now as the certification coordinator and inspector with the Vermont-based Real Organic Project, a position she has held since the spring, she visits organic farms in the Real Organic Project network to ensure they meet the high standards set by the Project, which serves as an add-on label to USDA organic certification and requires organic food production in concert with organic practices across the entire farm. She also spends her time organizing networks of farmers and farms across the South, connecting movements for racial and food justice with the organic movement across states from North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia to Louisiana. “We have been so impressed with her deep knowledge of the complex issues that we tackle and her love for interacting with farmers,” said Linley Dixon, executive director of the Real Organic Project.

Edwards spoke with Barn Raiser from her farm near Boyce, Louisiana, a town in Rapides Parish, three hours northwest of New Orleans.

Barn Raiser: As farm manager at Jubilee Justice you worked with rice. What are you growing these days?

Edwards: My background is grains, but I’ve entered into more of the vegetable realm. Some of the rice varieties I used to grow were Carolina gold, Jasmine, black and risotto rices, Scarlett rice, which was the first commercially available red rice in the country, as well as species of Oryza glaberrima, a rice common in West Africa, which I continue to steward for personal sake.

Right now, I’m focused on seed crops. A group of us in the area, small scale growers, are looking to do collaborative seed work together, especially since most of the seed that is used on farms here is coming from the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. I used to grow gourmet mushrooms, but that wasn’t really making it in rural Louisiana.

Barn Raiser: What is a seed farmer? And what is behind the rationale for growing seeds locally?

Edwards: Having localized seed networks is incredibly important, especially with the amount of climate variability that we’re experiencing here in Louisiana. Growers who want to be sustainable in their practices need to have seeds that are well-adapted to location. Unfortunately, our anchor institutions—like our state universities—aren’t focused on organic production or native seeds in their research. Part of our work organizing farmers is to say, “Okay, who knows how to do some basic breeding of rice varieties? Who has a background in seed growing? And who has access to cold storage?” It’s about how we can match our resources together for something as basic as seeds.

This is tied to my work with the Real Organic Project, but it is also something I had to do in my free time, because this is my community. It’s one big farming family, even though the conversations around organic farming are very different here in Louisiana than in Vermont or California. There are some sustainable ag-focused nonprofits here like SPROUT Nola and Louisiana Central that are just getting organized, but they’re not at the level of groups like Georgia Organics, NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) or Marbleseed. Every region has its own differences.

Barn Raiser: How are they different?

Edwards: Here the most immediate barrier, I would say, both amongst farmers and within the marketplace, is getting over the misconception that organic farming is not possible in Louisiana. You can count on your fingers how many organically certified specialty growers we have in our state—some of the lowest numbers in the country.

It’s interesting being connected with the Real Organic Project and seeing those regional differences. A much more established community exists in other regions, at the market level and in the scale of farming. But a lot of young people in Louisiana are interested in farming, and part of keeping them in the state is showing that an organic community is present. There aren’t a lot of formal networks, but it’s kind of bubbling up right now, I’d say.

Barn Raiser: Why are young people are interested in farming these days?

Edwards: Speaking for myself, farming is a tangible, practical way of dealing with the existential threats of climate change and food insecurity facing our society. I can see progress in a very real way. Agriculture has also been a way for me to bring together all of my interests. I never get bored with the idea of growing food, the history of food, the structure of food systems and the economics of it. And I love the community that comes together around farming and food.

Barn Raiser: Something that stood out from your talk at the Churchtown Dairy conference was this idea of finding healing through the land. Could talk about how that is connected to both your farming practice and organizing work?

Edwards: That talk was the first time that I’ve spoken about my experiences in front of a group of people. What ties me deeply to farming has been an exploration of identity, which I’ve grappled with my whole life. Mostly in that feeling of wanting to be in a space where it’s reflected that you belong. Even now, when I’m asked where I am from, it’s a complex question given how segregated society still is, especially here. As someone who is biracial, it’s been difficult to find that sense of communal belonging. And that’s been the case as I’ve traversed different landscapes where the majority of those farming were either all Black or, in many cases, predominately white.

When I moved back to Louisiana to work with Jubilee Justice, a part of that exploration of my identity was through genealogical work. Even though I’m not very connected with my biological dad’s side of the family, they’re from Louisiana. And it wasn’t until I started farming that I became interested in exploring that side, since I had been functioning without that information for most of my life. Thinking about the food systems and ways of knowledge I could identify with led me into an exploration of that past, tracking who lived where and even connecting with old family members. Which has tied farming to me in a way that is inseparable.

When I think about the landscape of a place, and when I think about the organic movement, especially in a time of significant corporate consolidation of farming, I also recognize the fact that everybody is facing these issues. But the spaces and conversation where those issues are examined are still very segregated. A big question for me is figuring out how to bridge that gap so that we can make the organic movement stronger. And part of that is exploring issues of identity and cross-racial connections, which is a complex and sensitive process. But that’s the work that needs to be done.

With Jubilee Justice we explored those connections through our Jubilee Journeys program. Jubilee Justice was leasing land off of a historic plantation and Journeys was a two-year program that brought together people of different backgrounds with changemakers in the racial justice space. The goal was to bridge the gap between folks who had been disinherited from land or wealth because of racism and slavery and those who had inherited large amounts of wealth or land or assets that had been tied to slavery.

The journey was having difficult conversations face-to-face and to work toward healing by looking at our ancestry and communicating the fear and joy that came about from uncovering that past. Sometimes, especially in the sustainability space, the question of ancestral healing seems like another topic or another thing to have to figure out how to fix. But in my mind it’s the same conversation.

Barn Raiser: It’s striking that the ancestral rice varietals that you’re growing serves as a metaphor for connecting with ideas of ancestry and reparative genealogy. And that reflects back on the ways that corporate consolidation and the industrialization of our food systems has eroded that ancestral knowledge. Is that part of the interconnectedness that happens for you with farming?

Edwards: Yeah, absolutely. There was this one farmer we visited, a Black farmer in Mississippi, who was a conventional rice farmer. At the time we met him, we were already experimenting with organic production of ancestral rice varieties, but we noticed that a lot of the techniques he used were similar to those I had seen on the coast of South Carolina.

When it comes to involving folks who have been separated from their ancestral connection to the land because of the industrialization of the food system, it can be painful to find pride in that ancestral knowledge. It can be complicated for farmers whose ancestors were slaves to be out on the farm. But part of the story is about recovering knowledge whose connections run deep. Everything your ancestors did was to help you and make sure you had what you needed.

Though I grew up here in Louisiana, staying here was not my biggest ambition. Part of what it means to be back here for me is taking that internal journey to explore my identity. Uncovering the memory of a past that has been lost and intentionally destroyed, allows you to reclaim a sense of pride for where you come from, and not feeling that you have to escape that. It’s like facing one’s internalized oppression. That’s what came forth for me. A large part of my genealogical work has also been a part of my farming journey, and piecing that all together.

Seems like a Southern thing to talk about family. But I don’t think it’s just Southern.

Barn Raiser: What has helped you along this journey? And what would you say to others who might be on similar journeys?

Edwards: Finding community is incredibly important. I didn’t think of myself as a farmer, even conceptually, until I saw a farmer who looked like me. Leah Penniman, (author of Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land), has been a huge inspiration. It has also been really important to find other young Black folks who are farmers and building those relationships. SAAFON (Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network) is a group in the South that has organized small and heritage Black farmers, even for simple things like creating a space for people to gather. Also, the BUGs (Black Urban Growers) annual conference is always great.

It’s incredibly important to have those networks or community gatherings where people can meet each other and affirm each other’s feelings and experiences of being in a rural space. Dave Chapman, the co-director of the Real Organic Project, has this great saying: “If you’re not confused, then you’re not doing it right.” It’s that kind of thing. Being in a community of people who are also confused can be helpful and motivating.

What’s been awesome about working in other regions with the Real Organic Project is that I get to see what efforts to organize the organic movement have worked and see how similar issues or strategies translate between regions.

Barn Raiser: Part of the socio-economic backdrop of where we are today relates to the accessibility of farming spaces to people from marginalized or underrepresented backgrounds, as well as the issue of Black landownership and how drastically it has declined since the 1920s. As you observed in your talk at the Churchtown Dairy, this is in part fueled by the corporate consolidation of small and family farms and demonstrates the brokenness of our current food system. How can we address the inequities of our food system, and increase access to farming and land?

Edwards: A lot of work needs to be done, and there are many ways of approaching it. Some of the things that I’ve been a part of, which are not new, include attempts to create networks of cooperative partnerships and ownership models to build out alternative market opportunities.

For instance, one of my farmer friends just got funding to start a collective project called The Persimmon Collective. They just bought land and are starting up in Georgia next year. There’s Ohe∙láku a corn growers coop in Wisconsin and the Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance in North Carolina. There are groups who are bringing together young people to meet and talk about owning land together and helping fund those sorts of projects, like Potlikker Capital. These each have a spirit of working collectively and building access to resources and knowledge in a way that is informed by movements for social and racial justice—so that’s infrastructural building there.

Obviously, a lot of work needs to be done in the policy sector, because even if people build this parallel infrastructure, they’re still part of the same overarching system. The farm bill is coming up, and helping young people access land, helping folks transition their land to the next generation is a huge issue. At pretty much every farm that I’ve been to, the topic of transition has been a hot one, especially in terms of who will manage that land over the next few decades. Supporting small and organic farmers to apply for Southern SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) grants is big right now, when places like Louisiana, Mississippi and the Virgin Islands are receiving that money at the lowest rate. Recently, a farmer here in Louisiana who works for the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) won a national award to support other farmers in the state to enter organic vegetable production. This was a big win, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Getting young people involved is important, but supporting the farmers that already exist is just as important. Sometimes I find myself in spaces where it’s like, “More farmers, more farmers, more farmers.” But once you become a farmer, the question is, “How do I even make money doing this?” So it’s critical to be aware that the entire food supply chain needs reform in order to support farmers in the first place, and to think holistically in that sense—and supporting people of color all along the line.

Barn Raiser: Are there specific reforms proposed or ways that people can provide support for Black-owned farms?

Edwards: Absolutely. You can find directories of Black farmers, like the Black Farmers Index that make it easy to find those farmers in your community. Many major cities also have all-Black farmers markets.

I get a little weary with the “vote with your dollar” message. It puts all the responsibility on ordinary farmers and eaters. The people who have the real decision-making power should be the ones doing this work—it’s structural work. Though if you have the ability to make those decisions for yourself and your family, then that should be something that you seek out. It’s a part of community building, and it heals you, too.

Barn Raiser: It seems like the strategy of supporters of the status quo is to reframe systemic reform in terms of individual responsibility and deflect from raising people’s consciousness or awareness around systemic flaws. Because that way we’re not really changing what’s happening at a deeper level.

Edwards: Right. And money talks. So, yes, vote with your dollar. But also vote people into office who can make decisions that support progress for small farmers and Black farmers and who can support social justice movements through structural reform.

Call up your representatives and check out advocacy groups like National Young Farmers Coalition or the Federation of Southern Co-ops and see what policy actions they advocate. Think about how you can be a part of that. That’s how we hit them on both sides, both the corporate and the political hierarchies. For example, the Increasing Land Access, Security, and Opportunities Act (LASO) is of the focus marker bill of the National Young Farmers Campaign that I am part of. We are asking for a larger investment in the services piloted in 2022 through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, the only USDA program designed from the ground up to be a flexible source of support and investment for farmers along with investments to increase food access and strengthen local supply chains.

No matter where you’re coming from, if you’re curious about how to be an ally for any issue in a community that’s not your own, it’s about listening and being aware that there are a lot of things you can do on your own initiative, like learning and taking a critical look at our food system and its place in the history of the United States. That’s an important responsibility for people to take.

Barn Raiser: Do you see any differences in the movements for racial justice in urban areas and in rural areas?

Edwards: The conversations are very similar in the realm of access to land or access to places to grow, but slightly different when it comes to market access. When I look at Louisiana and where money flows or where people are located, I think that rural Louisiana is left out of a lot of conversations. Similarly in Georgia, where so many people involved in these conversations are based out of Atlanta. When the issue of Black land loss started hitting headlines, it took people off guard because rural areas aren’t considered as much, especially in conversations about food justice and racial justice. When I did start exploring ideas about community development, we read case studies about places like D.C., Atlanta, Chicago and New Orleans, but not about Boyce, Louisiana.

It’s hard to be a specialty farmer in rural spaces when you don’t have access to city markets. But where I live land is cheaper than it is near New Orleans, and so it’s easier to access land here. Making it work in the long term is harder. So how can cities stand with their rural communities? That’s a part of that question.

Barn Raiser: What gives you hope?

Edwards: Every time I visit a farm, I have hope. Despite everything that’s going on, the fact that people are still producing so much food and thriving gives me hope. Even just meeting up with other farmers and not talking about farming gives me hope.

Being in community with so many other young people who are coming into farming and wanting to heal communities, wanting to heal themselves, wanting to build new infrastructure and be supported financially to do it—that gives me hope. Seeds give me hope. Music gives me hope. People. People celebrating each other; however they do it.

Here we love to celebrate around food. I’ve been realizing how important that is, especially in the South where there’s such a distinct food and music culture, and involving farmers in that is important. I love a good festival.

Even when we were doing the Journey stuff at Jubilee Justice, a core component of that was celebrating together because it is hard work. The fact that the work is even being done in the first place is incredibly joyous.

Justin Perkins

Justin Perkins is Barn Raiser Deputy Editor & Publisher and Board Clerk of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is currently finishing his Master of Divinity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The son of a hog farmer, he grew up in Papillion, Neb., and got his start as a writer with his hometown newspaper the Papillion Times, The Daily Nebraskan, Rural America In These Times and In These Times. He has previous editorial experience at Prairie Schooner and Image.

Joel Bleifuss

Joel Bleifuss is Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher and Board President of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is a descendent of German and Scottish farmers who immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the 19th Century to become farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. His grandmother was born in the Scottish Highlands to parents listed in the Census of Great Britain, 1881 as “farm servants” on land owned by the Duke of Fife. Joel himself was born and raised in Fulton, Mo., a small town on the edge of the Ozark Highlands. He got his start in journalism in 1983 as a feature writer and Saturday reporter/photographer for his hometown daily, the Fulton Sun. Bleifuss joined the staff of In These Times magazine in October 1986, stepping down as Editor & Publisher in April 2022, to join his fellow barn raisers in getting Barn Raiser off the ground.

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